5 takeaways from an "Unhinged" episode of "This Is Us"
"This Is Us" went UNHINGED this week – no, not like that; they just literally unhinged an office door. But much more happened on Tuesday night's episode than just some questionable office design. So let's talk about the five biggest takeaways from the new episode – well, after we finish watching "The Arsenio Hall Show."
1. A whole lot of a whole lot
On paper, "Unhinged" should be exactly the kind of "This Is Us" episode that falls flat for me. It's one of those episodes where every single character gets a subplot all at once, crammed into about 45 minutes of television, which means we're barely developing these plot lines and solving them almost as quickly as they're introduced – which makes it hard to really feel all that much. Jack's getting fired! Randall's a councilman again! Toby's just ... so friggin' ripped! Teen Randall got in trouble! Kate's having neighbor fights! Kevin's making friends with nine-year-olds! (Less creepy than it sounds!) It's a lot to burn through and actually make matter.
Thankfully, that's all just on paper. On television, it turned out pretty sweet, a light and charming episode that managed to connect all these subplots with surprising ease. Part of that – beyond just the cast across the board being at maximum likability – is director Anne Fletcher, a veteran behind movies like "The Proposal" and Netflix's "Dumplin" as well as last season's terrific Beth solo episode, moving things smoothly from plot to plot.
But a lot of the credit belongs to episode writer Vera Herbert, who impressively ties all these crowded storylines together in a way that feels impressively natural, not wasting a detail in weaving characters' plots together – for instance, while Jack's dealing with the fallout of an expensive work mistake, Becca's at home exercising with Kate, which ties into her present day weight self-consciousness, and Kevin's helping out Randall, tying in with his current attempt to help Nicky. It all flows together and fits under the thematic umbrella of – as a great band once said – getting by with a little help from my friends, impressively without a subplot feeling out of place and irrelevant to the rest of the episode.
The result feels less like a scattered and unfocused jumble – like these episodes often turn out – and more like a composed, tight narrative about the people who support you in ways you maybe didn't even know you needed. Sure, I think a lot of these storylines would've hit harder if we had more time to develop the emotions and let them marinate. But this feels like the best possible version of a bad episode structure.
2. An origin story for a broken window
We knew an explanation was coming eventually for why Nicky (Griffin Dunne, a real treat to have back this season) launched a chair through the VA's window in the season premiere. And surprise, it wasn't because the air conditioner was broken.
In a rather moving opening montage – especially the part where he talks about almost going to Canada, a quiet emotional beat the show plays just right – the show briskly follows his evolution from reluctant VA attendee to slowly improving and brightening patient with the help of a friendly and thoughtful doctor. But, of course, he falls back and declines after learning his kind doctor is leaving him due to a transfer to another VA facility. Cue the drinking, cue the furniture flinging and cue new character Cassidy.
I'm interested to see how she, Nicky and Kevin interact – how she and Nicky will cope together with their PTSD and how all three will cope together with their alcoholism, which Kevin really tested heading into a bar to snag Nicky out of the drink. Right now, though, the show's just laying the groundwork for their friendship – and maybe it's a little too neat and predictable, especially the meet-cute in the waiting room with Kevin playing video games with her friendly son and Cassidy being weirded out. And I'd really prefer the show to avoid a romance between the two – it's trite, not even considering it feels like Kevin's had about a half-dozen failed ones on this show already.
Even so, with the rest of the story elements at play here and the strong performers involved, it feels like this plotline could be worth the clunky introductions. I mean, it was basically already worth it for the end scene with Cassidy, Kevin and Nicky laughing cathartically about Kevin's not-all-that-scary fear of being a jowly has-been diabetes commercial salesman. There are worse things in the world than becoming the new Wilford Brimley, Kevin.
3. Hi Jae-Won! Oh no ... bye Jae-Won?
Remember Jae-Won, Randall's smart, savvy and super-motivated campaign manager from last season's election subplot? Yes, I know; I've tried to forget that subplot too, but Jae-Won was one of the good parts – and now he's back, being charmingly chummy with the Pearson clan and getting obliterated on morning runs with Randall.
