I’ve really been enjoying the reconciliation and growing relationship between brothers Kevin and Randall. Actors Justin Hartley and Sterling K. Brown have a fun, playful dynamic that easily comes across on screen. But if you believe in the idea of a balanced universe, their coming together must spell trouble for another familial relationship…and it looks like Randall and Rebecca’s is in the crosshairs.
We pick up with the Pearsons — of the ’80s and ’10s — in the lead-up to Thanksgiving. Retro Rebecca is anxiously preparing cranberry sauce for dinner with her parents, hoping to at least match the expertise of her sister’s perfect sweet-potato pie.
“I hate going to grandma and grandpa’s,” Randall exclaims. And who can blame him? They always ask for pictures of the twins (sans Randall).
Jack returns from the store with road-trip snacks (it’s a six-hour trek to grandma’s house — way too far to travel for green-bean casserole, if you ask me), and he instructs the kids to make one more bathroom pit stop before they leave. But as Randall and Kevin run back into the kitchen, they collide with Rebecca, who’s carrying the cranberry sauce. It shatters to the floor. Thanksgiving: Not off to a great start.
In the current timeline, Kate and her support group are discussing the challenges of a holiday literally built around food. One woman mentions her gastric bypass surgery (and the 30 pounds she’s lost) and how she can’t feast or else she’ll spend the entire day in the bathroom. Kate takes note. Cut to her and her still-not-dieting boyfriend Toby dining later that evening. Kate has made a bold decision: Toby won’t be coming home with her for Thanksgiving because she and Toby will no longer be dating.
“I think we should take a break,” she says.
“A break. Why?” he asks, caught unawares.
“Because I’ve been dreading this date,” she answers. She just can’t handle watching him eat whatever he wants. It’s too much of a trigger. She, of course, tells him he’s free to do whatever he wants, but does remind him she warned she couldn’t date a fat person.
“You were better than my wildest dreams,” she says. “But I’m still not happy, Toby. And it’s not just about my weight. I’ve got to get a handle on myself. The weight, all of it. I need that more than anything right now. I want it more than anything right now.”
“Even more than me?”
She doesn’t answer. They are done.
NEXT: Hold the sweet potatoes, Miguel’s bringing awkwardness
As Kate’s relationship comes to an end, Kevin’s seems to be tentatively moving forward. After their final rehearsal before Thanksgiving, he asks costar Olivia about her plans for the holiday. They apparently include a bar in Sunset Park, Rocky II, and plenty of bourbon.
“You should celebrate Thanksgiving with me and my family, if you want,” Kevin cautiously offers. “I’m not spending Thanksgiving in New Jersey meeting the walking slices of Wonder Bread responsible for this,” she quips.
Olivia knows nothing.
After Kevin explains his family’s complicated dynamic, Olivia is intrigued and agrees to come. (Also, Rocky II isn’t even the best Rocky.)
Of the Big Three, Randall is clearly the one most excited for turkey day. He sets his alarm for 6:30 a.m. (I don’t even get up that early on a workday!), and proceeds to wake up the entire house to assist with preparations — and traditions. Kevin is bizarrely tasked with getting hot dogs. Beth is told to plug in the VCR and warns William about all the Pearson family traditions to come.
“I’m pumped,” Randall enthuses. “My mom and biological father eating at the same table. How great is this?!” William and Beth look stricken.
And right on cue, Rebecca and Miguel (emphasis for Kevin’s disdain…and perhaps my own) arrive. Beth welcomes them inside and immediately corners Rebecca about William’s admission that he had met Rebecca years before. She tells her mother-in-law she better fess up to Randall that night, or else she will. Rebecca, bless her, does try. As she and Randall chop vegetables in the kitchen, she asks if they can have some alone time to chat. But then, Kevin returns with non-girlfriend Olivia in tow. Miguel attempts pleasantries with Kevin, asking if play practice has been fun, to which Kevin disdainfully answers it’s been pretty emotionally exhausting. Before things get too terribly awkward, Randall tees up the next Thanksgiving tradition: a 3.4-mile hike, mirroring the walk he and the rest of his family had to embark upon in the ’80s after their car’s tire blew and sent the vehicle sailing through a wooden fence. (It’s during that long-ago walk Randall tells his mom how much he dislikes Thanksgiving and doesn’t want to celebrate it when he’s a grown-up.)
