Last night's "This Is Us" episode, "Both Things Can Be True," was all too fittingly titled.
On one hand, it was very much not my kind of episode, overstuffed with plot points that left some storylines wanting; on the other hand, there were some really excellent and interesting arcs that made it totally worth it. Some aspects of the episode were sitcom-y and predictable; others were thoughtful and complex. The hour both dug up old plotlines that seemed wrapped up while also appearing to finally lay down the foundation for where this season's going forward. I groaned; I also almost cried.
Indeed, a lot of things could be true of last night's episode – but the truest of all is that there's a lot to unpack. So let's talk about the five biggest takeaways from Tuesday night's new hour ... after I explain what a crostini is to Uncle Nicky for the 12th time.
1. Uncle Nicky and Miguel have a testy introduction
My wish came true as we got more Uncle Nicky, continuing to hang around Kevin, Madison and the babies. Unfortunately, I must've wished upon a monkey paw, because Uncle Nicky turned out to be a real jerk during Tuesday's episode. (Though he's totally right about small plates.)
While Kevin and Madison are making preparations for their much Us Weekly-anticipated wedding, Nicky hears that the rehearsal dinner will be hosted by Rebecca and Miguel – the latter perking Nicky's ears up as he has no love for the guy who married his dead brother's wife. On one level, you understand Nicky being perhaps a little skeptical of the guy; after all, we all kind of thought it was a bit ... peculiar when it was revealed Miguel would go on to marry his dead best friend's wife. But we also got to know Miguel, his relationship with Jack as well as Rebecca before and after her husband's death, and how Rebecca felt about the situation, to the point that we don't even really bat an eye about the two anymore. They're comfortable and happy; and now we're comfortable and happy.
Nicky, however, didn't get several seasons of the show to watch and process all of that – and boy, could you tell Tuesday night. Any hope that Nicky would deal with his issues with Miguel in a tactful way were quickly dashed, as Nicky took his self-appointed position as co-rehearsal dinner planner to mostly shoot down Miguel's ideas – and shoot down Miguel as well – not-so-subtly jabbing at him for "swooping in" on Jack's widow. Miguel puts on a polite face for long enough before finally standing up to Nicky's cruel and callous taunts, pointing out that more than a decade had passed from Jack's death to their marriage so there was no opportunistic "swooping in" – but mostly importantly – he and Rebecca don't have to answer to him and his judgement. The only person he has to explain himself to is the person he can't: Jack.
While Nicky was an awful prick for much of the episode, even he eventually realizes that he was being a jerk – especially after Miguel tells him a story from the past about how Jack asked him to stand at his wedding, but not specifically to be his best man because they both could feel that spot still emotionally belonged to Jack's estranged brother. Nicky then realizes his anger didn't just stem from the feeling Miguel was attempting to replace his brother; it was the feeling Miguel replaced him, serving as the friend Nicky couldn't be for Jack after the war. And as Miguel's flashback story shows, that was never the case; there was always a separate place for both of them in Jack's heart.
Oh, about that flashback: We don't need to talk about it. While watching Jack anxiously bring his carnival wedding proposal come together was cute – and watching Miguel slap down Rebecca's dad's condescending tone after he shows up to say he would "try to tolerate" their marriage instead of giving his blessing was thoroughly satisfying – it was pretty flimsy in terms of importance, and Jack getting the ring stuck on Miguel's finger during a practice proposal felt more in place on a predictably pratfalling sitcom than "This Is Us." And speaking of predictable, if you didn't fully guess that Miguel would speech Mr. Rebecca's Dad into humbled compliance, well, you probably didn't think Jack slipping the ring on Miguel's finger would end poorly either.
2. Kate battles a snooty teacher; Toby battles a midlife crisis
First days at work are hard, as it turns out. That's the lesson on Kate's first day at school, serving as an assistant for the world's most stuck-up British teacher at a music school for the blind. In fairness to Professor Snooty McBrit-Crumpets, Kate does arrive barely a minute before her first day of class and spends a non-insignificant portion of their time checking her phone for messages from Toby. Sure, she's suffering through very understandable separation anxiety being away from the kids for the first time in at least a long time, but it's not a good, professional look, especially on one's first day. The show annoyingly has a habit of trying to emphasize Kate's heart-on-sleeve personality but instead making her seem flaky or oblivious.
That being said – like I'm not going to be on Kate's side compared to Benedick Cumbergrump – this overcooked cliche of a snobbish teacher who straight-up tells Kate that he didn't want to hire her and isn't even that great with the students, basically side-eyeing a young singer for not capturing the happiness of a song right. The script and performance definitely stack the deck for Kate to happily defeat this guy (and by the end of the day, she does) getting through to the struggling singer by really communicating the song's overjoyed emotions to her in a way that she can relate. She also says badass, which might not win you the honor of faculity member of the day; but it gets her point across and works to endear her to the students (if not the Grand Duke of British Smirks).
