By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 19, 2021 at 6:56 PM

With only one more episode until the season finale, the writers of Tuesday night's "This Is Us" wanted to make one point very, very clear: They definitely watched "Jerry Maguire" over the pandemic – and they have THOUGHTS. 

"Jerry 2.0" isn't my favorite episode this season; it's a good bit of melodrama forcing itself in, with apparently all of Kevin's exes politely coming out of the woodwork at the same time and Kate seemingly dead-set on having a emotional test of a bachelorette party. But in an emotionally compelling yet seemingly aimless season, taken off the rails even more by pandemic delays, this penultimate episode (helmed by Jack himself Milo Ventimiglia, his second hop into the director's chair) finally lined things up, just in time for the big finale. What seemed like a disjointed season has gathered itself together and set the stage for a pretty intense and intriguing final act of the year – an impressive feat, and now a nerve-wracking one. Will Kevin and Madison get married? Will Toby and Kate STAY married? And is somebody ever going to bring up that guy in the burning car Kevin saved again?! (It will never not be weird!)

Those are questions for next week, however. For now, let's talk about the five biggest takeaways from the latest "This Is Us" – just as soon as we finish this rewatch of "Jerry Maguire." (Question: Do we think Kevin liked "Aloha"? I bet Kevin liked "Aloha"...)

1. Kevin loves "Jerry Maguire" ... but does he love Madison?

Sure, the finale is next week – but first some film criticism!

That's always been one of the fascinating aspects of "This Is Us" and creator Dan Fogelman's projects: His stories typically take place in a world where pop culture exists. We've all seen the zombie movies where the characters seem to have never heard of a zombie. "This Is Us" is the opposite; it's a show acutely aware of how movies, music and television help drive conversation, create connections and shape people's perceptions of life (as well as how they shape their own narratives, which is why the show's so capable of playing with and subverting audience's expectations). Which is how you end up with "Jerry 2.0," an episode all about the disconnect between reality and the romantic "Hollywood ending" – especially for Kevin, who always seems to be trying to follow a screenplay in his life.

In particular, as Tuesday night's episode makes explicitly clear, that screenplay is "Jerry Maguire," which gets an impressive amount of screen time tonight despite everyone supposedly going out for a party night – namely Kevin's bachelor party. Since going buckwild on the town isn't the finest option in the time of COVID, Kevin, Randall, Toby, Miguel and Uncle Nicky head to the Pearson cabin for a night of fly fishing. (I'll tell you who's a fan of that: Beth as Randall puts the "fly" in fly fishing when he's trying on their outdoor gear.) Unfortunately, before they can get into the lake, the forecast decides to bring the water to them with a rainy deluge. Uncle Nicky knew he should've packed a puzzle!

So movie night it is. And for the featured presentation, they pick "Jerry Maguire," a movie special to Kevin's heart. He loved it from the first time he saw it with Jack in theaters as a teen. He loved it during his college days, when he bonded with the lead character's enthusiasm and bold declarations to life and love. And now ... well, he certainly likes it lot less after Uncle Nicky's critical input, not only pointing out the obvious – Kevin is Jerry Maguire – but going one step further, saying that loves the idea of doing the right thing more than the actual girl involved. Coming hot on the heels of Zoe's similar remark last week, Kevin's rattled all over again, snapping at Uncle Nicky and getting lost in his own uncertainties and cold feet once more. See, this is why you should've brought the puzzle!

Thankfully, Randall gathers all the guys up for a chat outside where their bachelor party turns into a film club – or more a therapy session. (This is the Pearsons, after all.) Toby grumbles about how Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger are doomed because grumbling is just what he does this season, while Uncle Nicky explains that his snotty analysis of the movie – and therefore Kevin and Madison's relationship – is more so his difficulty to relate to Hollywood romances in general. After all, he didn't get anything close to that; instead the love of his life coldly disappeared from his story, replaced by the worst years of his life. There's no great speeches to make things better, no magic; just cold, brutal reality. But thankfully Miguel is there to deliver the speech everyone – Kevin in particular – needs: While some relationships may be fated in the stars, others take their own strange paths to love. Some romances are the work of the wonders of the universe; others require work. But both can result in profound happiness worthy of Hollywood. It's a speech so good that not only Kevin does gear himself up for what's next (more on that later) but even Uncle Nicky starts feeling hopeful, finding his long lost love Sally's contact. 

So after all of that, it's time to show me the marriage ... right?

2. Kate, what are you doing?

Listen, bachelor and bachelorette parties never go right. Somebody always gets too drunk or somebody gets invited who harshes the buzz or somebody books an awkward activity no one else wants or somebody gets stuck on top of Cesar's Palace thanks to a prank gone wrong and suddenly Mike Tyson and a tiger get involved and two terrible sequels follow and OK so maybe that's just "The Hangover." But the point remains: Alcohol plus the stress of event-planning plus the weight of a massive life moment equal nights usually far less fun than planned. 

But jeez, it sure seems like Kate was putting in the effort to make sure this bachelorette party would go sideways. 

