Change is always scary — especially if you’ve been through what the This Is Us ensemble has been through. Indeed this week’s decidedly mixed outing — which came down, rather unfortunately, to a rehashing of several old conflicts — is all about how trauma and grief has and continues to prevent our heroes from moving on.
Most successfully, “The Graduates” offers Mandy Moore her biggest showcase of the season, and she completely runs away with the episode. I’ve written in the past about how Rebecca-centric episodes tend to do well because she’s perhaps the show’s most complex character, and at least for her portion of the episode, that remains true here. “The Graduates” opens home-movie-like, on footage of Jack filming Rebecca in a RadioShack as they mull buying a new camera to capture Pearson memories. The Big Three, at this moment in time, are but babies. Jack is in his element — “RadioShack Jack,” he calls himself — helping Rebecca choose the right new camera for the family. Elegantly and harrowingly, the episode then cuts to the period following Jack’s death, with Rebecca back in the store, alone. It’s high school graduation time, and she’s at a loss. A man approaches offering help — she knew him back when the kids were in middle school — and he provides just that. But then, as she leaves, he asks her out on a casual date. The suggestion is so jarring it leaves Rebecca frozen. The very notion of moving on in that way is heartbreaking.
In this past timeline, the Pearsons remain stuck in uncertainty and grief. Kate doesn’t want to go to her graduation, furious at Kevin for his plan to follow Sophie to New York and try to become an actor; Rebecca is trying to make the best of the milestone, suppressing her sheer anguish over the fact that Jack isn’t there to share it. She also has two graduations to go to, with Randall finishing up — as valedictorian, no less — at a separate school. This fact also highlights the unique bond Kate and Kevin share, which takes center-stage in the present day.
The main event of “The Graduates” is actually adult Kate’s graduation from college. I found this development a little frustrating; several episodes ago, the show made a big, episode-capping point of Kate completing her degree, but completely glossed over her process of actually doing so, to the point where us reaching her graduation here feels too abrupt. Big gesture man that he is, Toby decides to go all-out for the occasion, throwing a sort of ceremony for Kate and the few others set to graduate from Encino Community College. Kate is initially reluctant about the gesture, but when she sees that her mother has flown across the country for it, and sees her genuine pride in her, skepticism evolves into joy.
But that can only last so long. The second Kevin shows up — very late — to the ceremony, Kate senses something is off. Correctly, I might add. Last we saw him, there was the devastating reveal that he’d started drinking again, just before making peace with Nicky. And as we check in on him here, his hotel room littered with vodka and whiskey bottles, it’s clear things have only gotten worse. He’s lying about taking meetings with Steven Soderbergh. He’s lying about going to the spa with Kate. And as much as he tries to play up the normal act, Kate recognizes he’s trying too hard — and that he’s lying when he leaves the ceremony, randomly, to take another big Hollywood meeting. (Zoe, also in town, appears blindly happy for him; it’s hard to believe she herself wasn’t suspicious of Kevin’s behavior this week.)
Kate follows him back to his hotel room, pounding on his door until he finally answers, trying to pretend like everything’s fine; she pushes past him to enter and sees the evidence all around. Kate says he has to tell Zoe; Kevin begs her not to do it. “If she finds out I was lying to her, she’s going to leave,” he says, before promising to get a sponsor and “do the whole thing right.” She finds an appointment for a meeting in Hollywood, and agrees to drive him — she’ll explain to Toby later.
