After almost a month in the garage, "This Is Us" was back on the road with a new episode Tuesday night. And I mean that quite literally, as the new hour focused on how we left Kevin, panicking while driving away from his much-ballyhooed film to get to an in-labor Madison. So clearly everything's going great there, just a nice, calm and smooth re-entry into the world of the Pearsons.
Indeed, "There" marked a very dramatic return from its COVID-induced hiatus; and while some aspects maybe pushed the gas too hard, the hour also took some really touching and true detours into Jack and Kevin's relationship and offered insights into how fathers and sons impact one another, intentionally and otherwise.
Here are the five biggest takeaways from Kevin's road trip of terror – beyond wondering where the heck Kevin's passport was at.
1. Kevin goes on a road trip of nightmares
A smashed-up car on fire along the side of the road, complete with Kevin's wallet lying near the wreckage? Now THAT'S how you recapture people's attention after an unexpected multi-week absence! Indeed, that's how "This Is Us" came back Tuesday night: the implication that Kevin's wounded – at best – in a wreck.
Thankfully, the reality is slightly less dramatic than that for Kevin – but not by much, and things are certainly still a wreck.
In a wild and wholly unexpected plot twist, Madison's pregnancy doesn't quite cooperate with Kevin's trip to Vancouver for his film shoot as, right before he takes the stage with Robert De Niro, he gets an anxious call from Madison saying that she's pretty sure she's having contractions and that the babies are en route several weeks early.
Thankfully the twins' health isn't a particular concern. A bigger concern: Kevin is hours away, in a completely different country, about to perform the most important scene of his movie alongside an acting icon, and he's not going to miss this massive moment in Madison and their childrens' lives. After all, his dad wouldn't miss it; and his dad embodies the footsteps he's spent his life tracing, on purpose and on accident, for better and for worse. So he bails on the film and speeds off to hopefully a flight to L.A. waiting for him.
And so begins the most stressful drive this side of "Speed." On one line are Miguel and Rebecca, playing impromptu travel agents trying to find Kevin a flight back home out of Vancouver or Seattle, not an easy task, especially when one is putting the wrong city into her search bar. (Though props to Miguel and Rebecca: pretty tech savvy for two seniors!)
On another line is a stressed and alone Madison, filling in Kevin on her status, which is confirmed the actual birth – so the good news is Kevin didn't torch his entire career in the name of a false alarm. And speaking of his career, his agent as well as his three-named director buddy are on two other lines, one pleading for him to turn back and return to set for the sake of the film while the other figures out how to pick up the pieces of Kevin's, um, turbulent exit. (Kevin making big dramatic scenes during filming? HE'D NEVER!)
In case all of that wasn't enough, when he's not battling aggressive fellow drivers, a distracted Kevin's weaving into the opposite lane and looking at his cell phone, turning everyone at home into a panicked driver's ed teacher. KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD! USE YOUR TURN SIGNAL! CAN YOU WAIT UNTIL A LIGHT FOR THIS CALL!
I'm not the world's most responsible driver, but even I turned into my mom this episode, pleading for Kevin to pull over to take the call. The opening scene weighs heavily on these segments, playing some effectively tense mind games with the audience as Kevin tempts a fate that we already know. (It's like Jack Death Watch from several seasons ago, but not dragged out across a grim, multi-episode tragedy porn arc.)
Or maybe it's a fate we don't already know?
After he finally links up a flight, Kevin seems to be home free ... until he comes across a hole in the road's siding and a disabled car crashed beyond the pavement. Ah, a classsic "This Is Us" misdirect – zagging when everything's lined up for a zig – and, in this case, trading out one probably excessively melodramatic plot turn for a slightly less melodramatic, but maybe slightly more contrived, twist. I'll take the latter in this case; putting Kevin's life at risk on top of everything else would definitely play like overcranking the drama, not that "stumbling upon a fiery car accident and rescuing a man while racing to get home to pregnant with twins girlfriend" isn't already pretty cranked up. In action, this somehow played out slightly less soapy and ridiculous than it does written out on paper; but it's certainly a lot.
Anyways, Kevin gets him out of the car and hits the road again – this time with a pitstop at the local hospital – all while trying to keep his new passenger awake and conscious with stories of his horrible hectic night. Well, maybe not THAT horrible comparatively speaking. I did enjoy the crash victim at one point drowsily pointing out to Kevin, "Listen, guy, you're a rich and famous actor; you're gonna be fine, and your kids will love you. Meanwhile, I can currently see my bloody broken tibia."
