Because 2020 is a jerk, Tuesday night marked the last "This Is Us" episode of the year, going on holiday hiatus for two months after just three quick episodes. But before the show says goodbye after just a trio of nights with the Pearsons, let's talk about the five biggest revelations and takeaways from Tuesday's fall finale, "Honestly" – from what's working this season to what's not and whose storyline is about to take a big turn.
1. Take Your Daughter's Boyfriend To Work Day goes wrong for Randall
Randall is still one of the best characters on "This Is Us" – partly because of the depth he's been gifted by the writers, partly because Sterling K. Brown is a terrific actor surrounded by equally great supporting performers. (Here's to Susan Kelechi Watson once again making a delicious meal out of her few lines this week.) But can we stop saddling him these days with some of the show's worst subplots, please? First there was the political campaign season. Now there's this idiotic episode which, while not as detrimental as the campaign storyline (mostly because it's only one show long as opposed to most of a season), is painfully silly and contrived – ironic considerinng the episode's called "Honestly."
It starts pleasant enough. Malik is shadowing Randall at work – much to the Deja's hilarious chagrin and Randall's devious dad-like delight. Boy, how the tables turn, however, as Randall's not cackling as much after he puts a yawning Malik in charge of hitting record and stop on his daily community livestream ... and his young ward forgets the second part. Yes, while Malik is distracted talking on the phone with his mom, Randall's getting ready for a mid-day run by dancing, singing and stripping live on camera for the whole city to see. Who's laughing now, Randall!
I'll tell you who isn't laughing about any of this: me – becacuse unless everybody in this storyline snagged a full-frontal lobotomy the night before, I don't buy any of it. Would Malik really wander away from the screen to take a call and immediately brainfart the one simple task his beloved girlfriend's dad gave him? Why wouldn't he just take the call at the laptop, where he could talk and monitor the video at the same? Does Randall really seem like the kind of person who wouldn't check in on Malik and the video after yelling cut? And more so, does Randall seem like he would dance and strip not only in front of a recently live camera, but at his workplace where any constituent could walk in? I know we're living in a post Jeffrey Toobin world, but none of this tracks as coherent human behavior.
Thankfully, because Randall only stripped off his top half – and because, hey, who's really gonna complain about a ripped Randall giving you a show – it's less of a career-ender and more of simply an embarrassment. Sure, he's now the world's latest meme going viral, but so was the Ocean Spray guy and now we've all moved on.
Even more thankfully, the rest of the storyline improves signifiantly after the idiotic livestream incident. Randall and Malik have a sit-down where Randall understandably asks what the flying flipper F-word happened. (Phrased more delicately, as you can imagine.) And yes, Malik owns up to walking away from the screen and being absentminded – but the call was about his daughter, and his yawn from before wasn't from boredom or laziness but from waking up at the crack of dawn to prepare her for a day without him. Randall offers a nice speech about not letting one's circumstances shrink the size of one's ambition; Malik counters with all of his ambitions, including fancy schools, culinary education and Michelin stars. It's sweet and pleasant, all ending with Randall happily agreeing to give Malik an internship to help puff up his college resumes.
See, everyone wins in the end! Well, except Deja ... and me, because there's unfortunately too much bad plotting getting in the way of the show's good character moments and emotional beats. Next time, writers, let's keep our heads on straight – and Randall's shirt on.
2. Kevin's having a bad time with a bad director
Kevin's breakthrough role might end up breaking him before a single camera rolls – at least judging by their first cast read-through of the script.
Things start well with Kevin hitting it off with his co-star Ava (Jamie Chung, last seen in HBO's "Lovecraft Country"), but then their director shows up, indie wunderkind Jordan Martin Foster – a name with both three first names and three last names, so you already have the feeling he might suck. And indeed, he lives down to expectations as, while he can't stop complimenting Ava, he completely ignores Kevin at best and plays weird mind games with him at worst, constantly interrupting his line readings and making him redo them without any reasoning or advice for what he's looking for.
