What a way for the Pearson clan to close out 2018.
“This Is Us” has long been a show about history, and how our history, and our families’ history, informs our lives now. And when you start rummaging around in the past, you’re bound to come upon some secrets, something Kevin (Justin Hartley) learned the hard way in the fall finale, which revealed that Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) brother Nick (Michael Angarano) didn’t die in the Vietnam War after all.
Far more heartbreaking than the idea that Jack might have lied to his family is the rift that developed between Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown), and a brief trip to the future makes us question how deep that rift is.
Despite all the attention “This Is Us” gets for its time jumps, big secrets and shocking twists, the show is at its best when it focuses on the characters and their relationships. The best moments in this episode didn’t come from Vietnam or the future; they came from Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) learning the gender of their baby, and Beth devastatingly turning Randall away after their fight. Sure, we’ll get some good drama out of old Nick (who I’m sure will turn up eventually), but for now I’m far more concerned about Randall and Beth.
The couple reached this troubling juncture after Randall’s big debate for the city council seat with incumbent councilman Sol Brown. The debate starts off as well as you’d think. Randall is nervous, boring and he even forgets the moderator’s name. Brown never loses an opportunity to remind the audience that Randall doesn’t even live in Philly and has no institutional knowledge of the city. But after a few stumbles, Randall pulls a Randall (or, if you like, a Jack Pearson), with a rousing, heartfelt speech. It was all for naught, though, because a new poll shows that he is so far behind his campaign rival that it seems it’s not worth continuing the campaign.
After that news, Randall and Beth receive two familial bombshells. First, Deja (Lyric Ross), who has been secretly talking to her biological mother, reveals that she wants to visit her in Delaware. Then Tess (Eris Baker), after some needling from Rebecca (Mandy Moore), tells her parents she thinks she might be gay. The couple handle both developments with aplomb, but they’re exhausted and worried nonetheless. Beth wants Randall to drop out of the campaign to focus on the family, listing all the financial and emotional sacrifices she has made for his dream. But Randall refuses to give up, reneging on his promise to Beth that he’d drop out if she asked.
Randall’s one-track mind is nothing new, but ignoring Beth’s needs is. The couple always seemed so strong and assured, and even during arguments, the marriage’s core was trust and compromise. This feels like a real betrayal, not just of Beth’s trust but of the foundation of their relationship. Just after we see Beth kick Randall to the couch, the series flashes forward to the timeline we’ve visited before, and we learn Randall and Tess are going to visit Rebecca and pick up Beth – now a ballet instructor – along the way. Does their separation mean they’re really separated from each other?
Another mystery surrounds Nick, who, in Vietnam flashbacks, isn’t being his best self. He and Jack are fighting, physically and verbally, and eventually Nick steals pills and gets high, explaining that he will never go home, and then disappears. Then there’s an explosion on a boat, but it’s unclear if Nick was on board.
In present-day Vietnam, Kevin comes up empty-handed after searching for answers about his father’s time in the war in the village where Jack and Nick served, although he shares a nice moment with the son of a member of the Vietcong. Just as he and Zoe are about to leave the country, their tour guide says Nick’s name isn’t on the list of the war dead. We then see the outline of a man in what looks like a trailer, and his mail is addressed to “Nicholas Pearson.”
Thankfully, the writers gave us a small respite from marital strife and family secrets with Kate and Toby’s storyline. So far everything is going well with Kate’s pregnancy, but her doctor is worried that she’s sitting for too long when she drives to her Adele-o-gram (singing telegrams dressed up as Adele) appointments. So Kate goes in search of a new job that will satisfy her musical passions, and her friend Madison (Caitlin Thompson) comes up with the perfect solution: directing the choir at a local high school. Kate nails an interview, but she can’t land the gig because she never graduated from college.
Kate is disappointed, and when Toby suggests she stop working for now and focus on the pregnancy, they both realize they are paralyzed by their fear that Kate will miscarry again. That’s why they didn’t want to know the gender, and it’s why Kate needs to work, to distract herself from worrying.
And for once, Toby actually solves a problem with a grand gesture: He takes Kate to a local community college and suggests she finish up her last few credits before the baby comes and their lives are consumed by parenting. He also points out that they should let themselves be happy, because denying the baby’s existence won’t make it any easier if they lose it. So they get a gender-reveal cake from a bakery and cut into it to discover it’s blue. They’re having a boy.
Like Toby and Kate, I’m going to focus on the positives as “This Is Us” wraps up the first half of its season (it returns Jan. 15). Toby and Kate are growing. Deja is reconciling with her mother. Tess was comfortable enough to come out. And Kevin is closer to the truth.
The bad stuff, that can wait for 2019.