In fairness to her, the first awkward moment wasn't her fault as her big sexy surprise for Beth, Rebecca and Madison – a handsome "vaxxed and waxxed" model to paint like one of Jack's French girls – turned out to be Madison's ex. But credit to everyone (and especially the show itself), instead of the ex turning into some big convenient melodrama, it turns into purely entertaining comedy as Madison and the ladies have fun not only sketching some perfect glutes but also berating the guy for ghosting her back in the day. Sure, the conversation eventually detours into the fact that Kevin kind of ghosted Madison initially after their hookup, but hey, we've moved forward from there – and Kevin's very much not ghosted Madison ever since.

But then Kate decides to play a game where Kevin answers some pre-recorded questions and Madison has to try to guess what Kevin would say. So basically "The Newlywed Game" – aka a show that resulted in more ruined couples than "The Bachelor" franchise. Maybe not the optimal choice for a bachelorette party game – especially when the questions being asked aren't playful, light-hearted or sexy questions but dense and intense inquiries about their future plans with one another.

It's pretty much guaranteed to end with somebody feeling uncertain about the marriage – but surprisingly, it's more Kate than Madison. On a question about where they see their future, Kevin gives the answer that they won't grow old so the question is moot – a nice playful dodge, but one that flashes Kate back to the cabin trip as kids with Kevin writing a swoony "Jerry Maguire" pledge to Sophie after she gets upset about Kevin not taking the emotional toll of their long-distance relationship seriously – and not seemingly caring about it continuing into the future as he keeps going out to L.A. for acting.

Kevin's resulting apology manifesto was a grand Hollywood-approved romantic gesture – but that's all it was, one that proved to be shallow considering that the relationship petered out, Kevin not putting in the effort beyond the big words and show. His commitment ended up being less like his big speech and more like his earlier response to Sophie's long-distance questions about how things will work out: "They just will." And now Kate's worried it's history repeating again, Kevin attaching himself to the romanticized version of a relationship rather than the real work and emotion involved. 

Now, if I were hosting my brother's fiancee's bachelorette party and suddenly had questions about the marriage being a bad idea, I would simply keep those thoughts to myself. You know, one of those situations where you have to let people make mistakes – and certainly not start prying at people's feelings during an infamously emotionally unstable time? But Kate, in her classically emotionally insistent ways this season, disagrees. Indeed, after the bachelorette party clears out, she asks Madison straight up if she feels truly happy and confident about her marriage to Kevin. And while Madison says all the right things at the time, when we see her later that night, she's going over Kevin's "Newlywed Game" video like the Zapruder film and analyzing a moment of brief doubt in Kevin's eyes before an answer. And here we were concerned about Kevin this whole time ...

Anyways, like I was saying, these parties never go right – and that's not even including Kate's other half on the other side of the wedding party world ... 

3. Toby finds a potential solution ... and a problem

Toby's mostly kept on the bench this episode – and considering his grouchy, optimism-murdering thoughts when he did get the spotlight, maybe that's for the best for everyone.

Indeed, Toby's still in a depressive mood about his aimless stay-at-home-dadness – and living in a world constantly soundtracked by "Moana" is not a recipe for increased sanity. Unfortunately, the charming romantic melodrama powers of Cameron Crowe did not help either. In fact, when Randall gathers everyone for the bonfire outside for a little guy talk and makeshift "Siskel & Ebert" episode, Toby almost ruins Randall's good intentions right off the bat by crapping on Jerry Maguire, pointing out that their relationship probably didn't last long after the end credits and that the rest of their lives were likely filled with disappointment, divorce and kids on therapy couches. Yay for love! Woo for weddings! Thank heavens for Miguel's speech.

Toby does admit during their fireside chat that his angst isn't about "Jerry Maguire" but about how seemingly the clearest way out of his funk is a potential job opening out in San Francisco – not exactly the most feasible option for a father of two infants, one of which with special needs. But after the night's pep talks, Toby decides that maybe the job out by the Bay is worth pursuing, reaching out to the business – more than likely without talking with Kate first, continuing last week's troubling trend of the two struggling and failing to communicate with one another. And now Future Glum Toby is coming sharply into focus ...

4. Rebetha is the best

I'm happy to report that not every storyline was foreboding on bachelor/bachelorette party week on "This Is Us." Rebecca and Beth – a power team that I shall now refer to as "Rebetha" – had a good time; after all, they got to stare at mostly naked model guy while sipping some nice pinot gris while Rebecca learned what "ghosting" means. Seems like a very productive and positive episode for them!

It wasn't just alcohol and abs making Tuesday night a quality time for this twosome, though, as the new episode brought the two together – now and then – in lovely ways outside of the two slyly drooling over and dragging their nude model.

In the current day, amongst the festivities, Rebecca notices Beth stepping aside from the fun to secretly (or at least not-so-secretly) check her phone. Always astute, Rebecca hangs back with Beth to chat about what's been distracting her: She's gotten a offer to teach at a big dance academy – but considering her past childhood heartbreaks involving the conservatory, and her overall negative view of the culture issues at these establishments, she's not sure she should take the leap and set herself up for another dance-related disappointment, especially after just shuttering her dream studio. Thankfully that's where Rebecca steps in to nudge Beth to pursue the job – not because it's the perfect gig but because she knows Beth is a strong and brave enough person to bring necessary changes from the inside and help change and improve the culture.

