The return of "This Is Us" delivers a memory-focused episode to remember
"Ah, none of us really know our fathers."
No, it's not a line from "This Is Us" – it's actually an offhanded joke from comedian John Mulaney's latest standup special – but it might as well be the name of the NBC hit show, or at least the name of Monday night's return from mini-hiatus based on how much it came to mind. It's a quiet and reflective hour that contemplates what we choose to remember, the stories we tell ourselves versus the entire story and what we think we know about the people in our lives – including beloved patriarch Jack, who's life is still peeling away layers before his family's eyes decades after his death. And it says a lot about "Songbird Road: Part 2" that it can be such a thoughtful and emotional journey while also containing something as corny and sickly saccharine as a "sequin fight."
Last we checked, the Big Three saved adult Nicky from potentially killing himself after their visit to his ramshackled trailer. Kevin, realizing that his father abandoned his brother after their Vietnam experience and remember Jack's own advice to him, decides to take up the torch of helping Nicky, first snagging him a hotel room before hopefully plugging him into good veterans center to watch over him and get him back onto his feet. And in case all of that feels really heavy, here's something much lighter: Randall really likes Pringles. (Nice work, Pringles marketing department!)
Unfortunately, Kevin will have to carry that burden alone; in case you forgot – and the last episode kind of felt like it did – Randall has political office to take, not to mention a marriage and family still in the process of being saved, while Kate is pregnant, so they're heading back home. But before they do, they decide to quick stop off at their old house – or whatever is in their old house's place – to reminisce about sequin fights and "Pearson pizza." Now, a sequin fight is exactly what it sounds like: everybody chucking handfuls of little shimmering art discs at one another. It also sounds TERRIBLE. Those things must've been an absolute mother to pick up, they get in your hair and your mouth, and did I mention how you'd probably spend the next several years of your life picking up after it? That's all without mentioning that, in action, it seems a little on the cornball, cloyingly cheerful side of things.
Apparently, however, reality agrees. While revisiting their home – now occupied by an Indian family that was in the midst of their own bickering – Randall starts to remember everything else that happened that day: Jack was in an awful mood, likely battling a kind of depression coming off his visit with Nicky. And while he needs space, the kids keep getting in the way, escalating in Randall and Kate making a mess of sequins and art supplies in the living room and ordering a bizarre custom pizza. In a rage, he breaks a plate and yells at Kate – memories that, for so long, neither of them chose to remember. They only remember the positive, while the context of that day and the pain was lost to the pleasures.
First of all, having the Pearsons back together – or at least having a few of them teamed up together in the same place – is the best thing to happen to this season. For too long, there were too many separate storylines with not enough interplay between these charming performers. Chrissy Metz, Sterling K. Brown and Justin Hartley play off each other great, and Metz and Brown here do some really nice work unpacking their selective memories.
But most of all, this subplot is a beautiful, thoughtful little reflection on the memories we choose to keep and the stories we choose to tell – to others and to ourselves. In the end, "This Is Us" takes it as a tribute to Jack and his parenting, that, as Randall says, "You hope the good stuff sticks" in a life that'll be filled with ups and downs. Of course the episode gives Jack an out – as much as the show challenges what we and the Big Three know about him, it loves him just too much to really call him out too hard. But it's a nice and warmly earned emotional note, recognizing that, yes, he was flawed and battled a lot of demons he refused to share, but he also did his best to create the best lives possible for those he loved, to outweigh the bad with good. And sometimes that means having a god forsaken sequin fight.
Speaking of fights, Kevin just can't get Nicky to commit to a veterans center, grumbling at the location the younger Pearson found for him. Along the way, however, Kevin gets some assistance from Rebecca, finally meeting Jack's brother for the first time. It's a really wonderfully performed storyline – Hartley's Kevin getting frustrated his closure is so close yet so far, Mandy Moore's modern day Rebecca reassessing so much of what she thought she knew about Jack – in an episode far more quiet and contemplative than the NBC hit's typical big moments and melodramas.
During all of this, much like how Randall and Kate's memories reframed who Jack was in their minds, Rebecca flashes back to a time when her own ideas about somebody were reframed and reassessed. While young Randall and Kate were back home making a sequin-y nightmare, Kevin insisted on getting a baseball card signed by one of his favorite Pittsburgh Pirate pitchers. He seems like his usual bratty Young Kev self, nagging to go to the mall for the signing and refusing to get out of line, but Rebecca eventually discovers that he wasn't just going for his own selfish desires: Kevin actually went to sweetly tell the pitcher about some nice hotspots in Minnesota, where Kev knows he's rumored to be traded to sometime soon. It's a perfect character moment for Kevin – somebody who seems so aloof and self-involved but actually might have the largest heart of all the Pearsons, just as eager and willing to dive in and help another person as Randall so famously is, just maybe quieter about it.
Case in point: the modern day, where Kevin simply cannot cope with leaving Nicky to rot in his awful memories and even worse trailer. Rebecca even tries to speech Nicky into committing to the veterans center or at least something, but Nicky (again heartbreakingly performed by Griffin Dunne without overplaying his hand, surly but soulful) tragically says that he hasn't felt like a person in so long that he doesn't even know how to begin to be one again.
Some storylines come with tidy endings, like Randall and Kate's reassessment of their father and their memories. Other storylines and people can't be wrapped up as nicely – something "This Is Us," as thoughtfully written by Julia Brownell, gets here. As much as Kevin, Rebecca and surely the audience at home would love to save Nicky, he's endured and done too much in his life to be fixed, much less in just a few hours. While Randall and Kate had enough positives in life that the good stuff sticks, for Nicky, there's only the bad. And decades of experiencing that and stewing in it won't go away just because Kevin wants them to. At least he lets Kevin fix his roof a little bit though. A step is a step – and while it's not a satisfying ending, it feels like the right one.
Unfortunately, that step comes with a step back for Kevin, as in the episode's most devastating development, he goes back to the bottle, knocking back the remainder of Nicky's whiskey when he realizes he won't be able to save his newly found uncle. It's a moment that rings heartbreakingly true, not only on a universal real-world level – addiction is not just one fight but often multiple, unending struggles throughout one's life – but on a personal character one. Kevin's turned into one of the show's most fascinating people: a person reckoning with his father's mistakes while seeing that many of them are also his own present-day flaws, a person who cares more than he can handle.
A lot of the credit should go to Hartley, who's really grown into the character as the show's dug further into his depths. Take his scene giving into the bottle: Like Dunne, he doesn't overplay his hand, performing the moment not as loudly angry or guilty but as simply quiet and defeated, trying to get the comfort that his quest refuses to grant him. The aftermath, riding home with Rebecca, hurts even more, sitting and stewing in his quiet pained shame, not achieving his goal and losing another one in the process. Even a small moment, like wordlessly talking with Kate after taking Randall to task a bit too hard and realizing his mistake, is a nice note.
A season ago, I was unimpressed by Hartley and Kevin – even after his critically lauded solo episode. Now he's the most compelling and complicated part of the show – and hopefully the next step continues that trend and doesn't use his relapse as merely a chance to spin its wheels down a familiar path.
But we'll likely have to wait a bit for the repercussions of Kevin's fall off the wagon, as the end of "Songbird Road: Part 2" teases a Beth-centric episode complete with meeting her mom, who just hurt her hip. Ah, none of us really know our mothers.
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