This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman loves a good Ghost Dad.
It’s a trope we’ve seen many times: A dearly departed loved one returns — whether through a dream sequence, drug usage, or with no explanation at all — to mysteriously guide a troubled soul through a troubled time. And, in fact, it’s a trope we’ve seen as recently as this season on Fogelman’s other primetime drama, Pitch. (Ginny Baker’s father cheering from the bleachers? Totally dead!) It’s a narrative device I particularly dislike when used in an otherwise grounded drama. Why am I being forced to suspend my disbelief to this degree?!
Our troubled soul, in this case, is Randall, who’s still wrestling with the knowledge his mother has lied to him for the past 36 years about the whereabouts of his biological father. He’s writing a list — 22 reasons long so far! — about why he’s mad at Rebecca.
Meanwhile, Kevin is grilling Kate about her own life-changing realization: namely, that she wants to have gastric bypass surgery and liiiive.
“You experienced mild turbulence,” Kevin condescends about her “near-death” experience. “You spilled your peanuts.”
But Kate isn’t relenting. Kevin tries to steer the conversation back to himself and his own woes, including the fact their mom is selling the cabin. That catches Kate’s attention straightaway, and she convinces the rest of the Big Three that they need to go see their childhood home-away-from-home one last time. Randall declares he’s just clearing out his stuff and then he’s out.
Before any real brother-sister-brother bonding can begin, Olivia unexpectedly arrives up with playwright Sloane and ex Asher, who brought refreshments, including a mushroom-laced smoothie. (I’m not talking portobellos here.) And that, friends, is how Randall enters an altered state in which 1980s-era Jack is doing chores around the cabin while his 2016-era grown-up children hang out.
Randall tells Ghost Dad all about the secret his mother had been keeping from him, but Jack just can’t believe it.
Through flashbacks, we see just how difficult the subterfuge was. As it turns out, 9-year-old Randall’s tally marks weren’t the only genetic sleuthing he was conducting. In grocery stores, he’d corner black shoppers to see if they could roll their tongues like him — a genetic trait. Coming to grips with his growing need for identity and belonging, his parents enrolled him in martial-arts classes taught by a black sensei with all black students. And the initiation is heart-wrenching: In a show of solidarity, all the fathers gather round as Jack hoists Randall onto his back and begins to perform push-up after push-up, with Randall’s weight literally on his shoulders.
“We are your community,” the sensei says. “When things get hard, we will be the ones to hold you up.”
NEXT: Fates and Furies