By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Mar 17, 2021 at 5:56 PM

Starving for "This Is Us" after several weeks of downtime? Good news: The show is back – and it's time for a feast. Three feasts, to be particular, as it's time for dinner across almost all of the storylines on Tuesday night's new episode. And unfortunately, for most of the night, you probably wanted to ask to be excused from all of them considering how well they went for the various limbs of the Pearson family tree, past and present.

With no further ado, let's dig in to the five biggest takeaways from dinner(s) with the Pearsons.

1. Toby having a tough time – and Kevin's help isn't helping

After days of racing babies to the changing station and pumping milk while wearing your finest cow pajamas – indeed, an unfortunate choice, Madison – the two new Pearson parents, Kevin and Kate, are in desperate need of a break, so it's time for a night of dinner and drinks.

Don't get too relaxed, though, because Toby's looking for a different kind of break – and not getting it. Since losing his job, he's snagged a lot of Zoom job interviews but no actual job offers to show for it – and his latest interview, complete with a collapsing fake backdrop and baby sounds from the new infant getting gently rocked with a golf club, doesn't seem like it's going to end that losing streak. But wait! After a mild breakdown from Toby, the guy says that he's actually one of their top contenders for the gig – a cause for celebration! (And also a cause to start wearing pants, Toby; we can't have two Pearsons having webcam mishaps in a single season.)

Unfortunately, the optimism is short-lived as Toby gets an email that the company went in another direction with the position. Drat! And the place even had a room exclusively for cereal! There are bigger concerns than not having a Captain Crunch work den, though, as Toby's still without a job and, in his mind, without a purpose in their family, slackingly unable to support his wife and children.

Well, surely being surrounded by Kevin's comparatively ostentatious wealth and comfort will make everything better! And since Toby specifically told Kate not to bring up his unemployment to her brother, surely it will stay a secret for the rest of the night! I have no worries about a calm, collected dinner awaiting us! 

And as expected, the night is a nightmare, as Toby clearly feels imposter syndrome, embarrassed by his lack of a job and even more embarrassed as Kevin accidentally smothers him with his comfortable lifestyle: cigars, nannies on standby, all manner of baby toys and comfort aids with strange names that may or may not be Swedish. Kevin's trying to be generous and giving with his privilege, but for Toby, licking his wounds and resenting that he can't provide in the same way, it's coming off condescending. And after one too many offers from Kevin to lend various Scandinavian baby beds, an exasperated Toby snaps, accidentally announcing his unemployment to Kevin and – worse yet – haphazardly degrading Madison as well by implying that their nannies are doing most of the work. 

Luckily, though he strongly defends Madison, Kevin acknowledges that what he perceives as generosity can come across as bragging or condescension; and, as he notes, he just wrapped up one fight with a brother, so he's not looking for a fresh one. Plus, the show doesn't mention this directly, but there is a pandemic on, wreaking havoc on people's lives and mental spaces.

Would Toby be this on-edge if he wasn't cooped up for about a year, unable to escape his guilt and shame about being unemployed? Hard to say – his sense of pride and purpose would still be dinged nevertheless – but the mental strain of a cloistered life, plus the uncertainty of the world, couldn't help. Either way, it's a very real interaction from "This Is Us," two people close as family facing their economic differences and how sides perceive their interactions in those financial frames. 

Even though he realizes his tone and approach may have been misguided, in classic Jack-like manner, Kevin still wants to help. So he tells Kate off to the side that, if they ever need anything, he's there to help – and somehow I worry this isn't going to just stop there. I've been doing a lot of unsubstantiated worrying about Kate and Toby's storyline – and yes, Kate does take a job as a teaching assistant to help them get by for the time being, so things aren't dire per se – but I just keep seeing sad Toby arriving sad and alone at the house in the future and wondering what happened there. Maybe he falls back into depression during this unemployment spell, one that boils into anger and shame when he hears of a secret loan between Kate and Kevin?

I hope that I'm wrong, as I have been with most of my Kate and Toby predictions this season. But money troubles don't go away easy – and even a nice show like "This Is Us" knows that they can end ugly.

2. Jack wants a promotion, throws a party instead

The times may be different, but the money's just as tight in the past with Jack and Rebecca.

Just like Toby, though, there's a glimmer of hope on the horizon as Jack preps for a fancy dinner with some co-workers and their boss – who might serve up a promotion for dessert if things go his way and if he can bring the charm to the table. And Jack does exactly that, sitting quietly but chiming in when he has something good – like a winning story about how he got to chat with Pittsburgh Pirates great Willie Stargell as the baseball player looked around the parking lot for his car after a game, only to remember he took a limo. (VERY relatable.)

Unfortunately, somebody has to pay for this chummy night of chow and cocktails – and of course the boss doesn't just offer to take it on (which seems like the correct play for a work dinner where the table's tilted). Instead, everyone – including a very anxious Jack – throws their cards in for a round of credit card roulette, and the cruel hand of their waitress selects Jack's AMEX card for the $200-plus bill. If $200 doesn't sound the most painful for fancy dinner and drinks for four, with inflation, that'd be about a $650 tab today. So Jack went into the night looking for more money and instead coughed up a nice down payment. Erps! 

