What does happily-ever-after look like for the Pearsons? “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” contrasts expectation and reality, and finds each of the Big Three making compromises and accepting life’s imperfections. It’s the kind of This Is Us episode we’ve seen before — with a rather slight flashback and a neat montage to close things out — but a well-executed one that ends on an intriguing cliffhanger.
Picking things up from last week’s dreary episode, “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” begins back in the hospital, where Kate is singing to baby Jack and Toby is looking on nervously — he’s still struggling greatly with the circumstances. And as the episode rolls on it becomes too much for him to take. “I can only see tubes and tape and needles and pain,” he tells Kate. After the doctor takes Jack’s blood and urine and moves toward a catheter, Toby leaves the room, anguished. He spends some time in the waiting room — if I never see that place again it’ll be too soon — where he catches up with another father having a hard time. Toby laments he’s been there for six days; his new friend, Kevin, says they’ve been there for six weeks, and still another couple’s baby isn’t even coming home with them due to organ failure. The scene could be depressing; instead, it fits the episode’s theme of taking what life throws at us and making the best of it. Toby makes it back into the room with Kate and the baby, holds him, and apologizes. “Jack, this is your dad,” she says to their new son.
We check in on Kevin, meanwhile, in couples therapy with Zoe. The show seems to drop the ominous thread left last week when Zoe told Beth about Kevin having vodka in his water bottle while they were waiting on Kate. She addresses it with their therapist but they work through it — Kevin’s deceit, Zoe’s anxiety — and quickly we’re on to a new problem: Kids. (Yes, this show moves fast.) Zoe says she doesn’t want them; Kevin sort of assumed he did. And so Zoe puts the pressure on him: He needs to think through what he wants, clearly. The ultimatum is implicit: Zoe or kids.
Headed around AA meetings in New York to find the one that works best for him, Kevin winds up at the one in Park Slope after this conversation with Zoe — and it happens to be right by Sophie’s place. We haven’t seen her since their ugly breakup last season, but as Kevin wanders outside her apartment late at night in the rain, there she appears — utterly puzzled by his presence. He tries explaining the trail of events which led him there but it’s a little eyebrow-raising, to this viewer anyway.
They grab a coffee after Sophie reveals she’s engaged — it’s safe, in other words, to socialize — and they exchange updates on where they’re at. Sophie appears happy as she can be, seemingly moved on from Kevin and ready for the next chapter in her life. Kevin presents his kids-versus-Zoe dilemma, admitting he doesn’t know what to choose. She tells him he never needs to make a choice because he always gets what he wants — and while she nudges him toward Zoe, saying she’s good for him, she leaves him with a foreboding bit of advice. “Decide what you want,” she says. “You always get it.” He comes home and makes his decision, telling Zoe kids are nothing compared to her. It’s all lovely and sweet. Then he sends Sophie an email buying her and her fiancée two Billy Joel tickets as a belated engagement present. Is this tying a bow up on things, or his (long-demonstrated) self-destructive tendencies creeping in again? The former is the nicer, perhaps more obvious option, but I wouldn’t rule out the latter. In any case, here’s Kevin, like Kate and Toby, not getting the picture-perfect ideal of what he wants, but making a claim for what’s available and makes him happy. (Recap continues on Page 2)
Much of that all feels a little placeholder, however, which is troubling for a season that has felt like that a little too often. The dramatic meat of the episode goes to Randall and Beth. The pair are once again trying to make their insane schedules work after their unsuccessful attempt to hash things out in “The Waiting Room.” We get an illuminating montage into Randall’s new day-to-day: Headed to work early, taking calls from Jae-won and getting assignments, bringing his work home to get everything done. His commute is nearly 90 minutes; he still reads to kids at night while Beth is teaching. He falls asleep with binders of reports scattered beside him.
The grind is brutal — but they’re making it work. Until a hiccup: Randall is being invited over to dinner by the city council president and he wants Beth to come. It’s a tight squeeze, but it’s after class so she can make it. She’s not thrilled but agrees. Then, the day-of, she’s given a last-minute offer to grab drinks with the other instructors, a big moment for her in her attempt to really enmesh herself with this new group and succeed in the gig. She tells Randall she can’t make it; he pleads that she sees how important this is to him. She hangs up rather abruptly, leaving her decision — a theme there in this episode — up in the air.
Randall waits outside the man’s house in his car waiting for Beth to show up. He texts and calls four times, only for it to go straight to voicemail. All signs point to her standing him up, and he’s furious. He leaves a voicemail, finally, and it’s a shock to see him go so low and get so nasty. “I hope it was worth it — I hope you’re off having fun talking about how to teach bored housewives how to twirl better,” he says, snarling. “Grow the hell up, Beth.” Whoa! It’s wild to hear him talk to her that way and an indication of just how bad things have gotten between them. Randall endures much of the meal alone, but then Beth shows up near the end — there was an accident on the highway, she explains, and then her phone died. Turns out she planned on being there for Randall after all.
That voicemail is like a bomb at the dinner party waiting to detonate. Beth puts her dead phone to the side to charge, and Randall can only anxiously track her every movement, hoping she hasn’t and won’t hear what he said about her. Of course, this is This Is Us, and the second that voicemail was left you knew she’d hear it one way or another. And indeed: After the party ends and Randall and Beth walk outside alone, she says she’s already heard it, gritting her teeth through the dinner. She’s — rightly — furious. She tells him to go sleep on the “cot” that’s in his office. (“And take this weird-ass purple cheesecake with you,” she adds.)
All of this is framed by the Pearson kids’ first school dance, a rather limping flashback that nonetheless builds to a poignant moment. These scenes’ components inform the present-day action and do little else: Kevin goes on his first “date” with Sophie, only to convince her to do something — teepee the principal’s office — she wouldn’t otherwise do. (Like she said, he always gets what he wants.) Randall agrees to take a friend of Kate’s but gets so in his own head about an upcoming science test that he effectively abandons her. Serving as chaperones, Rebecca and Jack survey the action, admiring and happy and at times disappointed. (They find Randall in the library after trying to get away for a quick makeout session.) Jack never went to a school dance, he reveals to Rebecca, and looks on at the innocent romance longingly. They end up getting a dance of their own; they wonder, in the haze of the slow-dances, what it would’ve been like if they met as kids. “I would’ve walked right up to you and said, ‘Hi,’” Jack predicts. “And that would have been it. Happily ever after.” She asks, “Just like that?” He says, “Just like that.” Then they wonder what their kids happily-ever-afters might look like.
We get last glimpses at Kevin, sending off that “congratulations” to Sophie; Kate, watching in happy tears as Toby finally takes the baby; and Randall, returning home and telling Beth he won’t be sleeping in Philadelphia. “We can’t keep simmering like this forever,” he tells her. (Yeah, no kidding.) And she’s geared up, asking, “You want to do this right now?” Randall slams the door and we cut to credits. This couple has fought plenty this season, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen anything yet.