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)
Kate and Rebecca’s conflict is resolved in a way that feels earned, but that’s not quite the case with Kevin, whose Manny comeback has him out of whack: “It made me and then it ruined me,” he vents to Sophie before the taping. He spends most of the episode trying to reconcile those feelings, veering from the potential “humiliation” of returning to the lowbrow sitcom to his hope that he can make something positive out of it. The stakes are pretty low, all things considered; early in the episode, Sophie tells Kevin that he’s exhibiting his “least attractive side,” and the same could be said of the show’s treatment of the character here. That said, Sophie’s support for Kevin throughout the taping is somewhat moving, and — yes — the taping goes well. Kevin embraces the material for what it is and just has fun with it, and the crowd goes wild.
But his best scene, tellingly, is unrelated to his own story. Kevin runs into Beth, who’s just looking for a little breathing room from Randall. In addition to reminding us of Beth’s hilariously strong distaste for The Manny — Susan Kelechi Watson’s face is priceless when she learns just how long a sitcom taping lasts — she shares a luminous moment of bonding with her brother-in-law. Beth confides that Randall is driving her crazy with his reluctance to adopt, and then that he’s freaking out on her, to which Kevin responds knowingly, “He’ll do that, too.” He reminds her how special she is to Randall and gives her some perspective, telling her Randall’s initial pursuit of her was “the only time in my brother’s life that he’s risked failure.”
For all of its focus on the Pearson siblings, this episode is framed around a continuation of where we left off with Jack and Rebecca last week. It opens on his drunken return, as she drives him home, and periodically flashes back to when he and Rebecca first confronted his drinking problem when the kids were younger. We’re given glimpses of Jack’s flawed but dedicated initial effort to stop drinking on his own; he couldn’t stick it out at AA meetings but tried to discipline himself in other ways. Kate’s deep connection to her father is piercingly illuminated when Jack looks to her for comfort — a complement to Kate’s struggles with her mother in the present. “It will be okay,” a young Kate tells her father, noticing his turmoil even when he doesn’t speak a word. She holds his face in her hands.
When we push forward again for the episode’s conclusion, as Jack drunkenly returns home to his now-teenage kids, he’s more revealing. “Katey girl, I have a drinking problem, and my father, he had a drinking problem, and I’ve kept that hidden from you guys because I didn’t want you to know that about me,” he says to her. “I really didn’t want you to know that about me. But you have to know.” Just as she did when she was younger, Kate puts his face in her hands and gives him a reassuring look. It’s a sweet moment, but also a heavy one — a reminder of the burdens Kate has carried into adulthood. (Head here for series creator Dan Fogelman’s take on Jack and Kate’s stories in this hour.)
As Kate performs “Landslide” at the episode’s midpoint, This Is Us stitches together another trademark time-shifting montage. The lyrics, set against images of the family — but especially Kate, the centerpiece of the hour — say it all. “Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ’cause I’ve built my life around you,” she sings. “But time makes you bolder. Even children get older — and I’m getting older, too.”