By David Canfield
November 20, 2018 at 10:00 PM EST
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
S3 E8
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This Is Us again experimented with form this week in “Six Thanksgivings,” offering a collection of short-stories before tying them together — inevitably, effectively — in a big, emotional montage. Yet as with a few other episodes this week, the ingenuity of the idea somewhat outweighs the execution. Some of these “Thanksgiving” tales resonate more than others, certainly, and there’s the sense that some of them were slotted in to push plot along, while others could better standalone.

Let’s go through the Thanksgivings.

The Pearsons

The episode opens on the rather foreboding image of Rebecca, head bowed, with a tear streaming down her face. It feels like we’re in the post-Jack death timeline, but a slow reveal proves otherwise — we’re in the moment just before, the last Thanksgiving Rebecca and the kids would ever spend with the Pearson patriarch.

Miguel comes over for Thanksgiving, with his ex-wife Shelley icing him out of his own family’s gathering, but quickly finds himself overwhelmed amid the chaos and warmth of a Pearson holiday. He excuses himself and Jack finds him another room, helping him through a painful moment. This is Miguel’s first Thanksgiving since his divorce — and on his own, he feels like his kids are being turned against them. Jack gives an ever-inspiring speech about fighting for his family. “You are still their father,” Jack reminds. Miguel appears moved.

That’s the emotional crux of the tale, though secondary is a lighter story about Randall struggling to answer a question on his college application: “What person has most impacted your life?” His siblings are amused since the answer should be so obvious — the firefighter who found him, which led to his being adopted by Jack and Rebecca — but he finds it more complicated. This part of the story gets wrapped up at the episode’s end — so more on that in a minute.

Randall and Beth

After a quick reminder of what makes their relationship so dynamic (complete with a shirtless Sterling K. Brown), we’re once again stuck in a political plotline that just doesn’t have much going for it. Indeed, where the better half of this episode meditates on notions of family and Thanksgiving, this segment feels like mere catch-up on how their new arrangement is going.

As to the new arrangement: Beth is now working as Randall’s campaign field director, with Jae-Won — the young Korean-American man Randall encountered while trying to win votes a few episodes back — finding it difficult to work with her, being campaign manager. Beth and Randall leave the house, with Kate and Toby taking over Thanksgiving duties over there (we’ll get to that soon), in order to make an important campaign stop: serving Thanksgiving to the community. But it’s at a smaller event than what Jae-Won wanted, on Beth’s suggestion, and when the opportunity for a photo-op presents itself, organized by Jae-Won, Beth shoots it down, believing it’s demeaning to the community members to look like they’re getting a handout.

Jae-Won expresses his frustration and Randall snaps at him: “I don’t care if it’s a mistake; she’s my wife.” Beth overhears and is deeply hurt; he’d promised her he hired her for the job because she was qualified, not because he was doing her a favor. It’s clear this isn’t the case. She presses Randall to admit he’s been humoring her ideas far too often, and he silently concedes the point. But abruptly, Beth gets a call — they need to go home. Why? Stay tuned.

Jack

We’re back in Vietnam on Thanksgiving, with Jack and his new recruit — oh, and brother — Nicky tenuously interacting with one another. But Jack is more compelled by the woman with the necklace. In this episode, we realize it’s rooted in empathy. Her son cut his foot badly on a wire and is in need of some help. Nicky’s too moody — broken, perhaps — to notice anything or anyone but himself in this moment, but Jack tries snapping him out of it.

The squad gathers for a Thanksgiving meal, with Nicky sitting off to the side. All agree that Nicky does not appear fine. But Jack excuses himself early for a different reason, to help the mystery woman. He’s scared off by another man, but soon, Jack shows up at her door with food — and a mission to treat the boy. He enters and sees him ill, and when the bandage on his foot is unwrapped, notices how bad the cut appears.

He tries enlisting Nicky’s help — nay, orders it — but his brother, a medic in the war, steadfastly resists. And so Jack does the deed himself — works to heal the cut, guiding the boy through the pain. It’s a moving scene, one that directly informs how Jack receives the famed necklace: as a gift from the woman for helping her in a time of need. Yet this short, affecting tale leaves a more bittersweet feeling. After all, there’s still the matter of Nicky, and for the first time he really opens up about what he’s experienced in Vietnam thus far. He tells a harrowing story of what happened to his first training officer, “Bones,” after describing how he looked out for Nicky. “You can be nice all you want, Jack. But they’re not just women and children.”

