This Is Us recap: The Pearsons see the past in darker, more complex ways
“It sounds complicated,” Rebecca tells Nicky, the brother of her late husband, on the day she meets him. She’s referring to the harrowing, disturbing, story of what’d happened to him while serving in the Vietnam War; how he caused the violent death of a young, innocent boy. It’s an apt term for the story. But it also feels increasingly appropriate for This Is Us as a whole, which has spent this two-part “Songbird Road” episode complicating the legacy of Jack Pearson, and the memories he left his family.
Where the previous episode focused primarily on Jack’s relationship to Nicky, revealing the most complex choice the Pearson patriarch has made in the show to date, “Part Two” shifts the focus to Rebecca, with both the past and the present timelines moving forward a day each. At the end of “Part One,” Rebecca learned the truth about Nicky’s existence and what happened between him and Jack; within a minute of “Part Two,” she’s arrived to meet her brother-in-law in Bradford, Pa.
In the morning, Kevin is researching VA hospitals — “For the first time in history, Kev has done more homework than you,” Kate quips to Randall — as Nicky (played by Griffin Dunne, again great) joins them just before Rebecca arrives. She and Nicky lock eyes, initially awkward, then strangely familiar. “You have his eyes,” she says. She asks him if he knew she existed. Nicky replies yes, revealing he saw Jack in 1992, over a fateful weekend where he turned his back on him forever. Rebecca is jolted by this; she knows exactly which weekend he’s referring to. “I remember that weekend,” she says later. “[Jack] said he was going to visit some war buddy — somebody he’d had a falling out with — and it was around Valentine’s Day. He was acting so strangely.”
Back in time we go, to the morning after Jack returned. He’s supposed to go take young Kevin to meet Pittsburgh Pirate John Smiley and have him sign his rookie card. But he needs “a day.” Rebecca, sensing he’s off, agrees to take Kevin while Jack stays at home to supervise Randall and Kate making Valentine’s cards. The kids are puzzled by this apparent role-reversal but have no choice but to go with it.
Rebecca and Kevin’s “mother-son day” complements the present-day action. Despite Nicky’s reluctance, Kevin is motivated to continue trying to bond with his uncle and get him the help he obviously needs. He plans to take him to a nearby VA facility, but Randall and Kate admit they won’t be able to join for another day-trip — he has a relatively chaotic home life, the doctor’s appointments — leaving Rebecca as their lone companion. The episode finds subtle, tender opportunities for visual symmetry: the sight of Kevin, young and old, longingly looking out the car window while his mother drives; the mysterious distance which Kevin keeps between them as he forges ahead on his own path, battling his own demons.
Indeed their storyline in the past timeline appears slight at first — the entirety of it is Rebecca taking Kevin to the signing, leaving him in line to pick up lunch, and finding him and Smiley speaking upon her return with food — but it builds in potency within the episode’s broader context. She learns from Smiley that Kevin had a whole conversation with him about things to do and places to eat, should he be traded away (as the rumors hinted at), and it’s a conversation Kevin declined to share with his mother. He doesn’t want to let her in all the way. But it’s proof of a certain sensitivity and care that she has never forgotten.
He demonstrates these qualities throughout “Songbird Road,” especially this second half. When they arrive at the VA, Nicky is spooked by his nephew’s effort to help him. “I’ve been to counselors before, and it didn’t work,” Nicky says when Kevin asks him to speak to one. “Also, I’m a drunk. Oh, and also, I can’t seem to leave my trailer without getting the shakes.” Kevin tries to argue before taking a moment in the hallway; his mother joins him and tells him it’s okay to feel angry at Jack. “I’m mad too,” she admits. “It’s hard to be mad at someone who’s not here anymore — there’s nothing you can do with those feelings.” (Recap continues on page 2)
Nicky agrees to spend one more night at the hotel before returning to his trailer — where a leaky roof persists, Kevin reminds — and Rebecca takes this as an opportunity to have a face-to-face with him. She tells him she didn’t initially want to meet him, given all of the feelings around his sudden existence, and asks Nicky to share memories of Jack — it’s the first time in a while, after all, that she’s had the opportunity to hear things about him she didn’t already know. But Nicky won’t budge. “He told you I died because he wished I was dead,” he snaps. She responds, calmly, that he has the chance to make things right as Jack didn’t. “His son is here,” Rebecca reminds. “He’s harder to define.” She thinks back to that day she saw him with John Smiley. “He’s had a really tough year…. He’s just worried about you…. He cares.” Nicky angrily waves this off, too, and she leaves.
