“Thanks for putting up with us.” Multiple Pearson family members say this in “The Waiting Room” to characters outside of their orbit, but it feels like a bit of meta-commentary for viewers, too: A show of gratitude for putting up with yet another hour of rehashed dramas and simmering resentments coming to a boil.
Aesthetically, there’s a lot to appreciate about “The Waiting Room.” While the show has narrowed its focus to single-storyline installments before — usually to very good results — this is the show’s first true bottle-episode. The melancholy score is entirely absent, even from the main title card, and until its moving coda (more on that in a minute) the action never leaves the hospital waiting room. Indeed, we’re about a full day from where we left off, Kate having been rushed to the hospital after her water broke prematurely. Now the whole family has reunited — under less than ideal circumstances.
But the episode, sadly, feels awfully thin, mostly addressing cliffhangers from the past two episodes which didn’t inspire much intrigue in the first place. Kevin has to face his family and girlfriend after relapsing. (It’s clear from the opening seconds Toby informed them he was drunk.) Randall and Beth, once again at odds over their working lives, air their grievances in public, the latest disagreement too raw to simply put to the side. All the while, Miguel is feeling irritated again about his place in the family, Madison is hanging around to much of the family’s dismay, and Rebecca is sitting in a corner despondently, commenting on the appearance of electrical outlets (like surprised faces) and the patterns on the waiting room furniture (bacteria).
Randall emerges, improbably, as the main point of tension — at one point in the episode, it feels like everyone is mad at him. Kevin tells him early on, “You’ve got to let me breathe, man,” a quick reminder that when he’s not in a good place, he tends to look at his good-guy brother with derision. But the fact is that Kevin’s acting a little unhinged: The doctor tells some of the family to go home since they’ve been waiting for so long — 26 hours, to be exact — and that there’s no news, only for Kevin to pull him aside, boast about how much money he has, and demand that he step aside for a better doctor if he reaches his limit. Randall steps in, apologizing on Kevin’s behalf and saying his brother isn’t his “best self” right now.
I’ll say. This episode reminded me particularly of last season’s intervention episode — another uncomfortable, at times brutal Pearson reunion — but back then watching the pain and resentment play out between them felt raw, fresh, and illuminating. I’m just not sure what the point of spending another hour with it is here, especially since so little happens. The lines Kevin speaks to Randall, like “Maybe if you hadn’t left me with Nicky” and “Randall gets the final say in our family” don’t really say much that’s new, and more importantly, don’t actually leave an impact on the narrative. Watching Zoe come to terms with Kevin’s problem, I nodded along to Beth telling her it was okay to “bounce.” As Zoe’s final moment in the episode portends, in which she informs Beth that Kevin had vodka in his water bottle, doing so may have been for the best. (Recap continues on Page 2)
There’s also the curious case of Miguel. He keeps trying to force an obnoxious game to cut through the tension — determining a food that doesn’t get better with either chocolate or ranch, when one apparently doesn’t exist. (This man really likes ranch dressing, we learn.) Later, after Kevin nastily — but also kind of understandably! — asks why Madison is sitting among the family, going on about her Instagram obsession, Miguel bumps into her and bonds over being a Pearson outsider. “I never get a seat at the table,” he laments to Randall when he’s asked to stay out of one of several Randall-Kevin conversations. It just feels so out of place. He gives Madison advice to be there for Kate in her own way, and she manages to, breaking into her apartment to nab the Ruth Bader Ginsburg doll that Kate wanted to give her baby upon its birth (to surround him with strong women).
Then there’s Randall and Beth having literally the same argument they’ve been having, on and off, the whole back of the season, only this time in public because everyone’s there and they have nowhere else to go so why not. It’s not really resolved — the main revelation comes when Randall thinks he finds a solution by asking Rebecca and Miguel to pick up more of the slack, only for them to reveal that they plan to move to California to help with their new grandchild — so I suspect we’ve got more of this dilemma over work-life-fulfillment balance coming down the pike. Once among the show’s consistent highlights — and even, sporadically, in this episode, like when Beth tries to restrain herself as a woman sits in the waiting area loudly eating pretzels — the couple has become a real drag on the show. I’m all for conflict and a real examination of marital difficulties, but I’m not sure that the “Husband abruptly becomes councilman and wife realizes she wants to become a dance teacher after getting fired” conflict falls under that.
Maybe I’m being harsh, but as This Is Us’ third season enters the home-stretch it’s disappointing to be given such a monotonously grim episode. I kept waiting for something to happen: Not in plot, necessarily, but a breakthrough that’d justify doing a bottle-episode. At least “The Waiting Room” had two strong moments, ones which genuinely pulled on the heartstrings. Even if Rebecca’s near-catatonic behavior felt a little played-up, the resulting monologue, about waiting for Jack after the fire, is really quite powerful, and also worth appreciating in context, as Rebecca’s telling everyone to put aside their personal problems until news of Kate and the baby comes in. It felt strange that the episode invested so much time into the petty squabbles since a scene like this indicated the emotional power of the Pearsons just sitting with the anxiety and terror of the situation. It could bring up a lot more than the various plots the show has been spinning all season.
The other affecting moment is the aforementioned coda, which takes the action out of the waiting room and finally brings Kate to the fore. After informing the family that Kate is okay, that the baby was born prematurely via an emergency C-section, Toby reunites with his wife and their new child, who’s hooked up to various machines. Toby appears frightened by just how small he is; Kate looks at him and says, “I already love him so much, this is insane.” She tells Toby, “I’ve been hesitant, but I want to name him Jack,” and he agrees, of course.
Kate says a little prayer to her father. “I don’t know where you are but I know that you’re there,” she says. “This is Jack. This is your grandson. And I need him to be okay. And I don’t know why, but I know that you can do that.” She takes out the RBG doll that Madison brought, shows it to her son, and tells Toby through tears of joy that things will be okay. I hope this is true for Baby Jack, and I hope it’s true for This Is Us’ final episodes of the season as well.