Move aside, Olympics! It's time for a real feat of athletic prowess to take the NBC spotlight. (If by "athletic prowess," I mean tear duct strength.)
That's right: "This Is Us" returned once again Tuesday night, moving the network's spotlight from Beijing to the ballet stage as Beth's dancing dreams laced up their slippers once again. And as for Kevin's dreams of, well, anything going right in his personal life? Let's just say it's going about as well as the women's figure skating finale at the Olympics.
And with that very timely jab, let's talk about the five big takeaways from the return (of the return) of "This Is Us" – just as soon as I grab the $20,000 creepy jelly baby, which gives me permission to talk.
1. Beth takes center stage(ish)
Tuesday night's episode promoted itself as another spotlight hour for Beth – exciting news because, come on, we all love Beth and more of her is the opposite of a problem. But even more so, "Our Little Island Girl" – her previous showcase episode all the way back from season three in 2019 – was a very special episode that actually deserved to be called a "very special" episode. And now here was a sequel to it, sharing its name and even co-written by Beth herself, Susan Kelechi Watson. And if a performer making their screenwriting debut was a cause of concern for you, Watson shares a credit here with Eboni Freeman, the writer of the first "Our Little Island Girl" hour. So we should have another winner on our hands (or feet, considering all the ballet) right?
Yes ... but also unfortunately no. Yep, it's time for me to once again point to my annoying "quality over quantity" sign when it comes to the many, many "This Is Us" subplots – a tradition as familiar to this show as twinky accoustic guitar music and montages set to '80s folk rock.
It's nothing Beth's storyline did wrong on Tuesday night, following the Pearson matriarch as she takes a gig at a very fancy ballet school – so fancy it requires a map to know your way around – running a scholarship program accepting talented students of diverse backgrounds who may not be able to pay the usual tuition amount. And for this inaugural bunch, one particular recipient catches her eye: Stacey, a talented if slightly unpolished young student with a passion for dance and a slightly overbearing parent who wants her to pursue safer, more stable career paths. AKA Beth, in her teen years.
Cut ahead to performance night, and Beth is as nervous as she'd be if she was in the ballet shoes – not only for her scholarship program to prove itself but also for her selected students to prove themselves, especially Stacey who's still struggling with her pirouettes. She's so stressed that not only does a signature Randall speech not work, he doesn't even get to finish the damn thing because she's gotta worry-pee. (I'm increasingly enjoying "This Is Us" poke fun at its own speechy ways. It's like a funny Get Out of Jail Free card!)
Unfortunately, all that stress ends up being validated as Stacey crashes to the floor in the middle of her showcase routine in front of a rapt crowd and can't will herself to get up. Beth, however, comes out onto the stage and sits with her on the ground, talking to her about how she's not going to give up on her and that she can do it – an approach so effective that Stacey's able to get up and finish the routine to the admiration of everyone in the crowd. That includes Randall obviously, who makes a point to tell his daughters that their mother rules. Which yes, absolutely – but also seems a little blunt on the show's part. We didn't need the show to tell us to be proud of Beth. (And also I admit I ended up distracted because Deja's there and not sulking about Malik, so what's the update on that situation?)
Affirmed by the performance and by her approach, after the show, Beth calls her old dance teacher, Dr. Luka Kovac from "ER," who abandoned her after she started stumbling in class and led to her leaving her passion behind. She wanted to confront him years ago back in D.C., seeing him across a restaurant while on a date with Randall during their college days but couldn't build up the nerve to do it (especially considering how blissfully unaware he seems about what he did). Now? As a grown-up who's re-embraced her passion for dance and also proven to herself that her nurturing teaching method can work? She's ready to lay him out – and does during their phone call, letting him know that he crushed what made her special rather than helped it grow. He can't say much in response, but Beth doesn't need an answer: Confronting him know what he did is what she needed – and seeing Stacey succeed is the only answer she really needs now, and for the future.