Indeed, Rebecca isn't pleased – and while Jack argues that he'll be able to pay back the credit card debt, she decides she won't give him the chance to add any more to it by taking over the family finances. He's fine with it, she's fine with it – and, in the end, the kids were fine with it, as Kate touchingly calls Rebecca at the end of the night to thank her for making their childhood feel rich despite their hardships.

The subplot comes to a bit of an anti-climax, as it's a chunk of screentime dedicated to a problem fixed without much of a harrumph – but it's still a nice, if not particularly detailed, snapshot of a family discussing and navigating lower-middle class struggles, something not often discussed on TV outside of Very Important Programming specifically about the topic. Plus, linking Toby and Jack underlines the episode's theme of men's insecurities about making appearances as men-of-the-house breadmakers, leading one to snap about receiving help and the other to toss out money he didn't have to throw. It's clearly not just about the money, especially for Toby; it's about their assumed roles and the dignity and identity that they tie into them.

Jack took the help from Rebecca; it looks like Toby will too with Kate going back to work – but again, I can't help but ominously remember a solo Toby looking glum at the future meet-up. I'd hate for him to lose so much more than his job through this all. 

3. Randall's family dinner isn't going any better

The good news: The finances all seem in check over at Randall and Beth's house. (After all, the two just can't stop falling into acquiring more property.) The bad news: That didn't make their dinner on Tuesday's episode any more chill than the rest. 

Over there, mommy, not money, was the stressor of choice as the great Phylicia Rashad returned as Carol, Beth's demanding mom – and growingly unwanted house guest. Indeed, Carol's watchful and judgmental eye was infecting the good vibes in the house, second-guessing all of Beth's cooking and cleaning with a very vocal side-eye, annoyingly taking over star parent duties with the kids – even learning Tess' friend Alex's pronouns better than Beth – and, most horrifying of all, teaching the kids to love "NCIS." THAT'S A BRIDGE TOO FAR, CAROL! It's getting so tense and toxic in the house that Randall's made himself a nice little retreat outside on the porch so he can work in peace – or just plain escape with a nice IPA. Because sometimes the best cure for family drama is a deep breath and beer. 

Thankfully, there is another cure: Carol's finally going back home. So Beth prepares one big final feast to show their appreciation (for her departure, maybe) not to mention show off her cooking and parenting skills. Just one problem, though: Carol's not leaving after all. In fact, she's having such a great time that she's going to book a stay for an extra week. Oh boy, welp, it looks like the Scotch bonnet peppers aren't going to be the only things heated tonight at dinner. 

To make matters even more tense, Malik joins Randall on his escape porch to ask for some advice on a personal subject: His ex, as well as the mother to his daughter, now wants to be a part of the child's life. Randall clearly of two minds: Obviously Malik is dating Deja, and Randall would hate to encourage anything that could get in the way of his own daughter's happiness and relationship ... but at the same time, Randall knows all too well how important it can be for children to know their parents. Each situation's different, as Randall points out, but in his personal experience, it's something he needed and wanted, something that stuck with him and held him back for much of his life. 

Safe to say the table is set for some drama ... and also Beth's curry too, I guess. 

And indeed, it doesn't take long for things to go sour. It starts as just little triggers, like Beth wanting to clear the table of phones to impress an unimpressed Carol, but it only grows from there. After Beth misgenders Alex again, Tess reveals that they're actually dating – and have been for several weeks. Cue Beth being upset that her daughter didn't think she could tell her about this big life moment – and cue a Carol eyebrow raise. And another one. And one too many, as Beth eventually snaps at her mother and says that her judgement is no longer wanted in their house. 

While we're at it, cue Malik getting one too many text messages from his ex – and making one too many glances over at Randall while he explains what the situation is, making it easy for Deja to figure out that Randall and Malik talked about a decision that might hurt her in the end.

By the end, there's no way there's enough room on the escape porch for everyone – and the only person happy with how dinner's gone is Annie, who gets bonus iPad time.

Thankfully, things do simmer down as Beth goes to talk with Carol and – surprise – finds out that the judgment actually comes from a place of jealousy as Carol is very lonely. Now that the children are all gone and her husband's passed away, she's alone in a cold and quiet home, missing the company and chaos – even if she's a little harsh to Beth about it. She's clinging to Beth's family and her old role as mother because she doesn't feel she has much else right now at this point in her life. It's the classic cliche: She's overly critical and concerned because she cares. Obviously, Beth can't send her back home to an empty house now; Carol needs this, and considering they're two working adults with three busy teen daughters, maybe they need her too. So Carol's staying – which means so is the escape porch and hopefully a steady supply of IPAs. Because just because mother and daughter understand each other better doesn't mean they'll get any less snappy. 

