"The Music and the Mirror" was all about disappointment – but thankfully not for "This Is Us" fans.
First of all, there was finally a new episode again after yet another COVID-induced hiatus delayed the final three episodes. But second, and most important, its return came with a very solid hour – a jam-packed one trying to hit on just about everyone in a short amount of time, but one still with some lovely, honest and emotional plot threads as the Pearsons and just about everyone in their circle coped with dreams getting dashed, tested or wholly readjusted. Now there's just two episodes left to tie up this disjointed but still strong season – and line things up for the final year of "This Is Us" to come. That's right: Things are coming to a close after next season. So maybe this WAS a disappointing week for "This Is Us" fans after all.
We can stress about the idea of finales later, though. For now, let's talk about the five biggest takeaways from "The Music and the Mirror" – just after I place this order for a "Godfather: Part II" onesie. (OK, the sixth biggest takeaway: Uncle Nicky seems like a great tour buddy.)
1. A crushing episode for Beth
Any grudges held toward "This Is Us" for yet another break between episodes this season were quickly vanquished by Tuesday night's opening moments: a truly heartbreaking and painfully real montage following the story of Beth's new dance academy in the time of COVID.
That's right; remember her dance academy? Like many elements of Randall and Beth's storyline – remember the housing project they bought? And the land in Louisiana they now own? – the school sat quietly on the back burner of the story while Randall's Kevin problems and Beth's parenting woes really cooked. The absense of any mention in a while makes it hard to place all of what happens in the first five minutes of "The Music and the Mirror" in the context of everything that's occurred this season (you'd think it'd come up at some point before this).
Any mild confusion, however, is easily worth it for the impact of this opening montage, following Beth from the grand opening of her gorgeous dream studio and teaching her inaugural classes of eager dancers to watching the news warn of a new virus infecting people across the country and shutting down businesses. The studio eventually opens back up, but with sanitizer and masks for necessary safety, Beth's face – seen even in just her eyes – missing the connection of seeing her performers' smiles. As many bar, restaurant and small business owners know all too well, you can open and "return to normal" but there's nothing that feels normal about a room filled with masks, an inherent reminder of our abnormal times.
As the montage goes on, the masks and sanitizer evolve into Zoom classes, Beth encouraging a collection of dancers in windows on her screen, a group shrinking from two dozen to a dozen to six to three – and then a blank black screen as Beth has to close the studio indefinitely. It's a brutal and devastating sequence, piece by piece showing Beth's dream wither away due to nothing she's done but just the cruel twists of life – all made even more painful by seeing shots of Beth's childhood dancing career, emphasizing how long and how arduous the journey's been, only to come to such a cold early finality. Thank goodness I remembered the flash-forwards and know that dance and teaching comes back into Beth's life in some way.
So the episode started on an incredible high note (or an emotional low note, at least for Beth), and thankfully Beth's storyline stayed on that level for the rest of the night. While Beth is eating her sadness away with the help of Lucky Charms – to the degree that Randall tells Deja to keep an eye on her; that many hearts, stars, horseshoes, clovers, pots of gold and rainbows, and tasty red balloons just isn't right – she does have an interview for a job back in the business world. But after getting all situated and dressed up for the Zoom call, it lasts all of three seconds before the interviewer realizes she absentmindedly double-booked and tells Beth they'll have to try again. Beth, however, has no interest in trying again – so it's back to the Lucky Charms.
When Randall comes back home, Beth's gone (probably with the cereal) while Deja refuses to say where because she and Beth know Randall will try to bust out a monologue, play hero and try to fix things. And sometimes, people don't want answers or solutions; they just want to hear, "That sucks." So after a quick talk – chatting about how her relationship with Malik is tougher now with Jennifer back in the picture, but at least he knows when to pull back and just let Deja think and sit with life – Deja gives in and reveals where Beth ran off to: the dance studio, cleaning up the remnants of her now-shuttered dream.
Randall jets off, and instead of pulling a Randall, he simply pulls out his phone and wordlessly plays a song: "All My Life" by K-Ci & JoJo. It's not just a great classic slow jam; it's also the song Randall played on their date in the episode's college-era flashbacks, when he tried to take her to the ballet without realizing how fresh Beth's wounds still were from losing her childhood dream the first time. Back at their dorm afterward, she talks about how the mirror is everyone's harshest critic, how we see the imperfections and things we wish would've gone differently. And to make things better, Randall busts out "All My Life."
A few decades and another brutal disappointment later, Randall busts out the soulful salve once again – and once again, it's exactly what Beth needs. (And apparently what my tear ducts needed too; yep, this episode got me.)