Altogether, the follow-up on "Our Little Island Girl" has its moving and lovely moments; the recital itself is as effectively tense as something from "Black Swan," and the final sequence – showing Beth in the future having a whole tackboard of success stories, including a now star ballerina Stacey – sticks the landing. That being said, it really suffered from having to share screentime with all of the many other dramatically shifting pieces in the episode, flattening out the complicated emotions and not quite building to the big cathartic releases Beth and the plotline deserved. The result was still lovely – just a little more predictable, obvious and neat than it could've been. The girl who danced before she could walk should've been given more room to move.
2. Whether past or present, Kevin had a bad episode
A valuable lesson from this week's episode of "This Is Us": Never go to the set of "The Manny." From Kevin's tirade that kicked off the show back in the debut season to now what happened on Tuesday night, that place couldn't be more cursed if you said "Macbeth" on stage.
Another valuable lesson? Whatever Kevin did this episode, do the opposite. He's got Jackson Maine's guitar from "A Star Is Born"; if he keeps this up, he'll have his mess of a life too – preferably without the public urinations.
Things start off pleasantly enough: with a chummy family breakfast with Kate, Toby, Madison, Elijah and red velvet waffles, a thing I didn't know existed until now but needs to be in my mouth IMMEDIATELY. But even with the presence of red velvet waffles, if there's one thing I've learned this season, it's that no meal is to be trusted. Forget the waffles: This season, the main dish at the table is always misery. So yes, of course Toby is distracted taking a business call on his earbuds – truly a horrifying development; not taking the calls themselves but taking them over Bluetooth in public like a jag – and of course Elijah's muffins are a bigger hit than Kevin's waffles. (Ridiculous; I call this jumping the shark.) But worst of all, Kevin's already planning for Madison and the twins to come up to the cabin for Thanksgiving – and Madison is clearly NOT planning for that.
But surely this won't come up anytime soon – and SURELY not at the famously cursed set of "The Manny." No, definitely not ...
Indeed, Kevin invites the crew to the set to watch them record the latest episode of the sitcom reboot – but unfortunately while we're there, Madison breaks the news to him: As you'd expect, she's not going to the cabin with Kevin but instead is planning to celebrate Thanksgiving in Los Angeles with Elijah and the babies. And right before he gets called to the set to start filming too! Thankfully, another viral Kevin tirade doesn't break out – but after the shoot, he picks up right where they left off, complaining that she's taking the twins away from him and, in a BRUTAL guilt trip move, saying that she's possibly taking away Rebecca's final healthy Thanksgiving with the babies. It's so unpleasant, he retreats to eating gluten-free cookies in his dressing room – the ultimate sign of resignation and defeat if there ever was one.
If he was hoping for a backstage pep talk from Kate, well, he doesn't get that because she recalls another time that she was caught between Kevin and a friend: that time back when Kevin cheated on Sophie when they were married. Not great!
So during their college years, Kevin and Sophie came back home to help Kate and Rebecca with Thanksgiving dinner – but since this is a family meal during the final season of "This Is Us," it's painfully awkward. (What terrible thing happened to the writers of this show, and why did it definitely happen over dinner!?) Kevin's distracted and weird the entire time, eventually revealing to Kate that, out of loneliness and weakness, he slept with a fellow acting student. So that's how that relationship died – plus another one as, during his confession to Sophie, he accidentally lets it slip that he already told Kate, who kept it a secret from a very angry Sophie. We'll get more into Kate's dilemmas in a second – but safe to say she's not eager to lose another friend sticking up for Kevin's slip-ups, so she forcefully helps Kevin realize the error of his ways, that he's imposing himself on Madison and not actually letting her live her own life.
Later that night, he goes to apologize to Madison – but the real important speech comes after, as before Kevin leavess, Elijah snags him outside and evolves from affable nerd mode to affable but irritated nerd mode. He makes it clear: He's here for the long haul with Madison – so if Kevin's just hanging around because he's waiting for things to fall apart between them, he's gonna be waiting for a long time. And in a rare occassion of Kevin doing something well this episode (at least not involving red velvet waffles), he accepts and understands Elijah's ultimatum of sorts.
