In the world of television production, there are few episodes labored over as extensively as the pilot. Think about it: A show’s creator has spent months (if not years) polishing a script they hope to one day sell to a network. They’ve agonized over every scene, every turn of phrase, all in the hopes their masterpiece will finally see the celluloid of your TV screen. So it sometimes can be a letdown to watch the less-fussed-over second episode of a new series, especially a series with a truly fantastic pilot. All of which is to say I was a little nervous to sit down and watch the second episode of This Is Us. But, thankfully, “The Big Three” not only lived up to “Pilot,” but introduced an intriguing new wrinkle to the story.
We pick up in what must be the mid-‘80s, given that the triplets (a.k.a. The Big Three) are now 8 years old. A decade of marriage and child-rearing has taken a bit of a toll on Jack and Rebecca’s relationship. When he comes down the stairs for breakfast and gestures to the empty coffee pot, her response is swift and no-nonsense: “Do you need me to show you where the coffee is?” (Fair point.) Here we also see early narrative threads in the children’s lives, which will be (and have already been) paid off: Randall being called “Webster” by his classmates and Kevin not standing up for him; Kate having to eat melon and cottage cheese for breakfast while her leaner brothers munch on sugary cereal. And then there’s the cheer: Jack’s playful rallying cry for The Big Three. (Are these the kinds of shenanigans I missed out on as an only child?)
Later that day, over several glasses of bourbon, Jack voices his marital frustrations to his best friend, Miguel.
“It’s hard to see the woman I married sometimes, you know,” Jack says to an obviously baffled Miguel.
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“The thing is, your wife is the gold standard of wives,” he replies. “Great personality. Greater ass. You married way, way above your station. I’d be careful not to give her a reason to notice.”
It’s advice Jack halfheartedly takes as he returns home with gift in hand for Rebecca (albeit late and drunk).
But she’s not appeased so easily. “I think we’ve been more than way off track,” Rebecca begins, rating them a six on a parenting scale of one to 10. Well, a seven if you’re being generous. (They do have three kids, after all.). Her hope is they can aspire to a nine. “The thing is, I feel like I’m there, Jack. I feel like I’m operating at a nine because I do individualized lunches and I do individualized tuck-ins for each kid so nobody feels gypped. When you’re home and you’re you, you’re way better than I am. When you’re you, you’re a 10, Jack.” She ends by demanding he stop drinking. She won’t have it in her house.
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Zooming forward to the future timeline, Randall is currently worrying over his other father — his “crack-addict biological daddy,” as wife Beth puts it, while wondering aloud how long the old man will be staying with them. Randall can’t, in good conscience, kick William out when he’s sick with stomach cancer. He has to get him to a doctor first. But Beth is suspicious, especially when William asks for a few dollars for bus fare to go “just around.”
Out on the opposite coast, Kevin is gearing up for a big meeting with his high-powered agent, Lanie (played by the inimitable Katey Sagal), to talk next steps post-Man-ny. But it’s all various shades of bad news: He’s contractually bound to the show for the next two years. “The network owns you,” she explains. “You can’t work for any other studio for the next two years.” (I don’t think it’s a big leap to assume he didn’t invest that $3 million annual salary in, like, Google stocks or something. He probably needs a job.) So Lanie insists Kevin show up at her industry party that evening to beg network brass for a second chance.
And as seems to be his standard operating procedure, Kevin turns to sister for advice. Kate tells him to go to that fancy fete and tell everyone “Manny Out!” — a line he takes a particular shine to (for better or for worse). “What did I do those first two minutes without you?” he asks.
“You cried and crapped a lot,” she replies.
He asks Kate to be his date for the affair, but she’s hesitant. She doesn’t have anything to wear! And she ends up taking out those frustrations and insecurities on her support group, dealing some hard blows to several of the assembled members. “You hulked out at a bunch of fatties!” Toby says during a break. She confesses she doesn’t want to go to her brother’s party. But this being L.A., Toby knows exactly who Kevin’s agent is and is not only duly impressed, but also insists they attend. “Can we spend one fat-free night at the house of the lady that came up with Deadpool and/or Hamilton?” he pleads with her.
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Fast-forward to Toby — in a dandy suit and fedora — standing at Kate’s door ready for their night of SHOW BUSINESS. When they arrive at the shindig, Toby immediately gravitates toward the dance floor, busting out his best moves. Kate can’t let so loose. She looks around and sees everyone staring at them. Toby’s solution? He gets Kate drunk.
Kevin, meanwhile, comes face-to-face with the network president (played by Brad Garrett), whom he asks if he can just “go with God.”
President Brad Garrett tells Kevin that if he’s forced to recast him, “I’ll be forced to Nagasaki your life and career.”
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Kevin emerges from the uncomfortable tête-à-tête to find Kate under the influence — and unable to give sound advice. So he does something he so rarely does: He calls Randall.
“I was not a very good brother to you, was I?” Kevin asks, after ranting and raving about having to whore himself out to the studio.
“No, you weren’t,” Randall answers. “But you’ve still got time.” And sensing Kevin is on some sort of precipice, Randall begins The Big Three cheer. Kate stumbles over just in time to slur her part. Randall’s parting advice: “Mom and Dad didn’t raise no whores. Except, briefly, during Kate’s eyeliner phase.” (Kevin does indeed take Randall’s advice, telling the network to go suck it. “I’m going to do theater, you know. I’m moving to New York,” he announces to Kate and Toby.)
Now fully awake, Randall realizes he’s alone in his bed. Beth tiptoed out long before to have a private chat with William. She tells William about Randall’s perfection complex. How, at times, it’s driven him to literal blindness. It’s why she both loves him and has to protect him. So she needs answers from William — answers he seems unwilling to give. That is, until Randall interrupts and he’s forced to fess up. He hasn’t been using that money to buy drugs (as Beth suspected) but instead to take the bus three hours back home to feed his cat, Clooney. (Randall’s youngest has asthma and William didn’t want them to feel responsible for his feline.)
“Well, now I feel like a bitch!” Beth says, breaking the tension. (She’s quickly becoming my favorite character…)
And now we close back in the ‘80s. It’s morning, and Jack has slept in his work clothes outside the couple’s bedroom.
“I don’t like sleeping far away from you,” he tells Rebecca, promising he’ll stop drinking. He can and will do it for her. “From here on out, I’m going to be an 11 for you, baby. Screw that, I’m going to be a 12 for you, from here on out. I’ll be an 11 for the kids. You get a 12.”
And now Rebecca finally opens her gift: a crescent moon necklace. (Which apparently alludes to their song.)
“I’m never going to take it off,” she says. And we see the evidence of that in one final future scene, in which “grandma and grandpa” arrive on Randall’s family’s doorstep. Except, it’s not Jack accompanying a much-older Rebecca. It’s Jack’s best friend, Miguel! Are Rebecca and Jack divorced? Has Jack died? Rebecca is still wearing the bauble, after all…
What did you think of “The Big Three”? Did you see that twist coming? And how many more twists will this show offer up? Sound off in the comments below.