We gave it a B+
This Is Us
9/20/16 - 1/1/70
- TV Show
- genre new
- Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Justin Hartley, Sterling K. Brown
- Dan Fogelman
The main timeline of This Is Us shifts back nearly a decade in “The 20’s,” a Halloween-themed episode that explores each of the Pearsons in that agonizing middle period — close enough to Jack’s death that it still feels raw, but far enough away where his shadow is starting to feel like an inescapable confinement. While each of the siblings in the present day have plenty of problems to deal with, in “The 20’s,” we see just how far they’ve come in the past nine years.
A flashback some episodes earlier featured Beth telling William about the time she was pregnant eight years earlier, when Randall lost his sight and had a nervous breakdown. We find Randall in “The 20’s” two months after that ordeal: clean-shaven, keeping to himself, and easily rattled. It’s Oct. 31, just one day before Beth’s due date, and Randall is trying to install a ceiling fan for their baby-to-be. Beth, meanwhile, is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Rebecca, who’s coming by to help out. “It’s been a rough few months,” Beth says.
She’s in a rocky place with Randall, and things get worse when Randall breaks the ceiling fan. He can’t let it go, and Beth pleads with him not to bring the mood down. Randall is having a hard time, and it’s exacerbated by the feeling that he’s always being watched — that Beth is tiptoeing around him, making sure he’s stable. “He’s going to come through,” she whispers calmly to the baby in her womb. “He always comes through.”
When Rebecca arrives — Mandy Moore sports longer hair than in the present-day timeline but similar aging prosthetics — she senses the tension almost immediately. She tries not to be too forthcoming though, telling Beth that Randall looks a “little tired” but otherwise good. When Randall goes upstairs, Beth takes the time to confide in her mother-in-law. “It’s been stressful with the baby due,” she admits; Randall, basically proving her point, then rushes back downstairs and complains to Beth and Rebecca that they’re “loud whisperers.” He offers to leave and replace the fan, giving the two women time to talk about him. He tries to crack jokes, but he’s clearly upset. As Beth quips to Rebecca upon his exit, “See what I mean?”
Randall heads to the hardware store to replace the fan and bumps into a Sikh salesperson. The exposition-heavy scene unfortunately uses the salesperson as a pure storytelling device. Randall relays all of his fears about being a father, the responsibility and profound love required to do it right, and takes inspiration in the salesman’s advice. “Babies come with the answers. They come out, they look up at you.… They tell you who you are,” he says. “Tomorrow, you’ll have all the answers you need.” The episode makes light of the fact that Randall viewed this guy from East Trenton as a wise person to talk to because he was wearing a turban, but it’s still a simplistic, sugary choice on the show’s part. Randall appears transformed by the advice, despite the apparent complexity and depth of his fears, and the scene just can’t carry the weight of the moment.
Beth and Rebecca, meanwhile, get into it while Randall is gone — Beth clearly needs someone to talk to, but Rebecca seems intent on not assessing the reality of the situation. “We’ve changed,” Beth admits. “We’re so polite. We tiptoe around each other like strangers, and it’s hard for me to tiptoe right now.” Rebecca tries to say Randall is fine, but Beth insists that Rebecca can’t fully understand what they’re going through since she wasn’t there at the time of the incident: “You did not see him that morning, Rebecca. Just blind and weeping and a million miles away.”
Rebecca lightens the mood when she asks Beth to get her on Facebook — you know, that social networking site that boomed in the late 2000s — so she can see all her baby pictures when they’re posted. It’s one of those knowing, glaringly obvious era signifiers that This Is Us is smart enough to know it’s not above using.
The other main story line also takes place on Halloween, when the Pearson siblings are young. Jack and Rebecca, in case you haven’t heard, go as Sonny and Cher; Randall is dressed as Michael Jackson, curly wig and all; Kate was initially planning to be a vet but, to Rebecca’s chagrin, has decided to change to “Pretty Sandy” from Grease; and Kevin is going with the costume he always goes with: the cigar-smoking bum. (“That’s his ultimate fantasy,” Rebecca says to Jack. “No chores and nothing tucked in.”) The trio start fighting: Randall insists on following the trick-or-treat neighborhood map he’s painstakingly drawn up, but Kevin and Kate want to start at a haunted house. After some bickering — Jack accuses Rebecca of giving Randall whatever he wants; Rebecca says Jack does the same thing for Kate — Rebecca decides to take Randall while Jack takes Kate and Kevin, even though his costume makes less sense without Cher by his side.
Kate wants to go through the haunted house with Billy Palmer, one of the most popular kids at school, so he’ll hold her hand. Jack is at first taken aback, since Kate is only 10, then agonizes, fearing she’ll be rejected. He’s pleasantly surprised when he sees them emerge from the house together holding hands, but there’s a rub: Jack sees that it was Kevin who kept her from getting hurt. Kevin gave Billy candy in exchange for spending some quality time with his sister. Jack is moved by the show of love.
