Life’s greatest shocks aren’t single moments. A traumatic event can be pinpointed down to the year, the date, maybe even the minute. We can try and define exactly when they happened, but what we are usually naming is just a starting line — a rock dropped into the still water of our day that not only breaks the surface but also sends ripples through the rest of our life as well.
This week’s This is Us, the penultimate episode of the first season, deals extensively in ripples. It’s been a few weeks since the last episode aired, and much of this episode functions as a set-up for what is sure (and rumored) to be a very dramatic season finale. But to get to the finale, we have to work our way through some of the same difficulties the Pearson family is working through.
The most recent trauma is the death of Randall’s father William (Ron Cephas Jones), which happened at the very end of the last episode we saw. This week is the memorial, which William has left special instructions that Randall's girls are to plan. Adults, he claims, make things too sad. And so the girls plan a very fun funeral, complete with candy and rainbow balloons. All of it seems as happy as a funeral can be, and the episode does a good job of mixing humor with genuine moments of raw emotion.
One of the most impactful scenes comes from Kate (Chrissy Metz) who, still having not processed her own father’s death, is the most emotional at William’s funeral. The most heartbreaking part of the whole episode, for me, is when she is comforted by Randall; sobbing into his shoulder, she admits: “All this stuff is coming up about Dad. I’m so sorry you had to go through this twice. I’m so sorry Randall.” She’s right. To lose one father is depressing and traumatic enough, but to lose two is really too much.
And William is so beloved that everyone here feels like they’ve lost someone. Beth is also profoundly affected because she feels like everyone in her family got to say goodbye except for her. “I actually don’t know what to say because I’m pretty mad at him for leaving I guess,” she says during the eulogy/toast. But by the end of the episode, a postcard has arrived, and she’s forgiven him.
Randall (Sterling K. Brown), too, finally makes up with Rebecca (Mandy Moore) for hiding William from him. It’s a sweet moment, if one that feels a little delayed. Because he doesn’t have to do anything for the funeral, Randall has time to realize how many lives his father really touched, from Jessie his ex-lover to the mailman he saw on his morning walks.
The episode ends with Randall strutting into his office. Not only has he given his entire life to his company, but when his father died, Randall's partner sent an impersonal card signed “the Team” attached to a giant box of pears (which Randall is allergic to). “For days, I’ve been plagued by this question: How do I honor my father’s legacy?” Randall asks. And the answer is clear: He quits.
With the smallest plot line this episode, we find Kevin (Justin Hartley). Kevin, after leaving his own play’s debut, fights with the New York Times’ theater critic to try and get him to attend the new premiere night. The critic refuses, and though Kevin’s first night is beautiful, and everyone tells him it’s the best they’ve ever seen him, the critic doesn’t come. Kevin's solace is in Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge), his newly exclusive girlfriend who also happens to be his ex-wife. The episode ends with them happily in bed together, but the future is murky.
Where it becomes obvious that this whole episode is just a set-up for the finale, though, is in Kate’s story. We’ve known the entire season that Kate’s relationship with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) was special, that he was the only one that truly understood her during childhood. In this episode, we see that their relationship (as Kate grew up) was a two-way street.
In the flashback of this week’s episode, Jack and Rebecca are still working their way through one of the worst fights of their marriage. The fight is happening because Jack is easily made jealous and apparently (despite being with her for two decades and raising three kids with her) doesn’t trust his wife to be away from him for 10 days. After finding out that Rebecca had once dated her bandmate, Jack practically loses his mind and behaves in a way that is not only childish; it’s too controlling to be comfortable. This week, as Rebecca prepares to leave for her trip, Jack remains cold towards her. He doesn’t come home from work on time, and despite one cute moment discussing their kids, he doesn’t really warm up to her at all before she leaves for her tour.
The kids see the tension between them, and when Jack drops them off at a party, Kate demands an answer about what’s going on with them. Jack says nothing is wrong. “Mom and Dad,” he promises, “we’re the last thing in the world you need to worry about.” But it’s a lie, and Kate makes him promise he won’t just go home and mope. So instead, Jack goes to a company party at the bar, where a co-worker puts a hand on his leg and he has a few too many drinks. Despite 15 episodes of “best dad ever” narratives, Jack Pearson certainly isn’t coming across that way anymore. As his character gains dimension, it also becomes clear that some of his glorification comes through the rose-colored lenses of those left behind. When leaving the bar, Jack calls the house where he dropped the kids off and tells Kate that he’s going to Cleveland to see Rebecca, like she suggested.
The episode ends with Kate opening up to Toby (Chris Sullivan) by telling him that her father’s death is her fault, which means that we as viewers are about to experience the trauma that shook the entire Pearson family. Ultimately, “What Now?” is just another episode building up to the same story: Next week, we’ll find out how Jack died, an event that's so painful, we’ve seen an entire season of ripples from its fallout without ever knowing what happened.
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