“Brothers” lives up to its title in more ways than one. This week’s episode of This Is Us threw in a bit of everything that’s made the show a hit: some heartwarming family bonding here, a little melodrama there, a whole bunch of shifting among eras, and a heck of a surprise reveal at the end. (Head here for executive producers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra’s thoughts on the twist.) It’s both the least subtle and most engaging episode of the second season so far.
The episode splits the action between three timelines, so there’s a lot going on. In the present, Kate is slowly breaking the news of her pregnancy, balancing cautious excitement with anxiety over both her age and her weight; Randall is still struggling to connect with Deja; and Kevin’s pill-popping problem appears to have gotten severely worse. In the siblings’ childhood, we spend time with Jack and the boys on a camping trip, leaving Rebecca and Kate back home to deal with an unexpected family emergency. And finally, we catch a glimpse of Jack’s own childhood — as a fishing expedition with his dad goes sadly, predictably wrong.
First, picking up where we left off last week: Kate’s pregnancy. She’s still feeling out the news, but when she tells Toby, he responds with elation. Kate indicates he shouldn’t be so optimistic: “I’m 37, I’m having a ‘geriatric pregnancy’…. and because of my weight and because things just seem to happen to me,” she says before Toby cuts her off. Kate tries again: “This is about hope.” She’s thrilled by the possibility of having a child with Toby but doesn’t want to jinx anything.
We see her again going after thin, pretty Madison from her group, chastising her for making herself feel “better” by hanging around people more “screwed up” than she is. They yell at one another before they get into a minor car crash. Kate begins to cry, holding her stomach — there, again, is the fear of how easily her pregnancy could result in disaster. Kate then tells her enemy of minutes earlier that she’s pregnant, a secret she’s otherwise trying hard to keep, and Madison is similarly ecstatic. Kate finds some comfort in that. Later, she takes Toby to a coffee shop, where she promises he can finally publicly act on his feelings of excitement — but only if they never show up at this place of business again. Toby tells the barista and promptly performs a happy dance from table to table. Watching this arc is like being in Kate’s shoes: You feel a little cautious about being happy for her, but there’s a lot of hope.
It’s the camping trip that’s the primary plotline of the hour, as Jack uses the getaway as an opportunity to get Kevin and Randall to really bond. We’ve seen the two feud as kids, and as “Brothers” begins, that’s still the case. Upon their arrival at the campsite, the siblings bicker over getting the tent up; when Randall finally succeeds and expresses satisfaction, Kevin sabotages it and pulls the tent down. Jack scolds and punishes Kevin, forcing him to put the tent back up and sit quietly inside for an indefinite amount of time. You can see it on Jack’s face: For some reason, he’s particularly dedicated to bringing Randall and Kevin closer on this trip, and he’s hurt when things don’t get off to a great start. “He’s your brother, Kevin,” Jack says. “You should be able to depend on each other more than anyone else in the world.” Later, he presses Kevin on why he’s so hard on Randall, but Kevin refuses to discuss it.
While we watch Kevin and Randall keep their distance as kids, they’re brought together in the present. Kevin is in town to take part in a special charity gala for Sophie, putting himself up for auction as a celebrity guest, and Randall winds up taking Deja along for the ride. Deja, still completely unresponsive to Randall, is drawn to Kevin: She’s comforted by his effortlessness and lack of intensity compared to her new foster dad. When she first expresses interest in the gala, Beth isn’t so sure it’s a great idea. “You really think she’s ready to go to some swanky Manhattan charity ball?” she asks her husband skeptically. Randall views it as a great bonding opportunity and is thrilled that Deja is excited to do something. He buys her a dress; they drive over to the event together, Deja still silent and Randall still trying a hair too hard. (Recap continues on page 2)
Kevin, on the other hand, is a complete mess. Our first look at him in the episode is in the bathroom; he’s run out of his pills, and as he stares at a family photo from when he and Randall were kids, he scours Randall’s medicine cabinet and drawers for anything to get him the fix he’s craving. Later, he calls his doctor and leaves a message — it’s the weekend — noting that he knows he’s “gone through all the refills” of his Vicodin prescription. He chugs a beer while Sophie tries on dresses for the gala. “Try to pace yourself because we have a long night of schmoozing,” she says. You can see she’s a little worried, but with Kevin just getting into town, she doesn’t want to push it.
