This Is Us recap: Season 1, Episode 4
It surely can’t be an accident that an innocent-seeming trip to the pool is used as a framing device for this episode examining the ramifications of a black boy being raised by white parents. After all, America’s swimming pools have a long, sad, racist history (much like busses), and even as we watch events unfold in the slightly more progressive ‘80s, the racial divide is still alive and (un)well at would should be a happy summer hangout.
But the trip isn’t just an opportunity to dive deeper into Randall’s psyche — it brings issues to the surface for all three kids, from Kate’s early body-shaming to Kevin’s insecurities about other people’s love and approval.
The catalyst for the trip is a broken air conditioner, and when it’s announced the remedy will be a day at the pool, Randall has one request: He’d like to go to the pool with the diving board. (We later learn it’s not because he’s a budding Greg Louganis, but rather because other black kids swim there.) Kate is also excited about the trip because it means she’ll get to show off her new Care Bear bikini. (Which would have been a totally nice complement to the Care Bear sheet set I had as a kid. Thanks for nothing, Mom.) The lone hold out is Kevin — he’s not a big fan of the pool. But he’s, like, 8 years old, so he doesn’t really have a say in the matter. Before they head out, Jack coolly mentions that he packed only soft drinks — no beer.
“A whole day at the pool with those kids and no alcohol?” Rebecca asks. He reminds her of his oath to stay sober. (Which obviously feels like foreshadowing of a very not-sober Jack in an upcoming episode.)
Anyway, when they arrive, it becomes apparent everyone else in town had the same idea to cool off at the pool. And you don’t have to have aced college calculus to know that two parents keeping an eye on three children (at a very packed pool) is some pretty tricky math, indeed.
And, unsurprisingly, problems quickly ensue: Kate’s chubby prepubescent two-piece-clad body draws attention. Especially from her supposed friends, who are so “embarrassed” by her appearance that they write her a letter saying as much and that they don’t want to hang out with her any more. (The pig illustration is a particularly gut-wrenching signature.)
Meanwhile, Randall has managed to wander off. Rebecca eventually finds him playing with a group of other black kids. She introduces herself to one of the mothers, but said mother needs no introduction: She knows all about the white family who adopted the black child and has yet to introduce themselves. She also advises Rebecca that Randall needs a proper barber who understands black hair — he’s got all those razor bumps on his neck. (Which, not knowing any better, Rebecca had assumed was a rash.) Rebecca, perhaps rightfully so, is offended by the mother’s judgmental tone and marches off with Randall in tow.
“You’re so busy making sure Kate’s not eating too much and Randall’s not too adopted,” he screams. “And, meanwhile, where’s Kevin? Oh, guess what, he’s dead!”
Jack consoles him and promises to be a better dad. A promise he puts into action right away with his daughter. Kate’s obviously stung from her friends’ nasty missive and refuses to eat her lunch. So Jack tells her the legend of the nasty green T-shirt he insisted on wearing to the pool despite Rebecca’s best efforts and how the tattered garment can imbue special powers. Kate agrees to wear it with the understanding that it will make her a princess.
And, tying up a few loose strings, Rebecca realizes that she maybe could use some advice when it comes to raising Randall, and seeks out the black woman from earlier for a barber recommendation. And to confirm that Randall does, in fact, require sunscreen.
NEXT: The Right Reasons
In the present, the Big Three are grappling with similar, complementary issues. Randall, for one, must convince his very white neighbors that his father William isn’t a trespasser after they see him taking a stroll around the tony neighborhood. “I was taking my walk on my way to literally smell the roses,” William tells the rent-a-cop, who’s demanding ID. “Is there a rose-smelling ordinance I didn’t know about?” Seeing that his neighbors are embarrassed and had been (very misguidedly) good-intentioned, Randall apologizes on William’s behalf and tells him that he’s taking him shopping for some new duds. (Because that will surely quell his neighbors’ racism.)
Kate’s also dealing with her own inopportune run-in. As she and Toby finish their brunch, he gets up to use the restroom and meets an acquaintance on his way. A thin pretty woman. When he returns, Kate asks about the lady and gets a response she wasn’t expecting: It’s his ex-wife.
At first she laughs. But seeing that Toby isn’t laughing along, she stills. “Wait, are you serious?” she asks.
“I told you I was married before.”
“Not to that!” (“That” being skinny, of course.)
Later, in something of a tale-spin, Kate calls her newly minted New York brother, Kevin to wallow. “Everything reeks of fabulous,” she explains as she scrolls through Ex-Wife’s Facebook feed. “She’s been to Argentina, Kevin!”
But Kevin doesn’t have much time for a Dear Abby act: He’s on his way to an audition for a play. As he strides across the stage, he awkwardly introduces himself and promises that even though he’s from L.A. he’s there for the right reasons — just like some six-packed suitor on The Bachelorette. And things only really get worse from there as he can’t seem to nail a single line and is completely out of rhythm with his scene partner, a “Miss Main” who’s also a Tony nominee.
As he leaves, dejected, a girl on the sidewalk recognizes him as The Manny and calls out to him. And she must be a tourist, because no New Yorker worth her salt would ever shout out a celebrity’s name. We pretend to ignore you like everyone else on the street. Kevin then somehow ends up running into his prickly scene partner who, at the very least, is slightly amused by him and invites him out for a drink. Over beers she imparts this “friendly” advice: Go back home and go to an acting class. But no sooner is her reproach complete when her phone rings: Kevin’s landed the role. The producers believe The Manny can sell tickets.
Meanwhile, Kate has fallen deeper into her stalker hole. So deep, in fact, that she visits Ex-Wife’s shop and accidentally interviews for a job there and gets it. (I mean, these things happen!) She’s oddly quite enthused about the meet-up when she arrives at Toby’s door to explain what’s happened. But Toby is distraught. Ex-Wife treated him terribly. She cheated on him. Took his life savings. And left him suicidal. Finally: a real glimpse into Toby’s heart. But, once again, Kate seems to need reassuring that she’s enough. And that she’s enough for Toby. Hopefully, she lets his acceptance really sink in this time. (Otherwise this particular brand of insecurity is going to get old real quick.)
We catch back up with Randall through a series of events with his father: buying him new khaki pants, bringing him to his daughter’s production of Snow White. And throughout, Randall feels compelled to prove his “blackness” to this man who protested during the Civil Rights Movement; at one point accusing: “Because I grew up in a white house, you think I don’t live in a black man’s world.” Randall then reveals that he used to keep track of the black people he met in a notebook (hence those tally marks we saw during the pool day), admitting that every time he met a black man, he wondered if that could be his father.
And it’s William who has to reassure Randall that he is enough, apologizing for his mistakes. “I did everything wrong by you,” he says. “And you have done everything right. You are doing everything right, son.”
Just then, the doorbell rings. It’s Kevin. He’s seems unsure about his next steps and has retreated to his brother’s home to hopefully gain some clarity. And he gets the added bonus of meeting Randall’s biological dad.
“Wait, was that The Manny?” William asks as Kevin leaves to play with his nieces. “I love that show.”
Episode grade: A
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.