Parenthood tends to drive This Is Us — in theme as well as plot. So many of the major story turns in the show have been a product of children trying to honor their parents’ legacy, or doing things differently than the way they were raised. It’s where the show powers its dramatic engine. And as “Katie Girls” opens, we see that trend extend to one of the biggest stories of all — how Rebecca and Jack became a couple in the first place.
Season 3 continues to trace the Jack-Rebecca origin story; here we kick off where the premiere ended, with a young Jack driving up to Rebecca’s house after their promising first date, only to see another suitor on her doorstep, greeting her with flowers. “Katie Girls” begins with a montage of Rebecca’s coming of age — growing up with a traditional ‘50s housewife who handled cooking and cleaning while her husband came home from work and planted himself on the couch. In observing her mother, Rebecca saw a life she didn’t want; as a teenager, she wound up doing woodshop with the boys — the class where she met Alan (played by Quantico and Weeds alum Hunter Parrish), the mystery-suitor.
When Rebecca, as an adult, invites Alan into her home, it’s immediately clear they have a history. Turns out they dated for three years, and he asked her to move to London with him; Rebecca, ultimately, turned him down. On paper he checks the boxes she’s listed for herself: He’s independently minded, respects her desires to go for a career and pursue her passions, and doesn’t seem traditional in any sense of the word. Rebecca later reunites with his parents and there, he offers to move her out of Pittsburgh and into New York, where he’ll help her develop as a singer. She’s thrilled by the idea.
Jack, meanwhile, drives away from Rebecca’s house after seeing Alan and heads home. He witnesses his father heinously scold his mother and plans at that moment to pack up her things and get her away as soon as possible. She obliges; they drive to her friend Cheryl’s, but not before picking up a coffee cake at the grocery store nearby. (“I don’t want to show up empty-handed,” she tells him.) One could say of course Cheryl lives in the same neighborhood as Alan’s family; of course Rebecca went out to buy champagne to celebrate their “New York move” at the same time Jack was buying coffee cake. But this is the stuff This Is Us is made of. And so Rebecca and Jack meet-cute, again, and talk about their dreams — before parting ways, again. Though one has the sense that this time, they’ll find their way back to each other more organically.
Rebecca returns to Alan’s family and she has a candid conversation with his university-professor mother — a woman who, we learn, served as a sort of role model for Rebecca in terms of the kind of woman she could be. (She’s also a woman played by none other than Malcolm in the Middle’s Jane Kaczmarek, a lovely bit of guest-casting.) Alan’s mom tells Rebecca about the rarity of falling for a man who doesn’t try stifling you; Rebecca acknowledges this but says she has a nagging feeling about Jack.
Through context clues from what he said in the grocery store, Rebecca is able to track Jack down at Cheryl’s house. She says Alan is her past, not her future. Something special is clearly here. But it’s when she watches Jack clean the dishes — a shot deliberately evocative of the episode’s opener when a young Rebecca cleaned beside her mother — that the connection is cemented. It’s not that roles are reversed, though. She gets up and starts washing with him. They’re in it together. Then they make a plan to go for a drive — to Los Angeles.
The Jack-Rebecca early days are making for a more engaging season throughline than I expected; the choice to center Rebecca here, the much more complex and dynamic character of the two at this point, is a big reason why. But it’s also grounding the show in a fresh way, relying less on the arbitrary twists that characterized so much of their flashbacks over the first two seasons. (Recap continues on Page 2)