Oh, and also possibly getting fired. BUT WE JUST GOT HIM BACK!
Indeed, Randall begins his life as a city councilman by taking his office door off its hinges (thus the episode's title) and having an open door policy for his constituents – something his curmudgeonly but experienced aide Bernice clearly doesn't approve of. After a day entirely taken up by taking citizens' complaints about slow bus systems and potholes – a day that was supposed to have a meeting with his fellow councilmen – she points out that he's a politician, not a therapist, and that he can talk to thousands normal folks all day but it's the other dozen or so councilmen he works with that he needs to start building a relationship with if he wants to get things done. All fair advice! It's very Randall of Randall to try to handle every aggrieved citizen all at once, so maybe he does need someone like Bernice to keep him on track as well (and get his door back on its hinges because he's breaking the fire code).
But then she goes too far and says that he has to fire Jae-Won because she doesn't like how close they are and how inexperienced he is. And, well, you should've quit while you were ahead, Bernice, because now you've advice-ed too far – and now you're out of a job. Don't let the door hit you on the way out! (Well, it couldn't because it's off its hinges anyway.)
Again, considering how much this episode is tackling and how little time it has to dedicate to every subplot – remember, this is the first we've seen of Jae-Won in literal months, as well as our first interaction at all with Bernice, and we're already putting them both on the chopping block? – this shouldn't work as well as it does. But these actors are great, and it seamlessly fits with the episode's overall theme of people getting by with a little help from your friends. Also: What an adorable little twist at the end of the subplot, revealing that the proposal Jae-Won's so excited about isn't concerning politics, but marriage. HOW DARE YOU TRY TO RUIN THIS, BERNICE!
4. The amazing disappearing Toby
There's so much less Toby than before! Thanks to some secret Crossfit rope-slapping and, I don't know, tire-flipping (I clearly know a lot about exercise), Toby looks REAL good these days. Unfortunately, though, that's got Kate feeling less good – especially when she has to point out that she's too overweight for booth seating during one of Toby's work client dinners. She's gaining weight taking care of little Jack while Toby's turned into a fricking stud – and he doesn't make things better when he says that he's done this to get healthier so he's around longer for Jack, accidentally implying that maybe Kate won't. But thankfully, she puts aside some of her self-consciousness and realizes that Toby did this for the family – just don't lie about it next time, Newly Svelted Toby. Now let's watch "The Pacifier."
Oh wait, they also have a persnickety new neighbor who whines about Toby's sidewalk parking. Kate says she'll have to make sure Audio doesn't poop in his yard – but if I was her, I would exclusively have my dog crap in that guy's lawn if he's going to be a jerk. But then he reveals that he suffered a stroke AND lost his job, and now he's just trying to get back on his feet and walk around the block to re-teach his body how to move – something that Toby's parking in the sidewalk makes impossible. And he explains this all while making really funny snarky jokes. Well, now don't I feel bad about threatening his lawn with dog turds!
By the end, Toby stops parking in the sidewalk while Kate, the new neighbor and Jack become walking buddies. And probably "The Pacifier" movie pals, too – which, fun fact, director Anne Fletcher worked on as a choreographer! IS "THIS IS US" A PART OF THE "PACIFIER" CINEMATIC UNIVERSE!? Talk about the show's biggest twist yet ...
5. The kids are alright
If "This Is Us" ever decides to axe all of the adults and just focus on the kids, I honestly might not complain.
Everything involving the youths this episode – from Lil' Kevin helping Lil' Randall out of a high school uniform infraction, to Deja discovering her crush (hi new character Malik!) has a baby and Tess still coming into her own as a young gay woman – was charming, thoughtful and phenomenally performed, especially Deja and Tess talking about their separate issues away from the kind but prying ears of their parents. It's insane how well cast "This Is Us" is from top to bottom – and moments like that just continue to cement that feat.
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