We gave it a B+
Much of the discussion about This Is Us’ season 2 premiere centered on its revealing ending, a cryptic series of details and images that kickstarted phase two of the mystery of Jack’s death. But “A Father’s Advice” also teased the story lines to come for each of the Pearson siblings — and in “A Manny-Splendored Thing,” the show digs a little deeper.
The episode title, of course, refers to Kevin’s return to The Manny, making a post-meltdown special guest appearance that could go very right or very wrong. The whole family is in town to attend the taping, to cheer him on as he tries to make up for his unceremonious exit in the pilot. Kevin’s nervous: He’s been “eating six ounces of plain chicken breast every meal for the last two weeks,” per Sophie, and wants his reappearance to recall that of George Clooney on ER. But this isn’t a venerable hospital drama winning raves and Emmys — it’s The Manny, and Kevin will need to make the best of whatever material is thrown his way.
This Is Us makes good on the potential that comes with bringing all of the Pearsons into the same room. The episode’s present-day conflict is sorted by sibling, as usual: Kate has landed an unexpected singing gig and needs to skip out on the taping, Randall is having serious doubts about going through with Beth’s adoption plan, and Kevin is trying not to think of crawling on the floor in a diaper as an embarrassing indignity. This story is intercut with the build-up to another Pearson-gathering event in the earlier timeline: the school talent show. Young Kate is set to sing, and young Kevin will do some comedy.
Kate’s complicated relationship with her mother moves to the fore of “A Manny-Splendored Thing,” and the show sparkles as it gives their dynamic its most significant showcase yet. It’s heartbreaking to see young Kate excited by the possibility of performing “Lean on Me” in the talent show, only to see her confidence diminished by her mother’s steadfast investment. Rebecca makes a dress for her daughter out of the one she wore the first time she performed, and she offers gentle but encouraging critiques when she listens to Kate practice. Rebecca’s involvement has an unintended effect: When young Kate hears her mother singing the same song in the shower, it’s quietly crushing, and her feelings of inadequacy mount to the extent that she backs out of the show.
This vignette helps inform the richer story happening in the present, as Kate prepares for her first big performance filling in for the singer of a house band. Before even learning about the opportunity, Kate was already anxious about spending so much time with her mother around the Manny taping. “Every time my mom comes to visit, she comes in hot, looks me up and down like she’s fitting me for a freaking bra, and then she starts criticizing me with these seemingly innocuous questions,” she tells Toby, before taking a deep breath. “I’m not going to overreact to everything she says this time.”
But Toby doesn’t fight Rebecca when she says she wants to watch her daughter perform — and while Kate’s powerful performance of “Landslide” completely lands, Rebecca’s presence in the crowd is enough to bring back feelings of resentment and shame, turning a breakthrough moment into another litigation of their difficult history.
Rebecca embraces Kate with a mix of flowery compliments — she says she was “amazing” and sang “incredibly beautiful” — and near-imperceptible critiques. (“In time you will learn to power through a crowd like this,” she says with a smile.) In truth, as Kate semi-acknowledges, it probably wouldn’t have mattered what Rebecca said — just her being there causes those negative feelings to resurface. “You still make me feel like a stupid, fat little kid,” Kate snaps. “It’s not just that you’re beautiful or thin or that you have perfect pitch even when you talk — it’s everything, and you wanted a daughter like you, and I was never going to be like you…. You wanted me to be the ‘you’ that you never became.”
It cuts deep, and Kate knows it, immediately regretting how harsh she sounds. But she warned Toby at the episode’s beginning: She just can’t help how her mother makes her feel. Toby respectfully standing up for Kate to Rebecca allows for a mini-reconciliation, but the tension lingers after their final scene. This Is Us might seem at times like it’s all about the seismic tragedy of Jack’s death, but there are other childhood experiences that leave a lingering pain. And yet family relationships carry on, imperfectly and tinged with regret, but lovingly, too. (Recap continues on page 2)