This is Us: “There” is surprisingly subversive, simple and satisfying
Dir. Kevin Rodney Sullivan
Wri. Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger
I give This Is Us credit for a lot of things, but one thing I don’t know if I’ve acknowledged before — or even realized — is its ability to play classic family dramedy/sitcom tropes straight while still adding a few elements of subversion on the side.
Here we have a classic scenario — a young father-to-be, desperate to prove to his partner that he will be the man he promised to be, is forced to walk through fire to be there for the birth, with every curveball possible thrown his way. We knew that this was coming — not just because of the teaser at the end of Birth Mother but also because why else would we add in the plot device of moving Kevin’s movie to Vancouver right before Madison tells him to rethink his priorities? And regardless of what shocking twists writers Aptaker and Berger might have meant to add in, this was not a particularly suspenseful driving plot.
But it did serve as a fine canvas for a good flashback story — and a reminder of why I love Kevin so much.
I’ll get to my big criticisms of present-day Kevin’s plot in a minute — but the real meat of this episode is in the flashback. It is tied together at the end rather sloppily; could Kevin be so delusional that he thinks a man he’s just saved from a traumatic accident wants to hear a perfect stranger blather on about how great his father was? (The answer: of course! He’s a Pearson!) But it does lay the foundation for the man Kevin would become, who is eager to please others and perhaps still not great at standing up for himself (and as much as his outburst at the director was supposed to seem like a triumphant moment, Kevin’s tell-off felt more like a tantrum than anything and perhaps is a sign that he never learned to put up boundaries in a healthy way — only in an explosion).
It’s been a hot minute since we’ve even really seen Jack, and I was surprised at how welcome Milo Ventimiglia’s presence felt to me. At first I felt a sense of relief that while Jack Pearson was indeed the designated hero of this episode, it didn’t feel quite as Jack Pearson-y as it has in the past, and also didn’t pat itself on the back for how restrained it was. Jack’s moments with Kevin here are touching — of all the young actors, Ventimiglia definitely has the most chemistry with Parker Bates — and his delivery of “Never call my kid stupid again. Ever” to Kevin’s coach is one of the best line reads I can remember from him. It’s a reminder that Milo doesn’t need a montage and a swelling score or acoustic pop song to deliver an impactful performance.
I did worry at first that the show was setting up to problematically parallel Jack and his father — there is no way you can compare Jack “I Wasn’t Always The Perfect Father Everyone Thought I Was” Pearson to Stanley “I Full-On Abused My Family” Pearson — but the ending of the episode is where the surprising subversion comes in as well. Jack says that as much as his father was a monster, there were good sides to him. And we see a tender moment — or what qualifies as a tender moment, for those two — between tweenaged Jack and a drunken, bitter Stanley as Jack tries desperately to hold onto whatever “good” memories he might have had of his father.
It’s a controversial thing, seemingly humanizing abusers. Some shows do it in a way that implies that the crimes themselves are nuanced (13 Reasons Why, I’m looking at you). In the case of This Is Us, the notion that Stanley Pearson wasn’t all that bad is saved by two storytelling techniques. One: it is told through the lens of Jack, who is himself a victim of many traumas. He is not the voice of God; he is the voice of Jack, and he wants desperately to believe that the father he was so afraid of for most of his life was also a good man. When you are raised by an abuser, or have a close relationship with an abuser early in your life, sometimes admitting their true impact and damage means that you have to rewrite the entire way you see your life, and not everyone is good at that. Essentially, Jack’s humanizing of his father is partially a coping mechanism.
Two: there’s an element of forward-looking self-protection. This Is Us has never been subtle about the way characters project; when Jack talks about how fathers can be complicated, he’s clearly not just talking about his own father but is also talking about himself as a father. He wants Kevin to remember him for the good times despite there clearly being bad times. It’s his way of apologizing for being hard on Kevin without really saying he’s hard on him.
Parker Bates steals the show here. He is morphing into a young study of Justin Hartley in the ways he holds his gazes and composes his sentences — pauses, blinks and all. I’ve said it before that Bates is becoming such a good mini-Hartley that it almost undermines Logan Shroyer’s perfectly capable performance as the bridge between the two. Shroyer is fine, but he has yet to show Kevin’s underlying vulnerability the way his past- and present-day counterparts have.
