"This Is Us" recap: NBC's family drama returns with one of its best moments yet
We should've known Tuesday night's mid-season premiere of "This Is Us" was going to be a tough watch when the first shot was the Pearsons playing Monopoly. Nothing good ever comes from playing Monopoly. Someone's guaranteed to cry – though I guess that could also be the motto for NBC's hit family drama.
The show returned to television with an episode that truly felt like a premiere in the best ways. The cast was brought pretty much entirely together, while new combinations of characters were sampled (The New Big Three!). Yes, there was a good amount of recapping but there was also opening up new avenues. And the show's writing was almost meta in how it brought up and confronted topics the fans have been discussing, or at least certainly thinking – like, yeah, it is weird Miguel married his best friend's wife or OH MY GOD, CAN WE PLEASE TALK ABOUT YOUR DAD AND HIS DEATH TOGETHER OR WE'LL NEVER MOVE ON ALREADY!?
But it mostly felt like a premiere episode because "The Fifth Wheel" was the show putting its best foot forward, resulting in one of its best episodes – or at least certainly one of its best scenes, a ten-minute raw and intense powerhouse family therapy sequence that finally picked at some of the Pearsons' biggest scabs (OK, not THAT scab but several other ones – and at least we sure got close, too).
Kevin is now in rehab, and the rest of the Pearsons are gathering together to visit him for the first time. Randall is trying to get Beth on the same page as him in terms of supporting Kevin – in between making fun of their babysitter's bland and lumpy brownies and just the best stage fall after discovering Tess prefers them over his – but she's still bitter about Kev taking Tess for a drunken joy ride, accidental or not. She didn't need any more reasons to not want to put up with Kevin well before he got cuffed right in front of their daughter, but she agrees to put on a good face – or at least not murder Kevin – because Randall and Beth are #relationshipgoals.
Meanwhile Kate and Toby (or KaToby) are prepping as well for their Kevin visit – with Toby behaving exceptionally more human than usual. He's amusing and funny but without his every line of dialogue made up of jokes and pop culture references. Is this Toby 2.0? I approve of Toby 2.0. He gets even less goofy when the Kitchen Garbage Bag of Fate rips open to reveal Kate's fallen off the weight-loss wagon, eating fried chicken and other junk food – and, most hurtful to Toby, hiding it from him.
But that will be a conversation for another time, as now it's about Kevin as everyone – including Rebecca and Miguel – gathers at the rehab clinic. Kate reminds everyone that Kevin might look grim after detoxing and facing demons, but in he walks, the big man on medical campus looking great and feeling even better, apologizing to his family with a little bow and prayer hands that Beth is NOT about. But just when things seem OK, Meredith Grey's mom from "Grey's Anatomy" walks in and reveals that this isn't just a polite family visit.
Uh oh. The Pearsons have to talk.
So while the satellite Pearsons are sent off (to a bar, ironically enough for a trip to a rehab facility) the Big Three and Rebecca sit down with Dr. Ellis Grey for therapy – and for one of the best scenes in the show's young but already impressive history, as the family's different perspectives and unvarnished feelings collide into one another. Kevin feels he was the forgotten child in the family – something Kate, Randall and Rebecca scoff at, but we see in flashbacks as the Pearsons make their maiden trip up to the cabin with Kevin arriving late to the party and then left alone while Rebecca reads with Randall and Jack tries to find the right way to discuss Kate's weight. Kevin always seemed confident enough on his own, so his parents never felt he needed the parental crutch the other two needed, but the result helped transform Kevin an addict – to alcohol, to attention, to needing to be loved.
As he points out, though, he's far from the only addict in the Pearson family tree. Jack obviously had his addiction demons, while Kate's been battling a food addiction of her own – one that probably has more than a little to do with her bond with her dad and his shocking death (which we are SO close to talking about here but just avoid, dammit). Randall, meanwhile, has had enough of Kevin, assuming this is all just a selfish attention grab from someone who had nowhere near the childhood traumas he had, but Kevin retorts with Randall's habit of plugging people into his life – first his biological father, then Deja – for his own sake without thinking of others. And to top off the family kerfuffle, Rebecca yells that, sure, maybe she loved Randall and Kate more than Kevin but at least they didn't leave her right after Jack died.
