Spoiler alert: This recap contains many details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us.
Beloved memories of a dead father collide with present-day Pearson family tensions in one of the most emotionally riveting This Is Us scenes — and that’s saying something — in Tuesday’s midseason return of NBC’s hit drama.
“The Fifth Wheel” brings the family, and their significant others, together at the rehab facility where Kevin (Justin Hartley) is being treated after his drunk-driving arrest in November’s fall finale.
But it’s a confrontational therapy scene involving the core Pearson clan — Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and her “Big 3” adult children Kevin, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — that stands out, as memories of their dead father Jack infuse the proceeding.
“You have all the living (Pearson) players in a room together in a 12-minute scene that’s about things that are very real, very raw,” Hartley tells. “You’re talking to the people you love and saying things that are going to hurt and cut deep but need to be said. There’s some painful stuff.”
The scene was intense for the actors as well as for their characters, Hartley says.
“We did the scene for five or six hours. We want all the way through, every single time, and I don’t think one person ever (messed up) a line,” he says.
The rehab therapy session, intercut with flashbacks to a Pearson Poconos vacation when the children were 10, opens with offers of polite support before a poker-faced therapist (Kate Burton) pushes the quartet to focus on touchier issues.
Kevin vents about the pain he felt at seeing the close Kate-Jack and Randall-Rebecca bonds made him feel like an outsider, and that he pursued football, acting and eventually alcohol and drugs to ease it.
He crosses into dangerous territory by saying he is part of a family of addicts, including his grandfather and Jack, who died when the children were 17.
Criticism of the sainted dad triggers angry responses from Kate and Rebecca, who tells the therapist, “You really do a disservice by calling my husband an addict, because he was so much more than that.”
And Randall unleashes a previously contained rage toward Kevin and his behavior. “I will not hold my tongue while you go after our mother,” he says. “You’re not an addict. The only thing you’re addicted to is attention.”
Kevin returns fire, suggesting Randall’s daughter hid in his car to escape the chaos caused when his brother brought his biological father and a foster daughter into the family home.
Rebecca then acknowledges a closer relationship with Randall: “He was easier. He didn’t recoil when I touched him. He didn’t abandon me” after Jack died.
The therapy session is part of Kevin’s recovery, Hartley says. “We realize, as the episode goes on, that Kevin knows he’s not fine yet. He knows he’s getting better and he’s starting to come to terms with the fact that this is a lifelong process.”
But the ugliness from the therapy session doesn’t last long. As Kevin sits on a bench near a pond after the session, Kate and then Randall join him, wishing fancifully for a Boyhood-style film of their youth to provide an objective perspective.
Randall says he didn’t mean to diminish Kevin’s feelings. Kevin and Randall lean their heads on Kate’s shoulders as Randall playfully needles, ‘I’m Mom’s favorite,’ and Kate pushes him off the bench. It’s a bit quick for a loving rapprochement, but all is well with the Pearsons — for now.
“That’s what happens with good relationships. You can blow up, say what’s on your mind, get upset, but a loving family will always come back together,” Hartley says.