And thus, we come to the present day (hi, Rebecca and Miguel! Congratulations on the pregnancy, Mandy Moore! We have so much to catch up on)! My main complaint about the present is that the teasing of whether or not Kevin makes it out alive was so cheap. We know from the moment he pulls out of the lot that he’s in an SUV, not the older van that was seen in the opening. And every time Kevin reached for his phone and we were made to feel a bit of tension, we have to remind ourselves that not only is it not Kevin’s vehicle burning in the ditch, but also, we know that Kevin (and his children) make it to the future. It’s even cheaper than all the when-and-how teasing of Jack’s death in Season 2 — because at least then, we knew that Jack died.
Still, it’s a decent enough through-line to string us along for the plot, even if it is a weaker aspect of the show. Present-day Kevin is at least more compelling here than I accused him of being a few episodes ago, but Madison remains a real drag. It was so nice back when she was a real character with her own ditzy, funny, dorky personality and not just a sad, hollow manifestation of Kevin’s longing for a family. In fact, Madison tells a nurse toward the end of this episode that there are only two people she cares about — Kate (who is having her own adoptive baby this week and it gets seriously glossed over) and Kevin. It’s, I guess, a nice way of reminding us what Kate is up to and gives an excuse for Madison not having anyone to talk to, but how sad is it that this character who used to show up a couple times a season to be Kate’s funny sidekick now has no life outside of the family Pearson? It does bring to light how many characters in This Is Us are seemingly punished for longing to have a life outside of this clan. Déja wants to reconnect with her birth mother, but she’s disappointed in her and decides that Randall and Beth are indeed the best. Toby joins a gym and gets a set of new friends, so we spend an entire season villanizing him. I’m betting when we do finally get back to the post-fire Pearsons and bridge the gap between Miguel-in-Pittsburgh-helping-out-the-family and Miguel-in-Houston-in-2008-reconnecting-with-Rebecca, we’ll get some sort of preachiness about how Miguel leaving Rebecca and co was the cruelest thing he could possibly do. Oh, and was Nicky’s punishment for no longer being as obnoxiously integrated into the clan being effectively written out of the show?
Ah, but I’m just spiraling for the sake of comedy here. This complaint about This Is Us is not particularly new, but it stings a lot with Madison because she could have been a much better character. And, admittedly, the unintentional comedy of that statement is short-lived by a very sweet ending — Randall being the ultimate big brother (he is the big brother, since it’s been more-or-less confirmed that he was born a day before Kevin and Kate) and calling Madison to stay on the line and talk with her. We’re seeing the beginnings of the family stitching itself back together, and, as much as this season has been made out ot be Kevin’s pleading for forgiveness, it’s nice to see Randall doing some outreach himself. I don’t know if we’ll ever see Randall forced to apologize for the downright awful things he said to Kevin, or if the show is truly on his side, but I can’t deny that he has been trying to make it right as well.
I’ll also note, on a final compliment to the episode, that it was much better-paced than the last few. Considering it’s one where the present day covers only a few hours, a surprising amount happens. I’m unsure if next week we’ll get a catch-up-on-Kate episode or simply a zoom to Madison’s delivery (“In The Room” could apply to either delivery, I suppose), but I’m looking quite forward to it.
- We’re seeing Rebecca and Miguel again! And while they were more-or-less plot devices, it was nice to be reminded that they existed. Also, even in small moments, John Huertas and Mandy Moore have a really quirky, funny dynamic.
- Parker Bates is a great actor, man.
- The return of not only Jack but also a “Jack Pearson is the greatest!” episode was handled much better than I ever imagined it could be.
- I might be tempting fate because every time I say this, the next episode just proves me wrong, but it feels like we’re finally just living with COVID in the series instead of falling over ourselves to prove everyone “tested and quarantined.” That said…
- I’m really confused on the timeline of the present day this episode. YVR is not an hour from Seattle, it’s more than two hours, plus a border crossing. So by the time Kevin decides to go to Seattle, he has to already be across the border, right? Correct me if I’m wrong, but even for movie stars, land border crossings, especially in the COVID-era, aren’t exactly a quick affair.
- I ask this because if Kevin picked up the survivor, dropped him off at the hospital and still made it to the airport in time, there’s no way he could have crossed a border without his wallet/ID — so he was already in the U.S., right? But when did that happen? Wacky stuff.
- Additionally, are we really to believe that Kevin, who would have to be travelling with a passport anyway due to taking an international flight, somehow lost his passport as well? Everyone knows you don’t keep your passport in the same container as your driver’s license (it doesn’t even fit!) so I don’t understand what the big deal was at the airport other than an attempt at manufactured drama.
- Parker Bates gets the top prize here, but he’s followed closely by Milo Ventimiglia.
- Justin Hartley gets some points for being one of the only actors and reporters I know to speak most clearly through a mask.