5 takeaways from a Thanksgiving feast of a "This Is Us" fall finale
Thanksgiving came early on "This Is Us" this week, as the hit NBC drama served up an hour that was basically Turkey Day in television form: overstuffed and filled with the occasional unnecessary drama but, in the end, very satisfying. All that was missing was the tryptophan nap afterwards!
But there's no time for napping considering how much happened during "So Long, Marianne" on Tuesday night. So let's break down the five big takeaways from the last episode of "This Is Us" for a good while – well, after we watch "Police Academy 3."
1. Welp, that was an eventful final five minutes
For most of Tuesday night's episode, I thought "So Long, Marianne" was a mixed bag – some good, some bad, some Toby and Kate somehow still grumbling about mashed-up avocado. But then the show began to stick the landing on most of its subplots – and then the final five minutes happened, jumping nine months into the future (that's right; ANOTHER timeline to keep track of) to the Big Three's 40th birthday and dropping several of the big twists and reveals that it'd been holding close to the vest over the course of this otherwise fairly low-key season.
For instance, we knew Kevin had a little boy in the future thanks to last season's finale, but now we know he has a fiancée – and that she's going to be a part of the story much sooner rather than later, as she's apparently lying down offscreen at this 40th birthday party Pearson shindig just nine months after Thanksgiving, where Kevin decided that his next life goal would be to start a family. Kevin apparently moves fast! (Also: It's definitely either Sophie or Cassidy, correct?)
But the most important twist involving Kevin in the near future: Apparently he and Randall aren't talking? Rebecca asks where Randall is, and Kevin very curtly replies that they're not talking to each other any more. So, uh, that sucks! I assume it has something to do with Randall withholding information about Rebecca's deteriorating mental state, since Randall's the only one who knows in the present, and that Kevin takes offense to keeping that a secret and not letting Kevin or Kate help or spend time with their mother while she's still fully their mother. Thankfully, we can somewhat assume the two forgive and forget at some point since they're both at the big far-off future gathering and seemingly pleasant about it – but that's also seems like a few decades (and multiple shades of grey hair on Randall) away. So how long are these two going to be giving each other the silent treatment? It seems like this is going to be a bigger fight than that brief tiff they had at Kevin's war movie premiere. (Not hard since that lasted about two minutes.)
Oh, and speaking of Rebecca, she's the key to the big final reveal. For most of the episode, she's meandering around the city, thinking she's seeing William at a playground, forgetting which aisle she's going to at the supermarket before forgetting her cell phone (again!) at the checkout, getting into a panic at a Chinese restaurant when she realizes she's lost her phone and then requiring a police escort to drive her back home since she has no other way to contact Randall or the rest of the kids.
At first, it feels maybe a bit ridiculous that Rebecca's mental state has regressed SO much in seemingly a single episode, going from mildly forgetful to almost entirely incapable of remembering things beyond 30 seconds ... but then the episode reveals that she's not ambling around on Thanksgiving in the present. Sure, she forgot what movie she was going to see midway through the "Cats" trailer (in fairness, I too suffer debilitating mental trauma and memory loss due to the "Cats" trailer) but she's still Rebecca and still able to pretend all is normal, even if she finally admits to Randall, and herself, at the end of the episode that she's not well.
Instead, all of her confused touring around the city was nine months in the future preparing for the birthday party, where everyone knows she's fighting Alzheimer's and is getting used to Rebecca's sad, difficult new reality. What a sneaky and crafty little twist – and all very well performed by Mandy Moore, who hits the confusion notes right but also, even more important and moving, the tenuous grasp on her character's dignity, the denial behind the eyes and quiet humiliation that doesn't want to accept (or maybe can't even accept) that her mind is fading, stressfully gripping to whatever former normalcy she has remaining.
So yeah, other than all of that, pretty uneventful episode on Tuesday night – and that was all just the last few minutes.
2. I'm not crying about shrimp cocktail; YOU'RE crying about shrimp cocktail
For a show that singlehandedly boosted stock in Kleenex, it's been a tear drought this season on "This Is Us." That came to an end Tuesday night – and it came thanks, at least in part, to shrimp cocktail. I did not see that coming.
This week's flashback open went WAY back – back to the days of Kid Jack and Kid Nicky, drinking pop in the basement on Thanksgiving to listen to the football game and, more importantly, to avoid their drunken father's temper. Years later, Jack saves a pre-Vietnam Nicky from another drunken, abusive holiday to run off to a bar and watch the football game – one that Nicky put a lucky bet on and scored a hefty payday. Their celebration of choice? A fancy dinner, complete with a five-pound shrimp cocktail that's more like a bathtub decorated in crustaceans.