BUT WAIT! Kevin's not out of the third-wheel woods just yet as we cut to Kevin jamming out his feelings back home on Bradley Cooper's guitar when Toby – on a business call, natch – tells him to keep it down. And instead of being just chill about it, Kevin offers some "friendly" advice: Cut out the Bluetooth business calls because it's upsetting Kate. For one, it's a crappily convenient deflection on Kevin's part to try and put the blame more on Toby for taking business calls than Kevin for strumming away at night (in a house with two babies in it too). Second, as Toby points out, those business calls are helping pay for the room you're currently calling home, Kevin. Last, and maybe worst of all, no matter how honest your intentions, it's a BAAAD move to basically toss Kate under the bus here and imply that she's complaining about Toby behind his back. Sure, the calls are annoying – but that's a conversation Toby and Kate need to start, not Kevin. Because now Toby's gonna feel distrusting, and things are only gonna get worse. Especially if we introduce a Big Green Egg to the situation.
So, to recap: In this episode, Kevin cheated on his wife in the past, accidentally threw his supportive sister under the bus back then, got a little controlling with his ex-fiance, got harrumphing after being called out for that, threw a grenade into Toby and Kate's relationship, behaved like a poor tenant and in general kinda seemed like an emotional leech, demanding and taking emotional resources while leaving others dry. Not his finest hour! My tip for getting back on track? No more meals and no more set visits.
3. Poor Kate just can't catch a break
Someone book poor Kate a spa date, because she wound up in seemingly everybody's drama this episode.
First, in the way back, she got awkwardly stuck in the middle of Kevin's cheating drama, serving as a sounding board for his secret then getting accidentally tossed under the bus when Kevin revealed she'd known while confessing to Sophie. (In fairness to Kate, it seems like she only knew about Kevin's misdeed for a little while, so sorry to Sophie that she didn't IMMEDIATELY report the news. It's a complex situation that might've required some processing!)
Then in the present day, the same thing happens just on the opposite side, with Kate coincidentally tossed under the bus by Madison when she explains her Thanksgiving decision. Thankfully Kevin's a little bit more understanding, moaning for a bit about how Kate's not on his side before she sets him straight, saying that she ALWAYS has his side – even when the situation hurts her in the process or when Kevin's at fault.
Poor Kate, trying to play peacemaker in all of these situations and ending up a casualty in these relationship wars – and that's all while the woman's actual dramas weren't even in the spotlight this episode! Sure, the business calls are becoming an increasing nuisance, and Kevin inadvertently chucks her under the bus one more time (man, she's got a lot of treadmarks on her by the end of the episode) by telling Toby that she's getting annoyed, likely making a bad situation worse by getting Toby to think that Kate's holding back resentments and taking them elsewhere. But in this particular episode, the Toby tension was definitely on the back burner, a side drama still just in the simmering phase while Kevin and Beth took prime position. Things are REALLY going to cook, though, with the Big Green Egg coming up soon – and maybe it'll be Kate's turn to be angry at someone for being a pesky third wheel. Sorry, Kevin, but it only seems fair.
4. Miguel gets sassy (and maybe jealous?) about Matt Dixon
In case Thanksgiving at the Pearson household couldn't get any more awkward with Kevin and Sophie imploding, get ready for a big helping of Matt Dixon for the holidays. Boy, we sure are getting a lot of screentime with this otherwise minor character this season – certainly more than Miguel would like, judging by his behavior toward Rebecca's amicable if bland new boyfriend on Tuesday night.
Yeah, those sweet and happy glances Miguel shot over to Rebecca during speed dating when she was hitting it off with Matt last episode? Not so much this time around! While Miguel and the Big Three are beginning to prep Thanksgiving dinner, Rebecca awkwardly busts in post-date with Matt, who gets the official introduction to the clan. It's predictably awkward – so much so not even a very good Emeril reference and brine pun can save the situation. And in case it wasn't awkward enough, Matt – innocently enough, it would seem – brings up how he mainly just eats Hungry Man frozen meals now that he's divorced and sad. If ONLY there was a big family dinner situation coming up that he could be invited to! Speak of the devil, Rebecca offers him a seat at the Pearson Thanksgiving and Matt accepts, with a promise to bring his famous (aka store-bought) pumpkin pie.
