Tuesday's new "This Is Us" was all about daddy issues. Well, not so much daddy issues as the dads themselves had issues, with just about every Pearson patriarch coping with the demands and disappointments of fatherhood – particularly from a distance, in the case of Toby, Kevin and Jack.
While they all had their problems to overcome, the episode itself didn't. Sure, there were some quibbles (as is tradition, here's where I grumble about preferring focused episodes over full-family sprawls); but "Four Fathers" was overall a charming and thoughtful one. Plenty of credit is due to co-writers Casey Johnson and David Windsor as well as Miguel himself, Jon Huertas, behind the camera, particularly showing off some hilariously deft comedic chops at the helm. After two quietly affecting episodes to start the year off, Tuesday night's latest might've been this season's most purely enjoyable hour.
Which fathers fared the best this week? Which ones are in trouble? And really, how are there STILL new mysteries to introduce?! Here are the five main takeaways from this week's new "This Is Us" – beyond the fact that I NEED a spinoff about that stoner movie theater employee ASAP.
1. Deja gets betrayed by technology
There are certain storylines that, no matter what genre of show it is, are guaranteed to go wrong for our characters – and "going for a driving lesson" is at the top of that list. So even with Deja and Randall quipping and cutely fist-bumping and gently ribbing one another's music tastes, we all knew their day of driver's ed was going to end in tears for somebody. And maybe for the bumper too.
Luckily, the bumper got away unscathed – but everyone's emotions didn't. While things started amicably enough, with Deja mocking Randall's old-man music and corny chemistry punchlines, she eventually receives a text message from Malik. The good news for Randall: She's a responsible driver and doesn't attempt to text and drive. The bad news for, well, everyone? The phone's connected to the car's voice navigation, automatically reading the text out loud and revealing that Deja didn't go to study with a friend last week but instead went to visit Malik, who's talking about how much he misses her next to him in bed. TECHNOLOGY, HOW COULD YOU BETRAY DEJA LIKE THIS!? This is how the robots will take over: not with guns or robo-lasers but by revealing all of our secrets and letting us wipe ourselves out. YOU ROBO-BASTARDS!
The impending robot apocalypse is child's play, however, compared to the awakened wrath of Randall and Beth, who brainstorm a range of punishments from a family grounded forever to murder with a backyard burial. (Their hilarious venting session was a painful reminder of how much I will miss Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson on screen together. In a show filled with great performer chemistry, theirs is undefeated.) Thankfully, before the show becomes a Netflix true crime story, the furious Randall goes for a rage-defusing run while the cooler-headed Beth gives speaking with Deja a shot – only to give her daugher, lying sad in bed, a comforting pat instead.
As it turns out, after the anger cooled, Beth came to a key realization: As hard it may be to believe, like it or not, Deja's grown up now. Time moves quickly, and she's no longer their little girl they knew, but someone about to become an adult and making adult choices. As much as Deja will have to learn her lesson from lying to them, they too will have to learn – mainly how to adjust their parenting to someone on the threshold of adulthood, how best to guide her through it rather than withhold her from it. And part of that will involve Beth taking Deja to get birth control – news she smartly breaks to Randall with the help of a calming chug of some tasty red vino. (Again: I will miss these two so much.)
Randall comes to see it Beth's way as well, giving a sweet speech to Deja about how they too need some grace as they move from seeing her as a child to protecting a young person. So this doomed storyline did end in tears after all – for the audience, that is – seeing parents marvel at how fast time can move and loved ones can grow.
That's not to say Deja's TOTALLY off the hook for lying, as she's still super-grounded and banned from visiting Malik at Harvard for the foreseeable future – a punishment a feisty Deja's not taking lying down. So this may not be the end of this particular storyline – but it's definitely the end of Deja plugging her phone into Randall's car anytime soon.
2. Kevin learns a hard lesson in fatherhood
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Kevin's learning his own important lessons about fatherhood and letting go as he gets used to his new co-parenting situation with Madison. At first, it seems fine enough, dropping by every morning to help an exhausted Madison out with waking the kids up and supplying the necessary coffee to fuel the day. The biggest problem early on is accidentally mixing up one another's blended caffeinated beverages and taking a swig of the wrong one – a problem when Madison likes her coffee monkfruited and nut-milked, somehow both actually things.