What emerges here is a need for support — the realization that Kevin cannot do this alone, that he needs the sister he’s always been there for to push through another dark period. This mirrors Rebecca’s journey in “The Graduates.” Flashback takes her to Randall’s graduation where she runs out as it’s getting started, too spooked and raw to sit through it. Miguel races after her and, as she loses control — more than perhaps we’ve ever seen her do — tells her it may be worth going to a meeting herself. “I don’t want grief counseling, Miguel,” she says. I want to rewind the clock. I just want to rewind the clock.” She lets it all out and walks with him back inside. (Recap continues on Page 2)
Rebecca then drops Kate off on the way to the second graduation — she’s so upset she refuses to go — and heads out. We stay with Kate as she finds some old home movies, slotting one into the VCR and smiling, tearfully, at footage of her and Kevin as babies, together from the start. Later, Kate joins the siblings at a grad party while Rebecca returns to the apartment alone. You feel the stuffiness, the isolation. She watches a video, too, and it brings her some happiness; but the moment it ends, she’s back at her lowest. She calls Miguel. “I really can’t be here right now — I can’t be anywhere right now,” she says. She asks him to take him to a grief-support meeting. Moore plays it absolutely perfectly; you sense, viscerally, just how difficult and emotional it is for her to get out the words, to ask for help and acknowledge that she needs it.
In the present, when Rebecca is at Kate’s college graduation, she tells her daughter of that period following Jack’s death, “We really didn’t want the next big moments of our life to come,” and they find common ground. It’s a paralysis which Kate recognizes. Not just the fear of change, but the pain of it. This also characterizes the episode’s last big storyline involving Deja — finally getting a spotlight after spending much of the season in the background. While Beth is off teaching her first dance class — more on that in a minute — Randall is called to address an urgent matter for Deja. She calls him in a fret, and finds him on his way to the school, already heading home. She explains what happened: She submitted a personal essay, and her teacher put it online for all to see, leading students to mock Deja and call her “Pontiac.” (The essay was about the time she and her mom lived in a car.) Randall, furious, heads right to the school.
He confronts and sufficiently scolds Ms. Cunningham right away, telling her how Deja is “mortified” and that she violated her trust. The teacher immediately recognizes her mistake. “I am so sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” she says through tears. “I will take the post down right now.” But she then reveals why she did it: “I was just really proud of her — of how far she’s come. But I never should’ve published it.” She then tells Randall that all of Deja’s teachers agree that, after being held back, Deja’s intelligence and ability to catch up means she should skip right to the ninth grade.
Randall brings the news to Deja; she’s stunned and pushes back. She tells him she doesn’t want to get ahead like he did — a stinging remark which leads to a nuanced conversation about their backgrounds, and how they can be pathologized. But later Deja confesses the deeper reason why she wants to stay where she is. “I’m finally getting used to things the way they are — it’s the ride to school, all of us going at the same time, you or Beth waiting out front at the end of the day to pick us up,” she says. For the first time in my life, I don’t want things to change.” There’s that theme again, manifesting from a very different set of circumstances. And Randall understands.
As to what the episode does with all of these developments, it seems like This Is Us has started spinning its wheels. On the way to the meeting, Kate’s water breaks — less than 30 weeks in, far too early — and she’s rushed to the hospital, another pregnancy scare. The show, of course, has already mined one of these for some intense drama. But to do it again — and end the episode on a cliffhanger of all things? The final shot nicely brings the siblings together in a scene of embrace, but the mechanics of it remain repetitive, and ending on a cliffhanger, given that we’ve already been here before, felt cheap.
Same goes for where we end up with Randall. Beth comes home, elated by her first teaching day. Randall tells her about what happened with Deja, breaking down every beat of the day. He talks about how he looked into getting a babysitter qualified to look after Deja and Tess and Annie, given their demanding schedules — Randall about to go work as a Councilman, Beth now working nights. “Money aside, do we really want some stranger picking up the slack — is that really what’s best for our girls?” he asks. He acknowledges Beth sacrificed a lot while he was campaigning… and then asks her to do it again, to put a “pin” in teaching. “So you get to have your dream and I’m just supposed to quit mine?” she asks.
Again, this is old hat — a conflict which the show already played out a few weeks ago. If the point is that Randall still hasn’t learned or grown from the first experience, perhaps the blow to the relationship will be more fatal this time. Beth and Randall’s loving, playful dynamic has always been one of the show’s highlights. Now, This Is Us is clearly trying to test them. But is the show, like Rebecca or Deja, too afraid of real change and growth? “The Graduates” indicates that may be the case.