We gave it a C+
This Is Us
9/20/16 - 1/1/70
- TV Show
- genre new
- Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Justin Hartley, Sterling K. Brown
- Dan Fogelman
Maybe its title serves as a warning, but “The Most Disappointed Man” is an unusually drab episode of This Is Us. The bulk of the action takes place in courthouses, jails, and hospitals, where fluorescent lighting and the echo of footsteps against tile rule the day. Overall, it feels lacking in energy, and many of the subplots have a perfunctory rhythm. That is, until an ending montage brings some of them together nicely — because even at its least compelling, few shows can pull off the melodramatic montage as well as this one.
The strongest aspect of this episode concerns Deja’s mandatory visit to see her incarcerated mother. Randall is planning on taking her, but Beth is concerned that he’s going to go in a little too heated. “I got this,” he assures her. When they arrive — Deja wearing her mom’s “favorite” outfit — they’re greeted by the social worker, Linda, before being escorted into a special room that’s a little more intimate. (This is good for Randall: We see he gets jumpy at the sight of a person in handcuffs, which he admits to Deja he’d previously only seen on TV before.) Linda tells Deja she’s going to be able to hug her mom. We watch them go through the process — putting on name tags, getting sniffed by dogs, placing their belongings through metal detectors — before entering together.
But the anticipation is short lived. Linda finally joins them in the room, pulls Randall aside, and informs him that Deja’s mother, Shauna, has “opted” not to see them without giving a reason. Randall is heartbroken on behalf of his new foster daughter, and he unfairly lashes out at Linda. “Sometimes I can’t help but wondering if anyone’s actually looking out for these kids,” he snaps. Linda snaps back, telling him the story of a 4-year-girl who’s deaf because of parental neglect, and who now can’t find a foster family. “Do you know how to say, ‘Sorry, sweetie, we still haven’t found a family yet’ in sign language?” she asks sharply. “Because I do.”
After apologizing to Linda, Randall passes the news on to Deja, framing it as a “mix-up” that’s no fault of her mother’s. Deja asks that they find a way to get her mother the money she’s been saving up from her allowance, and Randall obliges. “I know how much you were looking forward to seeing your mom,” he says. He just wants to be supportive. But back at home, he finds that he and Beth have switched places: She’s apoplectic at the news that Shauna bailed on her own daughter, and she vows to never bring Deja back to the prison. Randall tries talking her down, but Beth is adamant: “I am done letting that woman hurt that child.”
That theme of parents damaging their kids extends to Kevin, who continues to push back his scheduled trip to see Sophie in New York, popping pills and swigging beer in between disappointing her on phone calls. She finally calls him out and, after stopping by Kate’s and learning that she’s pregnant — Kate and Toby pull off an adorable shirt pairing to break the news — he decides to take a leap of faith. He buys Sophie a ring — well, actually, three rings, since he can’t decide on one — jets to New York, and plans to propose. (“I really love her,” he says to the jeweler.) But when he arrives at the hospital in New York, Sophie isn’t there, and when he goes to the bathroom for another fix, he’s haunted by a vision of the future. He sees himself and Sophie married with a son, but views himself as a bad father in the making: refusing to play with his son, neglecting him when he cries, failing to give advice. He’s sweating through the dream, clearly affected by this worsening addiction, but it’s a fear he carries regardless.
It’s all pretty morose, the sight of Kevin sinking lower and lower. After waking up in the hospital, he finally makes his way to Sophie’s, where she reveals she’s been worried sick. “I don’t know how to be a husband to you,” Kevin reveals, still a little out of it. “I don’t know how to be a father to our kids. I don’t have anything to give you…. I’m an empty shell.” Sophie tells Kevin that he’s spiraling and says he’s not himself, but he keeps on. He explains he’s not the guy who wooed her back at the end of the first season; he’s a guy who would give her “40 years of disappointment.” Before effectively breaking up with her, he gives her one last line, and it stings: “When I dream of our future together, Sophie, it’s a nightmare for me.” She slams the door and leaves him in the cold. So far, the very short time they’ve spent together in season 2 has not been especially pleasant — for them or for us.