However, as time moves along, Kevin starts to feel more and more like he's missing out on his twins' childhood – getting texts and videos about those breakthrough baby moments instead of actually witnessing them himself. That sense of absence gets even worse, as he misses his real family while spending time at work with his new fake "Manny" family – including two creepy jelly babies, his actress wife, his young rebooted replacement and his squeaky-voiced step-daughter. (One of the episode's brief but best comedic moments, non-Randall and Beth division: Everyone side-eyeing the heck out of the step-daughter's ear-bending, sitcom-ready laugh.)
To complete the shame, while out on the town with his castmates, half-heartedly flirting with his Fran Drescher-voiced co-star, he gets a video of one of the baby's first steps. Kevin tries to race home to participate firsthand in this monumental moment, but by the time he pulls up, the babies are out cold for the night. And as certain other characters learn all too well this episode, you don't mess with a baby's sleep schedule.
Kevin finally snaps, grumping to Madison about how he's missing out on all the babies' major milestones – something she wouldn't understand because she gets to witness them all. And, well, Madison just doesn't have time for that bitter nonsense because, as she snappily explains, time with the twins isn't all wonderment and sentimental joy and major life moments. Actually, most of it is spittle and puke and cramming in sleep-deprived sustenance when possible. Their unique parenting situation is going to involve tradeoffs; in Kevin's case, that means maybe missing some major moments but also missing out on the day-to-day, wall-to-wall exhaustion, while for Madison, she gets to spend a lot of time with the babies ... but that also means spending A LOT of time with the babies.
Kevin eventually gets it and learns to accept it with the help of Toby, who gives a prop-assisted speech about how, in their unusual modern parental situations, he has to look at things through the lens of his relationship to the two kids, not comparing it to the relationship Madison has to their children. It's a really well-written speech – not just because it makes cogent points about focusing on your own relationship to your kids – but because it perfectly aces that late-night soliloquy combo of sincere insight and sleep-deprived insanity.
That being said, all this talk about "three perhaps stronger than four," accepting your own unique relationship to your kids and children benefiting more from happily separated parents rather than unhappily together parents sure is unsettlingly honest. That's true especially coming from Toby, a guy who – last we checked – is still together with Kate (for now). And when he presses down on his pyramid to show its strength, he sure does put a lot of angry pressure on it – beyond what's seemingly necessary to make his point. Gulp ...
3. Toby and Kate are delaying the inevitable
So yeah, we already know this isn't ending well – and we know at some point Kate's subbing Toby out for Mr. Grumblytrousers McBritish, who briefly appears here in slightly more charming form. (Admittedly a low bar – and he's still spends most of his screentime harrumphing about the existence of children and sharing fun stories from his divorce. Progress is progress!) But they don't know that – or at least they're trying very hard to not know that, as "Four Fathers" puts them back together but still not entirely on the same page.
In an opening montage, we see Toby and Kate trying to keep their relationship going despite the long distance, with their individual schedules beginning to clash and calls getting cut short. But they're still trying, with Toby making one of his regular weekend visits – complete with gifts. Unfortunately the kids are already down, so the kids' gifts will have to wait (cue the simmering tension boiling up an extra degree), but Kate gets her present: a new purse, a cool new box and some free time to get her hair all done up for her school's big recital. While she does that, Toby will watch the babies – because he knows all their patterns and schedules, right? (*cue nervous laughter*)
Indeed, Toby lets the babies spend their usual nap time with their new toys instead, resulting in some ornery toddlers come recital time, an ornery babysitter who's used to better behaving kids and an ornery Kate who TOLD TOBY that they had a new schedule to follow. Everything's going just great – and to add to the tension, Toby decides that he'll stay home with the kids to calm them down, leaving a disappointed Kate to go to the recital alone.
But hey, when she gets home, the kids are down, and the two of them are calming as well – with Toby, perhaps fueled by his speech to Kevin about forging one's own relationship with one's kids, pitching a big idea to Kate: a Big Green Egg smoker. No, he isn't just fond of smoked meats; he thinks this fancy new device can potentially serve as a catalyst for making fun memories during this odd and tricky phase they're in. Huh, I can't imagine the Big Green Egg company regretting this product placement. It's not like "This Is Us" has a history of soul-scarring, tragic moments connected to specific cooking implements ...