But while Kate has a solid first day at work, Toby is still adjusting to his new life as stay-at-home dad; and it's not going great. It doesn't help that he clearly still has resentment for Kevin from last episode, scoffing at the Us Weekly wedding announcement with a little bit too much bitterness to pass off as just a light-hearted jab. But later, he meets up with Madison to get the kids some air at their preferred park, and while she talks about her struggles with the wedding venue, Toby just bulldozes past that to talk about his midlife crisis of sorts. (Not Toby's finest look, hearing Madison say she's struggled speaking up for herself and what she needs only to basically say, "Interesting – let's talk about my problems instead." A longer, better developed and less rushed chat here would've helped.)
In the end, they both determine that they need to tell their loved ones what's wrong – but while Madison heeds their advice, Toby doesn't tell Kate about his current midlife malaise and sudden pained lack of purpose. And sure, he may be smiling in the photos he shows Kate after her day at work, but he isn't smiling while she's looking them over, not looking proud or rewarded or pleased but just empty. Seems like he's going to need a few more park-bench therapy sessions, though if his bubbling resentment toward Kevin and Madison doesn't simmer down, he might not be attending many more of those in the future.
I'm still not exactly sure where this plotline is going, but considering Toby's not happy – and, worse yet, not willing to talk about it – it sure doesn't seem like it's going somewhere good for this marriage. I can't help remembering that, at some point, that sad and lonely Toby we saw in the future is going to come a knocking ...
3. While one mother-daughter relationship tightens, another unravels
It was date night – oh, pardon me, a study night – at the Pearson household as Tess' non-binary significant other Alex came over for the first time. And despite their announcement getting off to a rocky start, with Beth finding out before others during a heated discussion at the dinner table a few episodes back, things seemed to be off to a comfortable start, with Beth all educated up on the right pronouns and all set with poppers for the two teen lovebirds to snack on.
And then she just had to go check on them.
After Deja complains about the two closing the door to Tess' room – a no-no for Deja and Malik – Beth goes up to check on them and accidentally walks in on the two mid-makeout session. Of course it's awkward as heck – and when Beth wants them to relocate, Tess is a typical teen annoyed and embarrassed by her mom barging into her life, calling her mom a name under her breath. Not enough under her breath, though, because Beth catches it and sends Alex – who seems super nice and sweet, even amongst the awkwardness, so I hope they stick around – home.
But for Tess, the situation's more than just a simple awkward walk-in. She feels like she saw something in her mother's eyes beyond just the shock of unexpectedly seeing your child locking lips. She feels she saw the look of someone who doesn't know, understand and maybe was briefly repulsed by what she saw. I wish the scene could've played out more from Tess' perspective so the audience could stronger feel her sense of sudden betrayal and hurt, as opposed to Beth's well-intended confusion which muddies the scene. As it plays, with Beth centered more so than Tess, you can see it reading simply as "oversensitive teen feels like her parents don't get her" (after all, parents aren't going to look pumped walking in on an unexpected makeout session under their roof) when I think Tess did see something that cut far deeper and more painful than just standard teen angst.
While that scene may come off messy, their later conversation plays far better and captures the nuances of this painfully complicated and real situation far clearer. After some deep breathes, Beth goes to parent about the name-calling but also to reiterate that she's totally there to support Tess. That means accepting when she's perhaps unconsciously made a face or reacted in a way that hurts her. Tess says that she appreciates that her mom is trying; but what hurts is that she doesn't have to try with the Annie or Deja. All the (perhaps a little self-congratulatory) effort Beth's putting in to make Tess feel accepted and loved and understood often just makes her feel further distanced and othered – and sad. Will they ever be the same together? While Beth insists that they'll always be close, Tess isn't as sure of answer, leaving a question mark that thoughtfully hangs over their storyline at the end. It's a painfully honest and real conversation about minority communities feeling on the outside despite people's good intentions (a conversation that'll be echoed in Randall's subplot as well), an unconscious barrier that Tess isn't sure will ever now go away.
But while one mother-daughter relationship possibly fractures, another further tightens. Throughout this entire storyline, Phylicia Rashad's Carol is wandering around the borders, nodding with watchful eyes while Beth brags about her momming skills and seemingly waiting for a bomb to drop. And, of course, it does – and when Beth retreats from her spat with Tess, there she is on the couch politely waiting to pick up her daughter's pieces. She helps remind Beth not only to let go of her expectations for Tess but to adjust her expectations, to accept what her daughter is and wants – something Carol herself had to do with Beth as her life changed from the path she expected.
