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After being gone for a month, This Is Us has returned not by easing us back into its rhythms, but instead by putting us through the wringer once again: The midseason finale foreshadowed a kind of family reckoning, and “The Fifth Wheel” provides just that.
The show jumps ahead a month in the present-day timeline, to Kevin recovering in rehab after his drunken bender and his two siblings reeling from their respective experiences of loss: Randall losing foster child Deja to her birth mother and Kate having a miscarriage. Kate and Randall are gearing up to see Kevin for the first time since he was arrested for a DUI with Tess unexpectedly tagging along in the back seat of his car.
Kate feels anxious about having not spoken to Kevin in so long, along with a twinge of guilt for not realizing how poorly Kevin was doing. (“I let Kevin get sent to rehab,” she says.) Toby also learns, thanks to a torn garbage bag, that she’s been sneaking junk food. Randall, meanwhile, is trying to stay positive and not resent his brother for the danger he put Tess in. Beth isn’t even trying: She refers to Kevin as Randall’s “jackass brother” and doesn’t mince words about not wanting to support him in rehab. “I know how you feel — I feel it too,” Randall tells her. “But when I was at my lowest, Kevin was there for me.”
The family — Randall and Beth, Kate and Toby, Rebecca and Miguel — gathers at a swanky rehab facility, and all are greeted by a very healthy-looking Kevin. Even Kevin’s smile grates on Beth, who quips, “Of course! He’s Mr. Rehab.” (In moments like this, Beth is all of us.) As he greets each of his family members warmly, there’s an undercurrent of tension, hard to place but clearly evident. He introduces them to his therapist Barbara — played by Scandal‘s Sally Langston herself, Kate Burton — who, we learn, will run the “family session.” She indicates things might get a little combative when she suggests Beth, Toby, and Miguel sit this first one out (which Beth is all too happy to hear). The “Others,” as Barbara refers to them, head over to a bar instead. (We get a few scenes of this new “Big Three” talking about what it means to be with a Pearson. It’s mostly light fare, but here’s the space to shout out Susan Kelechi Watson, whose work throughout the episode as Beth is hilariously and necessarily over it. Her sighs in the rehab facility alone merit an Emmy nomination.)
The family reunion, of sorts, is juxtaposed with the action in the earlier timeline, where Jack announces he’s taking the family on an impromptu vacation to a colleague’s cabin in the Poconos. Young Kevin has to meet the rest there a few days late, as he’s at football camp (where he won “two trophies”), and quickly feels left out by the drama occurring around him — an experience we’ve seen him go through in prior episodes. Rebecca is hyperconscious about Kate’s weight, which leads Jack to be even more defensive of his daughter than usual; Randall just got glasses, and Rebecca’s protective instincts kick in, warning Kevin not to mock him for the new look.
Rebecca confronts Jack about Kate’s eating habits. “She’s obsessed with food,” Rebecca laments, to which Jack pushes back, saying that like his grandmother, she’s only “big boned.” Rebecca stands her ground: “No more daily trips to that ice cream place.” Jack agrees and also tries to get his daughter more involved in physical fitness — but his flag football game with Kate and Kevin turns into a contentious affair, in which Kate and Jack spar after he tells her she needs to exercise, and Kevin, again, feels left out. Rebecca and Randall are off to the side, reading, at which point Kevin misbehaves: He throws the football at Randall, calling him “four-eyes.” Things only get worse from there, as when Randall’s glasses go missing, Rebecca accuses Kevin of deliberately hiding them. “I hate you!” Kevin shouts at his mother in response. “This family sucks. You suck.”
Young Kevin’s experience helps inform where we find him now, as an adult. In the therapy session, initially, Kevin very genuinely and solemnly apologizes to his sister, brother, and mother, admitting he hit a “low point.” But Barbara pushes him to discuss the work he’s done in therapy, about where his addictions might stem from — and what that says about the family. Kate’s initially enthusiastic about the idea, naively believing the issue at hand to be Kevin’s inability to deal with his father’s death, but as we soon learn, the pain that Kevin’s carrying goes much deeper.
What follows is one of the most devastating, effective scenes This Is Us has done to date. The series is at its best when it realistically and poignantly shows how people with good intentions can still hurt, disappoint, and neglect others. The therapy scene gets at that idea beautifully. Kevin kicks things off. “My entire childhood I always felt like I came in second to you two with Mom and Dad,” he says to Kate and Randall, “like I was the fifth wheel of the family.” They all deflect: Kate is confused, Randall offended, Rebecca devastated. But Kevin keeps on. He explains that he tried to replace his sense of inadequacy with things — acting, football — and that “it was only a matter of time” before he turned to something worse. He argues that it’s because addiction runs in their family: Jack was an alcoholic, Jack’s father was an alcoholic, and Kate, Kevin argues, has a food addiction. (Recap continues on page 2)