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Everybody's looking for an escape these days – and that even includes "This Is Us," which retreated to a fantasy episode, "After the Fire," in which Randall lives out the ultimate question: What if Jack didn't die? But was it really that much of a fantasy? Or would it turn into a nightmare – for Randall, as well as for viewers like me who don't like these kind of needless detours into fan fiction?
Let's talk about the five biggest takeaways from Tuesday night's jaunt into alternate universes.
1. So what if Jack didn't die?
As much as we all like Jack, and as much as we'd all rather he didn't die and psychologically mess with the entire Pearson clan for decades to come, I was not looking forward to this "This Is Us" fantasy episode. These kind of "what if" episodes always feel like fillers, a pointless and often tedious thought exercise that ends up putting the story in a holding pattern for a week – and for emotional and storylines that won't matter beyond one episode since, well, none of it is real.
So yes, the first 20 minutes or so of "After the Fire" were enjoyable because, on a basic human level, I want to see good people happy, caring fathers not die and families not fall apart. It was nice seeing Jack take teenage Randall to see William – after Rebecca, shaken by their near-death experience, reveals that she met Randall's biological father. And while William is still clearly battling addiction, Jack takes him under his wing and helps him move past his demons – to the point that, instead of having two fathers like in the real world, Randall has two fathers to share his life and his family.
There are changes – Randall goes to Carnegie Mellon rather than Howard to be closer to home, and he's a little stiff and awkward at a family dinner, partly because Beth's gift of hot sauce doesn't mean as much to a Pearson clan still with their dad and partly because of his still-held resentment at Rebecca for withholding William from him – but otherwise, it's basically just the sunny version of reality. Jack gets to speak at Randall's wedding, Randall manages to catch William's stomach cancer before it becomes untreatable and he even teams up with Jack to catch Rebecca's cognitive decline early. It's all very nice and sweet ... but it also feels a lot like wish fulfillment rather than a necessary chapter in the "This Is Us" story.
But then something crazy happened: The show apparently agreed.
As the episode reached peak fan fiction – with William catching his cancer early and Jack and Randall teaming up to save Rebecca and, assumably, force her into the treatment program in St. Louis – the show suddenly cuts back to the therapist's office where Dr. Leigh calls Randall (and therefore the show) out on exactly that: He's using this fantasy of saving his father as essentially fan fiction, essentially using this alternate reality fantasy to rewrite his life as he sees fit. It's an excellent twist that turns "After the Fire" from an empty thought exercise into an actually important character study about Randall, how he's processed his father's loss and how it's impacted how he looks at his life – present, past and future. After all, we've already seen Kate and Kevin deal with Jack's death over the past few seasons; now we're focusing on Randall.
Dr. Leigh (played by a perfectly droll Pamela Adlon) then asks Randall to mentally switch from the best case scenario if Jack had survived to the worst – and oooooh boy, can we go back to the wish fulfillment now?
2. Well, I certainly don't like THIS Randall
With help from the therapist, Randall once again imagines Jack surviving the fire – but things going wrong rather than right. In this timeline, Rebecca still tells Jack post-fire about William – but instead of Jack taking the news well and the two teaming up to warmly and calmly tell Randall, Jack recoils and gets angry while Randall finds out on accident, walking into the room in the middle of their heated fight. Then, when he goes to visit William, his biological father is short and abrasive, uninterested in meeting his son much less being involved in his life.
The interaction is short, but hits Randall brutally deep, changing his entire life trajectory. He still goes to Howard, but leaves for school early and joins a fraternity, clearly in the hopes of finding something resembling the true family he no longer feels like he has in Pittsburgh. When he does return for a Thanksgiving dinner – with no Beth in this timeline – it's cold, tense and eventually cut short because he's still bitter and angry at his mother for withholding his biological father from him.
Think all of that sucks? YOU DON'T KNOW THE MEANING OF THE WORD!
Randall grows up into a teacher – and kind of a scuzzball, sleeping around with various TAs while dressed up like a bad '90s R&B singer. While the rest of the Pearsons are tight and content, Randall is now the screwup who blows off family gatherings, gets the side-eye from Kevin (WHAT A WORLD!) and storms out of the wedding shower after having to talk to Rebecca, who's still bitter and quiet about the William lie – and just William in general. When he passes away from stomach cancer, Randall gets his biological father's box of poems and other memorabilia ... which is quickly pitched into a garbage bin. Really, "This Is Us"? MY HEART DOES NOT NEED THIS RIGHT NOW!