The end lesson: When life gets hard and things get sad, the cure is always K-Ci and JoJo.
2. Kevin gets a surprise visit (and some not-so-surprising bad career news)
Kevin's sporadic acting career is fascinating to track throughout "This Is Us," going from seemingly major projects and getting a Golden Globe nomination (suuuure ... but wait, actually a Kevin Pearson Golden Globe nomination makes SO much sense) to dropping off the face of the earth, all while still serving as front-page tabloid news. And they don't even know about rescuing that one guy from a burning car wreck!
But after seasons upon seasons of off-screen drama that surpass his on-screen sagas, it's all finally caught up to Kevin Pearson. He's basically blacklisted now.
You can't say he didn't have it coming. He infamously barged off the set of "The Manny," then he stormed off the set of his latest film – one that's resulted in a colossal nightmare. Indeed, turns out wunderkind Pretentious Three Names isn't just a bad colleague; he's a bad director as well, making a mess of a movie that he may think is his masterpiece but he'd be the only one. Kevin, his agents and all of Hollywood recognize the film as a bomb. (Can it be that bad though? I bet Robert De Niro's made five worse movies in the past three years alone.) He needs his next project now – but combine growing bad buzz with his long history of being difficult behind the scenes, and that's how your offerings end up a pile of "Manny" rip-offs and Tom Clancy re-retreads. But hey, that last one at least sounds good to Uncle Nicky!
Well, getting informed that your career might be officially on the outs is rough, but at least things couldn't get more awkward from there OH NO IT'S HIS EX-GIRLFRIEND! Or at least a Zoom call with his girlfriend. Indeed, as Kevin's walking his way out of his agent's office and pondering his next move, he gets a blast from the past as Zoe happens to be on a TV screen on a big screen in another office, just sitting visible throughout the entire floor. Feels like those kind of interviews and meetings would take place somewhere a little more discreet or private – perhaps a bit of a forced and dramatically damp set-up, especially when it allows Kevin to casually dip in unexpectedly into an otherwise probably important meeting.
It's a hinky arrangement, but things are generally nice and pleasant between the two, catching up on life and each other's social lives ... until Zoe points out, with a not-great display of tact, that Kevin always commits to what happens in his life to the degree that he convinces himself that it's what he wanted all along. He can be generous – but to the degree that maybe his own wants fade away.
It's meant not as a jab but as a compliment, but Kevin still seems rattled by the conversation – continuing into the night, cuddled on the couch with a sleeping Madison and the babies. The question, however, is what in particular is rattling Kevin. Is it realizing that, while his acting career is on the decline, he's now content with the life he has at home? Or is he wondering if marrying Madison is another impulsive commitment, doing what he thinks he should do and convincing himself that he's happy about it as opposed to his actual feelings and desires? I lean toward the former – but maybe that's the optimist in me. (After all, I don't believe we've seen Madison in the future.) Plus, I've grown to quite like the Madison/Kevin connection and would hate to see it end poorly. Especially now that ...
3. Madison goes dress shopping, becomes family
Even wedding dress shopping, Madison wasn't safe from the wave of disappointment hitting everyone this episode – and not because she didn't say yes to a dress. (She, in fact, found a nice dress – and not only that, but a nice dress WITH POCKETS!)
Now that her wedding is front-page tabloid fodder, Madison's estranged uninvolved father is suddenly hopping into her DMs to get back involved with his daughter. And while Madison lived with him long enough to know better about trusting that he'll actually come through, she can't help but feel heartened and hopeful that he cares and that he wants to be there for this significant moment in her life. But, of course, in the middle of her dress search, she gets a text delivering the news that he can't make it to the wedding, choosing work over her one more brutal time. And even though she knew not to get her hopes up, Madison can't help but be broken-hearted and hurt all over again. At least she didn't have her teary breakdown in that feathery monstrosity of a wedding dress, though – small mercies.
But while her literal family may not be there for Madison, her new family was as Kate and Rebecca served as shoulders to cry on as well as crucial fashion advisors. Madison was plenty nervous before the shopping trip – after all, this is the first time she's met Rebecca since getting engaged to her son, and Kevin's idea of playing an improv game where you go through the good, bad and worst things that you could say doesn't go swimmingly. (Yeah, way to set your nervous fiance up to say something terrible about your mother to your face, Kevin. And also: Never admit that you took improv classes, man.) But by the end, after opening up about her relationship with her father and finding the ideal wedding dress, Madison feels right at home with the Pearsons. There were some concerns that, after all the time spent on his love life, the seemingly random pairing of Kevin and Madison wouldn't quite feel emotionally earned and satisfying in the end – but those concerns at this point should be gone like that feather dress.
