By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jan 07, 2021 at 10:16 AM

Time to discuss the most important and pressing news of the week: Yes, the return of "This Is Us." 

The show bounced back Tuesday night not with its signature dramatic fireworks and intensely duct-tugging waterworks but instead with a really well-done and modestly affecting episode of thoughtful character work. "This Is Us" may have made its name with big reveals, but over the years, it's shown it's actually much better when it's simply about life and its complicated interwoven patterns through time and through one another – and this week's return, about the tricky paths to closure and commitment, only further cemented that. 

Beyond that, here are the five major takeaways from this week's return of "This Is Us" – one of them being, brace yourself, because ...

1. Oh god, THIS GUY again!?

"This Is Us" wasn't the only thing that returned Tuesday night. That's right: America's least favorite sentient greasy napkin came back as Kate's wormy, drunk deadbeat and abusive boyfriend Marc was given a second chance to not be the worst character on television. Spoiler alert: He did not take it. In fact, it's possible he actually got worse? But I thought we launched him into the sun forever!

We pick up literally right where we left off: with Kate opening up to Toby that she secretly got an abortion as a teen – not exactly a gentle way to welcome audiences back from the holiday break. Toby's upset that somehow, after years of pregnancy talk and debate between the two, she's never brought this up – which has always been one of my concerns about the timeline-hopping structure of "This Is Us" and its future, the idea that characters will just suddenly remember "oh yeah, this harrowing thing happened to me 30 years ago; weird how we never talked about this key part of who I am today before!" But this is a case where I believe that Kate would mentally bury this grim moment in her life in her memory – and certainly not bring it up to a significant other. 

Case in point for why she wouldn't: Toby's first reaction is that he wants to go and find Marc and kill him. I've never related to you more, Toby – but also, let's pump the breaks before this becomes a very different, very ridiculous television show. Instead, it's Kate who hunts down her ex on the internet and discovers he's in San Diego. Welp, I guess that's that; anyways ... oh wait, we're going to San Diego during a pandemic to confront him now? This, I have a harder time buying. Maybe they could've better developed her need for something resesmbling closure if she had more time – or maybe a solo episode to let this subplot really breathe and feel more natural. Instead, it never feels like she's been struggling that much with letting this particularly piece of her past go – after all, the story just introduced this part of her life a half-season ago – and what should be a big character moment instead feels like a sprint through a lot of not entirely earned emotional beats.

Then again, I can't disagree with shoving Marc back into the past forever as fast as possible. 

So yes, let's get it over with: While Kate and Toby are travelling to San Diego in modern times, in the past, we briefly reunite with hairy grease rag Marc as Kate goes to visit him – to tell him about her decision but also maybe to see if he's changed. Nope, trash human still trash – from even the moment he opens the door and smugly utters, "Kate Pearson: I knew you couldn't stay away." While I wipe my mace spray off the screen, Marc makes Kate breakfast and tries to apologize but ends up just assuming that her presence there is automatic forgiveness – and when she explains that's not the case and not why she's there, Marc Marcs all over the place, sighing about having to have a serious conversation. Don't worry, sentient oilslick; your dismissive attitude stops young Kate from talking about her expected pregnancy and decision, and when she gets the chance, she bails without a trace and without looking back for decades.

The worst part of all of this: He grumbles about having to watch "Airplane!" HOW DARE YOU EYE-ROLL AN AMERICAN COMEDY CLASSIC, YOU MONSTER! 

Unfortunately, when Kate finds Marc in modern times, he's not serving a life sentence in prison for crimes against cinema – but he's not doing much better. (Shocking.) He's older but hasn't grown at all, still half-heartedly working stockboy gigs, getting in trouble for taking too many smoke breaks and smirking at everyone. Maybe he's taken a shower over the decades – but just the one. He even still has a MySpace page, according to Toby.

But Kate presses on for closure, asking what he remembers about their relationship. After scoffing it off, he finally says that he thinks they were love, that Kate was "broken in all the right ways" (whatever that means) and that they were just kids. And Kate rightly tells him off, reminding him that he wasn't a kid – he was 24 at the time – and that he was abusive toward a woman going through remarkable grief, something that she had to work through for years afterward.

It's admittedly a pat moment, so much rushed catharsis in a Big Speech that I honestly thought the interaction might turn out to be a fantasy sequence. But for a character who tends to always finish third in the Big Three in attention, it was nice to see Kate get a big scene (and see Chrissy Metz nail it) and "play her own white knight," as she thankfully tells Toby, who respectfully lets her do what she needs to do and, most importantly has the correct amount of joyous admiration for "Airplane!" when they get back home.

And best of all, I think Marc is officially left in the past – good news for me, good news for Kate and good news for actor Austin Abrams who no longer has to play a grease stain that got struck by lightning and turned human. For instance: To see him in a far differentand charm-forward mode, there's Netflix's holiday rom-com series "Dash & Lily." He gets to shower and everything!

2. Randall gets "in" in it

While Kate got closure, Randall had his small remaining sense of it shattered during the mid-season premiere.

