In Movies & TV Reviews

Kate goes under the knife in Tuesday night's episode of "This Is Us."

"This Is Us" figures why settle for one Kate when you could have three of them

Ostensibly, Tuesday night's episode of "This Is Us" was a Kate-focused story. After all, the hour was called "Katie Girls," featuring not one but three Kates talking and interacting with one another while she was under the knife for her very risky surgery. Hell, she could've died during last night's episode or at least been stuck in a long medically-induced sleep for a distressing amount of time.

And yet you would be forgiven for forgetting Kate's plot line altogether Tuesday night, because once again the episode was just a little overstuffed and cramped, trying to push every storyline and character into the spotlight when maybe one, two or even three – the Big Three, to be specific – could've left a bigger impact. "This Is Us" hasn't quite found its footing in season three, and while it still has plenty of time to hit its stride and create some classic moments, "Katie Girls" felt like a missed opportunity to deliver one, settling for telling several scattered B stories instead of honing in on an A story.

So about Kate. After Kevin's premiere, Kate's quickly headed toward her big IVF surgery, and while she's been confident about her choice throughout the process, she's suddenly nervous now that going under the knife is here. And Kevin and Randall aren't helping things by sending big bouquets of flowers and shooting over emotional phone calls, aka the kind of stuff you do when you're not sure if you'll see somebody again. But they've committed this far, and Kate wants this baby, so cue the doctors and the anesthesia, we're going under.

While we're under, Kate wanders into a dream hospital with a very special friend: Kate. All the other Kates, actually – happy child Kate as well as sulky teen Kate, who as the figurehead of all of Kate's self-doubt and self-anger and lack of confidence, is convinced that Kate should not be having this baby. (If anything, the sequence is a great reminder that whoever casts "This Is Us" has done a great job, as all the Kates are great actresses, and they look and feel perfectly in line with one another.)

We barely get any time with the three Kates, however, before the real guest of honor shows up: Jack, taking all three girls out for ice cream and being his usual warm, comforting self – so much so Kate feels like she could stay in this dream forever, which would be a real bummer for Toby sitting in the hospital lobby, waiting for his wife to emerge from her coma. Eventually, Kate realizes that instead of lingering in the past, she wants to move forward and wakes up to a successful surgery, a glowing Toby and eight eggs waiting to be baby-fied.

It feels like this should be a massive moment for Kate – never mind almost potentially falling into a coma and dying, as she's confronted by her dreams and demons, eventually choosing the future rather than allowing herself to get stuck in the past that's haunted her for most of two seasons and three episodes. And yet it feels weirdly sidelined in its own episode. We don't get nearly enough time in the dream to get connected to it and truly feel her pull and emotional tension, making her final decision – a painful and powerful choice – feel somewhat rote, a storytelling gimmick rather than a serious step for her character. I should be sobbing here; it's not like "This Is Us" to leave tears on the table.

Also there when she wakes up is Randall, who we last saw stewing in his seat at Kevin's movie premiere after hearing that Kate believes she's the only one who can pass along a piece of Jack. He bubbles over after the movie – and after drying his eyes because, surprising no one, he cried his face off – and confronts her about her risky choice and dismissing adoption as a choice, to which she rightly snaps back that it is, indeed, her choice. She wants a baby and hearing a couple that's been able to have them, who had the luxury to choose adoption rather then be forced into it, is not helpful.

Of course, later on, Randall realizes the error of his ways – with the help of Beth and her group text with "the others," where everyone puts their complaints about how messed up the Pearson clan is and Miguel provides guidance. (And also funny GIFs.) It's a little underwhelming that a moment that felt so big last week – Randall's identity crisis topped by Kate's admittedly careless comment – gets wrapped up so quickly, but then again, that's also how siblings fight. So he calls a distracted Kate – but that's not enough for Randall, so he flies across the country to be there when she wakes up to pass along his apologies and well wishes. As Kate sweetly notes, it's the most Jack move possible – proof that he's keeping a part of their father alive.

It can't all be sweet for Randall's storyline, however. Chichi's daughter gets beaten up badly walking down the unlit streets by the rec center from last week, and after getting rebuffed once again by the councilman in charge, Randall decides the best way to force the politician to make change is to become the politician making the change. That's right: Mr. Pearson is going to Washington. (Or at least Pittsburgh City Hall.) There's just one hangup: Beth just got unceremoniously fired. Some big time conversations are headed to that household – and some old ones are ringing clearly now, mainly one flashback between William and Beth where he compares relationships to jazz, where one person may be the bass, the roots, while the other gets to be the soloist and explore. And it looks like it's Beth's turn to be the soloist.