Thanks to his heroism and his manic stories, Kevin gets his mysterious injured stranger safely to the hospital and then gets to the airport in time to fly off to Madison. But it couldn't be that easy could it? Indeed, in a cleverly hidden turn, Kevin's lost wallet from the beginning of the episode comes back to bite the story in a different way as, without his ID, he can't get through the TSA check-in. Wait until they find his 4 oz. bottle of hand sanitizer! Then he's DEFINITELY not getting on! But even after playing the "I'm famous" card as delicately as possible – and even though "I'm trying to get home for the birth of my two kids after saving a man from a burning wreck" is a pretty impresssive excuse – he doesn't get a pass.
OR DOES HE!? I guess we'll find out next week if his zoom across multiple borders was worth it or if he'll be Zoom-calling into this moment instead.
2. Your parents never leave you
While Kevin's road trip of terror was the most ostentaciously dramatic portion of the night, the most actually affecting aspect came during the flashbacks – not only to Kevin's childhood, but to Jack's as well, chronicling how your parents never really leave you, their virtues and flaws guiding you in and out of their shadow.
As Kevin drives around the West Coast, young Jack is having a stress-inducing spin of his own. Back in the past, Jack is headed off to pitch in a big baseball game – complete with his overbearing drunk of a dad in attendance – pressuring his son to rack up a win on the diamond. Unfortunately, despite only giving up a single run all game long, Jack loses thanks to a walk-off home run. (Way to support your pitcher, rest of the team. Jeez.) Even more unfortunate, Jack's dad drunkenly has no interest in excuses, making fun off him and ladling on the guilt for letting him down. Yet somehow his worst move is wanting to get back behind the wheel after demolishing a six-pack of brews (at the least). Young Jack works up the courage to ask for his keys and thankfully for him, his dad and anybody on or off the road, his dad complies, though not without some more pointed grumbling.
They make it home, tense but safe, and Jack's dad gives him an attaboy that ends the rough day on a decent note; but Jack sees that he wants to be a better father than his dad was to him, poisoning him with his emotional abuse. And so that's how we got the dream hero dad that was Jack; but obviously he wasn't perfect. Past seasons already tackled the alcoholism that was, in a way, passed down to Jack from his father and that he, in a way, passed down to Kevin. Now this episode looks at how he passed down these traumatic experiencesto Kevin, accidentally becoming the overbearing dad he never wanted to be.
If you remember from the past, young Kevin struggled at football only for his dad to push him to attend a football camp, in the process telling Rebecca (and an secretly listening Kevin) that he doesn't want his son to be soft and give up easily. Now it's time for camp; but Kevin doesn't seem excited at all. Instead, he's clearly stressed and in his head, to the point that he starts throwing up in their hotel room bathroom from all the pressure and worry. Jack suddenly realizes that he's inadvertedly become his dad, ruining a joyful activity with his oppressive pressure. So the two go to a local pub, grab dinner and actually talk about Kevin's feelings about football, about his expectations, about how his father will always be proud of him no matter what happens with football and about how his coach has actually been cruel, calling him stupid at practice as toxic motivation.
Sure, there's a satisfying button with Jack peacefully but sternly confronting his son's coach. But the highlight of this segment comes with that really nice, nuanced conversation at the bar: a father learning to listen, relate and speak to his son like his father never did with him and a son learning more about his father and how he hopes to be in the future.
It's wonderful and thoughtful not only in the scene's words but in the way it also shows what gets passed down through relationships, especially in family – the good and the bad. There's the adorable way that Kevin replicates Jack's way of removing his straw from his soda, showing how Kevin idolizes his father even more after that formative moment. But there's also the haunting backdrop of the bar, the drinks ominously foreshadowing the alcoholism that Jack and Kevin will also share, a chain of addiction that wasn't broken despite Jack's good intentions.
You can also see how Kevin learned from his dad in his present day behavior, wanting to do good but also pressuring himself so much to be everything to everyone that he's breaking his mind. That's a trauma Jack was hoping to avoid impressing in his son, unlike his own father did, but which still accidentally made an impression on Kevin's psyche.
Even with all of the dramatic twists and turns, the subplot is an example of what's most effective about "This Is Us": showing how things big and small – your family, your memories, your good intentions – ripple through time and relationships, never existing in isolation, never disappearing, always evolving.
