5 takeaways from the Pearsons' trip to New York City on "This Is Us"
After a Super Tuesday-induced hiatus, "This Is Us" returned this week – and it came back wanting to be a part of it: New York, New York.
Indeed, as one of the final episodes of the season (only two more left!), the NBC family drama took the opportunity to explore the Big Apple – and even bigger drama, mainly between brothers. Yes, it seems the Great Pearson Bro-Down is upon us, so let's break that down as well as the other major takeaways from this big-city episode ... just as soon as I finish looking at this subway map and make sure we don't end up in Queens on accident.
1. Oh, HERE'S the Kevin and Randall fight
Ever since the fall finale hopped ahead into the near future, "This Is Us" fans have wondered what the heck drove Kevin and Randall apart to the point of not speaking to each other. I assumed that it would happen because of Randall withholding Rebecca's mental condition from Kate and Kevin, but as the cabin trip episode demonstrated, that was not the case ... as with many of my predictions this season. (Remember when Kate and Toby broke up because she saw bruises on Baby Jack's back from Toby having to give him CPR? Hopefully not because that super never happened! Don't go to Vegas anytime soon, Matt.)
However, it seems we may have reached the official breaking point for 66.6 percent of the Big Three – and indeed, it is about Rebecca.
Kevin has a big New York City premiere for his long-awaited M. Night Shyamalan movie, and he's planning on taking his mom to the star-studded event. However, Randall hops on board as well – not just because he's a big "Sixth Sense" fan but because he wants to talk to Rebecca about a nine-month Alzheimer's medical trial he's found in St. Louis. Kate and eventually Kevin agree that it could work, but Kevin insists that they don't talk about it during premiere night since Rebecca's having such a wonderful day getting dressed up and shining amongst the stars; after all, Kevin did get that command from his mom last week to keep his giddy and fun-loving ways for her. But while Randall tersely agrees at the time, when Rebecca slips up during a conversation – and when Kevin's off hobnobbing with his co-stars – Randall takes the opportunity to pitch the medical trial to his mother. Kevin may be distracted, but he's not that far off, catching Randall's sneaky approach and confronting him about it while Rebecca scampers off.
The two have always been different people – even in the flashbacks, you can see how silly dancing Kevin on the subway bristles stern and serious Randall – but now the stakes have never been higher for them and their differences never more stark. Randall views Kevin as an aloof goofball who can't take anything seriously, in the process not treating their mom's ailment as a reality, while Kevin views Randall as a micro-manager who looks down on him – despite the fact that, as he sharply points out, Kevin's movie star career is what will pay for Randall's expensive medical trials.
And here's where we find, at least what appears to be, our schism – certainly after Rebecca turns down the medical trial and Randall blames Kevin for blowing his chance to save their mother. Both sons think they know what's best for their mother – hills they seem willing to die for right now.
But you know who probably ACTUALLY knows best for Rebecca?
2. Rebecca knows best
I know that this has become a refrain as common as me saying I prefer focused and honed-in episodes as opposed to ones featuring the entire cast, but I love what "This Is Us" is doing with Rebecca during the second half of this season. They've really made her a centerpiece character, enriching what we know about her, using her ailment to not diminish her role but instead enhance it and giving Mandy Moore some really wonderful and nuanced notes to play (and even to sing too). And this week was no different as the focus turned away from the brothers bickering and more toward Rebecca's touching battle to speak for herself and control her own destiny, in ways large and small.
Of course, there's the drama in the current day with Randall and Kevin mentally pulling her in separate directions – as if her mind wasn't struggling enough – and her choosing her own path by turning down the medical trial. But that was far from the first time she took control of her life from men thinking they knew better – and not even the first time in New York City.
In the far-off past, Jack and Rebecca took the kids to the Big Apple with plans to hit all of their most desired spots – from museums (I think you can guess which Pearson child picked this) to FAO Schwarz. But along the way, the Pearsons get lost, and Jack's insistence on being right and controlling the day only gets them further away from their destinations – so much so that Rebecca has to take her husband aside to tell him that she knows how to get where they're going too, and that his insistence on being the perfect dad and the perfect husband, delivering the perfect day, are instead doing the opposite. Jack wants to give Rebecca a day like she remembers from her past trips with her parents to NYC – but he doesn't think about what Rebecca actually wants, which isn't those memories of drunken on-the-town parents. So Rebecca gets them back on track and they still have a nice day, ending with a carriage ride with roasted nuts and adorable family time – though Rebecca still has to compromise her dream destination.
Several years later, in the post-Jack years, the Pearsons (minus Kate) return to New York City for Teen Kevin's big acting showcase – and it is exactly as broodingly all-caps Serious Acting as you'd think. But that's a discussion for another time as Kevin's attention quickly goes from his performance to setting up Rebecca with his grey fox acting coach Kirby. Much like in the current day, Kevin wants his mom to be happy and have some fun while Randall is still hung up on the past and has serious concerns about their mother's emotional state, still recovering from their father's death.
