"This Is Us" recap: Well, now you've done it, Randall
Oh, Randall. You used to be the shining light of "This Is Us." We've cried with you. We've laughed with you. We've put up with your weekly wet-eyed monologues about, I don't know, a kumquat at the grocery store that reminded you of how strange and unpredictable life can be. We even sat through your political campaign storyline – and politely applauded when you even won the damn thing.
But I think there may be no saving you after "Don't Take My Sunshine Away." Or at least there's certainly no saving you and Beth.
Tuesday night's very busy, very eventful episode (directed by Milwaukee native George Tillman Jr.!) was all about commitments and relationships at the breaking point – and Randall broke this week. A whole season's worth of simmering tensions officially boiled over Tuesday night, and I don't think Randall's going to be able to clean it up. Well, considering we've seen the future and it looks very grey and very sad and very separated, I think we KNOW he's not going to be able to clean it up.
After a week or two of glancing nervously at their color-coordinated mess of a schedule, Randall and Beth are now full submerged in their busy lives. Randall's running around from interview to interview, packing school bags and reading binders of dense city planning information, while Beth's finally off pursuing her lifelong dream of teaching dance – and she even has a recital coming up. Oh boy, that can't be good. If there's one thing growing up with '80s and '90s television and movies taught me, it's that if there's an important recital coming up, that specially reserved seat ain't getting filled. It certainly doesn't make me feel better about things that the song on the soundtrack keeps ominously chiming in with, "It's the calm before the storm ... "
Thankfully, in defiance of that song, Randall (and "This Is Us") avoids being the most cliche thing of all time and shows up for Beth's recital, exhausted but supportive. Though he counters her recital with a big dinner the next night – one with a big city head honcho that could get him on a board that he needs to get on. And judging by Randall's dead wide eyes (his character may have a rough week, but Sterling K. Brown has a strong one, hitting a lot of these desperate notes just right) when he's asking Beth to come along to help make a good impression, he's not so much asking as he is pleading. It works, as even though Beth also has a big opportunity that night, with the head of the school taking teachers out for drinks to discuss the studio's future, she says she'll be there for Randall.
Or at least that's what she says, as Randall is stuck sitting outside the government official's house, staring at the clock and his phone wondering how many times is too many to call. And so instead of figuring that she's stuck in traffic or that maybe something bad like an accident happened or there was an emergency with one of the kids, his mind leaps to making a bad decision. No, that's not quite right. He makes an awful, no-good, poo-poo, miserable decision: He leaves a voicemail for Beth, spewing venom and pent-up anger and a whole bunch of demeaning stuff about how she's "immature" and that "she needs to grow up" – in general, things that you really shouldn't say about your significant other, and definitely not on a recording device.
And lo, she didn't even end up stiffing him at all. Eventually she does indeed arrive to the dinner, explaining that she got caught in terrible traffic thanks to an accident – not great when it's already a long drive across town – and her phone died on the way there. Gulp, Randall. Brown's face through Beth's arrival and explanation, watching his brain immediately go into anxious "how do I make that voicemail disappear?" mode, is a real treat, some bitter laughs as the audience chokes down this tense night – which speaking of, there's actual pressure in this storyline, something last week's attempted pressure cooker episode in the waiting room failed to build and sustain. And though he tries to find a way out of this hole he's dug himself into, it seems all too obvious from Beth's reactions, and lack thereof to his hand, that her phone was alive enough to hear SOMETHING.
Indeed, after a serving of purple cheesecake (which ... why?) and too many cups of coffee, Beth on the way out of the house lays into Randall, noting that you bet she heard his voicemail and he best sleep at his office tonight. Yep, had that coming, Randall – though he fails to just take the L and comes back home, ready to lay all this out. After a whole season of finding vents, this thing's officially about to blow. Cue Randall shutting the door; the kids aren't going to want to hear this. And I'm not sure we want to, either. This seems like the next worst thing to NBC airing lost footage of my actual parents fighting. (But still slightly better than purple cheesecake.)