Thankfully, even this Dark Side Randall timeline ends on a happier note, as Randall returns home and finally embraces Rebecca after finding out from Jack that her memory is beginning to fail her. Yes, THAT counts as a happy ending in this universe. Driver, drop me off back in reality now, please!
3. I'm not sure I like the real Randall either
So, as Randall – and I'm sure the audience – asks, what's been the point of this thought exercise, other than playing with my heart and giving the hair and makeup department some fun new facial hair to put on Jack and Randall? I mean, in case all of that wasn't enough, Dr. Leigh also sends Randall mentally back in time for another alternate scenario: Randall is there for Jack's "widow maker" heart attack, unable to save him yet again just in closer proximity. Hell, I'm going to need my own therapy after this therapy session.
Eventually, Dr. Leigh reaches the painful but necessary point: Randall needs to let go of the idea that he could've controlled these outcomes, that life would've all been normal and fine if just one event would've turned out differently. But even more important, all of these mental exercises have revealed something significant and even deeper entrenched in Randall's psyche: He clearly has not moved on and truly come to terms with Rebecca withholding William from him. Think about it, she posits: Both of his alternate universe scenarios open the exact same, improbable way: Rebecca immediately needing to tell Randall about his biological father. And while Jack's death is the catalyst of both split timelines, the true emotional thread in both is Randall trying to save his mother and almost redeem her for a betrayal that her son's clearly never truly confronted.
It's a lot to unpack for Randall, but it's obvious what he needs to do: He needs to truly talk with his mother about what happened with William and how it hurt him. It'll be a painful talk, but a necessary one. Even Beth says that she could've called this diagnosis.
And so, Randall hears all of this thoughtful advice ... and pushes forward with his former ways even more aggressively. Desperate to not lose his final parent, he calls Rebecca and guilt trips her, telling her that since he's been a good son for all of these years and gave her a pass, she has to do the St. Louis medical trial – no matter what she personally wants. She owes him, essentially – and Rebecca tearfully complies. Unfortunately, Randall's seemingly learned all of the wrong lessons from his therapy, doubling down on his need to control and further ignoring old wounds instead of confronting the past and confronting the difficult unpredictability of life.
It's painful turn for a character that's been a fan favorite since the show's earliest days – but at least, unlike during the political campaign plot last season, "This Is Us" seems aware that this is unhealthy. The show's calling him out now – and I imagine Kevin will follow suit in next week's season finale.
4. Other alternate universe changes
Since "After the Fire" focused mostly on Randall and his imagined version of his life with Jack, for better and for worse, we didn't get to see what the rest of the Big Three's lives would be like in a Crock-Pot-less universe. But we got some small glimpses, mainly thanks to the Dark Side Randall fantasy thread.
For instance, Kevin didn't end up pursuing acting. Instead, he joined Jack in the Big Three construction company and happily marrying Sophie, with his dad giving him the funny and emotional wedding speech that would've gone to Randall and Beth. Meanwhile, Kate has two kids – a guy who, from the looks of it, does not appear to be Toby. (I swear to God, if that was Marc ...) Of course, it makes sense that, in Randall's head, his worst case scenario would be that everyone else would be close to Jack while he's the Pearson on the outside looking in, the fourth part of a different Big Three that's Jack, Kevin and Kate.
Thankfully for Randall, we didn't get the Dark Universe – but things might official go sour in the real one after his ultimatum to Rebecca on Tuesday night.
5. Toby is awful at Pictionary
This is by no means the most important takeaway from "After the Fire," but it's the one that's haunted me the most since the episode ended: How is Toby that terrible at Pictionary!?
Near the end of Tuesday's episode, Rebecca is having a game night with Rebecca, Kevin, Miguel and Toby, and Toby is tasked with drawing clues for the movie "Mission to Mars." (Which, unrelated point, is an INSANE movie that somehow was rated PG despite featuring one man get ripped apart limb from limb by a martian tornado and another get his face frozen to death by space. You know, for kids! Not that 10-year-old Matt had nightmares for days ... but 10-year-old Matt had nightmares for days.) Anyways, you might think Toby would draw a planet, maybe a spaceship and perhaps some little aliens? No, he draws two straight vertical lines – and that's it! That would barely be a good clue if the clue card said "two straight vertical lines"! How does that look like a rocket?! Does Toby know what rockets are?!
Anyways, this is the most I've disliked since Toby since season one, and I'm quite positive that Baby Jack would've done better – and he's blind AND a baby. I now understand why Kate and Toby might split in the future.
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.