Kate and Toby, meanwhile, seem to only be growing closer. Toby’s hesitant to call his mother about the pregnancy, since she’s Catholic and will likely judge them for having a baby out of wedlock. (She’s literally obsessed with judging — in that she watches a bloc of daytime court TV, Judge Judy first and foremost, each afternoon.) Kate suggests they get married in the courthouse, where they can save money, avoid the big emotions of a wedding, and make it a little more comfortable for him to tell his mother. Yet when they arrive at the courthouse, they’re disarmed by just how unromantic it feels. Kate tries to put on a good face and convince both herself and Toby that they’re doing the right thing, but Toby knows she’s straining. (Recap continues on page 2)
Toby has a conversation with Jack’s urn, telling the late Pearson patriarch he wishes he could’ve had his blessing before marrying his daughter and expressing his reluctance to treat marriage so nonchalantly. He knows Kate loves weddings and makes sure to note that he, like Jack, is a king of big romantic gestures. “My BS meter is going off too with this whole courthouse thing,” he says while Judge Judy plays in the background. “I don’t think that this is what she wants to do.” So what does Toby do? Pull off a grand romantic gesture, of course. In an elaborate sweatshirt-removing proposal, Toby spells out “Will you marry me?” (The question mark gets its own article of clothing.) ”You deserve to walk down the aisle between your two stupidly handsome brothers and feel them love the crap out of you,” he says. He formally proposes, and, in happy tears, Kate accepts. Bets on season 2 ending with a wedding?
The briefest stories of “The Most Disappointed Man” take place in the past, and they cover such complicated social terrain in such brief increments that it makes for strange viewing. On one side, we have Rebecca and Jack in the courtroom. The kids are now nearly a year old, and their path to officially adopting Randall is stalled by Judge Bradley (played by Delroy Lindo). Bradley doesn’t give a reason beyond expressing some concerns, but when Jack and Rebecca corner him in the courthouse, he allows them to discuss the matter in his chambers.
Bradley gives the couple a blunt opinion: He says Randall should grow up with a black family. “I never really understood what my blackness meant until a white man called me a n—-r,” he tells them, adding that his father was able to talk him through it “because he understood all the pain that word elicits.” What follows is a powerful monologue about discovering his own black identity and wanting that for Randall.
Rebecca tries arguing their case but fails. Later, she sends him a letter with a family portrait attached, asking him to reconsider. Rather than do so, Bradley recuses himself, and the Pearsons’ new judge, a black woman, Judge Shaw, formally grants the adoption without hesitation. (Head here for executive producer Isaac Aptaker’s take on Randall’s adoption.) It’s rushed and a little bizarre the way such a difficult, nuanced topic is touched on, but only to serve up a joyous milestone for Jack and Rebecca.
The same could be said for the time we spend with William in the episode. While the Pearsons are in court adopting his son, young adult William is nearby pleading guilty and being sentenced to prison. The judge (Sam Anderson) tells him he’s disappointed, given William’s otherwise sterling record, at which point William lays out the state of his life. “Just a year ago, my mother was alive and my girl was alive, and we were having a son,” he says. “Now they’re gone. They’re all gone.” The next day, the judge visits him and grants him a reprieve, telling him he’s going to get him out and get him help. The judge says to remember his face. “If you ever start heading toward the ending I don’t want to write, I want you to picture this ugly old mug,” he says to William, “and make a different choice.”
A brief flash forward indicates that William, as he aged, did just that: He was still surrounded by drugs, only to imagine the judge’s face and avoid them. But when older William — as we met him in the This Is Us pilot — is told his cancer isn’t going to get better and that he doesn’t have much time left, we see him getting read to shoot up. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door: Randall. It’s the moment they meet in the pilot, when Randall tells William he’s his biological child. We see that Randall, without knowing it, gave his father some moments of happiness he otherwise never would have seen. But William’s struggles with addiction and grief are given the short shrift, so other than giving us some interesting context for where he was at before meeting Randall, there’s not much to get from these scenes.
It’s the moral of Randall’s arc in the episode that brings these many disparate parts together. After arguing over what to do with Beth, Randall decides to visit Shauna himself, and she’s both “everything I thought she’d be and somehow nothing I expected.” Her face is brutally beaten, which she says is why she didn’t want Deja to see her. Shauna tells Randall the story of Lonzo, her ex — not Deja’s father — who sent her down the perilous path to crime and prison. Randall says she still made her own choices; Shauna responds angrily. “You wound up over there because, no doubt, things broke your way,” she tells him. “Don’t you dare say that I’m in here by choice…. Make no mistake, you can give [Deja] your money and you can give her your cheerleading, but I gave her my blood.”
Shauna’s story parallels William’s in the sense that both indicate how circumstances can get in the way of “choices.” It’s something Randall realizes after returning home, where he tells Beth about their conversation. “I think about all those people making choices about my life before I could make choices for myself,” he says to her. Images of Rebecca and Jack holding baby Randall, now officially theirs, flow across the screen, as do images of William, trying to right his life. Randall tells Beth that he gave Shauna their home number — and we end on the sight of Deja, elated, speaking to her mom by phone. Suddenly our two thin story lines fit within the main story of “The Most Disappointed Man.” Both William’s arc and Jack and Rebecca’s story represent This Is Us’ tendency to gloss over complexities and treat subplots like pieces to click into a puzzle — but if that moving final montage reminds us of anything, it’s the the show usually manages to get away with it.