"This Is Us" recap: Oh brother, they just dropped another twist on us
At some point, it's not going to work. At some point, they're going to run out of cliffhanger endings on "This Is Us" or resort to some contrived, lame attempts at shocking or surprising the audience. Just ask Milo Ventimiglia about "Heroes." It's doomed to happen at some point ... just not in last night's episode, "Brothers," which managed to drop one its signature little twists right at the very end that did exactly what a good twist should do: bring something new to the future while also bringing something extra – some bonus emotional heft, in this week's case – to what we've already seen.
In the past, the Pearson boys are going camping. Jack is concerned about Kevin and Randall not getting along, so what better way to get the two of them working as a team than throwing them into nature and forcing them to team up against the elements. His plan to "Chuck Noll" the boys into teamwork, however, comes to a crashing halt with Kevin, who cares more about his Game Boy than bonding with his brother – unless he can prank Randall by trapping him in a tent collapse.
As rough as things are out in the forest for the guys, however, Rebecca and Kate's day is worse, as their relaxing afternoon of movies gets cancelled when Rebecca receives a call that Jack's estranged alcoholic dad is on his death bed. With Jack out in the woods and out of contact, it's on her to take care of the situation – and even when she does make contact, Jack has no interest in the man who, as we see throughout flashbacks, abandoned the boy for his booze. So Rebecca gives Jack's dad the next best goodbye possible: the knowledge that his son grew up into a different man, a better man, than his father.
For what seems like a hefty plot line, I spent most of this part of "This Is Us" thinking these sequences felt fairly minor. Thanks to all of the other plots in the episode, we spent little time with Jack's dying dad – and even when we did, it was extremely low on the melodramatic speeches you might expect.
Meanwhile, thanks to Randall's both cute and emotionally crushing notebook of Kevin life hacks (including "If Kevin thinks you're being annoying, try talking about 'The Karate Kid'") the boys' camping trip ended conveniently nice and neat, with them all howling happily at the moon. It all seemed very sweet – and, as usual for the show, perfectly performed – but also very simple and slight, a subplot I often forgot about as the episode was still rolling.
And then the twist literally popped up. As it turns out, during the flashbacks to young Jack waiting for his dad to emerge from boozing in the local bar, he had a brother, Nick, sleeping in the backseat the whole time. A brother who Jack would later go to Vietnam with – and who would assumably die there, judging by Jack's long, heavy look at their old war photo.
On one hand, yes, maybe it's a little contrived and a little convenient for the show to just throw these plot elements out of nowhere just whenever. Done wrong, it could maybe feel a little cheap and emotionally manipulative ("This Is Us"? NEVER!). But this wasn't done wrong; instead, it added a nice extra emotional heft to why Jack cared so much about Randall and Kevin relying on one another and being able to trust one another.
What was once a kind of light B-level storyline for the week instead turned into something with a lot more weight in retrospect. Plus, it fills in more of Jack's life – which is still as much a mystery, if not an even more compelling one, as his death.
Now, I guess we'll see how much of a budget NBC gives "This Is Us" because, at some point, we've gotta be heading to war, right?
In the meantime, we'll head back to the present day, where Jack would be happy to see Kevin and Randall are indeed still relying on one another. Deja wants to go to a big gala with Kevin for Sophie's work, where he'll be auctioned off for charity (is Randall jealous? "No black man will ever be jealous of being auctioned." LINE OF THE NIGHT). But after Randall protectively grabs her hand from eating a shrimp tail at the party – and after coping with all of his lame attempts at bonding with Dairy Queen jokes and "Star Trek" references (can't see where he went wrong) – she hides in the bathroom, while Randall contemplates going in after her. Translation: He's definitely going in after her.