4. Jack Jr.'s back – with new secrets, backstories and a grill
Yes, if only the Big Green Egg people had talked to the Crock-Pot folks – because, as we briefly glean from some new flash-forwards with future rock star Jack Damon (aka Jack Jr.), the smoker is indeed going to make some memories for the Pearsons. BAD ones.
At the very start of "Four Fathers," we see Jack grilling away on his handy-dandy "Alien" egg replica, impressively making some tasty steaks for his wife. (Or at least I hope that was wife, considering how he seductively fed her a slice of meat later in the episode; I thought it was perhaps his sister at first, making that small moment HUGELY awkward.) The tasty smells of the grill, however, suddenly take Jack to a less-than-savory memory – his first one, at that, which we see through a bleary blind fog and hear only a little more clearly. A sizzling grill. Toby saying be careful. A hurt cry.
We don't quite know what happened yet, but we certainly know it left its mark – quite literally, as we find out at the end of the episode. On some level, there's something sweet about how Toby's silly grill idea did end up making a connection with his children, with Jack Jr. holding on to the (likely now outdated) smoker with some sense of sentimentality. However, the final flash-forward eventually reveals that Jack Jr. still has a scar hidden just above his forehead from whatever happened that day by the grill – a dramatic That Day which marked the end of his parents' marriage, according to his dining partner.
So what exactly happened? Well, unfortunately for the Big Green Egg's stock price, I'm guessing we'll find out soon. Or ... maybe not?
5. We're headed back to the past – but what about the future?
Jack has spent much of the past two seasons as a glorified cameo, but he came back in a fairly significant way on Tuesday night.
Considering the episode's fatherhood theme, of course Jack would play a significant role here. And his flashback storyline – featuring Jack giving the kids "The Full Jack Experience" by taking them to their first big-screen movie for some much-needed bonding time, only for Kevin to venture off and get lost – was pleasant. Admittedly, it was a little redundant, as a lot of its points – about fathers feeling distant from their kids, finding out parenting is a full-time gig and making the most of their moments together – were made just fine in the other present-day subplots. But it was sweet and charming – especially when, with Rebecca's encouragement, Jack turned a bad day into a spectacular sundae-fueled one. And perhaps most important of all, it gave us some time spent with that hilarious mutton-chopped theater doofus (not to mention some nifty retro movie posters in the background).
But then, at the very end of the episode, Jack's subplot revealed a twist: His mother just died. Then the preview for next week's hour heavily emphasized Jack coming back home to bury his mother and speak at her funeral.
Now, this could all be very moving – especially with the ominous specter of Rebecca's fate hanging over everything – and just because the sneak peek focused on one plot doesn't mean the whole episode will. Just ask Deja's trip to see Malik in episode two.
But – and no offense to Jack and his dearly departed mother – do we have time for this?
Even before this season began, "This Is Us" had a lot on its plate – and these early episodes have spent more time adding to its to-do list rather than taking things off. How's Rebecca doing – and when does it all start truly falling apart? What earned Randall that glowing profile in The New Yorker? Kate and Toby still need to have their official falling out – and after that, Kate (and we) still need to fall in love with Mr. Grumblytrousers McBritish. And with all of that, when are we getting to Jack Jr.'s traumatic memory with the smoker? When and how did Kevin start building both that cabin AND their construction company? And in case that wasn't enough to get to with Kevin, just this very episode, we brought Cassidy back into the fold as Kevin ended the episode by calling his former rehab buddy in a time of need rather than his flirty flaky-voiced costar. (Phew to that choice.)
That's a lot to get through – and a lot of time needed if "This Is Us" wants to land these threads in an actually satisfying manner. So with all of that: Is a Jack flashback episode the best use of our dwindling time?
I don't doubt "This Is Us" can turn that subplot into a dramatic and emotionally rewarding episode – but in the end, will it come at the cost of a dramatic and emotionally rewarding grand finale? I have my concerns. But, if there's one thing I've learned from "This Is Us" over these years, it's to always trust the show to zag when you expect a zig.
Oh, and also, never buy cooking devices.
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.