Kevin’s tasked with giving a speech, but first, he has the cruel honor of being introduced by his former football coach, Duffy “The Duff” Collins. His old coach’s words are so kind, so warm, that you can feel them going right through Kevin’s heart. Kevin is trying to repress feelings about his past and his dad, and hearing about it in this way stings. “In my career I never saw a kid with so much natural talent, confidence, charisma,” Collins says to a rapt crowd. “But he caught some tough breaks, suffered some losses, and that’s when he really showed himself to be a star. He fought through the adversity and the heartache.” Suddenly, Kevin sees his father in the coach’s place. He hears Jack praising him, encouraging him, saying he’s “tough as hell,” calling him “a living, breathing example of outer and inner strength.” It’s a harrowing mix of Kevin losing track of reality as he gets deeper into his stupor, and of his subconscious — his deepest pain — bubbling to the surface. Kevin hugs the coach after the speech is done, and hugs him tightly, like he wishes he could with his dad.
When he finally gets to the microphone, Kevin’s in no condition to provide inspirational commentary. After the rousing audience introduction, he mutters, “Thank you,” and says that Collins was “wrong.” “I’m not strong at all,” he tries explaining, before the crowd chants, “We love you, Kevin!” He tries his damnedest to give a grim speech that reflects his anguish. “Don’t do that, don’t love me,” he says, trying to put the attention on the other honorees and going so far as to say he doesn’t deserve the award. It’s hardly the best speech you’ll hear. Adding to his turmoil, the audience doesn’t really care — they’re so in awe of his celebrity presence that they still enthusiastically cheer at its conclusion, patting him on the back for a job well done.
That reverence is something Kevin has experienced all his life. As a high school student, it was as a popular football player. Back in time at the Pearson home, Jack apologizes to Kevin for yelling at him, and Kevin eavesdrops on Jack’s call with his sponsor, on the verge of tears as he watches his father pray, trying like hell to do right by his family and not succumb to temptation.
The next day, Randall and Jack are headed off to a college tour in D.C. Randall apologizes for not being there at Kevin’s big football game. Kevin responds, smarmy, “I’ve got enough fans in the stands cheering me on.” It’s interwoven with people in the present-day commending Kevin’s “amazing” speech. Charlotte spots him drinking yet another cup of bad wine and takes him outside for a walk. They chat for a bit, Kevin noting he was branded “first” at birth — as the firstborn, first to walk, first to kiss a girl — before he wanders away, shaking and shivering, onto the football field. Alone.
What we get next is a stirring sequence of Kevin narrating his many traumas and improbable comebacks like a sportscaster. He sees himself playing as a teenager, basking in the roar of the crowd, laying out what his future was supposed to be: “Notre Dame, first-round draft pick…Super Bowl champion.” He imagines his dad saying, “That’s my son,” proudly. But then he recounts what actually happened, reliving the moment when he was injured on the field. “His knee is wrecked — he’s not getting back from this one, folks,” he narrates. He talks about how he blows every chance he gets: jetting off to Hollywood with Sophie, only to cheat on her; taking The Manny to “punish her”; getting the Ron Howard movie only to injure himself once again. “Even when he tries to tell people how pathetic he is, they don’t hear it,” he says in the third person. “They just cheer.”
He’s then approached on the field by the homecoming coordinator, who asks if he wants to party. Next thing we know, he’s in bed, naked, next to Charlotte, at her house. “That was like 20 years of fantasy energy going pow pow pow pow,” she says. She tells him he was nice to her when they were students together and says he was “a good guy.” Kevin tears up before racing, sweaty, to the bathroom and looking through her medicine cabinets. Nothing. He asks Charlotte to “whip us up a snack” to distract her while he keeps looking. Finally, he finds her prescription pad and steals it. He’s gone before she even comes out with the food.
While waiting in line at the pharmacy, though — after a brief moment of paranoia when cops enter — Kevin suddenly runs out. Is it a wake-up call? Clarity of conscience? Not exactly. Instead, we flash back to the aftermath of his injury, as he gets an MRI and Jack and Randall reunite with Rebecca and Kate in the hospital. Jack visits Kevin at his hospital bed and informs him his football career is effectively over. Kevin apologizes for his behavior: “I’ve been awful to you, and I can do better.” Jack wants to lift his son up after such a crushing blow, so he gives him his necklace — the “Buddhist symbol of purpose” he was given when he was in Vietnam, at a time when he was “feeling very lost.” In a monologue that likely had even the driest eyes tearing up, he then tells Kevin about the day the boy was born (first), and how, the moment his son emerged, Jack knew his purpose in life. “I swear to you, son,” Jack continues: “You will find yours.”
That moment is key to understanding why Kevin, in the present, runs out of the pharmacy. He’s lost his necklace. He returns to Charlotte’s, banging on her door and begging for her to let him look for it. Upstairs, she opens a window and yells to him from above, aghast he’d come back after the way he left without so much as a goodbye. On her lawn, he breaks down: “That necklace — it’s the only thing I have in my life left of my dad.” He sobs for her to understand, but she says she doesn’t have it and asks him to leave her alone. He then practically collapses on her lawn, repeating, “I just need somebody to help me.” It’s heavy, heavy stuff.
But if you thought we were past the most intense material, hoo boy, does This Is Us have more gut-wrenching twists up its sleeve. Kevin shows up at Randall’s, who takes him in after they apparently spoke on the phone. Kevin tells his brother that he needs to tell him something. Randall interrupts him: “It’s okay, I already know.” And what is it he knows? “Kate lost the baby.” It’s a devastating revelation to end on. The show knows exactly what it’s teasing: “Number One” ends by going back to the way it opened, to that video of the Pearson triplets as toddlers on the verge of walking. The camera pans to Kate. It’s her turn.