It's a hard sequence to sit through, but it's also one of the best written scenes the show's had so far, avoiding the glossy sentimentality and heavy-handedness for pure, crude, pent-up emotion and difficult painful conversation, digging up the trauma and hidden feelings that've been circling around this imperfect perfect family for a season and a half now. It wasn't easy watching, but there was something soothing about watching these obvious wounds finally open up and get some healing air.
Plus, the acting – always one of the strengths of "This Is Us" – finds new highs across the board. Coming off of his history-making win at the Golden Globes Sunday night, Brown shows he's still the program's best asset, in the fun moments (A-grade fake fall in the beginning) but namely in the drama, his empathetic but in the end empty "We're here for you, Kevin," slowly simmering into an anger that boils over as he hears more of what his brother has to say about his family. There's a few shots of him merely listening in the therapy session, and you can see the gears churning, steaming and eventually snapping. His great performance isn't just in the big speeches and responses, but how the audience sees him emotionally and silently build to them.
But Crissy Metz is great here too, as well as Mandy Moore, painfully realizing that she accidentally hurt the people she loves most in ways she never knew. And I've been pretty hard on Justin Hartley and his character in these recaps, but I thought "The Fifth Wheel" was some of his finest work – or at the least most relatable, as he frustratingly attempts to get his perspective across to those he cares about while they don't want to hear it. Across the board, it was some exceptionally well-done family drama.
But boy, who needs a breather after that? Thankfully, "This Is Us" also pops over to the interesting new combination of Beth, Toby and Miguel drinking their way through the Pearsons' rehab at a local bar. Unfortunately, it can't all be fun, though, as the self-proclaimed "New Big Three" begins airing their own grievances. Toby's still reeling from Kate's hidden junk food, bitter again that he feels untrusted and out of the loop. Being Toby, he uses "Star Wars" to make his point, saying it feels like this great big adventure but really it's all just a small family squabble. Do ... I love Toby now? What were your thoughts on "The Last Jedi"?! DID YOU LOVE IT LIKE I DID?! Then Miguel talks about how he has to cope with being the awkward unspoken drama of the family, a guy who married his dead best friend's wife.
Meanwhile, Beth starting to wonder how much everyone's been drinking. Looks like we're Uber-ing back to rehab!
But anyways, back to the Pearsons. After the vents are opened and the session closes, the Big Three comes back together looking over a lovely lake. Randall wishes their childhood was all filmed and objectively captured like "Boyhood" (because of course Randall is the only one who saw "Boyhood"). Or perhaps like some drama on a major television network. He then talks about getting his glasses for the first time (oh yeah, his glasses get an origin story, which is: He couldn't see, so he got glasses), putting his eyes against the refractor and seeing the world though dozens of new, before-unknown perspectives – and how their therapy session was exactly that. Everyone apologizes to everyone, and they laugh while pushing Randall off the park bench.
Yes, it wraps up a little tidy, but there was something refreshing about watching all this weight lift off these peoples' chests and into the open air – especially when it was as well written and performed as it was. It was a little like therapy for viewers too, releasing the thoughts we've had about the show over its tenure – and hopefully moving "This Is Us" toward some closure (especially with THAT topic).
"This Is Us" sadness rankings
"The Fifth Wheel" was more about raw pain and intense confrontations – with others, with oneself – than this show's usual heart-tugging ways. But then Randall started delivering his speech at the end about getting his glasses. Sure, it's not a hugely original monologue device and a little contrived, but as one who also remembers getting glasses for the first time and realizing the world looked nothing like he thought it did, the speech hit me right in the feelings.
So overall, let's give this episode an Alex From "Orange Is The New Black" Wiping Tears Away From Under Her Glasses.
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