This Is Us recap: Randall finds his political sweet spot
Earlier on Tuesday, my colleague Kristen Baldwin published a review that rather perfectly articulated the problem that This Is Us has been having in season 3 — it’s becoming an “emotional procedural” with neat episodic arcs designed to make us cry but miss the deep, rich storytelling this show has proven capable of at its best. This week’s episode “Kamsahamnida,” while stronger overall than what preceded it, exemplifies this.
There’s a lot of rolling from one problem to the next — Kate struggling to get pregnant, only for Toby to spiral into a depression when she finally does; Randall searching for a space of belonging, only for Beth to struggle similarly when he starts finding one — and some of these storylines are handled more deftly than others.
Sterling K. Brown deserves a lot of the credit — while he was a bit more on the sidelines last year, Randall has returned as This Is Us’ emotional anchor, with “Kamsahamnida” perhaps his best hour of the season yet. The episode’s title is derived from the Korean term for “thank you,” the only Korean Randall claims to know. As for why this comes up, let’s rewind a bit.
Randall is still playing by the old running-for-office rules as “Kamsahamnida” begins, first headed to a Philadelphia black church to better immerse himself in the “community” he’s purporting to represent. This, like his barbeque meet-and-greet from last week, proves rather disastrous. Councilman Brown is called to read scripture at the church, but before he starts reading, he asks a “newcomer” to introduce himself — Randall. It’s a brilliant moment of political maneuvering: Brown makes sure to note Randall is from Alpine, New Jersey, shames him for not appearing with his family, and finally acknowledges their political rivalry in a calculatedly gracious way. He leaves the church and gets a call from Kevin, asking to meet — Randall makes sure to set it up in an unfamiliar establishment so as not to further alienate the base he’s struggling to court.
Kevin and Randall meet at a Korean restaurant. Kevin is still reeling from last week’s “mystery woman” twist, trying to understand why there’s an old photo of her wearing the necklace his father gave him. “Is it love, or is it years of poverty and occupation by foreign governments?” Randall jokes of the look in the woman’s eyes. Kevin sincerely explains to his brother why he feels so dedicated to “unpeeling” his story, using a wallpaper-themed metaphor from their childhood for context. (Boy does this show love its metaphors.) But Randall has a different takeaway from their meeting. He’s struck by the patrons’ sheer fascination with Kevin, who then reveals to his brother that The Manny is kind of, well, a thing in South Korea.
Randall is suddenly not so reluctant to bring Kevin into the community with him. He hatches an idea: Head to the underserved Korean population — where half of the potential voters are unregistered — and beat Councilman Brown where he doesn’t pay attention. Kevin agrees. Next thing, Randall and Kevin are out registering voters in the heart of Koreatown, with Kevin taking pictures with fans. A young Korean man approaches Randall, however, and sees through him. “You’re getting Koreans to register hoping that they’ll vote for you because you’re related to the Baby Man,” he says, referring to the Korean name for The Manny. “I bet you’ve never set foot here before and if you get elected, you’ll never set foot here again.”
Here’s a case of This Is Us acknowledging an icky situation without really interrogating it. Indeed, the man is completely right, but it only takes one signature Randall Pearson speech to quell any doubts — in the Korean community or, theoretically, the show’s audience. “I’m here now,” he begins. “Just on the way in here, I saw empty storefronts, I saw badly patched potholes, I saw a guy carrying his bicycle tire under his arms because he knew that was the only way it wouldn’t get stolen.” He says he doesn’t know what the community wants, but he’ll listen if they tell him. A crowd gathers around him. The man who challenged him appears impressed. Smiles abound. (Recap continues on Page 2)
Fortunately, Brown’s remarkable charisma sells it anyway. And it fits nicely into his ongoing arc of asserting his identity and where he belongs — easily the season’s most compelling (and consistent) emotional journey so far. In the past timeline, a young Randall asks his father to teach him to box after Jack comes home with a black eye (to Rebecca’s chagrin). Jack obliges when Randall explains he’s being bullied. They share an intimate training session before Rebecca walks in on them and before she and Jack learn from Randall’s principal that the “bullying” was made up. Why? Young Randall wants to be more like his father — his “son-son,” as he perceives Kevin to be. Of course, Jack assures him that’s already the case in a moving speech. But that’s been a struggle for Randall his whole life. (Also worth noting in the past timeline that Jack and Rebecca share a beautifully romantic scene, where Jack admits he used to box with his brother — a mention that stuns Rebecca. They playfully box before kissing.)