Important note for any young filmmakers watching this show: Don't be like this! This is a bad director!
The point of a director is to provide guidance to help all aspects of the movie come together and create a unified vision. What use is he if he constantly makes Kevin read the same lines over and over again with no input or conversation on what it is exactly he's looking for?! He's just leaving Kevin out to dry, frustrating him and not helping him get anymore in sync with the character or the lines. Sure, there are instances in history of tempermental directors playing mind games to get a good performance out of an actor. (Hollywood? A place where poor behavior can be rewarded? Why I never!) But people aren't putting up with that nonsense anymore – certainly not when there doesn't seem to be a point to the tedious hang-ups. It's just too pompous to believe.
At the end, the show tries to give his strangely combative approach a purpose by having Jordan Martin Foster say that he's pushing Kevin to reach greatness by making him work harder. But he can't reach greatness if the director's being more of a hinderance than help, thinking tough love, crappy treatment and the silent treatment count as directing. He's just too rude, unprofessional and antagonistic to be believed, and while the show tries to soften him up and reveal that he's just wanting the best for Kevin, his big explanation comes off less like a collaborative artist thoughtfully, if testily, trying to get something special out of his performers and more like a jerk trying to rationalize his toxic on-set behavior. Maybe that's where this is going, but that'd be quite an oddly inside-baseball direction to take.
Unfortunately, it's another example during this episode of fake plot mechanics getting in the way of really smart character work – because while Jordan Martin Foster is an irritating contrivance, the rest of Kevin's storyline is really fascinating and thoughtfully done, tying in three timelines to show how his parents formed who he is today – for better or worse.
In the far back past, Jack and Rebecca are sleeplessly trying to cope with Kevin's non-stop crying. Rebecca wants to go in and comfort him, but Jack says no, they have to let him cry it out and learn tough love – despite how much they may want to help.
Later on, in his grade school years, Kevin is the subject of another parenting debate as Rebecca and Jack spar over how to treat their son's stumbles on the football team. After his coach (hello George Eads, formerly of "CSI!" Long time, no see!) points out that he's fallen behind on the playbook, Kevin wants to quit – and while Rebecca wants to let him, or at least take the foot off the gas, Jack insists that he power through it. And he does, teaming up with Randall and his rainbow memorization system to learn the playbook.
It's a lesson clearly learned for Kevin, as for one, he still adorably uses the rainbow method for his acting career in the current day timeline, and he's learned the importance of sticking with something and working hard to earn something. Jack's tough love worked in that regard; as the Rolling Stones cover chimes in over the ending montage, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need." But at the same time, the approach also gave Kevin some of the wrong takeaways, including resentment toward his parents and an often desperate need for validation that he never feels like he got from his parents – one that's led to many of his mental and emotional health issues as an adult.
It's a complex and complicated look at what parents teach and pass down to their kids – both on purpose and on accident – and, as always with "This Is Us," how the past shapes our present and future. A shame all of that comes attached to such a dim look at how movie directors work.
3. A secret in Kate's past
Here I was, all set to write my usual complaint that Kate's storyline was once again the runt of the episode's litter. It certainly had the least screentime of the bunch as Kate (and Toby, via a livestream) accompany potential surrogate Ellie to one of her OBGYN appointments to get their first look and updates on the baby. And while the two are trying to keep their enthusiasm realistic and restrained, Kate can't help herself and accidentally calls the baby by their selected name – Chloe – which clearly throws off Ellie.
This is about when my drama alarms started to ring, and I started making plans for this storyline to end in a courtroom battle – something we surprisingly haven't seen that much of on "This Is Us." But instead, Ellie and Kate simply have a nice, honest conversation outside about why the name hit her so strangely: As it turns out, Chloe was the name of a girl who almost killed Ellie's relationship with her future husband before it even began with mean high school gossip. So it's not a case of second-guessing her decision; in fact, she's all in on the baby going to Toby and Kate, emphasizing that point to Kate by saying she considered getting an abortion but now seems happy knowing the child will go to a happy home. I guess we can put away the legal battle alarm. (FOR NOW!) But it still leaves this storyline feeling a little slight and mostly a sidenote.