Of course, adult Nicky's not thinking of this when he arrives for his first Thanksgiving back with the Pearson clan. He instead sees the glowing photos of Jack and his family in Randall's house and sees the brother who cast him out, letting him be forgotten. So obviously, he takes the first chance to get out of there, which happens to be a road trip with Randall and Annie to snag a box they left at the old house, filled with holiday decorations, memorabilia and a CD case filled with Randall's old mixes and favorite songs.
On the way back home, Randall pops in one of the CDs and jumps to a tune: the Leonard Cohen song that gave the episode its name, "So Long, Marianne." It'd be a perfectly fitting song even without context – singing about people moving on from others while keeping them in their minds, a common theme in the episode as people learn to move on with the past still with them. But it's also one that Nicky taught Jack to appreciate as poetry years upon years ago – a song that Jack then taught Randall using the exact words and thoughts Nicky preached in the past. As the song says, while Jack was giving Nicky away, he was calling him back in the same breath, moving on and remembering at the same time – a realization that causes Nicky, and any audience member with a soul, to cry.
It's a great, melancholy and lovely moment that inspires Nicky to bring a new tradition back from the past to the Pearsons' Thanksgiving feast: five pounds of shrimp cocktail from that final happy holiday with Jack. And in a quick flash-forward to the far-off future, it's a tradition that sticks as Grown-Up Little Jack puts out five pounds of shrimp on his family's Thanksgiving table. Nicky may have taken a while to find his way back to the Pearson clan, but he still left his happy fingerprint on the family's memory.
The episode ends with Nicky telling Kevin that he's ready for life now on his own, which seems like we're saying goodbye to Griffin Dunne's Nicky on "This Is Us." If that is the case, he'll be sorely missed.
3. A big Thanksgiving for Randall's kids
While Randall was focused on Rebecca's mental health, worried about where she went, his kids were having a stressful Thanksgiving all their own. Because the most important and common side dish at Thanksgiving is elevated blood pressure.
First, there's Tess, who's still trying to navigate her sexuality in a new school with new friends. Today's drama comes in the form of a popular meme making the rounds, asking who's your celebrity crush. Tess wants to say Zendaya, but that would be coming out of the closet, something she's not sure how her classmates would respond to. Now, if I'm being nitpicky, this feels a little "hello fellow kids"-esque. Nobody really reads that deeply into meme responses (plus, who DOESN'T have a celebrity crush on Zendaya regardless of sexual preference? Like Bearded Captain America in "Infinity War," some celebs' attractiveness just destroys defined sexual preferences), nor does participation in a meme feel so necessary that you HAVE to respond. There was likely a way to make this move toward coming out feel a little more authentic, but it likely required a little more nuance and, more importantly, more time in the episode to articulate the struggle of being yourself or staying hidden in an online world. Then again, teens blow stuff out of proportion anyways, so maybe it's right on the money.
Anyways, it works well enough to get us to our destination: Kevin helping Tess out by using his AA lessons – taking things one person and one action at a time – and encouraging Tess to come out to an unseen stranger. In their case, it's a clown-shaped fast food voice box. Probably could've gone to a place without clowns if you truly wanted her to relax – but no matter, it works as Tess anxiously announces that she's gay and nothing bad happens, only a massive weight lifted off her shoulders. (I was waiting for the reveal that she knew the person working the drive-thru; thankfully it never came.) That opens up the dam for Tess, who posts that Zendaya is her celebrity crush and receives deserved congratulations from her friends for coming out. Another happy customer, Clown-Shaped Fast Food Place!
But that's just one Pearson kid! We haven't even gotten to Deja, whose birthmother Shauna drops in for Thanksgiving. Because we haven't gotten enough of awkward family meals yet this season. But things are actually great, as Shauna arrives with a new job, a new apartment and a new sense of stability. At first, Beth's the one taken aback by the new and improved Shauna, ashamed to say that's annoyed she's doing so well and making her feel once again like "the other mother" who doesn't get the inside jokes they have. But Deja is eventually taken aback by this new version of her mom, too – a mom who suddenly loves football and who has her life back in line. As Deja tearfully and devastatingly tells Beth, "Why couldn't she have been like this for me?" It's a killer moment (Lyric Ross: still a great young actress!) with a lovely coda: Beth comforting Deja by having her talk about the dance video inside joke with Shauna that previously frustrated Beth. Again, like Nicky and the Leonard Cohen song preached, they're moving on and remembering in one breath.