Things get worse for both brothers at the event. Deja is thrilled to see Kevin again — she reveals herself to be a huge fan of The Manny, which of course flatters him — but continues to snub Randall. When they’re seated, she tries eating a whole shrimp, at which point Randall yells, “No!” and grabs her wrist to prevent her from choking. Deja, shaken, disappears into the bathroom.
Kevin, meanwhile, is getting drunk backstage, repeatedly calling doctors and indicating a real desperation for more pills. In front of a huge crowd, Sophie gives Kevin a warm introduction, yelling his name into the microphone for him to appear — but he’s too busy downing bourbons and arguing on the phone to even notice. The humiliation settles in a little more each time we hear Sophie chant, “Kevin Pearson!”
The brothers meet outside the women’s bathroom — Kevin sweating drunkenly, Randall still unsettled after scaring Deja yet again. Randall confides it’s taking everything in him not to go “barging” into the bathroom. “Kev, bro, she likes you,” he tries explaining, adding that it’s not just because he’s the Manny. “You’re good with her. You’re good with people. I come on too strong.” In response, Kevin conveys his own vulnerabilities. “You care too much — you always have,” he begins. “You feel too much. And I try not to feel anything at all.”
The contrast of the two of them is undeniable: Randall, while working through a difficult situation, is stable and mostly happy; in Kevin, we see someone who appears increasingly broken. That juxtaposition informs where we leave both in the episode: Deja finally opens up to Randall after he barges into the bathroom (as promised), describing from behind her stall door the abuse she’d encountered at a previous foster home. As for Kevin, after finding Sophie embarrassed and hurt, he leaves the event by himself. (Though we do learn the winning bid for him at the auction was $14,000 — who among us wouldn’t drop five figures to spend some time with the Manny?) He makes a call to Dr. Miller, whom he last saw “a couple years ago,” and admits to being “in a lot of pain.”
The story of Kevin and Randall, past and present, turns out not to be the sole reason why the episode takes the name “Brothers.” In the third timeline, we meet Jack as a young kid himself, about to go on his own fishing trip with his father. Jack is sitting in the front seat with worms and bait beside him while his father drives the car; abruptly, he stops at a bar, claiming he’s “thirsty,” and leaves Jack in the car while he sits inside and drinks. Young Jack repeats “he’s coming back” to himself, as if he’s been in this situation before, the feeling of neglect so sharp he still needs that reassurance.
For the first time, Jack’s father appears in a later timeline as well. Rebecca learns, while Jack is out with the boys, that her husband’s father is dying. She visits his nursing home with young Kate in tow and meets her father-in-law for the first time. “It was nice to have finally met you,” she says. “Sorry that it’s under these circumstances.” He can barely speak, only noticing his granddaughter lurking in the doorway. Rebecca finally tracks Jack down by phone, communicating with him at the campsite through a radio, and asks him if he’d like to come home and say goodbye. Jack declines: “That man’s been dead to me for a long time,” he says. She respects his decision, and he gets back to camp, where Randall and Kevin are roasting marshmallows by the fire — enough to put a smile on his face even in a difficult moment.
The episode’s construct crystallizes only in its final minute. As we return to young Jack waiting in the car, his father yet to return, a head pops up behind him. It’s another boy, wearing glasses. “You finally woke up,” Jack tells him. The boy then asks where “dad” is — revealing himself to be Jack’s brother. His name is Nicky, and when adult Jack returns home, we watch him rifling through old photographs. Finally, he lands on one featuring both of them as young men — serving in the Army, side by side. There’s Jack, and Nicky, still in glasses, standing beside him. It’s an ominous moment that only raises questions about what happened to Nicky, why, and whether Jack blames himself for it — certainly, it’s connected to his profound desire to see his own boys connect. It seems safe to say, at least, that it’ll mark another hardship that’s difficult for Jack to move on from, in a life increasingly full of them.