"This Is Us" keeps its GPA high with the jam-packed but powerful "The Graduates"
It's ironic that "This Is Us" is finally falling into a rhythm this season during a time when actually watching the damn show has had no rhythm at all.
Since the winter break, there's been two episodes, then two weeks off, then two more episodes, then another week off and now, finally, a stretch of regular episodes. Maybe if there was more consistency, I'd have remembered, oh that's right, Kate went back to school. And if you thought Becca and Jack looking at VHS cameras made you feel old, here's a real throwback: Kevin's war movie premiered THIS season. This isn't anything particularly unusual – last season, after all, had the Super Bowl double-episode week before the Olympics hiatus – but it has made a sprawling, messy season feel even more rambling.
And yet, despite all of that, the show's finally found its stride over these past few weeks – so much so that even an episode like Tuesday night's "The Graduates," featuring the kind of scattered and exceptionally busy plotting that typically makes for a rough watch, came together as both a single emotional episode and as a building block off of the previous hour.
When I say "The Graduates" was busy, I mean it was BUSY. There may not have even been room for the show's signature twinkly guitar strumming in between all of the plot developments and significant tectonic shifts that viewers have been waiting for much of the season.
Let's start with the Big Three and mainly Kevin and Kate, whose sibling connection gets a starring role in the episode. Kevin's fully relapsed after his failed attempt to bring Nicky back into the world – complete with a hotel room full of empty bottles and frantic lies about meetings that definitely haven't happened. So if there's one thing he definitely doesn't need right now, it's a party – but that's exactly what he's getting as Toby is throwing a graduation ceremony for Kate now that she's earned her final eight credits and her college diploma. And it wouldn't be a Kate event without Madison there creating a special cocktail: the Commence-Mint (aka ... a mojito).
That Kate's entire going back to school storyline took place off-screen tells you pretty much where her character's landed on the totem pole this season so far. Between Randall's political campaign and Kevin's Vietnam excursion, she's been mostly the third Pearson, more plot cog than person – take this week, for instance, where her school story is mostly a venue for Kevin and Becca's character work. I know it was just eight credits, but there had to have been SOMETHING to dig into with this development other than a place to keep her character busy until Considering where this episode leaves off, I'm intrigued where "This Is Us" will go next with her after seemingly not having the most ideas for her this season. (A half-formed thought: Have we seen her in the flash forwards?)
As with many things on "This Is Us," however, where sometimes the writing takes shortcuts, the performances hit every note right on – case in point with Kate and Kevin's brother-sister ESP. The two have a really nice and true familial on-screen chemistry together, but Hartley in particular plays his disappointment and shame well. His character's relapse offers plenty of pitfalls – playing drunk AND a big emotional breakdown are easy places to go over-the-top – but he avoids them all and creates a painfully sad, human character as not only Kate discovers his fall back into alcohol but he can't be there for her when her water breaks early and he's sitting in the passenger seat, too drunk to drive her to the hospital. Again, this season's remodeling act, turning Kevin from the most disposable plotline to one of the most grounded and thoughtful deserves some serious credit.
Meanwhile, just when you thought things with Randall and Beth were turning around, we get "The Graduates." Randall is panicking about their increasingly crazy schedules – and not only because the dark blue looks like purple in his color-coded calendar system – and to make matters worse, Deja's stormed out of school. As it turns out, her teacher liked her personal essay so much that she posted it online. Just one problem: It's a very personal essay about her time living with her mom out of their car, the teacher didn't ask permission and now Deja's classmates are calling her Pontiac because kids are nightmares. In a very classic "This Is Us" moment, Randall confronts the teacher about her decision, yet the scene nicely gives her some sympathy in the scene, a well-intended (and very young) teacher who let the work get ahead of the person behind it. I'll always appreciate the humanity "This Is Us" spreads out equally across even its smallest characters.
The most important part of this interaction, however, happens at the end, when the teacher breaks to Randall that Deja is an exceptional student – so much so, she and the rest of the teachers believe she should skip ahead to the ninth grade. Sterling K. Brown plays the proud parent so well, you can almost hear the teacher's words becoming music in Randall's ears – but Deja wants to pump the breaks. After a chaotic childhood, she's finally found a rhythm and a feeling of consistency; to skip grades would just upend the roots she's grown once again. Plus, she doesn't want to be someone's "narrative," a feel-good story instead of an actual person – something she saw happen to Randall in stories about his election, a kid left on a doorstep turned do-gooder politician of the people.
It's shame there's so much story for this episode to churn through because that's a fascinating point and character moment – how people turn complex experiences, typically for minorities, into bite-sized, feel-good, easy-to-digest stories, turning a person into an idol or a myth – and there's just not enough time to bring it more to the fore. But it's one of those moments that makes this show special despite its shortcomings, bringing up topics and thoughts that rarely make it to common conversation, much less a primetime television show.
All of Deja's swirling emotions and feelings, combined with Tess's recent coming out (remember that happened this season?), gets Randall thinking – and in this case, he thought wrong, as he pitches to Beth that she should stop teaching dance for the sake of the family. It's a killer gut punch – especially building off the previous Beth-centric episode that brought her journey back to dance so such heartfelt, earned life. Suddenly you remember this ends in the future with Randall looking gray and gloomy, while Beth grimly looks over a dance class. The future: not looking bright!
So yeah ... all of that happened this week and I haven't even gotten to Rebecca, who had an emotional week as well – and most importantly, dropped an F-word! OK, it was friggin' not the actual F-word. (Damn FCC and NBC; if you can show "Hannibal" on TV, you should be able to drop the occasional greasy F-bomb.) But good for her! LET LOOSE, BECCA!
Non-profane profanities aside, Mandy Moore had quite the heavy week, as Kate's college graduation sends this episode flashing back to the the Big Three's high school graduation – and the still painfully echoing aftermath of Jack's death. And as I'm coming to expect from one of the most surprisingly, consistently great actresses on network TV – especially considering the time-hopping and heavy-lifting the role requires – she's great in "The Graduates," from her wounded shock to being asked for the first time on a date since her husband's death to even just her silent weariness, surviving each day with loss suffocating her. As she notes, it takes all of her energy just to get out of bed, leaving her barely anything else for the rest of the day.
She finally reaches her snapping point, however, breaking down at the kids' graduation briefly before Miguel intervenes and again later, sitting alone shrouded in the darkness of her antiseptic temporary apartment and her own grief. It's a painful combination of scenes, beautifully and heartbreakingly acted by Moore, words and feelings more bubbling out of her depression-suffocated self than merely said. But it's a first step for her – one she needed to take the time to get to, much like how Kate needed to take her time to finish her school and become a mother.
And it's this idea of recovery, of people moving forward and back, all at their own paces, that unites an episode that otherwise could've been just another cluttered episode from the first half of the seasons. Deja, Becca, Kate: They all need to move at their own pace, to process, to realize their emotional state for better or worse and to move forward at the speed that they can. Even Kevin has to come to that realization, recognizing recovery is a marathon not a sprint – and the finish line is cruelly always moving. And while he tries to control and deny his setback by withholding the relapse from the family outside Kate, well, life forces his alcoholism back into the light when Kate's water breaks.
Because everyone moves at their own speed – but so does life, carrying on at its own uncaring rhythm. Much like this season of "This Is Us."
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