While Randall and Beth seem like they may be at an end, Kate and Toby are off celebrating new life – or at least trying. While Kate is singing young Jack songs and constantly by his side, Toby is absolutely terrified for their very small son, who can't even cry thanks to all of the tubes keeping him alive. He eventually reaches his own breaking point as the doctors prepare a needle – and, of course, not just a needle but a massive, Soul Cailbur-sized one – for Jack and he just can't be there for it.
Stuck in the waiting room, however, he has a very nice, and somewhat peculiar, heart-to-heart with a fellow NICU dad, bonding over their newborns fighting for their lives – and bonding over the macabre sensation of feeling comforted by knowing how rough others have it. In the end, while it may be true "women are better" at natural maternal instincts, Toby realizes that's no excuse for not being there when Kate and his newborn son need him. They've made this commitment; he can't back out now that it's hard. So he returns and apologizes to much rejoicing – even more so when we get a moment of Toby holding his son for the first time, and truly smiling for the first time in what's felt like eons. I'll admit: After spending an entire episode literally waiting and focused on Toby and Kate, it feels a little disappointing they're basically wedged into a packed episode of material. I would've loved more time with these two in this massive moment – but that doesn't make that final moment with Toby and Jack feel any less hard-earned and heart-warming.
And then there's Kevin – like I said, busy episode – who's now in couples counseling with Zoe after his relapse these past two episodes, as well as his lie about his bottle of "water" at the hospital. Their session goes fine enough, though Kevin's charming deflections might be too glib for Zoe. But that's not what's REALLY bothering her from their chat. What's actually bothering her is something Kevin said about having kids some day – a dream that Zoe definitely does not share. And while Kevin doesn't seem like he's actually thought about it much, more talking about it like just something people do rather than a real personally-held commitment, Zoe has – and she needs him to decide if that's something he's going to want. Because if so, this relationship is doomed to collapse.
So he's going to need to think somewhere – and as fate would have it, he just happens to be down the street from Sophie's apartment. Oh no. This seems like a bad choice. And she's now even there. THIS SEEMS LIKE A BAD CHOICE. Thankfully, she's engaged, so, as Kevin says, "Then a coffee should be safe." The two chat about her fiancé – but this still being Kevin, of course it also turns to his life and dramas. And she drops a little truth bomb on him: He's never really had to make a choice. He's always been able to charm his way into what he's wanted, whether it be getting a first kiss from Sophie while also dragging her to toilet paper a teacher's office at the school dance, or even just the way he talked to the couples therapist and, as Zoe notes, gets you to want to smile despite everything. But now it's not on his charm; it's on him to make a commitment to something.
And at the end, he chooses Zoe – though can we talk about their final scenes, because they felt far more loaded than a simple happy ending. Doesn't it seem like Zoe's trying to give him an out at the end, like she's opening the door for him and hoping he'll choose to leave the relationship on his own? She just asks if he's really, REALLY sure about choosing her over kids a few too many times. And did "This Is Us" really bring Sophie back just for a single episode, just to shut that storyline's door forever? Hmmm. Whatever the case, I don't trust this relationship. (But I do really like Melanie Liburd as Zoe, so can we please keep them together for a good while before you inevitably shatter my heart?)
In case there wasn't enough going on this episode, there's also a flashback – this time to the Big Three's first grade school dance, complete with Becca and Jack chaperoning. Frankly, I could've mostly done without this segment, as it mostly just adds to the scattered episode's story without adding a lot more coherence to all the pieces – save for some dramatic irony with Becca talking about what their kids' happily ever afters might look like and some enjoyable parallels, like Kevin's aforementioned TP-ing and Randall, even then, struggling to balance the personal with the professional, skipping out on the dance to study organelles. (Boy, did I forget all of that from my freshman bio class. Sorry, Mr. Friday!)
It's cute seeing Jack and Kevin behave like total father and son, as well as watching Jack and Becca share a dance (leaving no room for Jesus, I noticed; what irresponsible chaperones), but I'm not sure the flashback offered much more that – especially in an episode that DID have so much more than that. But maybe some salve is necessary in such a heavy episode.
And things seem like they're going to get heavier too, at least for Randall and Beth. The bedroom door may be closed, but the floodgates are about to open – angrily and loudly.
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