Now, I'm would not look a gift horse in the mouth – or a gift pie in the crust, in this case – but Miguel thinks otherwise. While topping off their brined turkey (between this meal, the breakfast muffins and red velvet pancakes, this was a bad episode to watch on an empty stomach), he modestly but pointedly snarks about Matt inviting himself to Thanksgiving via sneaky guilt. Sure seems like maybe reading a little too much into the situation – perhaps due to some jealousy on Miguel's part? After all, when Miguel apologizes later on the way out, his face does seem to deflate just for a milisecond when Rebecca forgives him by saying that she respects his opinion ... because he's her best friend.
Or ... maybe it's not jealousy after all? Right after that, Miguel asks Rebecca if it would be OK if he brought Marguerite – an old fling making a new comeback in his life – to their Thanksgiving dinner. So perhaps he's not being sassy because of envy – maybe he just really does not appreciate store-bought pumpkin pie. Now it's Rebecca's turn, however, to have a conflicted look, seeming a little uncertain and mixed after saying yes to Marguerite and watching Miguel leave for the night.
So we've got Rebecca, her new boyfriend, Miguel, his new girlfriend, a surly teen Kate and a recently dumped cheater Kevin all together for Thanksgiving? Oh boy, get ready ANOTHER uncomfortable meal on "This Is Us," the worst thing to happen to the existence of nice dinners at the table since the invention of the television.
5. Is Sophie back? And not for the person you think?
Even though she hasn't shown up on screen in her present day form since season four, the spectre of Sophie returning to "This Is Us" and Kevin's life has lingered over this show. Several relationships and even an almost-marriage for Kevin later, Sophie lingering over her memory box – and most notably his ring – in "A Hell of a Week: Part Two" with a smile still sticks in mind. And now it sure seems like she's ACTUALLY coming back ... though perhaps not for Kevin.
After the chaos with Kevin and Madison on set, Kate's thinking back to her close friendship with Sophie back in their college days – and how, thanks to Kevin, it came to a crashing and sudden end that Thanksgiving week. So, like anyone else late at night after an emotionally exhausting day, Kate decides to throw Sophie a text. A reeeally awkward text, honestly, saying that she "should've gone over the cliff" with Sophie – a reference to their teenage love for "Thelma & Louise" that would be just a LIIIITTLE weird to receive out of context from somebody I hadn't spoken to in decades. Not exactly a cringe-free icebreaker – but amazingly one that works as Sophie quickly responds back, saying that she understands that Kevin was her brother and the mixed loyalties and emotions that can cause.
And that's that! But come on: This is "This Is Us." That's never just that. You're telling me that they brought back Sophie – or at least Sophie in text chat bubble form – just for a ten-second moment? After last episode Cassidy cryptically noted that Kevin doesn't know which blonde woman he should be with? And when that memory box scene is STILL haunting this plotline? Yeah, this feels like a door getting reopened, slowly but surely with maybe Kate being the one who kicks it open fully by rekindling this friendship.
Which would be nice ... but I doubt that's all.
I tend to be of the belief that Kevin's best, healthiest ending involves him living happily not alone but also without a significant other. This is a guy who's always chased love – or what he thought was love; to quote a great White Stripes song, "You don't know what love is; you just do as you're told" – to desperately fill a space in his life, no matter who it might hurt. Kevin living content, no longer chasing someone, may not seem like the happiest ending, but it sure feels like the right one – rather than ending up back with the woman he emotionally traumatized multiple times throughout the show.
However, I also tend to be of the belief that "This Is Us" doesn't agree with me on this topic. This show often loves the power of a big speech and "that great romance" over logic – so we shall see. But right now, the "Kophie" I hope we see reunited by the end of the show is Sophie and Kate, not Sophie and Kevin.
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.