But in the end, she got through to him. Rebecca goes to sit outside, and Nicky walks out to join her. He offers a memory: “[Jack] once built a tree fort in the backyard.” He tells the story, then says, “I wanted to be a writer. And then I wanted to be a doctor. And then I didn’t want anything. I used to be a person. I wish I could be that person again.” He cries. “You guys were all he ever wanted.” Nicky cannot be what Kevin wants him to be, but he tries his best to make things right. He takes him back to his trailer and gives him the opportunity to fix it. They shake hands. And Nicky levels with him, saying he understands Kevin wants to try to fix things. “But you and your family,” he adds, “it’s just too painful.”
It’s an intriguing new perspective for This Is Us to grapple with — an uglier lens through which to view Jack’s legacy, so traumatic that not even the Pearsons left behind, banded together, could repair it. In the ambiguity of Kevin and Rebecca’s relationship, this framing lends the show a new depth.
Less successfully, “Part Two” deals with how Jack is remembered by the show in Randall and Kate’s return home. They also starkly remember the weekend Jack returned home from seeing Nicky for the last time; it was the day of their infamous “sequin fight,” which plays out in flashbacks while Randall and Kate describe it in the present (a device the show typically opts against using). The reminiscing leads the pair to decide to return to the sight of their old childhood home. The new family living there — a clan dealing with their own bickering and dysfunction — allow them to look around at the rebuilt structure, which inevitably makes for an emotional experience. It’s strange, though, how limiting this moment feels; it’s two-plus seasons in the making, and yet Kate and Randall are stuck only on the “sequin fight,” the memory most convenient to the episode’s arc, and not everything else we’ve seen go on there. Its emotional potential feels drained, filtered into a neater narrative.
Things then get awkward as the two bat memories back and forth, with the new residents standing (and listening) behind them. Kate remembers the “sequin fight” day as one of the best of her childhood; they ordered a wacky pizza that’d come to be known as the “Pearson pizza,” they threw sequins at each other until they couldn’t stop laughing. But for some reason, Randall decides to softly, firmly give Kate a reality check… in front of this new family, recalling an extremely dark moment — Jack snapping at them, then throwing a plate against the kitchen wall in fury, causing it to loudly shatter — as if no one else were in the room. Again, the demands of this section of the episode get in the way of smart storytelling. Randall and Kate returning to the house for the first time ever should feel major; instead, it’s muted and messy.
“Did I misremember our entire childhood?” Kate later reflects. It turns out both were right — the day was bumpy, ugly, then beautiful, ending in sequin madness. This reinforces the effort of this two part-episode, to hone in on the idea that Jack’s life was more complicated than say, Kate — or even, at times, the show — would like to remember. The pair return to their respective families — Randall to his three daughters, and his wife who’s already out the door to visit her mother; Kate to Toby, who greets her with pink slippers and the promise of tea. With their own families, trying to “make things right,” as Rebecca put it to Nicky. They have the chance to.
But the episode ends on Rebecca and Kevin driving home just like they did 27 years ago. Yet again things went well, and yet again things feel off, quiet, sad. “I’m really grateful to you,” Rebecca tells him. “I’m really proud of you, Kevin.” But he’s in another place, carrying his own secret. As a quick flashback reveals, Kevin went to Nicky’s trailer, alone, just before Nicky invited him to fix the roof. And there he found his bottle of whiskey — and drank it, sabotaging his newfound sobriety. There, rearing its head, is that Pearson pain. Indeed, when Nicky tells Kevin it’s “too painful” to face all this, he isn’t alone.