Fittingly, while the sons bicker about how best to guide their mother, she takes her own path and decides to leave for the dream location she missed out on all those years ago with Jack and the family: The Met. And in the process, things actually work out better between her and Kirby, who flirtatiously jokes about her inability to hail a cab and then offers to walk her to her destination. Unfortunately, Kirby gets a little too smug for his own good, mocking the carriage rides as tourist traps without realizing that they meant something to Rebecca, and she bails on Kirby – and, again, The Met.
All of these stories combine together to create a portrait of Rebecca as fascinating as the particular painting she wants to see at The Met: She's strong and someone who doesn't need others to set her path for her, even if she's willing to sacrifice hers for others too, and now even as she enters a scary time of struggles, she's fully forging her own way and following her own compass, refusing to fall victim to "next time" anymore. It'll be all too sad to see this Rebecca fade away as I assume we will see over the next few seasons as she battles her cognitive decline, but cheers to "This Is Us" for giving us these moments now.
3. It's little Rebecca!
You know what a delightful Rebecca-centric episode needs? BONUS REBECCAS!
Indeed, in case three different eras of Rebecca weren't enough for you, "This Is Us" also introduced Little Rebecca, who went to The Met with her family and spent the visit mesmerized by this unknown woman staring at a painting all day long as if she had all the time in the world. The memory stuck with Rebecca for years – so much so, she made returning to The Met her goal in all her subsequent visits, a dream that only came true on her own fruition Tuesday night when she left the bickering of Randall and Kevin to finally follow herself, follow what her heart desires and use the time she has exactly how she wants to use it. And if that means staring at a seemingly simple painting of a woman, then she's going to stare the hell out of that seemingly simple painting with the remaining time and freedom she has.
I doubt Little Rebecca will become a regular timeline in the "This Is Us" universe, but she helped set the stage for a powerful final note about Rebecca's desire for control over her own life and saying goodbye to "next times."
4. Kate gets a week off
Kate drew the short straw yet again this week – or more like no straw at all. Other than a quick part in an opening Big Three Skype call, basically as the third awkward silent party to Randall and Kevin's treatment debate, the only real contribution from her present-day storyline in "New York, New York, New York" was some new nicknames for a dinosaur-dressed Baby Jack – which included Randall's "Jack-rassic Park" (not bad) and Toby's "PteroJacktyl" (excellent work).
This is unfortunately somewhat of the norm with Kate – her subplots regularly feel like they're the C-story of the week, at most – but it's especially disappointing since we've only got two more episodes left. And considering one episode is the sure-to-be-stuffed finale and the other is a "dream scenario" hour (more on that in a second), there doesn't feel like there's going to be much time for Kate, Baby Jack and the state of her relationship with Toby, which sure felt like it was going to be an important plot direction. While Kevin's evolved into one of the show's most complex and interesting characters, and Randall has always been a critical and fan favorite since its earliest days, Kate sadly feels like very much the third place part of the Big Three. Something to hopefully work on next season ...
5. What if ...
This week's hour ended on an unexpected gut punch when Randall, in the aftermath of arguing with Kevin, asks his brother if he ever thinks about how life would've been if their father hadn't died of that dreadful fire all those years ago. Kevin doesn't – not surprising considering his personality and the work he's put in emotionally with therapy, plus the fact that he wasn't there for the fire but out in the woods with Sophie instead – but Randall definitely does as he mentally flashes back to that fateful night and their father crawling on the roof of the second floor, looking for their dog. However, in Randall's mind, this time it ends differently. This time, teenage Randall powerfully chimes in, commanding that their father come down from the fire or else Randall will run in there to get him. Jack gets the message and comes down to be with Rebecca, Randall and Kate, safe from the fire.
It's quite the dream – and apparently that's not all for "This Is Us."
Judging by the preview, next week's episode seemingly focuses on the "what if" scenario, showing the characters' lives if Jack had lived. As someone who likes the characters, wishes them the best and isn't a monster, of course I'd love to see them happy with their no-longer smoke-murdered dad, but I must preemptively admit that I am not a fan of these kind of "what if" episodes. As one who's watched his fair share of "Grey's Anatomy," (contain the urge to rant about how the show wrote off Karev, CONTAIN THE URGE TO RANT ABOUT HOW THE SHOW WROTE OFF KAREV!) these hours tend to feel like a waste of time, as if the creators wrote enough material for 17 episodes and then realized they forgot the network ordered an 18-episode season. It's fun in concept, but after a while, you wish the show would get back to the actual story instead of going into a holding pattern for a week – one that isn't even going to affect the characters in any fashion because none of this is taking place in reality.
Maybe "This Is Us" – a better show in general than "Grey's Anatomy" – has cracked the dream episode concept. Or maybe that aspect won't take up the entire episode. I guess we'll find out next week, though, if the characters' dreams end up being this viewer's nightmare.
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