Meanwhile, yet again, Kevin feels a bit like an afterthought this week – even though this episode gives him some meaty material that deserves some attention. After receiving wild praise on his new movie (even Beth says he's a movie star, so you know it's legit), it's time for the press tour, starting with an interview with NPR's Terry Gross – who, unbeknownst to Kevin, is a woman. Focus, Kev.

The interview gets awkward, however, when he's asked about his father's service and he realizes he knows nothing about that part of Jack's life – and that he never even asked. He can remember a toy store incident where Jack sternly told him to stop playing war, but after that, he dropped the subject – a kid understandably just taking it as a parent being a parent instead of anything deeper. So he and Zoe begin a quest to find out more, which involves making one of those clue bulletin boards that detective shows love (complete with "VIETNAM" written up top in case they forget their prompt) and emailing veterans from Jack's troop that may still be alive – and one still is.

Sure, this is more set-up than story – and I would've again loved more time with Kevin coming to terms with discovering another layer to his father – but at least the Big Three storylines have a nice thematic through line of each character keeping Jack alive in their own ways: Kevin learning about his war days, Randall wanting to be the change his father would want him to be in the world and Kate with her baby, moving on from the past to the future.

But while Kate is making her way forward from the past, "This Is Us" still wants to stick around, including a flashback storyline about Rebecca's tough choice to either go with Jack or the season premiere's mystery man at the doorstep.

He turns out to be an old relationship from her high school days, a nice guy who supported her when she boldly went into shop class rather than chuckling at her. Now, however, he has dreams for her – or rather to be with her. While she wants to drive out to L.A. to pursue her singing, he thinks she should marry him and fly out to New York City with him. Obviously she ends up sticking with Jack, because he cares about her, cares about the women in his life – he spends most of the flashback getting his mother out of their abusive home – and cares about her dreams. And also because Jack grows a much better mustache than her old high school flame.

There's a nice, bittersweet story in these flashbacks about dreams and compromise – and especially how traditional gender roles play into who gets the former and who gets the latter. (Good to see a female writer and director for this week's episode.) Rebecca grew up seeing her mother have to play house for her husband, to be locked into the rhythm of the wives rulebook, and she experiences that again talking with her (very brief) fiancee's mother – played by the great Jane Kaczmarek from "Malcolm in the Middle," who is terrific in her big speech here, a grit under her voice that cuts through any sentimentality and gets at the heartbreak and acceptance buried under her conventionally happy life. She wanted to be a scientist but had to compromise thanks to the pressures of the time – to be an English student instead of following her passion for science, to marry a man she didn't whole-heartedly love but who respected her independence enough to give her an ounce of freedom.

It's a thoughtful storyline – and there's even a little bit of it in the modern scenes, as Toby and Randall talk briefly in the waiting room about being men and withholding emotions and Beth now realizing its her turn for a crisis while Randall takes one for the team. But it's also unfortunately in battle for screen time with the Big Three's various adult dramas – and in the end, they all kind of lose, none hitting with the impact they could if they just had a few more moments to really grow the emotions and let the impact settle in.

As the episode teaches, compromise is a part of life – both wonderful and unfortunate – and it's also a part of "This Is Us," characters and ideas having to make room for the other six or seven interwoven into each hour. When they all tie together, it's the former; when they don't, it's the latter. This crowded season's been mostly the second option – but perhaps next week's episode, which appears to finally give me the zeroed-in, focused solo story I've been craving, will offer some brief peace from the combating storylines. Then again, it's headed to Vietnam, so more war is guaranteed.

"This Is Us" tears rating

Again, all of the bouncing plot lines meant little hit me that hard this week. But I'm always a sucker for people being decent and honest and forgiving to others on screen. It's the Kryptonite to my cold dastardly critic's heart, so when Kate and Randall had their moment after the surgery, combined with Kaczmarek's truly great speech, my eyes got a little dusty. "This Is Us" has yet to pull any tears out of me yet this season, but we're getting closer. So I give this episode an Adorable Big-Eyed Lemur.

So, like, a 2.5 out of 10.


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