After a trip to the cabin, it's back to reality for the Big Three this week on "This Is Us" – and back to a whole bunch of storylines that need addressing. Would Randall's therapy take? Are Kate and Toby kaput? Madison and Kevin: still a thing? Let's discuss the five biggest takeaways from "Clouds" – after I finish opening up all of these baseball card packs. Ooh – and bad gum!
1. Therapy goes poorly for Randall – and "This Is Us"
After a season of hinting, teasing and eventually pushing Randall past his boiling point – and decades in the show of avoiding a visit – "This Is Us" finally brought Randall to therapy. Unfortunately, the first appointment didn't go as hoped for Randall – or for the audience.
Credit where credit is due: The visual approach from director Sarah Boyd was a fascinating one, keeping the therapist unknown and off-camera for Randall's entire visit, emphasizing his discomfort and disconnect, before finally showing her face (oh hey, Pamela Adlon!) in the final montage after Randall truly commits to the process and allows her into his feelings and mind as opposed to playing constantly on the defensive.
It was an effective and unexpected approach – if only the writing was as nuanced and thoughtful.
For a show trying to portray the health and importance therapy – especially to men, who notoriously refuse mental healthcare – it was frustrating to watch "This Is Us" on Tuesday write the therapist as very much the Hollywood version of the job: this cold, aloof, probing inquisitor who's seemingly in "gotcha" mode trying to trap their patient with psychological games into emotional reveals. Not to get into nitpick mode, but that's just not really how therapists work; it's more often their job to engage rather than to inspect, to build trust rather than tension. Maybe it's because the scenes were directed so much from Randall's distracted and distanced perspective, but the writing never felt real – especially as the unseen therapist reveals that she's seen his political speeches and knew about his family history, and silently sits off-camera while Randall harangues about her paintings, coffee machine and lobby magazine collection as well as his crucial role in the Pearson family.
Again, portraying the session so aggressively from Randall's chilly and defensive perspective was an interesting choice, but the writing for the therapist never quite gelled with the approach. Maybe the therapist's tricky and cold words were more in Randall's head – but no matter the case, it landed less like Randall's reluctance shaping reality and more like simply a tedious and cliche TV therapy session.
The good news: Randall and "This Is Us" are not done. In a far better sequence, Beth reveals to Randall after his session all of the things she's been keeping from him since the break-in – pepper spray in her purse for locking up the dance studio, an iPhone for their daughter because she wants to know where she is at all times – because she was too afraid he would crack from any extra stress or pressure. And with that information, with the knowledge that this therapy isn't just for him but for those he cares about, Randall returns with a more open mind – and, conveniently enough, a more open therapist. Perhaps now we'll get some better sessions, for Randall and for viewers.
2. A lot of a lot
I've been so spoiled lately. Between the three solo episodes and last week's cabin-centric hour, I've gotten a bunch of my beloved focused episodes of "This Is Us." So we were certainly due for a return to my least favorite type of "This Is Us": the barrage of subplots. Kevin and Rebecca road trip! Randall in therapy! Kate forgiving ... everybody! Report card flashbacks! Teen Randall and Jack running! Teen Kate sad about a breakup – no, not that breakup! A further flashback to Jack and Rebecca being cute ... because why not. (No, seriously, why not? I'm not against bonus adorableness; the show owes us after Marc.)
That's not to say the storylines didn't work or didn't have lovely moments within them; I just wanted a little more time with each subplot to make them hit more effectively and deeply – especially considering how significant many of them were, such as Randall's first dip into therapy and Kate finally coming to terms with Toby. It was one of those hours where every storyline felt just a bit undercooked and underserved, each one feeling like a sidenote, like an appetizer instead of a full meal. And as a result, the emotional ties between subplots felt a little thin, making the episode feel a little sporadic and landing with a vague "having people to confide in is good" theme.
Again: not a bad episode, but not a favorite on the season either. (Which, by the way, only three episodes left!)
3. The tribute to Rebecca continues (with bonus Kevin)
This season's admittedly been one of the show's most unfocused, with no real obvious through line carrying it along – but if there's one thing I've loved in season four, it's been watching Mandy Moore's Rebecca move to the forefront. She's low-key been turning in wonderful performances for a few seasons now, and it's lovely watching the show give her and her character the glowing adulation and spotlight that Jack received for the precious three seasons – from the retreat with Kate during her solo episode to, now, this episode's adventures with Kevin.
In the present, Kevin goes to visit Rebecca and reveals that, yes, he knows about her cognitive decline. She apologizes for not telling him sooner – and, as a bonus, they decide to make a day out of getting her dreaded MRI results, spinning by the record shop to listen to the Joni Mitchell album that gives this episode its name and then, because why not, spinning by Joni Mitchell's old house, a destination Jack and her tried to hit on their early West Coast trip but missed. Thanks to Kevin's ingenuity and lack of concern, the two break into the property (after all, as he notes, breaking into Joni Mitchell's house with his mom is the most adorable tabloid headline possible), relax and sing a bit. Yes, because Rebecca loves Joni Mitchell – but also because she could use a little distraction from the impending bad MRI news and she's enjoying her new "carpe diem" life approach, one she needs the infamously fun-focused Kevin's help in maintaining.
