After a contained story last week detailing Jack's (Milo Ventimiglia) time in Vietnam and upbringing protecting his little brother and mother from his horrible father, This Is Us returned to its usual storytelling technique, to solid results. I was nervous the show couldn't follow up such a terrific and subtle episode, but it pulled it off nicely.
Kate & Toby
Let's start with Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan), since the episode is named for him. The show does a nice job of fast-forwarding just slightly in their fertility journey so that we can jump to them anxiously awaiting news if their one viable embryo implanted itself. It means the pressure is on, and that's extra hard for Toby, who has secretly gone off his antidepressants.
The writers chose to parallel this storyline with flashbacks to Toby's childhood, where he started dealing with his parents' divorce (and his father's infidelity) by making people laugh. It's not that we didn't know this about Toby already — that he uses humor as a crutch — but they do a great job of showing Toby's formative years, and the kids they cast as young Toby (Dylan Gage and Luke Clark) are terrific.
As Toby moves along in life, we learn that his mother also struggled with depression, and his father had no patience for it, calling them "sad sacks." That explains a lot. And it runs parallel to Kate's adolescent (and adult) struggle with shutting music out of her life when she's sad.
The piece de resistance of their storyline this week is that Kate is pregnant (yay!), and when she tells Toby, it's too much. He is such a ball of emotions right now that he just breaks down in desperate crying, not really happy tears. It is outstanding work by Sullivan and part of the reason this show is so good — they find these little moments and turn them into something extraordinary.
Kevin & Randall
In the storyline that best picks up where last week left off, Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Zoe (Melanie Liburd) set off to meet Mr. Robinson (Charles Robinson), Jack's friend who was sent home from Vietnam after losing his foot to a landmine. It doesn't feel like this story should dovetail with Randall's (Sterling K. Brown) story at all, but it does in a really surprising and touching way. Sometimes This Is Us whiffs at trying to make connections between stories and timelines, but other times, it finds this beautiful harmony — this is one of those.
As with a lot of the show's strongest emotional beats, it centers around racism and what Randall has dealt with his whole life being a Black boy (and then a man) in a mostly white world. In the flashbacks to high school, it turns out Randall's girlfriend's father was a racist who couldn't bear the thought of his daughter going to prom with a Black kid. It comes out in a humiliating way, and Kevin is there to witness it (something I'll come back to).
This is juxtaposed with Kevin and Zoe's trip, where they, as a mixed-race couple, encounter a microaggression from a racist gas station attendant that one imagines minorities deal with constantly in their daily lives. Zoe later confesses to Mr. Robinson’s wife that Kevin didn’t even notice the gas station attendant’s behavior because it’s something he doesn’t ever really have to deal with. He also is clueless to the fact that Zoe needs a special pillowcase because of her hair. She doesn’t expect him to just know that. Nevertheless, she really wonders if he’s worth the trouble of having to explain how her life, from the smallest things to the biggest things, is very, very different from his life.
Meanwhile, Randall is making his pitch to run for the city council representative of William's (Ron Cephas Jones) neighborhood and is met with derision and cries of "You're not from here." The parallel is well done — it’s there, but it’s not in-your-face about it.
Anyway, it's clear Randall isn't going to be this ward's councilman, but in another bit of surprising interweaving of storylines, Beth teases Randall about crying during his speech to William's neighbors, and then it turns out during her interview for an awesome new job, she started crying when she talked about her previous position. Being fired is a lot harder for her than she's letting on. She just can't quite relinquish her role of "the rock" of the family, and it's really sad.
I have to say, I'm glad they seem to be abandoning this city council run. That felt like a weird way to go with Randall. Not that he wouldn't jump wholeheartedly (and half-cocked) into that, because he totally would. But it would make his storyline so external — let's fix this neighborhood I don't even live in — versus him realizing there's something going on with Beth, which is much more of this show's sweet spot.
It's a really nice bit of storytelling that Kevin, Randall, and Beth all have very different things going on, but the show manages to make them feel connected.
Odds & Ends
The Miguel (Jon Huertas) thread obviously bears mentioning, and I'm of two minds on it. On the one hand, there are so many organic, thematic connections this week that it feels a little anvil-like, hitting us over the head with Miguel connecting to the post-Jack Pearson family in so many ways in one episode. On the other hand, I'm dying to know how Miguel and Rebecca got together — what that looked like, the guilt she undoubtedly dealt with, the reactions of the kids — so I do appreciate that they're starting to sprinkle that in. And it makes total sense that Miguel would have taken care of Rebecca and the kids even if Jack hadn't made that off-hand request before he died. Of course Miguel would have done that, he loves them and he loved Jack. But with all the other stuff going on this week, that felt a little over the top. The piano delivery and fridge repair would have sufficed; the taking care of drunk Kevin and trying to make Randall feel better felt like too much.
I love the small detail of Kevin witnessing Randall's pain and humiliation and then getting super drunk. Kevin plays an interesting role in the family, as the golden boy with seemingly no problems. But just because his problems aren't the same as Randall's and Kate's doesn't mean he didn't/doesn't have any, and that they aren't important. It's a nice contrast, to see him go from that drunk teenager to the sober adult who wants to find out more about his father.
But speaking of that... please do not let the show be going to a Miss Saigon place with Jack's time in Vietnam. If you're unfamiliar with the musical, a soldier falls in love with a Vietnamese girl but loses her during the chaos of Saigon's fall. He then starts a new life in the States only to find out years later that she gave birth to their son. That is the first place my mind went after Mr. Robinson gave Kevin a stack of letters Jack wrote to him, presumably after Robinson left Vietnam, and with them was a photo of Jack looking at a Vietnamese girl in that village he was sent to last week. She’s wearing the necklace Kevin now wears that he got from his father. Please don't let Miss Saigon be the way this is headed. Introducing a long-lost sibling is too soapy for this show — at least until like season 8 when they’ve really run out of material. Let’s hope that instead, it’s a matter of Jack having saved her life or something.
Unrelated, it's so great that Toby can quote both Ghostbusters and A Chorus Line. That is a well-rounded man right there.