In Movies & TV Reviews

Randall keeps on the election trail - but will he win?

"This Is Us" returns with a tidy but touching trip to Randall's election night

Restock your supply of Kleenex and start plucking away some gentle chords on an acoustic guitar. That's right: "This Is Us" is back, and thankfully back on a high note with Tuesday night's return – typically the kind of episode that I would rail against (not only is it crowded in classic "This Is Us" fashion, with every character pretty much having a storyline, but it also packs in a mess of dramas since the hour chronicles almost two months in the Pearsons lives) but instead a rather sweet, winning hour even when it threatens to be overstuffed or oversimplified.

The main emotion felt in the first few minutes, however, is shock as "The Last Seven Weeks" starts on election night for Randall – complete with a tense Beth in attendance at campaign HQ, as well as Kevin and Zoe apparently on the outs, and Randall actually pulling in competitive vote totals. Holy heck, what did we all miss since the last episode?! Thankfully, the show obliges by launching back in time to seven weeks prior to the election, then slowly making its way back to current day.

It's very similar to the first Jack-in-Vietnam episode's structure, and while the idea is not quite as cleverly or meaningfully arranged – it feels more like we started from election night solely for an intriguing cold open – it still works efficiently delivering a whole lot of info across a large portion of time with heart and feeling.

While all of the Pearson kids get their moment in the spotlight, things are definitely slanted toward Randall – who last we checked was getting into a big brouhaha with Beth about not dropping out of the race in the present and seemingly super divorced and sad in the future. He's sleeping on the couch, having pointed flashbacks to his college visit in Washington D.C. with his dad, their cross-cutting conversations about being a good person, Randall's aspirations and balancing one's ambitions haunting his modern day marital struggles.

Things healing look far out of the question as well, especially after Randall blurts out during a fight that Beth's basically just jealous that he's found something he's passionate about and she has nothing. Yup, would not place bets on things improving at the homestead.

All of this, and he's still 10 points behind Saul Brown in the early polls – though Jae-won finds something that might finally turn the tide: Saul Brown got pegged for drunk driving but had the case disappear under shady circumstances. It's a big get – but also, for Randall, feels like a sellout, winning the race not on values but on political scheming. He's emotionally split – and to make matters worse, the local bakery sold the last blueberry pie on New Year's! Beth can handle a lot of heartbreak ... but no New Year's blueberry pie? Just get the divorce papers right then and there.

Luckily, he runs into the local pastor at the counter – and even more luckily, the pastor's in the mood to hear one of Randall's now patented "This Is Us" speeches. He really does spend a lot of time monologuing about things (in this case, the pressure to be a good person and what to do with his newly found political ammunition) which would be more of a problem if Sterling K. Brown didn't kill each and every one, every time.

Sure, it's getting to be a bit much, but it's also pretty delightful – especially when the scene ends with the pastor gifting Randall his box of blueberry pie. THE MARRIAGE IS SAVED! But actually, another speech later, and things are hunky-dory back at the Pearson household, with Randall slowing his campaign roll to watch "Fuller House" with the kids. (Ugh, really Randall? "Fuller House"? How embarrassing.)

Even Randall and Beth seem to have healed (this is why I'm not a betting man!) after another speech, this time from Beth about a shoe-shopping trip early on in their relationship. He now has his priorities back in line, she's back on his team and even the pastor delivers a crowded Sunday homily that gives Randall the a-OK. (But pastor, maybe next time we stick to religious matters from the pulpit instead of politics? Separation of church and state, please!)

And just in case you thought the good news couldn't get any better, Randall ends up winning the race. Or at least until the voters find out about his "Fuller House" viewing habits. That's definitely an impeachable offense, I'd say.

It'll be interesting to see how we go from this reunion and success to the seemingly fractured family we see in the future – but impressive props to "This Is Us" for getting me to be happy about Randall winning. He'd been such a frankly self-absorbed pinhead over the first chunk of the season that I was afraid his win would feel like a phyrric victory at best for the character, an undeserved blind happiness at worst. But they managed to have their cake and eat it too, forcing Randall to own up to his narrow-focused attitudes while also getting the win.