Meanwhile, on the father-daughter side of the family, Randall and Deja hash things out as well, with Deja explaining that she expects that her dad will put her first – and she doesn't feel like he did in this case, thinking about Malik before her. Randall gets it and ensures her that he'll always have her back and be her number one, cooling off the tension and thankfully leaving the leftover curry as the only thing still simmering in the Pearson household. 

It's a sweet storyline – though admittedly not the most essential one to the episode. It wasn't hard to predict that Carol's overbearing attitude would be revealed as loneliness as opposed to lordliness, and while the dinner motif tied in with the episode, the problems at this table didn't quite fit in with the rest. But as if I'm going to complain too much about a subplot that not only brings back Rashad's delicious performance but potentially promises more of it. Plus, it ends with a father and daughter bonding over trashing the ex's Instagram, so I call this arc a win.

4. Nicky's back!

What, you thought "This Is Us" was just going to have a nice, normal episode with no big reveals or revelations? Are you new here?

Indeed, just when we were settled in for the end credits, scenes from the next episode and maybe the first few minutes of "New Amsterdam" if we were feeling lazy and the remote was too far away, here comes a knock at Kevin and Madison's door. Would it be the douchebag director guy begging him to come back to set for his probably-not-good courtroom movie? Would it be Sophie, a sword still seemingly dangling over Kevin's relationship? Would it be that guy he saved from that car crash a few episodes ago? (Remember when Kevin did that? Just a real normal plot point.) Maybe a complete stranger?

Nope, it turned out to be somebody we know quite well – and somebody we missed quite a bit: Nicky. And dear reader, I genuinely made a little squealing "eep!" of happiness and cheered seeing Griffin Dunne back on my screen.

Somehow, despite has auspicious origins – a newly introduced, unheard of brother essentially ressurrected from the dead – Nicky turned into one of the best storylines and characters on the show, and there was something sad about how, after finally finding his footing and movingly becoming a member of a family again after Vietnam, it seemed like the show had left him in the dust. He was now just someone vaguely mentioned and referenced offscreen despite his tightly made bonds, especially with Kevin. But not anymore! Nicky's back – and it appears like the next episode is going to be all about catching up with him and the steps (not to mention flights) he's taken to improve himself, overcome anxieties and link back up with the Pearsons. Feel free, Nicky, to pull a Carol and stay for a little while extra afterward too ... 

5. Riding the rough rhythm of this season

Making a movie, television show or any entertainment is a miraculous feat in its own right – much less during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. So the fact that we're getting new episodes of "This Is Us" right now – and good ones, at that – in any shape, order or fashion merits first and foremost a very appreciative hat tip to the smart, hard-working cast and crew of the show.

I'd be lying, though, if this has been the most engaged I've been with the series – something that lies entirely at the feet of this insane chapter of time we're currently living in, not of the creators. After all, the storylines – almost certainly altered at least a bit thanks to working around the pandemic – are still solid, and the performances and characters are still compelling. 

Part of it is just purely pandemic brain, that collective feeling that we've still never left March 2020 and that it's hard to invest in much outside of our day-in, day-out activities. There's a reason why ratings are down for just about everything, across the board; we've all lost our collective moorings, and it's a haze trying to keep track of when or where anything's happening, much less how much we're supposed to care.

But in case locking our gunked-up brains on a show wasn't enough of a new challenge, the pandemic has also jostled this "This Is Us" season into disjointed chunks and unpredictable pieces. Thanks to disruptions predictable (the election, winter break) and wildly the opposite (COVID delays, then and now), we've just now surpassed the midway mark of the season, ten episodes spread out across almost half a year. There have been more hiatuses (four, including the one-week election pause) than new episodes in a row (three), and some of those intermissions, such as the latest, were unexpected and unexpectedly longer. As a result, it's been challenging to get into the groove of this season.

Admittedly, it's been a fairly hook-free season thus far. While past years had Jack's death, Vietnam, Kevin's addiction battle, facing Rebecca's mental decline and other arcs, this season hasn't quite landed on a story to lock this fifth run together. There seems to be something overall about building the foundation of the next generation of Pearsons into the future – but if that's the throughline, it's been hard to track – even more so across all the broadcast gaps and mental intermissions we've been taking. It's always been a tricky juggling act, for both the writers and the audience, to keep up with all of the show's intertwined subplots – and now these breaks keep turning the lights out in the middle of it all, resulting in chunks of a story rather than a smooth and coherent one thus far. 

But while this hasn't been the easiest season to get into, it almost certainly hasn't been the easiest to make in the first place – and at least it's a new season to watch, to provide distraction from our crazy world and, in the case of the video chat tribute episode a month ago, to express our feelings and capture this bizarre moment with art. No matter how they arrive, new episodes are certainly preferrable to no episodes – so thanks for that, "This Is Us." Unlike Toby on Tuesday, I'll accept these gifts. 

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.