But taking a cancer patient on a long walk may not have been Randall’s smartest idea, and he and William stop along the trail to talk. William tells him about his own tradition of listening to recordings of him and his friends performing on Thanksgivings of yore. Rebecca uses the hike to once again ask the name of Kevin and Olivia’s play, which she has apparently inquired about before. (Are we to read into this that her memory is beginning to fail her? Is this foreshadowing some sort of future medical issue? Stay tuned.) Kevin and Olivia eventually break off from the group, and she shares her own distaste for the holiday, recounting how her doctor father always left before dessert to meet up with his mistress.
Meanwhile, Kate’s plane to the East Coast is running hours behind, and when they finally board, the woman next to her casts a haughty look her way. “Don’t worry,” Kate says to her. “I bought both of these seats.” Before takeoff, Kate calls Randall to let him know she’s running late — she won’t make the movie, but she should arrive just in time for dinner.
Yes, the movie. Another Pearson tradition, watching Police Academy 3. As the family settles in for the viewing, Randall leaves to run an errand and Kevin does probably one of the sweetest things we’ve ever seen him do: He presents a slice of pie to Olivia. No matter what, she’ll make it to the pie this Thanksgiving, he says. And then walks in Miguel, asking if he can wear “the hat” this year. A task that used to be Jack’s, but now falls to Kevin and Randall on alternating years. When Kevin tells him as much, Miguel is crestfallen. And, Olivia, clearly troubled, says she can’t be what Kevin wants her to be and walks out of the house.
(Miguel Real Talk: Why is he so insistent upon assuming Jack’s traditional duty? I totally get he wants to feel included, but he already took his dead friend’s wife — does he really need his Pilgrim, hat too?)
NEXT: Mother knows best?
As we flash back, we learn every single one of the rituals we’ve been witnessing this episode relate back to that one Thanksgiving in the ’80s. After walking those 3.4 miles to find a gas station, they call Rebecca’s mom for a ride. But an argument ensues, and Rebecca finally tells her they won’t be coming for dinner after all.
“Okay, so what’s the new plan?” Jack asks his wife. They turn and see a sign for a rustic motel.
“I guess we’re having Thanksgiving at the Pinewood Lodge,” Rebecca says.
At reception, they’re greeting by a self-styled “Pilgrim Rick,” wearing the now-infamous buckle-top hat. Though they ask for the innkeeper’s finest accommodations, they’re met with a rather shabby room, equipped with an overheating furnace. But Jack is determined to make the best of it, and later returns with a rented copy of Police Academy 3 (it was that or 9 1/2 Weeks) and some convenience-store hot dogs they’ll reheat over the furnace’s flame and deck out with cheese and smashed crackers. They cap off the evening with one more new tradition: They pass around Kate’s unraveling sweater, say what they’re thankful for, and tug at the yarn.
Back to the future: Olivia’s sitting on Randall’s porch waiting for her Uber, and William’s there, too, getting some air. She bluntly asks what it feels like to be dying. William gives her a long sideways glance before answering. “It feels like all these beautiful pieces of life are flying around me and I’m trying to catch them,” he says. “I know it feels like you have all the time in the world, but you don’t. So quit trying to play it so cool. And when a nice boy who adores you offers you pie, say thank you.” Olivia goes back inside and kisses Kevin.
Kevin, perhaps moved by Olivia’s gesture, passes it on, finally letting Miguel play Pilgrim Rick.
Randall returns from his errand, stone-faced: Alongside William’s Thanksgiving recordings, he finds a letter and school picture of himself that Rebecca sent to William. He has — after 36 years — learned his mom’s deepest, darkest secret. When it’s Randall’s turn to say what he’s thankful for at the table, he tearfully asks his mother about her longtime acquaintance with William.
“I can’t even look at you,” he says, storming away from the table. It’s then Kate finally arrives with a big announcement (inspired by a near-death experience on that flight of hers): She’s going to get gastric bypass surgery.
“Your family is amazing,” Olivia tells Kevin in awe.
The episode concludes back in the ‘80s, as the Pearsons all snuggle into their room’s queen-sized bed. Randall has changed his mind about Thanksgiving as a grown-up. “I know how I want it to be,” he tells Rebecca. “Like tonight. I want every Thanksgiving to be like this for the rest of my life.”