This season of This Is Us has been a real mixed bag, but it’s thus far been one of my favourites. In part, it’s because a bad season of This Is Us still has amazing episodes, but the bad ones are really bad — the Pearsons come across as universally unsympathetic and the supporting players are all-but erased in order to merely act as supports for their selfish co-stars.
This season hasn’t been that thus far — we’ve gotten to flesh out minor characters like Madison and Miguel and turn them into real people with real motivations and backstories. In part it helps that the show has — three years after depicting his death — finally gotten comfortable letting Jack take a back seat, graciously giving the stage to the rest of the ensemble. Even when he’s been present, he’s had very few “Jack Pearson is the greatest father ever” episodes. This episode is entirely Jack-free (because Milo Ventimiglia directed!) and also barely even makes mention of him, save for some early-stage grief Rebecca and an awkward, yet loving mention by Miguel, although Randall does briefly embody the spirit of Jack as he tries to rouse the boys by the fire.
The centrepieces of this story are two awkward parties, Kevin’s mostly sober bachelor party and Madison’s surprisingly horny bachelorette. With the “twist” that the nude painting model turns out to be an old flame of Madison’s, I’ve lost count of how many times this show has slipped into sitcommy territory this season, but I suppose it’s fine, in part because the aftermath leads not to awkwardness between Madison and the model but rather an intriguing dynamic in which Madison reveals who she is to the entire party. We learn that Kevin was somewhat of an awkward half-ghost following their initial hookup, which seems to bother Rebecca the most. Rebecca, by the way, gets some real Randy Grandma stuff in this episode, but I welcome this sitcommy trope for once, because Mandy Moore plays it with such a lived-in confidence. She treats Rebecca’s carefree, youthful spirit like something she’s worked toward as a character, not as something that writers knew would be funny at the moment. This does fall in line with the Rebecca we saw at Kate’s retreat last season, who vowed to live in the moment more and not get so caught up in being who people expected her to be, so frankly, it tracks.
And she’s more than just the Randy Grandma at the party; she also is a close companion to Beth throughout. Her affection toward the down-and-out-of-work Beth parallels the tenderness we see of middle-aged Rebecca comforting college-aged Beth at the cabin. Rebecca has always had so much faith in everyone, even people who are essentially strangers, because her way is to be affectionate. The difference is she has now known Beth for 20 years and has seen the best of what she can do in whatever discipline. It’s a relationship that Beth does not have with her mother, even if their relationship is healing. Beth/Rebecca is not a dynamic we get to explore very often, which is interesting because Randall often projects his issues with Rebecca onto Beth. Either way, it’s one of the series most underrated relationships, and one that feels fresh as a daisy right now.
Perhaps that feels extra-fresh because some of the more lived-in relationships of this season are starting to take their toll. Kevin and Madison has become an utterly exhausting affair, made worse by the fact that this season has stressed them and then rehabilitated them over and over. Madison’s bachelorette introduces yet another sitcommy trope — a Newlywed Game gone awry — but subverts the trope somewhat. Madison and Kevin get the first answer exactly correct, but it’s the second question — which really is a big question — where Kevin flounders a bit. Madison is mostly unbothered by this, and it’s Kate who projects her shit onto their relationship, thinking back to Kevin and Sophie’s early-twenties marriage and Kevin’s idealistic recreation of the mission statement scene in Jerry Maguire, which is a running thread through this movie. To be frank, Kate’s projection really annoyed me here, as it seems like a classic case of a Pearson family member butting their nose in where they’re not welcome and sabotaging something for someone else because they have a weird inability to let their siblings simply live their lives. By the end of the episode, Madison is second-guessing Kevin’s non-answer, which feels unfair. At the same time, Kevin deletes Sophie’s new number from his phone after she reached out to him to congratulate him, but we’d be fools to think this is going nowhere.
Prediction time I: Kevin and Madison will go through with the wedding — it’s acting that Kevin will break up with.
Prediction time II: Sophie will reach out again, and she changed her number because something went wrong with her probably-now-ex-fiancé.
