When we first met Zoe (Melanie Liburd) on This Is Us, we heard about her “complicated” history before she even encountered eventual love interest Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley). In the episodes since Zoe’s season 2 finale introduction, This Is Us has continued to remind us just how “difficult” Zoe’s backstory is, often to the point where the mystery of her past was treated like more of a central character trait than her love of documentary filmmaking and a no B.S. attitude.
Finally, the NBC drama began to unravel Zoe’s often mythologized backstory with “Sometimes,” and the reveal (please, no one call this a tacky twist) is more gutting than even the most jaded This Is Us fan could predict. Zoe was sexually abused by her father. That is why she doesn’t want to see the unnamed man, talk about him, or open up her budding relationship with Kevin to him in any way.
Despite This Is Us’ habit of going for schlocky over-the-top sentimentality over actual emotional storytelling, the beginning of Zoe’s backstory comes with the appropriate weight. Likely because of her portrayer Melanie Liburd’s nuanced performance.
There is a version of “Sometimes” that focuses more on the clues the series has left about Zoe to foreshadow her painful family history. Tuesday’s episode leans into the filmmaker’s discomfort at even speaking about her father, who very suspiciously lives in China of all places. In fact, she doesn’t even want him to know she is in Asia, lest he try to contact her due to their rare proximity. There is also the fact Zoe’s cousin, the fantastic Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson), told Kevin her pseudo baby sister is a man-eater during the season 3 premiere (Zoe joined Beth's home around age 8 when her own mom could no longer care for her). It would be easy for This Is Us to cheaply connect Zoe’s sexual history with her status as a survivor or something as cliché as “daddy issues.”
But, it doesn’t.
Instead, Zoe’s retelling of her own story is a powerful moment and completely her own, no breadcrumbs or theories or flashbacks necessary. After eating some bad bat on the first day of her trip to Vietnam with Kevin, she is weak and sweaty in the tub. Kevin, who has been prying into Zoe’s family history all day, brings the ailing documentarian some coconut water and admits he’s falling in love with her. He explains that because of his feelings, he would really love to know the entire Zoe, past and all. It’s something even Kevin’s perfect parents couldn’t have that he desperately wants.
Yet, Zoe doesn’t tell Kevin about her past trauma to placate him, live up to his relationship demands, or due to the fact that she’s falling right back in love with Kevin. Rather, Zoe recognizes how her father has “already ruined so much” for her over the years. She wants this one relationship to be different. The best part of the entire episode comes when an understandably flabbergasted Kevin says he had no idea Zoe is a survivor since his girlfriend “always seems so strong.”
“I am strong,” Zoe replies with a new bass in her voice. It’s true.
After watching such a vulnerable moment between Kevin and Zoe, it seems This Is Us is posing the new couple as soulmates in much the same way the former's parents, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), have been shown since day one. First, there is a physical reference: as Kevin’s portrayer Justin Hartley pointed out on Instagram, the way Kevin is posed above an ailing Zoe in Vietnam is almost identical to the way Jack stood above Rebecca during the extremely fraught pilot episode.
Then there is the narrative connection between Zoe’s massive emotional disclosure and Jack’s own shockingly honest moment, both of which occur on a trip. Immediately after a Vietnamese tub-bound Zoe talks to Kevin in 2018, “Sometimes” flashes back to Jack and Rebecca’s road trip to L.A. Although Jack explains earlier in the episode he doesn’t cry — no, not even at the end of Old Yeller — he hears Rebecca sing and begins sobbing in the driver’s seat of his car. So we have two deeply traumatized people who previously bottled up their inner lives finally uncorking just a bit of that pressure.
In the world of This Is Us, nothing else spells out love more.
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