3. I doubt this is the last we see of Car Crash Dad
Kevin may have dropped Car Crash Dad off at the hospital, but I have a hard time believing that the show will drop his character as quickly.
For one, "our lead rescued a man from a car crash" seems like quite the storyline card to pull and then never speak of again. That's way too dramatic and notable to just use as some convenient one-off bonus plot detour or roadbump. This isn't "The Simpons" where everything resets at the end of the episode. But perhaps most telling is that Car Crash Dad is played by Joshua Malina, a fairly notable actor from such things as "Sports Night," "Scandal" and "The West Wing." And while he has a few one-episode blips on his resume, it would pretty bizarre to cast such an overqualified performer for an almost unrecognizable turn in a literally nameless role – he's credited as "Car Crash Victim" – with maybe five lines beyond pained grunts.
You could cast anybody in that role for far cheaper... unless, of course, there are greater plans in store. I'm not saying he's going to become a regular or that he's about to become an adopted Pearson, but I'd be stunned if this was the last we saw of him, especially since ...
4. So is Kevin's acting career over?
Some real Hollywood insider talk here: Typically, if you storm off a set unexpectedly, refuse to come back, yell at your director and leave the country, it bodes poorly for your professional reputation (just some real inside-baseball trade talk there).
But really, though all of this is understandable considering it's about the birth of his children, I have a hard time believing Kevin's going to have a functional acting career after this whole ordeal, falling out of communication, bailing on set, snapping at your film's director and just generally being "difficult."
I can't even blame Jordan Martin Foster for it; he's still a bit of a pretentious director twerp, but he does seem to empathize with Kevin's tricky situation and tries to make it so that they can crank out the filming and get Kevin home the next day. It's not Kevin's optimal solution, but certainly at least something. And when
Foster Jordan Martin Jordan Martin Foster calls later, though he does try to get Kevin back to set, the director does have a shoot (not to mention several weeks of already in-the-can filmed scenes) to save and he sounds reasonable, at least certainly more so than Kevin who yells at him that he can screw the film. It's an impossible situation – though Kevin makes it significantly more impossible during it all – something that won't be forgotten by Hollywood I imagine, though his career's survived dramatic ups and downs before.
Still, Robert De Niro will not be pleased (though he did make "Dirty Grandpa," so this isn't the WORST production he's ever been a part of). Also: Did I hear correctly that this is a legal drama that hinges on a major speech about ordering Mountain Dew: Code Red? Maybe Kevin's actually dodging a bullet here, and this De Niro picture is more "Righteous Kill" rather than "The Irishman," especially if he has a new career as famous life-saving hero on the horizon.
5. Madison is family. Yay ... I hope!
Madison's night isn't going any better than Kevin's, as she's stuck alone at the hospital, preparing to give birth in an empty room with no comforting faces to help. Kevin is playing Speed Racer, her parents are out of the picture, Kate has her own birthing to attend, and Madison apparently doesn't have many other friends to help. (She's admittedly not the most well-drawn character, something that'll hopefully be amended in the future as she becomes more a part of the Pearson family). And so, unless Kevin pulls off a miracle, it seems Madison will be on her own for this very important moment.
Or not, as Madison receives a phone call from Randall and Beth, who Kevin nudged to give his fiancee a call and help guide her while he's up in the air, figuratively and (potentially) literally. And in a touching conclusion to the episode, though Madison tries to say that she's fine, Randall and Beth stick around and stay on the line, letting her know that she won't be alone because she's family now. It's a lovely moment seeing Madison finally feel safe and comforted, relieved she won't be alone and thankful for company beyond medical strangers, as well as a moment that feels like the show truly bringing Madison into the fold – not just a side character but hopefully treated and developed as a regular player.
But ... am I the only one concerned that Kevin, if he doesn't make it to the birth, will be mad at Randall at some point for getting to be there for Madison while he couldn't? After all, the two JUST blew up at each other for trying to claim a leadership role in the family. Will there be resentment that Randall was the reassuring and comforting family leader role that Kevin desperately wants to be?
Will Madison lean on Randall and Beth more so than Kevin, testing all three's relationships and yet again making Kevin feel like the immature flake of the family? I hope not. Kevin did open this door after all, signalling that he and Randall might be offically recovered. It'd be frustrating to – yet again – end what seemed like such a monolithic fight only to start a new one.
I guess we'll find out what lies further down the road. (Hopefully no more car accidents.)
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.