"This Is Us" recap: All things must pass in the Randall-centric fall finale
I will miss Deja (oh, uh, spoiler alert?), but most of all, I will miss these solo Pearson episodes of "This Is Us." These last three episodes were some of my favorites of the year, giving time to really focus and dig into our Pearsons instead of having to bounce around from character to character, timeline to timeline (Kevin, even if I still don't love his character, was the biggest beneficiary of this, opening him up to more understanding if not sympathy). It'll be hard to return back to our heavily diced-up storytelling ways; at least I've got a month to prepare.
And at least I've got "Number Three" to ruminate on during that time, the predictably beautiful, Randall-centric episode that managed that impressive feat of not going full melodrama, instead going for nuance and deft, low-key emotions, but still playing havoc on one's tear ducts. As George Harrison delicately plucks away in the middle of the episode, all things – whether it's Deja's time with the Pearsons, William's ambitions to be in Randall's life as a child, Jack letting Randall go to Howard instead of Harvard, Jack finally telling someone about Vietnam, even Pac-Man – must pass away.
Well, maybe not ALL things – especially that BIG thing. We're unfortunately still stuck on that big thing.
Anyways, in adult Randall's timeline – who, it goes without saying, walked in the intro baby clip but then also started talking before everyone else; he probably could've read the business section of the Pittsburgh Press-Gazette, too – he is just the CORNIEST dad. You're lucky you're performed by Sterling K. Brown and therefore charming as hell, because that Bluetooth joke was damn near Toby-esque.
Now that Deja has accustomed to the family, Randall and company are getting ready for another Thanksgiving – complete with "Police Academy 4" – when there's a commotion right outside their door. Deja's mom, Shauna, is out of prison – and she wants Deja back. Randall and Beth don't take kindly to her visit, but luckily Deja settles everyone down, calming down Shauna by telling her to go through the proper channels and shocking her into submission with her sweet new hairdo.
As the tension-filled looks between Randall, Beth and Shauna show, however, and the tension young Deja clearly feels inside (I will miss Lyric Ross, yet another terrific actor "This Is Us" wrangled up) caught between two families, this fight isn't over yet.
The next day just confirms that, as Randall and Beth berate social worker Eric's mom from "That 70's Show" Linda about how she showed up – and she could possibly have the right to Deja after all she's done. Linda notes that she is her mother and that she is improving; her apartment is clean, and her refrigerator is full of food. But their home and their fridge, Randall and Beth counter, is ALWAYS that way, not just when social workers come knocking to check. By the end, Linda still plans to give Deja back to her rightful mother, but Randall and Beth won't let that go sitting down; they're speaking with their lawyer about keeping Deja and, after the previous night's altercation, they think they've got enough to win.
Scenes like this nicely demonstrate why Randall's storyline is just so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the show's plot lines. While some rely on melodrama – looking at you, Kevin's drug addiction – this moment is no obvious heart-tugging, but instead just tough, tricky life moments played with nuance and humanity, both beautiful and flawed. It also, of course, helps having an actor like Sterling K. Brown, who can pull off the dorkiest jokes in one scene and then come back five minutes later with a scene like this of power, poise and emotional potency.
After dropping Deja off at school the next day, Randall has second thoughts about their approach with Shauna – fueled by a VERY convenient flashback to a conversation between Randall and William on their camping trip last season. But just because it's super dramatically convenient (never going to complain about more Ron Cephas Jones!) doesn't mean it's not emotionally powerful, as William tells of how he followed Rebecca home after one of their very short meetings and intended to knock on their door, imagining himself playing a role in Randall's life in a lovely little montage of William watching Randall grow up.
It was a small detail that made him stop: the kids' bikes, with their special nickname license plates. There, he realized he knew nothing of Randall's actual life, that he'd be knocking Randall's spinning world off its axis for his own selfish benefit. Who was he to invade the life he already had?
The teen Randall flashbacks also tell a story of parents letting go and the effect of the environments you grow up in, as Randall and Jack head off to visit colleges – not Harvard, as Jack is very eager about, but Howard. There, surrounded by black people in a way he's never felt before, Randall feels like he's able to breathe and that he's not alone, that life won't be completely harder for him as an outsider all the time. The only time there's a hesitation is when Jack comes over to his new Howard touring friends and Randall stops before introducing him as his dad.
It's a millisecond, but it's still felt by both Randall and Jack, as the two talk about it on the drive home – again, not in a melodramatic "this is where we talk about race in America" way but in a two caring characters being honest with one another way. Unsurprisingly, the episode comes written by a black man, Shukree Hassan Tilghman (also a writer on "Number Two"), and therefore the feelings and complex emotions ring of authenticity and not like fake, prepackaged discussion points. The result, similar to last week's Kate episode, is more affecting than all-out emotional, a father and son honestly talking about how they experience the world they live in and trying to communicate that complicated struggle to one another.
Jack, as that golden father we know, hears Randall's words and takes him to the Vietnam Memorial, sharing his story of how he also felt "off-balance" returning home from the war, that he eventually found his footing only to lose it again – but that's life. It's a strong moment, though I'm sure we'll fill in more of that actual Vietnam backstory when we come back for season two, part two. In the meantime, teen Kevin's knee just exploded, so it's time to head back home.
And it's time to head back to modern day, where Randall – and Beth, on her own – agree that they can't take Deja away from the life she's already started. Her life was already spinning before them – complete with great nicknames – and like William before, who are they to knock that off its axis completely. Randall also starts in on some VERY odd Pac-Man speech – something about ghosts and game boards repeating itself – but thankfully I got to catch myself mid-eyeroll thanks to Beth jokingly puncturing the hell out of its melodramatic "meaningfulness." Don't try to get deep with Pac-Man.
Unfortunately, the laughs turn to tears as Deja packs up and heads out – and if Randall wells up, you sure as hell know the audience is going to well up too.
Even more unfortunate, though? That wasn't the end of the episode.
No, for the final ten minutes, "Number Three" tries to tie the three solo episodes together – and in the process awkwardly remembers that Kevin stopped by Randall's house and found out about both his siblings' lost children there. The show doesn't seem sure what to do with Kevin, but setting him down the road to get the DUI we've all been waiting for – complete with Tess, who snuck in, sobbing in the backseat. It's an odd twist and non-cliffhanger ending for the episode, very uncomfortably teasing that Kevin and Tess are going to get in an accident – over it all, Jack talks about kids falling into blind spots, so I spent the whole scene clenched as hell ready for the worst – before thankfully settling on a kind of weird shrug of an ending note.
Also: points off for reusing "child unexpectedly sits up in the backseat of a car" as a epis0de-closing surprise for the second time in just half a season. And more points removed for dragging out Jack's death for at least a little bit longer. These three solo episodes seemed built around getting to Jack's death – especially with focusing them all on a night when a fuse blew and the family had to turn to candles. It might say more about how much we're ready to move on from this Sword of Damocles hanging over the show than how much it was actually foreshadowed these past three weeks, but either way, it's getting more distracting than engaging at this point.
Like George Harrison said, all things must pass – and hopefully that one does when we return in the new year.
This Is Sadness Rankings
"Number Three" wasn't quite the deluge that last week's final 15 minutes provided (OH GOD HERE I GO AGAIN; GET THE COMPUTER RAIN DELAY TARP) but Randall's hour still offered plenty of opportunities for forming puddles – mainly Deja giving Randall, "my foster dad," a nod during her plant presentation. So it only seems fair to give it a Randall Has To Remove His Glasses Because Of Some Teary Eyes:
So, like, a six out of 10.
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