And speaking of dresses, one final side note (and potential hot take): I actually thought dress number two actually looked pretty! Sure, a little extravagant and poofy – but I'd have chosen it over the final selection. And as for the first dress ... crimes, fictional designer. You will have to answer for them.
4. The pressure's getting to be too much for Toby (and the house's plumbing)
OK, what is going on with everybody's pipes these days? First my parents' water softener springs a leak, then my sister's house blows a gasket, then my girlfriend's house decides that it wants to get in on the hottest and drippiest new trend in homeownership. And now I can't even escape plumbing problems in fiction because Toby and Kate's house started crying right over their kitchen. Still feeling restless and aimless without a job, Toby takes fixing the leak upon his shoulders. Just one problem: Toby has no idea how to fix a leak – save for blowing up a chunk of the kitchen ceiling. Progress ... ?
He can't call a plumber because he needs a win – and he can't call a Pearson because the Pearsons can't do anything without it turning into, well, a tear-jerking episode of "This Is Us." (One of the great minor self-aware jokes throughout this series has been how the outer Pearsons like Madison, Toby and Miguel cope with living with such an emotionally exhausting family. It's nice to see the show knows that, for as real as "This Is Us" can get, they're also some intensely melodramatic folks that would be A LOT to handle in real life.) So Toby reluctantly turns to his dad, who helps realign some pipes, tighten a loose bolt and re-plaster the once-exploded hole in the ceiling.
He also helps Toby realign his mind. Yes, Toby may have wanted to avoid a big "This Is Us" emotional moment or monologue, but too bad because his dad's got thoughts on his son's whole unemployment malaise. In fact, he lived it, in what seems like breaking news to Toby. Several decades back, Toby's dad lost his job and admits that he was totally lost and embarrassed by the situation, searching for a new gig in secret in the basement and totally tuned out. Toby may grumble at the Pearsons' relentless emotional openness, his dad notes, but personally he's a little jealous that they feel so comfortable talking about their problems, struggles, disappointments and feelings – something that could've taken the edge off of his unemployed depression back in the day and something that could help Toby right now. As he points out, it's the pressure that causes the real problems in the end.
In the end, Toby took credit for his dad's plumbing job – but hopefully he took his dad's words to heart as well.
5. Good news and bad news for Kate
Oooooor maybe he won't.
The bad news for Kate is that, even after Toby's conversation with his dad, he still struggles to open up to Kate about his emotional struggles as a newly not-by-choice stay-at-home father. Not only is Toby staying bottled up about his frustrations, but it's in part also keeping Kate cloistered as well, unable to talk to Toby about her successes and triumphs at her job because either she doesn't want to hurt Toby or he zones out and doesn't really pay attention.
In fairness to Toby, though, what we see of the latter is Kate trying to talk to Toby about her classes while he's in the midst of trying to fix an actively leaky pipe that's ruining their house. MY APOLOGIES IF HE'S A LITTLE DISTRACTED AT THE MOMENT! Yet again, I know Kate's character wears her heart on her sleeve, but sometimes the writing on the show can curdle her character from emotionally open into a little self-absorbed. Maybe this is intentional, though, and will come up as the tension at home grows and grows. (Again, Toby didn't look happy in the future.) But as the key scene showing Toby's disconnect at home, it felt a little forced.
The good news, though, is while there's distance growing in her marriage, her bond with Rebecca is only growing. While dress shopping with Madison, the two talk about Kate's new job and how well it's going – so much so that Kate brings her mom by the school to give her a sneak peek at the impressive young singers, belting out a pretty lovely rendition of "Big Yellow Taxi." (Best of all, her co-teacher Snooty McGrumpsterbatch was out for the day.)
Rebecca's utterly enchanted – especially because she knows how far Kate's come to this moment, as we see flashbacks throughout the episode of Kate bailing on a job interview Rebecca booked to instead get a gig working at the local diner. Kate and Rebecca may have looked at the diner job as a disappointment at the time – her mom seeing it as her daughter settling after bailing on college and music – but it turned out to be the readjustment Kate needed, a place that reminded her of her dad and their conversations about her musical future. And now here she is in her music-loving future, just in a far different way that anyone could've predicted.
It took a while – and she was always in her corner – but Rebecca is seeing an optimal version of Kate she always wanted to see, living her best life and sharing her passions with others. The only question is if that best life will include Toby for much longer. I'd be willing to bet this ends up as our cliffhanger or reveal for the season five finale ...
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.