By David Canfield
October 09, 2018 at 10:05 PM EDT
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
S3 E3
  • TV Show

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)

Of course, the other big new flashback set on the way is Jack’s time in Vietnam, which I’m more skeptical about seeing play out. Beyond the Jack-Rebecca centerpiece, much of “Katie Girls” is set-up for the rest of the season, and with Kevin in particular, we really get the “And this is how we’re going to explore Jack in Vietnam” outline. In the present-day, the episode starts where the last ended, at the movie premiere. The screening ends and results in rousing applause, with Kevin’s family all in tears. He’s soon left to go on a string of interviews to promote the project and his role, including a stopover with Terry Gross (who actually guest-stars!) on NPR, which Zoe comes along for. (Zoe corrects Kevin in one of the episode’s best lines: “Terry Gross is not a man, Kevin. She is a goddess.”) But as Kevin is pressed to relate his father’s time in Vietnam to his performance, he realizes how little he knows about it. “It’s weird, I wouldn’t ask him any questions at all,” he tells Zoe. Next thing we know, he’s literally mapping out his father’s service from the artifacts left over from the fire, ready to commit to learning more. Zoe indicates she’ll be by his side.

Also lurking in set-up-ville are Beth and Randall. Randall is still reeling from the gut-punch of Kate saying to Kevin that she’s the only one who could “pass on” a piece of their dad. In a viscerally acted scene between Sterling K. Brown and Chrissy Metz, he calls her out for not adopting, only for her to break down over his insensitivity, snapping, “How dare you throw adoption in my face right now, and how dare you make me defend wanting this.” He quickly feels bad about the way he handled it but, as always, struggles to apologize; he makes the decision to fly out to LA to be there for Kate during her IVF surgery, which has the whole family on pins and needles. (“Everyone in this family is making me feel like I’m going to die tomorrow,” she says at one point.) When he gets to the hospital, Randall bonds with Toby over their shared mental struggles; the latter even confesses his depression. When Kate comes out of surgery healthy (more on that in a minute), she and her brother have a sweet heart-to-heart. But before long Randall is called back home. He learns that Chichi’s daughter Sky was violently beaten near the rec center — where Councilman Brown still has done nothing to fix the prolific problems. He promises Chichi he’ll do something.

Yet while Randall is out of town, Beth is dealt a shocking blow — she gets fired from her job. For discerning viewers it’s not too surprising; the show had been consistently dropping little nuggets about Beth’s work-life as it hadn’t before, indicating something was on the horizon. In an affecting flashback from when Randall was in the midst of his breakdown, William tells Beth there will come a time when she needs him — and when she’ll need to put her needs ahead of his. This is that time. I’m excited by the prospect of this and how it’ll challenge the relationship; the need for Randall to step up in a different kind of way. Indeed, he gets home ready to pitch Beth his new idealistic venture — running against Brown for City Council. But she stops him and tells him the bad news. A range of emotions registers across his face. They’re headed into uncharted territory.

The only Pearson sibling not stuck in a plot setting up the rest of the season is Kate — rather, she’s stuck in a lengthy, rather trippy dream sequence. It’s where the episode derives its name from: Kate is put under for the procedure, and she drifts into a surreal fantasy in which her teen self tries to talk her adult self out of having a baby. “There is no way in hell you should have a baby,” she says. “You seriously think you can do it? Raise a child?” It’s that nagging self-doubt we’ve seen Kate vie to overcome since the series’ beginnings. Then they’re suddenly in Kate’s childhood home, and her third, youngest version appears too. Jack then walks in — left to embrace his “Katie Girls.”

The sequence is almost darker than the show lets on; as it continues, we learn via the hospital that Kate’s struggling to clear the anesthesia and wake up. Within the dream she’s reluctant to wake up at all — to leave her father again. “Stay here,” teen Kate says. “He’s here.” Adult Kate is tempted, maybe too tempted, before she snaps herself out of it and announces she’s ready to take the next step in her life. She tells her teenage self that things will get better. And she wakes up — to the miraculous news that out of the procedure they got eight eggs. She may just be a mom yet.

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