Season 2 opens on a quiet, affecting, and then shocking note
The This Is Us season 2 premiere is positioned in direct dialogue with the series pilot. The adult Pearson siblings are celebrating their 37th birthdays where, a season ago, they’d just turned 36; images from the show’s opening hour hover over and haunt the characters as we know them now. It’s an episode that uses events of This Is Us‘ past to inform the current state of things — while still teasing some heartbreaking, shocking new revelations in the weeks to come.
We open on — what else? — a sweeping, earnest montage. It’s set to the calming voice-over of Ron Cephas Jones as the late William, speaking with typical wisdom from up above. We’re checking in on the triplets first: Kate is preparing to “crush” her first big audition after deciding to try to make it as a singer in the season 1 finale; Kevin is happy at work on that Ron Howard movie, even getting surprise birthday cakes from the esteemed director; and Randall has “baby fever,” trying to convince his wife Beth to adopt a baby and change a life as his parents did for him. We’re introduced to each Pearson getting ecstatic over dreams potentially coming to fruition. As “A Father’s Advice” reminds, however, dreams can change shape as we begin to lift the weight of the past.
Indeed, on the other side of the episode in the earlier timeline, Jack and Rebecca are right where we left off in the season 1 finale: coming out of a vicious fight and tentatively split up. They tell the kids, who are angry and confused. (“This is insane!” a distraught Kate yells.) Jack moves into Miguel’s while Rebecca heads to the new Tom Hanks movie — it was the ’90s; there were a lot of them — in order to try to lift her spirits. Their dream, at least in the moment, appears shattered, and they’re left to wonder what went wrong.
Randall, as an adult, is hoping never to ask that question. He’s at a crossroads, though: Beth doesn’t want to adopt a baby as her husband does, and she’s increasingly frustrated at the way he disregards her feelings. “We only ever talk about what you want, Randall,” she tries explaining. “This is becoming a weird pattern.”
Randall later goes to his mother for counsel, and she offers a surprisingly cynical perspective: Their marriage will never be perfect, and some points in life call for one half of a couple to take charge. Mandy Moore delivers a powerful monologue in the scene, masking Rebecca’s feelings of sadness underneath, while Sterling K. Brown is just as good listening keenly in silence. Images from the pilot of Rebecca in the hospital creep back in, as, in the present, she admits to Randall that Jack needed to push and convince her to adopt him. They take on powerful new resonance in the context of Randall’s predicament and the life lessons we’ve since seen Rebecca absorb.
The past lingers over Kate, too, as she prepares for her audition. Sitting in a room nervously, surrounded by thinner women, she flashes back to those childhood scenes at “The Pool” — which made for one of season 1’s best episodes — when she experienced ridicule and social isolation because of her appearance. The memory cuts deep, and Kate walks out of the room, too afraid of the potential humiliation.
She confides in Toby, who’s trying to make a good birthday for her, and Kevin, who decides to — characteristically — throw them a lavish birthday bash. (He buys out an entire restaurant. Go figure.) The men pick at each other: Toby scolds Kevin for occupying some strange brother-husband-father role, not leaving room for anybody else to build a life with Kate, and the two bicker into the parking lot. “She doesn’t need to be coddled,” Toby says. “She needs to be pushed.” Naturally, the two arguing over what (and who) Kate “needs” is precisely what makes her realize that she has no one to lean on but herself, and that the feelings of shame stemming from her childhood can no longer hold her back.
Kate shows up to the audition very late and, for some reason, those filling the “wedding band” singer slot in question still give her a chance to show them what she’s got. (TV can be convenient that way.) Giddy, she chooses “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and the scene is filmed like a fantasy: a dark background, nothing but Kate and the microphone in frame, her rendition playing out smoothly against a backdrop of silence. It recalls her performance of “Time After Time” last season — until, abruptly, it’s cut short.
She’s curtly thanked and asked to leave, but Kate doesn’t stand for it. She says she’s done being prematurely written off because of her weight: “I’ve been living versions of that story my entire life, and I can’t do it anymore. I won’t do it anymore.” The casting agent gets a little more blunt in response: “You’re not good enough, honey.” Kate is strangely elated, however: She’s being judged on merit, and she knows that if she works hard enough, she can get there. (Recap continues on page 2)
Randall’s dream — or at least the path to getting there — turns out not to be what he thought it was, either. Aided by memories of Ghost William — yes, Ron Cephas Jones is still around, not just his voice — Beth discovers a compromise for adoption that should leave her and her husband satisfied: adopt an older, troubled kid who needs a good home. It’s not the image that Randall had, being brought into a family brand new as he was, but in some ways it’s better. Randall himself comes to an epiphany, discovering he doesn’t want to take his mother’s advice of “taking charge,” and that his isn’t the kind of marriage where one person pushes and makes the decisions. “We’re perfectly imperfect,” he tells Beth with enough sincerity to cut through the mawkishness of it all. She takes him to William’s favorite old spot, and they agree that her plan is the right choice for them.
It’s a touching moment on its own, and an especially effective juxtaposition with what we see happening with Rebecca and Jack. Through the couple’s tribulations, “A Father’s Advice” interrogates the idyllic Pearson family portrait more sharply than perhaps any episode to come before it. Rebecca, after sitting through Unnamed Tom Hanks Movie and thinking back on what drew her to Jack, shows up at Miguel’s door and tells Jack she never should have asked him to leave. Jack listens patiently as she pours her heart out, but he’s in no condition to reciprocate: He’s dead drunk, and has been for weeks, his words slurring and his eyes barely moving. You keep thinking that the episode will end on a slightly optimistic note, as even the season finale did, but while Rebecca eventually drags Jack along with her, it’s no triumphant moment: His problem is their problem, and while that may get fixed, we know how their story ends.
Yes, yes, enough build-up: the jaw-dropping episode-ending revelation. A sneaky bit of editing cuts from Rebecca in the car with Jack to a flash forward of Rebecca driving alone, with her late husband’s belongings. This, finally, is the moment just after his death: Kate, Randall, and an unknown third child are sobbing on Miguel’s couch while Kevin is out making out with a girl — with his leg in a cast. (We learn in the episode that Kate will be the one to tell Kevin what happened.) And the episode’s final shot is perhaps its most haunting: the Pearson house, completely burned down, presumably — please let this not be a cheap fake-out — with Jack inside and unable to get out. This of course only opens up more questions: Who was the girl with Randall on the couch? Why wasn’t Kevin there — and why is that detail of his broken leg relevant? (Head here for more from the series’ creator and stars.)
But the episode is also smart enough to know how the game-changing reveal plays into the larger themes of “A Father’s Advice.” This is not the pulse-pounding, heart-wrenching season premiere that was marketed — until the ending, it’s surprisingly muted — but it is something a little more assured and subtle: a chance to get back into the This Is Us rhythm, check in on the characters, and grapple with some of the bigger ideas that creator Dan Fogelman will later explore with greater depth. In this season premiere, at least, the show doesn’t overplay its hand. It doesn’t undercut the sadness with false notes of optimism, or the twist with a disregard for what came before it. Season 2 looks to be a darker season, to be sure, but also one about characters figuring out how to go after their dreams when circumstances change, tragedy strikes, or a fantasy reveals itself to be just that — a fantasy.
William’s voice-over returns in the final act, and there’s one line that best captures the spirit of this sweet, gently painful premiere: “It’s better to have loved and lost, surely. But try not to lose it at all.”