It's a lovely speech – not only because of its message, but because of the understated regret that builds up in the speech, ending with Carol noting that she herself took her too long to accept Beth's life was choosing its own way. And while Rashad only really has this one big moment this episode, she totally aces it, from the verbal side-eye at the beginning to the pained but clear-eyed honesty and wisdom at the end. And somehow, for a show infamous for its tear-jerking speeches and emotional soliloquys, the moment that almost brought me to tears this episode was a silent one: Beth putting her head on her mom's shoulder, a tender moment in a hard-earned bond between two moms as well as mother and daughter.
4. Maybe Kevin and Randall aren't totally in the clear quite yet
Hey: Where's Randall for all of that Beth and Tess drama? You'd think Randall would want to be around for such a big moment like his eldest daughter bringing a significant other over for the first time. And, if anybody would be equipped to handle a conversation about feeling like an outsider in one's well-intentioned family, it'd be her father.
I imagine that conversation's coming down the line; but for this episode, Randall is facing those kinds of difficult topics for himself as he heads off for a special round of outdoor therapy with transracial adoptees, or people adopted into families of a different race. Randall comes in seemingly ready and comfortable to speak his truth – and as "This Is Us" fans know, is it even a "This Is Us" episode without a Randall soliloquy? – but quickly he's silenced by the brutally honest confessionals he hears at the session. One story in particular – a woman who talks about how she often wishes her family, though loving and kind, had never adopted her and even confessed those feelings to them, only for many of them to cut her out of their lives – really seems to tap into Randall's brain. You can see it registering on Randall's face: These are thoughts he's had but never been able to say – and isn't sure if he can say.
The segement serves as one of the most nuanced and thoughtful discussions in the episode, which makes it a shame that it's also given the shortest amount of screentime of all Tuesday's subplots. It's all fascinating material, but it's also a plotline that the episode forgets and goes away from for long periods of time and, therefore, the audience often does too.
This emotional breakthrough for Randall also comes frustratingly attached to some seemingly tied story threads, as its connection to the rest of the episode comes as Kevin wants to ask Randall to be his best man but is weirdly reluctant – and even thinks about resorting to a cold email at first. I appreciate the show noting that one good round of therapy and a Ghost Mom visit isn't going to immediately fix decades of a person's emotional and psychological tangles, and while the brothers may have reconnected before, that could've just been the high of a big event like childbirth, now faded. But still, didn't these two amend things? Having Kevin suddenly squeamish again about calling Randall doesn't quite track and makes this plotline feel like going in circles, despite the big internal revelations Randall's having. Again, maybe more screentime could've filled out some of the emotional gaps in this subplot or at least given us more of those fascinating conversations at the therapy circle.
Anyways, Kevin does finally work up the nerve to call Randall and ask him to serve as his best man, which Randall happily accepts. But as Kevin tries to pry a little bit more into having a deeper conversation about their childhood and the problems Randall might've had, you can see Randall clamming up. Those difficult but honest conversations he was hearing about at the therapy session? He's now bracing to have one of those himself and so should the audience.
5. Exes and oh nos
Well, at least things aren't foreboding with trouble on the horizon for Kevin's relationship with Madison, even with the little hiccup this week.
While Mevin (I prefer Kadison) prep their wedding, Madison sits on the fact that she really doesn't want to get married at the tabloid-approved venue Kevin and their celeb wedding planner have in mind. But after her chat with Toby at the park about learning how to speak up for herself – which, again, Toby didn't do the best job in engaging in – she returns home and confesses to Kevin that she doesn't want to get married at that spot. Instead, she's always wanted to get married at this very special garden from her childhood, a place where her parents took her that represents this final moment of unblemished, pure joy before they got divorced and her life changed forever. The aftermath might've been sad, but that day and that place still symbolize such happiness to her – and hearing her story – Kevin agrees to the new spot without hesitation.
See? Things are going so well! Nothing could interrupt this happy OH WAIT!
Indeed, the final few moments of the new episode are dedicated to several mystery people reading their wedding announcement (and the latest Meghan Markle news) in Us Weekly, eventually revealed to be ... three of Kevin's past romances: Cassidy, Zoe and – of course – Sophie. WHAT COULD IT MEAN!? But actually: What does it mean? They all seem happy in the montage so it doesn't seem like any dirt's gonna end up on those very Us Weekly pages. And while Sophie seems to hesitate for a moment, it's not like we see her book a plane ticket or start packing a bag to visit or write an email to reach out. (Plus, last we checked, didn't she have a fiancee anyways?) In fact, they're all just kind of giving pleased and knowing "good for him" reactions, making the whole end "reveal" less intriguing and more just ... random.
But also knowing "This Is Us," there's no way this is random and we haven't seen Madison in the future. Which tells me this likely isn't the last we're seeing them. Sorry, Kadison!
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.