Speaking of the fun-loving Kevin, during his childhood flashbacks, we see him nag Rebecca into taking him to the baseball card shop so he can try to find the final one he needs: a John Candelaria card. What starts off as a quick five-minute visit, however, turns into a fun afternoon out as Rebecca gets into Kevin's search through the cards – and even into the awful gum that comes inside each pack. It's a modest and simple storyline, but it's precious and sweet – so much so that you don't even think about the fact that the milk and cold products Rebecca bought at the grocery store almost certainly went bad in the car.
Unfortunately, they can't forget about the MRI results – as much as Rebecca tries; amazingly Kevin is the responsible one keeping her on task – but still, she makes Kevin promise that he'll keep things light and be the happy, goofy guy that she needs right now during these potentially dark times. We'll see how that meshes with Randall's very much the opposite approach ...
4. Not the proudest Pearson parenting moments
Jack and Rebecca are often considered to be #ParentGoals – but not Tuesday night. First of all, what the heck was the deal with that strange report card ritual? Instead of, you know, just looking at the Big Three's grade-school report cards, apparently the Pearsons had this weird system where Kate, Kevin and Randall sit around the kitchen table with their report cards face down in front of them while Jack goes around like some strange game show host, flipping over the grades and announcing the results to the room. Feels like a great way to traumatize your kids and, say, cause one of them to have a serious life-long anxiety problem! No wonder Randall's a perfectionist who struggles with stress.
Speaking of which, after Randall freaks out about his unacceptable A-, Rebecca voices some concern about their son's high-strung mental health – even recommending perhaps a therapist. Instead, however, Jack waves that off and figures he has the solution to Randall's stress struggles: exercise. It's well-intended, but it's very much an old-school toxic masculinity approach to mental health, burying one's emotional struggles and using physical work to distract from the root of the problem instead of actually opening up and facing one's emotions. It makes sense that Jack – a man of a certain generation, of a certain upbringing and of a certain mentality of how a man should handle his emotional business – would teach Randall to power through his anxiety as opposed to truly facing one's demons, and again, it's well-intended. But as we see now decades later, it was also ineffectual, never teaching Randall how to cope with his feelings and instead just letting things build up and bubble over inside.
I'll be interested to see if these therapy sessions further challenge how Jack approached these more nuanced emotional topics. For a character often deified by the Big There and the show itself, it's always interesting when it dives into his flaws or simple misconceptions – and how those small details can develop a person.
5. Happy to be wrong about Toby and Kate
Boy, was I not looking forward to this subplot this week. Last week, I unhappily predicted that Kate and Toby would finally reach their breaking point after Kate saw bruises on Jack Jr.'s back from Toby having to perform emergency CPR on their choking child. After all, we've been waiting for the downfall for most of this season – the future seems to say things don't turn out well between the two – and that brief medical drama just seemed too random to not serve a larger purpose in the "This Is Us" narrative. And it was going to suck, both because it'd be a plot point based on an annoying misunderstanding and because Toby was just starting to bond with his blind son, which is some real maximum misery porn.
Thankfully, at least in "Clouds," I was completely wrong, and the episode went almost completely right for KaToby. WOO! *pops confetti popper*
Things started rough, as a new emotionally engaged Toby apologizes to Kate for what he said and what he hasn't been doing for their young family, even showing off a music studio he wants to build in the garage. But Kate doesn't take the apology – and instead, she goes to deal with a different apology: Madison, who still feels awkward and terrible about hooking up with her bestie's brother. The conversation thankfully moves away from brother-shtupping and toward Kate and Toby, with Kate confiding that she doesn't know if Toby genuinely has changed or if he's just telling and showing her what she wants to see. Madison points out: Why not both? And why is it such a bad thing; isn't part of a marriage having a significant other to share and work through your insecurities?
Overall, it's exactly the pep talk Kate needs – minus the part at the end where Madison saying WAAAAAY too much about her and Kevin's bedroom time. She doesn't need to know you were upside down at one point – and nether do I for that matter. Though I did need to know that Madison will kill a person if necessary. Conveniently enough, I actually have a former boyfriend and record store employee in mind ...
Anyways, back to more pleasant topics. Kate officially forgives Toby, and he gets to show her the pièce de résistance of his grand garage music studio gesture: a musical playpen dedicated for Little Jack. There, though some quick flashbacks, we see Jack Jr. grow up from baby playing with his musical toys to learning instruments to playing in a teen band and starting his soon-to-be-thriving music career. And it's thanks to Toby, his weekend with Jack and his music studio. So here's to Toby – and here's to me hopefully continuing to be wrong about this storyline.
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.