It’s a slight subplot that complements the Kate and Kevin of 2008. Unfortunately, in both cases, there’s not much to distinguish them from past explorations of these characters. We learn Kate is waitressing and going to night school back in town while Kevin is struggling through pilot season in L.A. — still not being taken seriously as an actor. Kate has a customer she flirts with, and she sleeps with him back at her place; she confirms after that he’s married but admits that she pretty much knew that anyway. “I’m just tired of waiting for things to feel right, and nothing has felt right in a long time,” she says of why she did it. “I thought that maybe I’d just do it and it would feel right after. Which it doesn’t, at all.” (Recap continues on the next page)
Kevin similarly reaches a low point: He attends a party with his roommate, whom he’s jealous of for getting a part in a movie with a hot director, and cruelly tries to take his spot in a cringe-inducing conversation with said director. Both Kevin and Kate are left humiliated. Their feelings and experiences are reminiscent of where the siblings were when This Is Us began, if a little further back in the development stage — Kate, for example, is eating fast food in her car instead of working on getting healthier — and they mostly feel like elements rounding out an episode that’s fundamentally about Rebecca and Randall.
Things are getting increasingly complicated with those two. Going back to when the former was young and out for Halloween, Rebecca takes to heart Jack’s criticism that she’s too accommodating, noticing how rigid young Randall can be about following plans and doing things his way. After arguing over whether to go to a family’s house for trick-or-treating, she puts her foot down. “The plan is not set in stone,” she tells him. “We can change it. We can improvise!” Randall, upset, yells, “Fine!” and storms off, leaving her to follow.
After going on like that for some time, she finally sits him down and asks him what’s wrong. Randall reveals that the Larson family told him he was a “miracle” because his parents “lost” a third baby, which he thinks means they lost and never found him. It’s a huge moment. “Sometimes a baby dies right in the beginning,” Rebecca explains softly to Randall. “But your dad and I had all this room in our hearts for three babies, and we saw you. We met you. So yeah, you are a miracle. But you’re not instead of anything — you’re the way it was always supposed to be.” She then tells him what the other baby’s name was: “Kyle.” (Randall, heartbreakingly, notes that Kyle would “look like” the rest of his family, and that “nobody” looks like him.)
It’s a beautiful scene that seamlessly feeds into another beautiful sequence, this time from Halloween in the late 2000s. While Randall is still at the hardware store he gets a call from Rebecca: Beth’s in labor a day early. He rushes over, Rebecca informs them amid the chaos that the ambulance is five minutes away, and Randall proves himself to be the man Beth needs him to be. “This is now. I see you, baby,” he encourages. “We got this. I got you, okay? You’re doing great.” She gives birth at home. It’s a girl.
What follows is a wrenching scene — dare I call it a tearjerker — that is performed with stunning, raw acting by Mandy Moore. Rebecca is on the floor sobbing, ostensibly because she broke a mug but really because through all the joy of the birth, she feels something missing. “That was one of the happiest moments of my life, but also, your dad isn’t here,” she tells Randall while sobbing. “That’s just something I’m going to have to deal with the rest of my life — the happiest moments will also be a little sad.”
In the earlier timeline, after Rebecca tells Jack about her conversation with Randall, she says to him, “I wanted you to be there, because what’s Cher without Sonny? I don’t know how any of this would work without you.” The symmetry between this moment and Beth’s birth, broadly, is clear. But so too is the more specific aspect of her relationship with Randall — the son she’s most protective of. In both of these stories, Rebecca is helping Randall through a difficult time. In one, she has Jack to go back to; in the other, she doesn’t.
Beth is at the hospital, and soon Kevin and Kate are there celebrating the good fortune with their brother and sister-in-law. They’re fooled by appearances: Kate and Kevin agree that “everything is falling into place” for Randall (we know it’s more complicated), and then they both acknowledge that they’re at low points in their own lives. (Kevin even reveals it’s been close to a year since his last audition.) Kevin says Kate needs to move on from their dad’s death and go after “everything”; Kate encourages Kevin to keep pushing, to which he suggests joining a “crappy improv group.” We see them helping each other in the same way that they did when they were kids: Kevin on an improv stage and Kate laughing from the audience, cheering him on.
More notable is where we leave Rebecca. “The 20’s” is very much her episode. It’s about that awkward “middle” period that the Pearsons found themselves in after Jack’s death as they struggled to move on, and nobody was more stuck in place than Rebecca, the widow. In a gorgeous monologue — and another impressive piece of acting by Moore, in what’s certainly her biggest showcase episode to date — she talks to her new grandchild, Tess (named after, of all things, the fan Randall bought on the salesperson’s recommendation). Under the striking direction of guest director Regina King, the scene is intercut with new mother Rebecca introducing herself to baby Randall in the hospital, with Jack looking on from behind; with Tess, in contrast, she’s alone. But the joy in her eyes is undeniable. Standing over baby Tess, she speaks with the optimism of someone who’s had a transformative experience. “I thought my journey had come to an end, but I don’t know,” she says to Tess. “Maybe we’re both at our next beginning.” (For Mandy Moore’s thoughts on Rebecca in 2008, head here.)
The final sequence then shifts to Rebecca joining Facebook, smiling at new baby photos. Then, a direct message — from Miguel. “Congrats on your first grandchild!” it reads. “Hello from Houston — didn’t know you were on this! How’ve you been for the past eight years?” Rebecca fiddles with what to say — she types then deletes, “I’m hanging in there” — before opening a new door: “I’m good. How are you?” There, at long last, the mystery of how Miguel and Rebecca wound up together starts to come into place. In an episode about new beginnings and fresh starts, it’s a pretty fitting place to end.