Of course, maybe I’m desperate to save the seemingly doomed Kevin/Madison relationship because this show seems obsessed with punishing people for not staying with their meant-to-be sweetheart. The biggest sin of Kevin Pearson’s life will seemingly always be the fact that he didn’t stay with the girl he fell in love with in elementary school, which just feels like the most cynically unrealistic view of love and marriage imaginable.
That’s why I’m glad that we at least have Miguel and Rebecca, my other favourite underrated couple of This Is Us. Miguel is correct that his and Rebecca’s relationship was not written in the stars. They are not Jack and Rebecca. But their romance has a beautiful, tender, lived-in quality. And Miguel brings this up around the campfire because the guys are being such damn bummers.
As we barrel toward the finale of a strange season next week, there are still so many balls in the air. Kevin is maybe mildly comforted, but clearly not convinced by the rousing fire speech. Beth decides to take a chance on different dance jobs. Toby, who is still just such a drip this season, wants to be considered for a job in San Francisco despite moving probably not being out of the question.
Prediction time III: Toby is going to end up in San Francisco, and the Damon family will probably break up. Remember, it seems clear that Toby isn’t living with Kate by the “Her” future, at least on a temporary basis, but by the time Jack Damon is a teenager, he clearly still lives in the same house he used to.
Anyway, this is one of those classic penultimate season episodes — you can’t possibly resolve too much, and we do know that there will be a few little nuggets introduced at the eleventh hour in the finale anyway. But the episode manages to not be too frustrating in what has been a just-sort-of-frustrating season. I’m eagerly awaiting the season finale because there are some questions I’d love to see answered and some victories I’d love to get to, and ultimately I am sad that I won’t have the Pearsons in my life for the summer.
- Randall in fishing gear is adorable.
- “Vaxed and waxed” is kind of a gross phrase, but it’s also hilarious.
- Considering Caitlin Thompson was essentially cast in a supporting role because she’s Dan Fogelman’s wife, she’s really grown into the role of Madison quite beautifully. I’d love to see more Madison-focused episodes.
- Rebecca and Miguel’s phone call at the end is so sweet, and it really does shoe that Miguel still has a sweetheart-level crush on Rebecca, even in their sixties. Jon Huertas is not the strongest actor in the ensemble, but I do think he’s at his best this season.
- I loved that Beth told Rebecca to simply ask Randall about his birth mother — I hope that builds toward a beautiful moment.
- I barely got to mention Nicky, because as delightful as he always is, he did play a pretty small role in this episode, except to piss Kevin off. It’s always hard to watch Kevin be hard on Nicky, but he forgives him pretty easily. And it’s nice to see Nicky looking up Sally at the end, even if I am sick of This Is Us’s insistence that you have one true love in your life that you’re supposed to stay with forever.
- On the topic of “vaxed and waxed,” I think it’s hilarious that for the first half of the season, the excuse to have everyone together was “we tested and quarantined” and now the excuse is “we’re all vaccinated!” (*stares in Canada*)
- I really do think we could have had a more dramatic conclusion to the bachelorette party than a fucking Newlywed Game bit.
- Personally I think the normal, functional thing to do when your emotionally vulnerable ex is getting married is to respectfully keep your distance, but I’m built different, I guess.
- It’s kind of weird that for the first time, we’re seeing all three Pearsons struggle financially or professionally (them or their spouses) – Kevin’s got the least struggles since ultimately he spent years making millions on The Manny, but it really does feel like everyone’s at a crossroads right now.
- Beth’s complaint about the dance academies being too “traditional” feels a bit underbaked. We’ve seen from flashbacks and present that Beth loves classical ballet, it’s simply that her passion was destroyed from never feeling good enough at it. If she means that dance and ballet are extremely white institutions, it feels like the show would be brave enough to just come out and say it based on this season alone. It especially feels weird that there was little commentary this or last season about Beth being outshone by another Black dancer, or the fact that her studio did have a lot of Black dancers compared to other studios (trust me, as a longtime dance teacher, it’s a whiiiiite world). Maybe there’s potential for some interesting stuff here, though!
- Justin Hartley, Rachel Hilson, Caitlin Thompson, Jon Huertas (it’s a lot!)