While Randall's the main focus of this return episode, Kate mostly draws the short straw. Toby and her are prepping for their baby, which means taking Toby's toy room out back, shooting it in the face and turning it into a nursery for the child. Toby's not exactly pumped but willing to make the change ... until Kate inadvertently sells off his prized original "Star Wars" figurines. I mean, that sucks – but it's definitely not on par with Randall's campaign for office and Kevin's worldwide search for their long-lost presumed dead uncle in terms of importance. The show must agree, because it spends the least amount of time here – so much so you could easily forget that Kate has a storyline this episode.

Apparently the show forgot that Kate also is heading back to college – or at least didn't bother showing the audience any of that. As a part of Kate's attempt to get the action figures back, she visits the classmate she sold them to, who's in the midst of a wicked kegger. It's weird that THIS is the only part of her return to school we see, but at least it delivers a strong scene: Kate doing her best Randall impression and speeching at the classmate, using her status as a pregnant woman who's lost her father and all her childhood belongings in a fire as darkly funny leverage.

It's a fun, classic "This Is Us" moment: funny and sad at the same time. (Metz does a great balancing act, finding the humor in the bargaining while also the tragic humanity in her realizing she doesn't have childhood toys of her own to pass down to her child.)

Alas, it doesn't work because wormy college bros suck – but, in a very tidy turn of events, Kate happens to find another set of original toys on Ebay and just happens to have enough loose money to buy what are surely wildly expensive trinkets. It's cute ... but maybe a little too cute. Perhaps it's all worth it to hear Toby say, "A man knows his Chewbacca." OK, it's definitely worth it for the part where Toby returns the favor with a remade model of Three Rivers Stadium, just like the one Kate had as a child from her father that was lost in the blaze. Even the weak storyline stuck the landing this episode.

That brings us to Kevin, who we first see seemingly losing Zoe (WHYYY!?) and then being a John Stamos photo. (Uh ... why?) As it turns out, the two return home to Kev's apartment from Vietnam – emphasis on the word "home" as that's what Zoe calls it, encouraging Kevin to ask her about moving in with him. She says yes, gets a key (complete with a John Stamos photo keychain) and I, happy audience member, goes, "Aww!"

While the Stamos photo mystery is already solved, the quest to find Jack's brother is still in progress. Next step: the VA, which has information on Nicky but can't give it away to somebody who's not next of kin – and while Kevin tries using some "Game of Thrones"-related charm to get what he wants, he gets swatted away by better "GoT" references. That's what you get for not being a true fan, Kev. Also: I would definitely watch a show about the VA info desk lady.

Thankfully, there is a door number two: get a politician to write a letter, lean on the VA and get the info for them. And it just happens that Zoe briefly dated a congressman before things went their course. Unfortunately, at the meeting with the politician, we discover "briefly" actually means "two years," and "things went their course" translates to "she broke up with him via email after saying they'd move in together."

That's Winterfell-level cold. (That reference is for you, VA Lady.) And now her cold feet from the past is giving Kevin cold feet in the present, wondering if that explains why she hasn't unpacked her boxes yet. Cue some angry, misguided words, and we've got Zoe handing John Stamos back to Kevin at the election night shindig.

Thankfully, this otherwise sweet episode finds a happy ending for these two, as Zoe quickly tracks a dismayed Kevin back down and explains that her awful past of abuse at the hands of her repulsive father (which I am sure we'll find out more about in a Zoe solo episode this half-season) damaged any peace of mind she could ever have. No place is safe for her – but she wants to try to make one with Kevin. She ends her speech with one final plea: "I want John Stamos back." Don't we all, Zoe. Don't we all.

That wraps an impressive return for "This Is Us," surprisingly not going the safe route with an episode dedicated to merely putting pieces back on the board and actually moving characters in new directions right off the bat. Sure, some of its plot machinations were a little tidy (I didn't even mention that Kevin and Zoe find a letter ... somewhere that happens to have an address for Nicky. Well that's convenient; who needed to go to Vietnam after all?!) and, of course, I could always use more time to develop these storylines. But it's hard to complain when each chapter still delivered a sweet bit of "aww" to start the season.

The only unforgivable bit? Making we watch even just two seconds of "Fuller House." Otherwise, this episode was warm, pleasant and welcome like booberry pie on New Year's.

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