It'd be a touching on its own, two grown women supporting each other and helping each other through significant midlife changes and confusion, but what really tips the scene in is how it echoes a moment from the episode's cabin-set flashbacks. Back then, while Kevin and Sophie bickered about the difficulties of long-distance relationships, Beth and Randall were having the same concerns as she considers taking an internship in Boston. But it's not just the distance that makes Beth reluctant; she's also not sure she can take more failure after her dancing dream died. Rebecca, however, helps swat those concerns away, chatting with a young Beth about how she had her own singing dreams dashed but how that can't stop you from pursuing new dreams and finding new passions. With that backdrop, the latter-day scene of Beth and Rebecca once again having to revisit their disappointments and pushing each other over their nerves hesitations has even more emotional history, heft and depth – impressive considering how relatively little time they've had as an on-screen unit, especially this season.

About that. Due to Mandy Moore's maternity leave, Rebecca's been mostly absent this season – somethting this episode weaves into the story in a thoughtful and cleverly meta way, having the Pearson matriarch open up to Beth about how she feels forgotten or left out of her family's lives. Miguel is constantly handling her with kiddie gloves, concerned about her memory's state, while Randall, Kate and Kevin have kept Rebecca out of the loop throughout their hectic years, maybe trying to spare her any extra stress but in the process hurting her and making her feel like she's losing her children well before she's losing her memory. I mean, she's just now finding out about Randall's New Orleans expedition. In chatting with Beth, she felt like a real active participant in the family, rather than a concern or a weight. 

Beyond just that, much like Rebecca helped nudge Beth to overcome hesitations and nerves, Beth gives her mother-in-law the note that she can just ask Randall about his trip. Hmm, I wonder if Randall's maybe been keeping that to himself for other reasons beyond just worries about Rebecca's mental health. After all, he's probably still parsing through his feelings and already had one big, messy and emotionally exhausting debate with Kevin about his complex childhood. Considering next week's the finale – and Randall's storyline is on a brief drama lull – if Rebecca asks about Randall's journey, she might get far more than a simple and easy-going "what I did on summer vacation"-like story, far more than she's expecting and far more than she's asking for. Well, this storyline was happy while it lasted!

5. Kophie lives ... ?

That's right: I saved the big question mark for last – I'm getting ALL of the engaged reader minutes, dammit! – as Sophie finally made her official return into the "This Is Us" fold, congratulating him on the babies and impending marriage with an out-of-the-blue phone call. Not only that, but it was a call from a number different than the usual one in Kevin's contacts list – for vague but not subtly hinted reasons probably involving a break-up/divorce from her previous love interest.

So she's likely single and Kevin's getting anxious feet – summon Kophie 2.0? Not so fast, as at the end of the episode, instead of hovering over her new number, Kevin deletes Sophie's contact – though Madison's not looking so confident now too. And do we really think the show re-introduced Sophie just for a quick temptation and flashback?

It's certainly leading to a tense wedding day – one that makes me wonder not only who Kevin will pick but if the show just set itself up to fail via the "How I Met Your Mother" conundrum.

For those who don't follow ... that makes sense because I just made the "How I Met Your Mother" conundrum up. But here's the basic idea: For its final season, the hit CBS sitcom had always planned for Ted Mosby to end up with Robin – but on the path there, the show (and actress Cristin Milioti) did such a good job of setting up her character Tracy – as well as developing Robin and Barney's romantic relationship – that when it came to dispatch all of that in favor of the seemingly "preferred" Hollywood ending, the audience understandably felt their characters had been betrayed for a crowd-pleasing conclusion that no longer pleased the crowd. 

Back to "This Is Us," the show's done enough work to make both obvious outcomes – Kophie or Kadison – plausible and pleasant enough. But I also feel like the show's did such a sufficient job closing the door on Sophie in the past, such a great job of developing Kevin out of its shadow and such a solid job of developing Madison into a part of the Pearson clan, that I'm not really rooting for the storybook romance anymore (especially since so much of this past season has been probing Kevin's psychological need for those mostly fictional romantic constructs). Kevin moved on from Sophie, and so has much of the audience – so if the finale next week throws that all aside for a relationship that we've happily detached from, there might not be the happy fanfare that "This Is Us" expects. (The show's had this problem before with Randall's political campaign arc, the show wanting something that the audience didn't have the same passion for. Eventually, the show revealed it knew Randall's tunnel-vision was toxic – but not without also giving Randall the win too, having its cake and eating it too.)

Or maybe, after spending so many of his romantic pursuits imagining them all as roles he's playing – whether as his father in the Hollywood predestined romance with Sophie or as Jerry Maguire in his "grown-up" relationship with Madison – maybe it's for the best that Kevin ends up single at the end of this all. And considering the show's habit of zagging when you expect a zig, maybe that's exactly what'll happen. Or maybe he'll end up marrying Lily from the AT&T commercials/season one. Who's to say!?

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.