A quiet, affecting episode centers Randall and Kate as they both struggle to assert what they want in life
Tonight’s episode, titled “A Philadelphia Story,” is fundamentally about the Pearson siblings negotiating their place in the world — questioning and asserting what they want and who they value as lifetimes of baggage creep up on them. It’s one of those well-observed, low-key, character-driven episodes that This Is Us doesn’t get enough credit for. You won’t find any twists or intense tear-jerking scenes here. It’s for the best.
The aftermath of Jack’s death grounds the episode: Rebecca and the kids are getting by, living in a fine apartment, and we observe the deterioration of their day-to-day. They’re scouting out new homes — a particularly devastating experience for Rebecca, who’d looked at and rejected a new house with Jack just months before he died — but the idyllic sheen of a new beginning is undercut by reality. Rebecca is barely hanging on, a fact which comes through in Mandy Moore’s tough, weary, drained performance. (“I know that isn’t fair to you guys, but I can’t seem to stop it,” she tells Randall, of barely being able to get out of bed.) Kevin is drinking alone, at early hours of the day. Kate is suddenly eating too much. Only for Randall do things appear to be going right. As the episode begins, he’s been accepted to Howard University — the school that he dreamed of attending from the moment he set foot on the campus, in a flashback from last season.
In the present-day, Randall is grieving another parent’s death, however in the rearview mirror it is at this point: William’s. This week really delves into his new role as owner of William’s old apartment building, as he visits the recreation center where William and his neighbors would gather for celebrations, parties, get-togethers of all kinds. He brings Deja there to meet Sky, the daughter of one of the building’s residents, ChiChi. Ostensibly it’s to get Deja involved socially, as she’s struggling at her new (mostly white) school — Tess attends Taylor Swift Appreciation Club, an exceedingly helpful indication of just how white it is — but he quickly becomes obsessed with the rec center’s problems: the broken pipes, the damaged water heater. He sets out to do something about it.
His journey contrasts with flashbacks to William’s relationship to ChiChi, which began when he saw her first move into the apartment with her baby Sky, having emigrated from Nigeria. William brings over food, invites her to events, and essentially welcomes her into the building’s family — giving her a real sense of home. Randall in the future appears desperate to preserve that. He tracks the city councilman down at the barbershop, gives a speech about honoring his father’s legacy and preserving the apartment building, before racing back to the rec-center to fix a streetlight on his own.
And yet Randall’s actions meet pushback from ChiChi. “You are not one of us — you brought your daughter to come and play here, but instead of sitting and chatting and getting to know the place, you spent the whole day seeing its problems, trying to fix them,” she says. “We are not our problems.” He agrees, absorbing the message in seeming agreement. He’s hurt by her words but not surprised — you see the pain register, a familiar sense of not belonging. He later muses to Kevin about “fitting in,” saying, “Either I’m trying too hard or not trying hard enough. I can never get it right.” Elegantly, the scene cuts to the past, with Randall celebrating his Howard acceptance at Yvette’s house — the family he stayed close with through adolescence. He’s happy there, but his unease is palpable; he looks at Yvette and her husband and imagines only his white parents, one alive and one dead. He subsequently calls Howard and, at least in that moment, declines admission. This all makes for an intriguingly complex portrait of Randall, proof that within his experience remain many stories to tell, a character journey that’s yet unfinished. (Recap continues on Page 2)