But not before the two brothers have a nice moment chatting and talking about Randall's need to try so hard. It's a lovely little moment, topped with a good joke ("Man coming in!") and an even better scene of Deja (beautifully performed by Lyric Ross) opening up a bit to Randall about her abusive foster care past. The show smartly doesn't sell the moment as a cure-all – and it avoids becoming repetitive and blowing up a small breakthrough yet again like it had done the past two weeks.
Jack would be very unhappy, however, to see adult Kevin struggling so much with his vices: addiction and cold emotional callousness. Bad news: Kevin's out of pills, and his doctor is in no rush to get him more, meaning he's resorting to a whole lot of bourbon and panicked phone calls. Worse news: This is all happening around Sophie's work gala – which, by the way, nice having you back, Sophie. Sorry about your bummer of a storyline, though – and not just because it ends with the two getting in a fight.
I was excited when the injured Kevin storyline popped up because it felt like the character was finally going to have some meat on his bones. I also trusted "This Is Us," in its crafty way, would skirt some of the plot's well-worn cliches. So far, however, they have not. Tonight's breakdown was predictable from the minute they showed an empty pill bottle and said "gala." Of course, Kevin missed his cue on stage to be auctioned, embarrassing Sophie and ending the night in a tiff.
At least he didn't stumble his over-the-top sweaty drunk self on stage and do something dumb up there, but it wasn't a matter of if he would ruin the night. It was just a matter of how, and it was all so frustratingly predictable and obvious in a way "This Is Us" tends to avoid. I still have hope for this storyline, especially when it begins to tie Kevin to Jack and their relationship through the years. Right now, though, it's a little turmoil-by-numbers.
Pardon me, I got wrapped up in the new twist that I forgot to revisit the surprise we got just last week: Kate's pregnant! And thankfully, "This Is Us" didn't drag out waiting to tell Toby, who *sigh* Toby-ed a lot tonight. Did his first reaction to Kate saying she needed to speak to him in his office NEED to be swiping his desk clean for sex? Is this man not a grownup? How did he read "sexy time" into her line delivery? Now he's got to pick all that stuff up. Not every Toby scene needs to come with a big oafish joke. He's like a sitcom character teleported into this grounded melodrama.
Anyways, Kate wants Toby to be calm about their pregnancy, because she doesn't want him to get his hopes up – and therefore get her hopes up – when it's a technically risky situation. It's a little rough to slam the door on his enthusiasm so fast (that's right; I'm sympathetic toward Toby here!) but the scene and the character beat lands, her fear of another joy taken from her life.
Kate then pops back over to her group therapy session and snaps at Madison – you remember, the skinny blonde/human eye-roll generator – for complaining about her life of dating a nice guy named Terrance and *GASP!* vaping to cope with her eating issues. The two take it out into the parking lot too, with Kate tired of her playing tourist with their group therapy (fair) and Madison tired of Kate and Toby pretending they're better than everyone else (kinda also fair).
So, of course, they get into a fender bender in the parking lot.
Predictable, yes, but the aftermath, Kate finally allowing herself to truly open up about her pregnancy – concerns, fears and all – and therefore allow others to be happy about it, was a nice moment. It even led to a good Toby line, joking about killing Madison. I WAS PRO-TOBY FOR A MOMENT! Then Kate took him to a Not Starbucks to open up about the pregnancy, and Toby responded by doing his best "Flashdance" impression to Hootie and the Blowfish.
None of that is metaphor. That all actually happened. It was terrible and awful and everything I hate about Toby and OH OK FINE I WAS KIND OF ALMOST CHARMED. But now he has a desk to reorganize AND a water puddle at the coffee shop to mop up.
It's going to suck for Kate to have to raise two children. But hey, if they don't get along, might I recommend taking them camping?
This Is Sadness Rankings
For an episode with a dying dad, a relationship potentially falling apart and a newly discovered brother probably sacrificing his life at war, this was a pretty dry-eyed episode. I feel like the waterworks will be coming soon though. In the meantime, I give this episode a Frowny Zooey Deschanel From "New Girl":
So like a two out of 10.
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