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)