Over the weeks, us loyal viewers of This is Us have eagerly followed the seismic shifts of the Pearson family’s interpersonal relationships. Many of the watershed moments in these characters’ relationships have resulted in tears on the characters' end — and ours.
Why are we so susceptible to weeping at the Pearson family’s triumphs and travails? Unlike in real life, characters in This is Us have arcs perfectly designed to elicit cheers, tears, and empathy. Each of their moments leads to another. There is rhyme and reason and reward.
Nowhere is the perfectly designed character arc more irresistible than in the emotional climax that comes at the end of “Jack Pearson’s Son,” when Kevin and Randall’s story climaxes intersect and leads to a satisfying moment of relationship building.
From the start, Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) have a fraught relationship. During childhood, football player extraordinaire Kevin was jealous that his adopted brother received extra attention from their parents. Kevin responded by bullying and ostracizing his nerdy brother, which only exacerbated Randall’s feelings of being the odd sibling out.
By the time Kevin and Randall are adults, their adolescent frostiness still hadn't melted.
So when Kevin shows up on Randall’s doorstep following his move to New York, Randall can’t hide his annoyance. The brothers go through a series of passive aggressive actions, like a “friendly” race home and an awkward night at an expensive restaurant, that build in intensity.
Tension comes to a head in the episode "The Best Washing Machine in the Whole World," during which the brothers publicly confront each other with — gasp! — the admission of their feelings. Kevin’s hurt that Randall never watched the Manny, and Randall admits that all he ever wanted was to spend time with his brother. This all ends in a bang (literally) when the two throw punches in Times Square.
Since that low moment, Kevin and Randall’s relationship has been on the mend, even if Randall’s life hasn’t. While Kevin’s story line entailed love triangles and a New York play, Randall’s involved saying both hello and goodbye to his biological father. Juggling work, family, and mourning in real time takes a tremendous toll on Randall. Combined with his predisposition to anxiety, Randall is poised near the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Cut to the night of the Kevin’s show opening. As it goes in TV world, the culmination of Kevin’s journey coincides with the climax of Randall’s unraveling. Right before the show starts, a nervous Kevin calls Randall and asks him for a pick-me-up. But Randall doesn’t quite sound like himself on the phone. Gone is his self-assured tone; in its place is a quivering guy having a seemingly out-of-body experience. Randall tells him he can’t make the show, and we imagine him spiraling into darkness, all alone.
In a stunt that would never fly in the real world, Kevin sacrifices months of rehearsal, lots of money, and his own reputation to provide emotional support to his once-estranged brother. Kevin ditches his opening performance to run to his brother’s office, where Randall is staring blankly into space. Echoing an earlier scene from the episode, Kevin performs the same breathing exercise that Randall had done with Jack. Kevin helps walk Randall back to himself.
Of all the Grand Gestures on This Is Us (of which there have been too many to count), Kevin’s decision to choose Randall over his show has been the most earned. It took episodes of work to pull off the emotional viability of this moment.
With moments like this, This Is Us proves that it’s willing to put in the character development necessary to pull of the schmaltz. This is sentiment with substance.
In the This Is Us world, adult sibling relationships can grow, change, and evolve. In this way, the real world could learn a thing or to from TV land.