We’ve arrived at “Number Three,” the last installment of the Pearson siblings’ trilogy and the final episode of This Is Us to air in 2017. The show turns its attention away from the more intense experiences of Kate and Kevin by bringing Randall into focus, wrapping up — at least for now — the arc of his and Beth’s first foster child experience while also shedding new light on Randall’s coming-of-age experiences.
“Number Three” opens in a similar manner as the previous two episodes, with an adult Pearson moving about their home while Sunday Night Football plays on the TV in the background. This time it’s Randall excitedly gearing up for Thanksgiving and helping Deja out with a science presentation on photosynthesis. Since we last checked in on the pair, their relationship appears to have improved considerably: Deja is much more natural with her new “foster dad,” even if she dislikes the term, and is both welcoming and appreciative of his involvement in her schoolwork.
Their strengthened bond is ill timed, however: Deja’s mother, Shauna, suddenly shows up at the house with news that she’s been released from prison and the charges have been dropped. “I told you it wasn’t my gun,” she insists when Randall meets her and Beth outside, mid argument. They fight until Deja arrives, beaming at the sight of her mother. The two hug. But Deja senses her mother’s a little off and asks for her patience — as if she’s taking on the parental role. “We gotta do it through the social worker,” Deja cautions. “We just need to wait a little longer.” Calmed by her daughter, Shauna drives away.
When Randall and Beth catch up with Linda, the social worker, they’re given clarity: The gun found in Shauna’s car was linked to a robbery case and her charges were dropped in exchange for cooperation in that larger investigation. Yet while Linda agrees that Shauna’s behavior was inappropriate at the Pearson house, she says Deja’s mother seems to have her life together and she’s going to recommend at an upcoming hearing that Shauna regain custody. Randall is appalled and hurt by the news, calling out Shauna’s behavior (showing up at their house unannounced) as proof that she’s unfit to care for Deja. Together with Beth — who notes, accurately, just how damaged Deja was when she first moved in — he vows to fight Linda’s decision. Linda tells him that this is exactly what he signed up for with foster care — painful, messy, temporary situations.
When Randall drives Deja to school the next day, promising to attend her presentation but neglecting to pass on Linda’s custody recommendation, he says that “everything’s going to be okay.” Beth later notes they’re in for another intense Thanksgiving, which causes Randall to flash back to what happened about a year ago: learning that Rebecca knew who his birth father was and kept it from him his entire life.
After that revelation, we learn, William told Randall about the time he almost entered his life. In a flashback, William recounts what happened after a panicked Rebecca abruptly left his apartment when Randall was 9 years old — a scene previously explored last season. We learn William then followed her by cab all the way to her home, spending the only cash ($20) he had on him. “All I had to do was walk up to that door and knock,” he explained to Randall, as a fantasy sequence plays out of his younger self being reluctantly greeted by Jack and Rebecca, meeting his young son, and sticking around for birthdays and Christmases. But then William stopped himself: “I saw something on the front lawn — I didn’t know what bike belonged to you, I didn’t know whether yours was ‘Number 1,’ ‘Number 2,’ or ‘Number 3,’” he told Randall. This was, per William, “a life I had nothing to do with” — so he left the family alone, realizing how complicated and intrusive entering their lives really would be.
It’s a theme — feeling and being out of place — that ripples through the episode. Teen Randall is filling out his Harvard application while maintaining an interest in Howard University, an HBCU. He asks his father to visit the latter in D.C. on Friday, which Jack agrees to after some pressing. (He hesitates at first to miss Kevin’s football game.) Once they arrive, Randall eschews the formal campus tour for a more “behind-the-curtain” experience with his friend Keith, a student at the college, and his buddies.
Randall is introduced to a whole new world — lives and communities he’s never before encountered, which bring him so much joy he can’t seem to stop smiling. When he asks Keith’s friends whether there are any white people around, one guy cracks, “The soccer team.” And later, the group bonds over the fact that they all went to predominantly white high schools. Randall, finally, is among people who understand his experience. (Recap continues on page 2)
Jack stays behind to let Randall immerse himself in the school, and when they meet up again, Randall’s surrounded by new friends, not eager to go back home. He hesitates when introducing Jack to the Howard students as his father, and Jack brings up those agonizing seconds of silence on the drive back. Randall initially laughs it off — “I hesitated not because you’re white, but because you’re old!” — but then adds that he hopes it helps Jack, who’s slightly skeptical about Howard, understand how he feels walking through everyday life. “I just feel like I’m always going to feel this way,” Randall explains. “Just off balance — like everything’s just going to be a little bit more complicated for me.”