But things click into place a little too neatly — procedurally, say — as Randall’s story converges with Beth. Beth is still reeling from her firing, trying to act like she’s okay even as the rejections pile up. She tries taking the girls out to sell girl-scout cookies — sales are low since Beth’s office is no longer a place to unload — but it’s a disaster. She shows up at a grocery store where a table is already set up. She takes them to a mall where most of the shops are out of business. Tess is finally incensed by her mother’s lack of commitment when a potential customer offers a credit card that’s unusable because Beth forgot the “swiper.” Beth totally snaps, screaming, “Shut up!” All are stunned — but Deja, at least, recognizes the desperation. Back home Deja tells her that her birth mother lost jobs all the time — she knows the pain. “Randall loves you like he’s in a Disney movie or something,” she continues. If you’re sad, then you should talk to him. He’ll tell you you’re exceptional, and he’ll say it so easy that you’ll believe it.” Just like he once did for Deja.
So Beth brings her troubles to Randall, admitting she’s been pretending to be fine. “I’m not fine,” she repeats. Brown again nails the moment, this time in silences — in the way he looks at her, tenderly but strongly, and listens. It’s a great moment between these two. But the “solution” feels a bit tacked on, again more to wrap up the arc than really live in the emotion and in Beth’s story. Randall offers her a job on the campaign, saying she’s his “missing ingredient.” Again, Brown’s speechifying is so convincing he nearly had me on board. And he gets Beth on board, assuring her it isn’t a “pity job.” On to the next chapter.
Randall’s story continues to resonate — at least, more than the rest of his siblings’ right now. We don’t even get to live in the joy of Kate’s pregnancy for a minute, as the episode’s opening sequence quite literally traces the descent back toward struggle and hardship. She calls her family, giving them the good news, but when they ask to talk to Toby she says he’s too depressed to chat. So goes Kate’s emotional challenge this week.
Toby is as depressed as we’ve seen him, virtually bedridden, while Kate’s picking up the slack in his absence — the doctor’s appointments, the dog-walking. Or, until Audio eats a rock at the park because Kate’s on her cell phone (really). Toby yells at her when he sees something’s wrong, but Kate takes it all in stride, taking Audio to the vet and then patiently waiting for him to, well, poop the rock out. Toby eventually apologizes and expresses his fear that Kate will leave him. Kate convinces him to walk with her and the dog, pushing him this time, and gives him a long, moving speech (they’re everywhere this week!) explaining that with all she’s been through in life, she’s strong enough to handle it and will always be there. On to the next chapter.
And then there’s Kevin, more in the background this week after the big photo reveal from Donnie. Zoe has just finished her film and embarks on her tradition of going to a hotel, alone, for some pampering and decompressing. This leaves Kevin on his own. He spends most of the day with Randall, but the photo still nags at him; by the time Randall has figured out his strategy — even hiring the young Korean who’d previously challenged him, who reveals he has a Master’s in political science with experience as a congressional aide (and whose name is Jae-won), as campaign manager — Kevin appears in awe of his drive. He says he shares that drive in this discovery process about their father.
Kevin breaks Zoe’s “alone time” rule and shows up at her hotel room. She lets him in and he gives her a big speech of his own. He also gives her a gift — a visa application for a trip to Vietnam. She agrees to go along with him and to “figure out” Jack’s story and what happened to him over there. On to This Is Us’ next chapter.