Recap continues on Page 2

Jesse opens up — disingenuously, at first, telling a fabricated story of falling into cocaine while working as a high-stakes bond trader. William sees through the deception, and Jesse sees in response “an inexplicably pleasant man worthy of the truth.” So he tells him — he fell hard for cocaine and then succumbed to crack addiction, and it was all downhill from there. “I don’t know why Thanksgiving depresses me,” he adds.

William invites him to a gathering of musicians for the holiday, and Jesse, flattered by the invitation, accepts. The pair instantly have a sweet, flirtatious banter; their attraction translates. Overall this section feels a bit random but works within the episode’s grander scheme. Jesse arrives at the party with a beautiful woman, and disappointment overcomes William’s face. But it’s a bit of a fakeout — Jesse tells William not to “worry,” because it’s only his cousin. And so a romance begins.

Toby and Kate

Toby and Kate are determined to handle Thanksgiving this year — to prove, with a baby on the way and a bad episode (seemingly) behind them, their responsibility and strength at anchoring a family function. But Toby’s quickly thrown by Randall’s detailed instructions and overall aura of perfection. “Randall is basically your dad,” he laments. Kate kindly asks him to snap out of it, and he tries, going to check on Tess — who’s at home with a fever. Yet what he finds falls a bit outside of his expertise: She’s having her first period, holding “a box of things that a woman might need every full moonish.” This is Kate’s domain.

After knocking for a long while, an embarrassed Tess finally lets Kate in, still mortified over her split-second encounter with Toby. Kate, in a timely test of parenthood, handles the situation delicately, sympathetically, and lovingly. She tells the story of her own first period when she and her family were staying at a beach house with Miguel’s family. She ran into Miguel’s brother, Andy, with whom she was a little infatuated, and very bluntly described to him the situation. “Needless to say, we have never talked about it since,” she quips. It’s a nice scene — and more intriguing than the ever-dull Kate-Toby drama. (Long story short: Toby has a kitchen disaster and buys a bunch of Thanksgiving food to compensate, which Kate calls Jack Pearson-level heroism — sure!) Kate’s conversation with Tess is punctuated by a reveal that’s both intriguing and earned. Kate says Tess has so much ahead of her — including her first boyfriend. “…Or girlfriend,” Tess replies, nervously. At the very least, it’s clear she’s questioning her sexuality, which This Is Us will surely explore more down the line.

Rebecca and Miguel

Wondering why Rebecca isn’t a part of the main Thanksgiving plans in the present timeline? It’s because she’s already booked — with Miguel’s family. Yes, for the first time, we’re meeting the new other half of her family, headed to Miguel’s daughter Amber’s home for the feast. Miguel, before they even get there, is deeply nervous.

And as the meal begins it’s not hard to understand why. An awkwardness permeates the dinner table, with Amber (played by Jane the Virgin alum Yara Martinez) barely communicating with her father and her brother, the aforementioned Andy, still deeply angry about his parents’ divorce. Indeed Andy goes at Rebecca hard, at one point accusing her of stealing his father. Miguel initially takes it in, but then decides to take a stand. “We’re not going to apologize for being together,” he says. “The one time a decade you see Rebecca, you show my wife some respect.” The tension manages to clear a bit; Rebecca gives Miguel an affectionate look, appreciative of his defending her. And Amber even reaches a hand out to her dad — a reminder that it’s never too late to heal.

The Ending

A montage ties all of these stories together: of Randall and Beth, Kate and Toby, and later Miguel and Rebecca all having Thanksgiving with the kids (Kevin even calls in); of William and Jesse connecting; of Deja, having received a “Happy Thanksgiving” message from her mother earlier, texting her mother the same, belatedly; and finally of Randall, as a child, reading his epic response to that college application question. This ties the episode together, realizing Thanksgiving — and in turn, family — as a day of interconnectedness, one of the show’s biggest themes. (Though one wishes Randall, as an adult, had a bigger or better storyline this episode, for a stronger parallel to this closer.) Family takes many shapes in this show, even if the ones at its center are traditional in shape. There’s Jack’s Vietnam family, William’s musician family, Rebecca’s new husband’s family — you name it.

“My story is unique and I feel like it’s like that for everyone,” young Randall reads to his family. “Strangers can be your most impactful people, family can be your most impactful people.” He then adds, cheekily: “But if you insist on me answering, if it’s the only way I can gain entrance into your storied university, I choose the fireman.” We get a lovely, lengthy close-up of Randall’s smiling face, and there goes “Six Thanksgivings.”

Related content:

Episode Recaps

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