A quiet, affecting episode centers Randall and Kate as they both struggle to assert what they want in life

By David Canfield
October 02, 2018 at 10:03 PM EDT
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

This Is Us

S3 E2
  • TV Show
  • NBC

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)

The same could be said of Kate — as “A Philadelphia Story” progresses, we see she and Toby have already begun IVF treatments. The whole family is gearing up for the premiere of Kevin’s movie, which means Kate will soon need to interact with her mother. She worries about Rebecca finding out about the IVF and judging her choices. She instructs Toby not to say anything, but a little messing around in their fridge by Miguel, upon his and Rebecca’s arrival, causes all of the IVF evidence to fall to the ground — left for all to come to grips with.

The power of the storyline rests in the way it forces Kate to advocate for herself — to answer the question, “Why do you want this?” It’s asked by her mother. “Have you guys really considered all of the risks?” she inquires of Kate. She stays silent. Rebecca keeps pushing. It takes a Toby blow-up to end the Cold War. Toby is, of course, off of his antidepressants, looking up withdrawal symptoms, disappearing both literally and emotionally for random intervals. This plot still feels too engineered for an incident, and it sticks out amid the more nuanced family drama happening elsewhere. Indeed he’s purely functional here: His blow-up is overdone, but it does force Kate and Rebecca to have a heart-to-heart. “I’m the only one in this family who’s going on to carry on a piece of dad,” she says in an offended Kevin’s presence. She dreams of seeing her and Toby’s face in their child. She knows the options and the risks. She also knows what she wants.

This culminates in what is, to my mind, one of the more intimate scenes This Is Us has done: Rebecca administering an IVF shot for Kate, with Toby completely MIA. (Again: Functional!) Rebecca grudgingly accepts her daughter’s wishes while clarifying why she struggles with them: Given Jack’s death, the thought of anything happening to the kids is “paralyzing to me.” The scene is loaded with emotion — the decades-long tension around Kate’s weight; the trauma of the miscarriage, and the caretaker role Rebecca took on in the aftermath; and yes, Jack’s death. (We see in flashbacks how Kate rapidly gained weight after the fire.) It’s a perfectly understated moment.

Everyone unites at the big premiere. Kevin is without Zoe, who seems to have internalized some of Beth’s warning from last week, keeping her distance and jetting off to work on her documentary. It’s a big moment for him, of course: He’ll finally learn whether he’s worth being taken “seriously,” and is left again to grieve the fact that his dad never saw him act. It’s why he takes offense to Kate’s comments from earlier. As This Is Us reminds again and again, his relationship to his dad is complicated. (More broadly, “A Philadelphia Story” serves as a reminder that, often, Jack not appearing much in a given episode makes for an effective storytelling choice.)

But we end on Randall and Kevin. The latter sits beside his brother in the theater, the screening about to begin. Toby has resurfaced and joined Kate, however troubled; Rebecca is sitting with Miguel; Kevin gets a warm text from Zoe, a welcome indication she can’t shake him off quite so easily. But Randall can’t shake his own arc from this episode, that feeling of hovering between two worlds. He asks Kevin if he’s “missed” anything, and Kevin responds by informing him of the IVF treatments. Kevin then relays Kate’s line about being “the only one to pass on a piece of dad.” The camera stays on Randall as he sits, still; the line hits him like a bullet in the chest. He incredulously asks whether she really said that. Kevin confirms it.

Randall has two dead fathers to live up to. But was he ever really, fully either of theirs, a part of their worlds? With one sustained, agonizing stare at the screen, Sterling K. Brown reveals what Randall can’t help but think at that moment: he doesn’t belong.

Episode Recaps

This Is Us

NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.

  • TV Show
  • 4
  • Tuesdays at 09:00 PM
  • Dan Fogelman
  • NBC
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