That is, until a final reveal.
Kate seems pretty impacted by Ellie's story – but not because of the bullying or the sense of a dodged bullet. As Kate tells Toby later that night – the first time she's told anyone this memory, she notes – she's hung up on the part about the abortion because she too had an unexpected pregnancy, one that the show implies ended in abortion (or maybe an adoption situation of her own, but boy does this season not need ANOTHER surprise relative subplot). The news broke as the rest of the family was leaving town for a New York City trip and right after Kate (and the rest of the Pearson clan) finally ended her terrible relationship with wormy sleazebag abuser Marc.
The good news is that Kate's storyline, instead of kind of ambling about as a charming detour, finally has some forward momentum and some emotional heft behind it, as we're probably going to start diving into this unexplored phase of Kate's life – one where she fell out with Rebecca and her eating disorder began to truly take ahold. She's finally getting some more of the depth that Randall and Kevin have enjoyed for so long, and that have made their characters flourish so much.
The bad news is that, as the episode implies and the preview confirms, Marc – aka the worst – is coming back. And the fact that he STILL doesn't look like he's ever taken a shower is the least of my concerns ...
4. Randall's resurrected birthmom storyline might not be fully jumping the shark
Side-eye is not a strong enough word to describe the looks I've been giving the "Randall's mom lived" subplot thus far. Considering its soapy retconning approach – and the fact that "This Is Us" already pulled this twist with Nicky – I've been giving this arc such an intense side glance that my eyes are actually looking at the walls of my skull's sockets. But "Honestly" gives me hope that MAYBE this won't be as drastic of a shark-jump as I've feared.
Mainly because it seems as though Laurel may be dead in the show's main current day timeline.
At the end of the episode, Randall's accidental statesman strip show makes the viral rounds all the way to the Vietnamese man from the previous episode. But he's not interested in Randall's pecs of political power. He's captivated by the speech before the snafu, particuclarly the part where he references that he's doing this all for his birth father, William Hill – a name that this still-unknown man clearly recognizes. He also seems like he's tearing up, not the reaction I would expect from somebody who's having a sudden thoughts and memories about a wife that's still alive. And considering we've still only seen Laurel in photographs and heard about her as this vague and elusive figure, I'm thinking that she's no longer with us.
And while I don't want to wish death upon anybody, I think that's likely the best possible direction for this show to take.
To have Randall suddenly be able to confront his miraculously undead birth mom seems to pat and neat, to say nothing of the ridiculousness of it all to have one family have two previously deceased family members zombie back to life – and in basically a year or two's time, at that! I still think this subplot is stretching plausibility and showing a lack of creativity on the writers' part, but Randall learning about his birth mother's missing chapters from this Vietnamese man – who will clearly reach out when the show returns next year – and reflecting on what this means about his thoughts on William, Rebecca and his life story without her conveniently holding his hand through it could make the best of a thus-far bumpy storyline, or at least make it feel a little more honest and real.
5. But seriously, this is the last episode of the year?!
Yep, arguably the most tear-inducing twist of the night actually came at the very end of "This Is Us" when many viewers were reminded that the next episode isn't coming until next year – Jan. 5, to be exact.
This isn't unusual for the NBC drama; the show typically has a fall finale (normally centered around Thanksgiving) to send viewers into the holiday season and the new year, with a return in January. It just feels so quick this year because the season started so late. Thanks to COVID production delays, year five started just three weeks ago as opposed to September when the show typically premieres – and one of those weeks was a no-show thanks to election night coverage. So if it feels like "This Is Us" is leaving right as it arrived, well, you're not wrong – but at least they've planted some seeds for an intriguing second half. (Just keep the writers away from any more webcam storylines.)
Plus, now you've just another reason to look forward to this year ending!
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.