Yes, hard to believe that having the entire planet see you and your dancing, singing abs wasn't the worst part of going viral – but indeed, after withstanding some goofy jabs from his staffers, Randall gets some news that's much harder to bear: A man claims to have known his birth mother, long after she supposedly died of a drug overdose. One would typically think finding out your birth mother didn't die after all would be cause for celebration of sorts, but for Randall, it's yet another brutal hit to his foundation, his sense of his own identity and past. Worst of all, it turns his birth father, a man he grew to love and respect before he passed, into seemingly a liar, withholding his own history from him – yet another pillar of a parental figure crumbling in his mind. 

Sterling K. Brown plays Randall's racing mind great here – angry and disappointed, sure, but also just plain exhausted and desperate for a moment for his overheating brain to cool – and plays it ever better when he makes his decision on how to handle this new information. After calling his therapist – who recommends that, at this point, why not go "in" into the journey after going this far toward the truth, toward finding his roots – Randall reaches out to this stranger who apparently knew his mother. And while it's true that she didn't die of an overdose back in the '70s but of breast cancer merely five years ago, William wasn't lying. "From what I know of the story," says this new stranger, "I believe he was telling you what he thought was the truth." "This Is Us" is famous for its huge tear-jerking twisty moments, and yet this relatively small, straight-forward and intimate moment – and Randall's beautiful sense of relief, of his faith in his birth father reaffirmed – is one of the biggest cries I've had in a while on this show. 

As for those huge tear-jerking moments, I imagine we might get more of those next week as Randall will get an unexpected tour through his mother's life, going from feeling like his roots were pulled out underneath him to only getting to grow them out more. 

3. Kevin gets a reality check

Kevin may not have to deal with his persnickety director this week, but even unseen offscreen, he's still wreaking havoc on his new life with the very pregnant Madison as the upcoming movie shoot has been moved to the cheaper and more pandemic-approved haven of Vancouver. Madison encourages him to go at first, but after a meeting with a nanny who can travel all over the country with the family (and, most importantly, made Justin Timberlake cry a river), she seems ... off. 

Kevin's confused (because, honestly, of course Kevin is confused), but Madison eventually explains: What is their family going to be like? Traveling constantly as a unit with no home base, raising kids on airplanes with a nanny they barely know? As Madison points out, they've fallen in love with the concept of their family and with this brief fantasy of their future, but what's the reality? Is it sustainable – and would they even want it to be? Madison still wants Kevin to shoot his movie – and he does leave at the end – but she also wants him to take the time to think about their relationship. Not the dream version, the real version.

It's the closest thing to a cliffhanger this episode – but this is certain: This segment featured the funniest line of the hour, with Madison telling Kevin to stop his speech because, while she knows that his family loves a good Big Speech, it's not the time. You almost get the impression Madison watches "This Is Us"! Madison Simons: not wrong about their relationship, not wrong about this show's love of monologues!

4. The brothers are almost back 

It was right about this moment during "A Long Road Home" that I thought to myself: Hey, wait a second, aren't Randall and Kevin in the middle of a big fight still? Are we just not talking about that anymore? Have we moved on like their other supposed big fights? And as if on cue, Kevin calls Randall for a chilly but thawing conversation.

You see, on his cab ride to the airport, Kevin has a flashback – one of the episode's few pops back to the past; almost no Rebecca or Jack this time around – to when he was planning to move out to L.A., and Randall warned him not to for the sake of his young marriage. Obviously, in terms of his relationship with Sophie, Randall was proven right – and suddenly finding himself in the same place decades later, Kevin calls Randall again for some support. Or maybe just to hopefully get his once-beloved brother and soundboard back. 

Things are still frostily stiff between the two – perfectly so, capturing that tension off when you want to say sorry to someone so close and so meaningful but can't quite find the way to say the words. Kevin can't quite come out and say it, but he does say that he misses having Randall to bounce his thoughts and feelings off of, that he respects his intelligence and that he now realizes the true harm in what he said, that he never knew the depths of Randall's identity struggles, then and now. Again, the bridge isn't entirely repaired between the two – especially because Randall cuts the conversation short because he has his own complicated personal situation to deal with – but at least it's under construction, and the show is doing a great nuanced job of showing how difficult, stifff and awkward that process can be. 

5. We're meeting Randall's birth mother!

The good news: We're going to meet Randall's birth mother. The better news: We're not ACTUALLY going to meet Randall's birth mother. 

Ever since the twist was revealed in the season five premiere that Randall's mom didn't actually die of an overdose and that she's been secretly alive this entire time, I've been a little dubious of this storyline. It's rather cheap to pull the resurrected relative card yet again, just one season removed from Nicky's Vietnam subplot, and the idea that Randall could just talk to his birth mother and get all of his answers plays way too neat. But thankfully, that doesn't appear to be the case as, according to his birth mother's partner, she died five years ago. OK, "thankfully" isn't the right word there – but it's nice to see the show avoid a pothole and avoid trite, frankly ridiculous plotting. We'll learn more about her life next week while still retaining some level of mystery and, most important, still retaining a level of reality in the storyline instead of becoming a soap opera of conveniently undead blood relatives. 

Or at least that'll hopefully be the case. After all, how much can you really trust a show that unleashed Marc back upon us?

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

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.