And then the Thanksgiving meal ends up totally not awkward at all – the biggest twist of the entire episode! Finally – the Pearsons (and we the viewers) deserved a break from all the cringe lately.
4. We're really still fighting about mushed avocado, Toby and Kate?
Listen, when I said I wanted to see Toby and Kate have more to do in the story, "fighting about mushed avocado" was not what I had in mind.
Amazingly, MushedAvocadoGate extended into a second episode, with Kate finally breaking the DEVASTATING news to Toby that he didn't actually witness Little Jack eat his first solid food. Again, I'm not a parent so maybe I'm so far off base I'm not even on the diamond ... but is first solid food really such a parenting landmark that it requires this amount of strain? And plus, it was a total accident; Little Jack was hungry, and Gregory the next door neighbor didn't know about the apparently intense meaning of feeding the baby. There was no malicious intent involved. As Kate notes, is she supposed to push the baby down if it takes his first steps without Toby around? Amazingly, this little tantrum might be the most annoying Toby's ever been (and Kate too for withholding this information for no real reason) – a fault of the writing trying to find drama instead of just letting it come naturally in the story and characters.
Thankfully, things evolve as the episode goes along, and a real reason for a rift between Toby and Kate emerges, subtly when they first arrive at Thanksgiving at Randall's with matching passive aggressive barbs for each other – him about the damned mushed avocado, her about his tempeh – and then out loud during a well-done "evil thoughts" venting session between Kate and Beth. While Beth complains about how well Shauna's doing and how much she's concerned that she's "the other mom," Kate finally says what's been trickling out over this first half of the season: She's annoyed not only that Toby's become a different person – Crossfit Toby – but that he achieved the goal she wanted, to get healthier and skinnier, while leaving her behind. While she's stressed out and constantly worrying about Little Jack, Toby's taking time for himself and achieving goals that she wanted and he seemingly never did.
It's a fair, real and admittedly well-earned emotional moment for Kate in a season characterized by false plot beats – and thankfully, just finally venting about her annoyances seems to be enough for her as, instead of confronting Toby about her problems, she sees how happy and wonderful Toby is with Little Jack and decides against bringing it up. Oh, and also it's Thanksgiving ... so maybe not the right time to dredge up growing resentments? Anyways, yay for love surviving.
OR DOES IT!? Just when it seems things might comfortably blow over, Kate grabs Toby's phone to take a photo of him and Little Jack in a pilgrim hat, and sees a group chat involving Toby complaining about how Kate's making him feel and a mystery crossfit friend (a female one possibly, too, if I saw the screen name right) comforting him to not let Kate bring him down. So ... that's bad. If you're flashing back to last season's finale, featuring a dour Toby arriving alone to the house, you are not alone! And if you're thinking, "I don't remember seeing Toby at the party nine months in the future," you are still not alone!
In conclusion: Feeding your babies avocados ruins relationships. Ban avocados.
5. "This Is Us," where do you think you're going?
Oh man, so much happened this week on "This Is Us"! I can't wait to see what happens next ... year?
Indeed, although we should've all seen it coming – especially considering how much ground was being covered on Tuesday night and how many plot threads were being tied up or pulled in clear directions ... and also just by looking at the calendar – last night was surprisingly the fall finale, meaning we won't check back in on the Pearsons until January.
So, season four so far. It's been a peculiar season, as unlike past years, year four hasn't had an obvious hook to pull through the entire run. Season one was unpeeling Jack Pearson's persona, season two focused on his death, season three introduced Randall's political campaign and Jack's Vietnam experience, and season four thus far ... has pleasantly just kind of hung around with the Pearsons. Which is not a complaint! As I always note, I find the show's much better when it's not rushing through plot points and character beats, instead letting the characters' often complex emotions and dramas marinate, develop and deepen. The show earned much of its early buzz and acclaim over the years thanks to twists, reveals and intense emotional manipulation, so it's been actually nice to see "This Is Us" rely less on theatrics and more on its exceptional cast, its rich characters and its thoughtful time-hopping storytelling structure.
After hanging out for the first chunk of the season, though, the plot seems to have finally set its hooks for the rest of year four. What caused Randall and Kevin's falling out? Who's Kevin's fiancee? What will happen between Kate and Toby – and what actually happened in the past between Kate and music store boyfriend Marc? And, the most pressing matter of the season, how will Rebecca and the family cope with her escalating Alzheimer's – now, nine months from now and far off in the future?
We'll have all of that to parse through come January. In the meantime, we have five pounds of shrimp to eat.
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