At that, Jack decides to make another stop, taking Randall to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Later, staring out at the Washington Monument, Jack confides his traumatic experiences being drafted and serving in Vietnam, explaining that he does somewhat know what Randall’s feeling — and that life, for them, is an up-and-down journey. They’ll sometimes feel out of place, but it’s worth it nonetheless.
It’s that lived experience, perhaps, that compels adult Randall to have a change of heart. He drives into Shauna’s neighborhood, where he sees “her world,” complete with friends and family and new clothes Shauna bought for Deja’s return. Beth adds that Deja has nicknames and favorite colors they didn’t know about — she lived a whole existence before she ever knew them. Randall is intimately familiar with the importance of having that sense of home and place, and he agrees with Beth that they’ll need to let her go. They then enter Deja’s classroom for her presentation and watch with pride alongside her teacher and classmates. Deja’s pride is evident too — she even calls out her “foster dad” in front of everyone, happily, to note he helped her on the project.
What follows is a wrenching goodbye scene. Shauna shows up at the house again, this time thankful for Randall and Beth’s efforts but no less eager to see her daughter and take her home. Deja hugs Beth first, who tells her to take care of her “big, beautiful” hair and heart. But it’s Deja’s farewell with Randall that stings and lingers. She asks him if he remembers what he said to her the first time they met, about feeling “split inside” — an idea “Number Three” comes back to again and again. “I don’t want you to think that — just because I want to go home doesn’t mean I don’t like living with you,” she says, fighting tears. “I know my mother does some stupid stuff sometimes, but mostly she’s cool.”
They embrace, a rare moment of physical affection between them, and Deja drives off with her mother — leaving Randall sobbing and Deja caught between feelings of sorrow and joy. It’s a stunning scene that caps off an arc that was rushed overall, if this is indeed the end (Randall hopes to stay in Deja’s life somehow, but Shauna would rather take it from here). While the turnover in foster parenting can be undeniably fast — and This Is Us wanted us to live in that state of shock alongside Randall and Beth — we jumped from the immense difficulty of their living situation to their rather harmonious dynamic a little too quickly. Sterling K. Brown can sell just about anything, so the weight of the goodbye still comes through, but it would have hit even harder — and felt more earned — if we’d spent a little more time in that period in between, when Deja was getting more acclimated. (One thing’s for sure: Lyric Ross, who played Deja, was a revelation in the role. We’ll hopefully be seeing much more of her in the years to come.)
Quite a bit of “Number Three” seems stuck between providing an in-depth character portrait, in the vein of the past two episodes, and serving as an appropriate midseason finale. Near its ending, there’s a brief montage of anguish — Kate crying in her mom’s arms, Kevin breaking down on Charlotte’s lawn — before Kevin abruptly shows up at Randall’s doorstep. After we revisit their initial interaction from “Number One,” in which Randall told Kevin he was aware Kate lost the baby, Kevin pours himself a strong vodka-orange juice, tells Randall he’s exhausted, and admits to not being ready to talk to their sister. While Randall goes to call Kate, Kevin skips out after spending only a few minutes at the house, saying to Tess, “Tell your dad I had to go.”
The episode reorients its focus back to Kevin to close out, asking us to wallow in his torment for a few more minutes. In a flashback, Randall and his dad meet Rebecca and Kate at the hospital where Kevin is being treated for his football injury, and Jack tells Randall, “Things are going to be different for your brother now, but he’s going to be okay.” His monologue about how the Pearson siblings are always up and down at different times — “One of you falls down, the other’s standing up” — plays out against a midseason-ending twist: Kevin getting pulled over and arrested for a DUI — with Tess, who snuck into his car without him knowing, sobbing in the backseat as her uncle is escorted away. (Head here for Sterling K. Brown’s thoughts on that dramatic ending, as well as Randall’s big decision with Deja.)
Beth hears the news and tells Randall. Minutes earlier, they’d been talking about taking in a foster child again; in this moment, they’re focused squarely on their daughter’s safety — and on Kevin endangering it. “I’ll kill him,” Randall mutters. “Not if I don’t kill him first,” Beth replies. It’s an unfortunate note to end on, given how miserable Kevin’s struggles now are to watch and how relieving it was to move away from them these past two weeks. Just how much oxygen will Kevin’s troubles take up in the season’s second half? Perhaps we should take that “Number One” nickname more seriously.