By David Canfield
November 27, 2018 at 10:00 PM EST
S3 E9
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Well folks, we finally got that big, juicy This Is Us twist we’ve been waiting for.

Kate and Toby are having a boy!

I kid, of course. The baby’s gender may indeed have been revealed, but in its last 10 minutes, the NBC drama also packed in what could safely qualify as its biggest surprise of the season up to this point, moving backward and forward in time to shatter what was considered settled in this ever-unpredictable universe. Seriously guys: If Randall and Beth’s marriage isn’t safe, what is?

The fact remains, though, that “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning” caps what’s felt like a letdown of a season so far in, for the most part, fittingly mediocre fashion. There’s too much going on, storylines that aren’t working particularly well continue to be dragged out, and — increasingly — the show seems unable to live with a new dynamic or plot turn for more than an episode or two. But one thing’s for sure: This show knows how to reel you back in.

THIS IS US -- "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning" Episode 309 -- Pictured: Sterling K. Brown as Randall -- (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Let’s start with the bulk of the episode — all the stuff that came before what made this rollercoaster of an hour worthwhile. That’s not to say it was bad — indeed, amid the plot overload, this episode features a pair of deeply poignant scenes. The first is between Kevin and the son of a Viet Cong fighter, who agrees to a meeting in the village where Jack was stationed. Kevin finally makes his way there, walking its roads, looking out at the dock where we’ve seen Jack and his men bond and fish and drink; the episode beautifully mirrors images of father and son, occupying the same, haunted space. But Kevin is still seeking answers above all else. He shows the man the photo of Jack with the mystery woman and asks if he recognizes either of them. The man responds in Vietnamese — with Kevin and Zoe’s tour guide from the hotel interpreting — that he does not.

Instead, the man tells his own story. He says his father was an actor of sorts — comparing him to Kevin “The Manny” Pearson — because he’d hide his fighting in the war from his family, sneaking in to see them and regaling with them (fictional) stories of the adventures he’d have on the other side. “Our fathers were enemies, but they were not so different — they hid their war stories, they pretended to be okay for their children,” the man tells Kevin. “It may not be the answer you’re looking for, but maybe it’s the answer to something bigger.” It’s a tenderly played moment, and an important one for This Is Us, illuminating a Vietnamese wartime experience with respect and nuance.

The other big scene comes courtesy of Tess. I wasn’t sure whether her moment with Kate, in which she alluded to questioning her sexuality, would be followed-up on so quickly, but she gets a big moment here — arguably the episode’s best. As “The Beginning” opens, she’s moody and surly, moping around the house without interacting. On the way to Randall’s debate opposite Brown — more on that shortly — Rebecca tries getting her to open up, admitting that Kate told her about her conversation with Tess. But Tess lashes out in response, saying she doesn’t want to talk about it. Rebecca respects her wishes but connects to her later. “I have this theory that I used to keep all of my emotions so bottled-up that it started to affect my body — I lost a child, and I buried that real deep,” she says. “Eventually, I started to ache all the way into my bones, and I don’t want that for you.” She tells Tess to talk to her parents when she feels ready.

And so Tess does — joining her parents late at night in the kitchen. “I think I might like girls, not boys,” she admits through heavy tears. “I didn’t want to tell you guys because I didn’t want it to become a thing.” All props to Susan Kelechi-Watson for her emotionally full acting in response. Beth says, “We love you no matter what. Look at me. You see me? Look at your dad. You see him? Do you see anything other than two people who love you more than they could love anything in the entire world?” The whole scene is lovely. It’s one of the best coming-out scenes I’ve seen on network TV, with Eris Baker so perfectly playing Tess’ fear, and then relief, and the whole pain and anxiety of her experience coming through vividly.

The rest of the episode (again, less the climax) doesn’t inspire as much excitement and isn’t worth going quite as in-depth on. First, there’s Kate and Toby — who seem at this point to be facing and overcoming an obstacle a week. (That Toby’s crippling depression fits into this template feels offensively unfortunate.) This episode it’s Kate’s job. The doctor informs her that while their baby is healthy, driving around so much to play her “Adele-a-grams” at various venues isn’t the healthiest thing for her. So she gives the gig up. But Kate explains she needs something other than the baby to focus on. Madison sets her up for an interview as a choir teacher at a local high school, but when it’s revealed Kate doesn’t have a college degree, the principal regretfully reveals he can’t hire her. Kate feels desperate to work, to have something that’s her own. But Toby comes up with a better idea — she can finish her degree at the community college before entering into the full-time job of motherhood. Kate likes the idea. And that’s about it! (Aside from, yes, the gender-reveal, which comes after some back-and-forth between them about wanting and fearing to know. Needless to say, they’re thrilled with the result.) (Recap continues on page 2)

One thing that’s come up a few times for me this season: It’s weird just how little This Is Us deals with money. Is there really no discussion of losing Kate’s income as well as the money that’d go toward getting her degree, especially with a baby on the way? And then there’s Beth, who’d become the primary breadwinner for the family after Randall stopped working; there was no (onscreen) discussion of finances when she decided to help run his councilman campaign as a full-time gig. (This episode noted they had to “stretch” some things financially, but one would think that conversation would be important enough to feature. Or is there really no struggle here?)

Beth, as it turns out, has left the campaign by the time the episode starts, due to that minor blow-up that occurred between her, Randall, and Jae-Won last week. I’m really not a fan of this particular thread so I may be biased, but I found the debate between Randall and Councilman Brown — featuring a full house from Philadelphia’s 12th district — to result in a flat-out bad scene, riddled with clichés. Brown rants about Randall raising the community’s taxes. Randall keeps stumbling until he gives a rousing speech, the crowd roaring in his favor. (We could’ve done with one fewer reaction shot of the crowd passionately nodding along.) We see him come alive as a candidate here, and Sterling K. Brown certainly sells it, but the moment is just too hard to believe. And when Jae-Won informs him after — while still congratulating him on the debate — that he’s too far behind in the polls to win, I wanted to yell at the show to just cut its losses and move on.

Alas, this did not happen. But what comes next does inform one of the episode’s two big reveals. Beth formally asks Randall to leave the campaign, with his chances to win clearly next-to-none and their home-life getting a little chaotic. (In addition to Tess’ admission, Deja has also reconnected with her mother, and has asked to see her in Delaware, where she’s now living.) Randall, in a moment that feels a bit out of character, turns her down. “You told me that if at any point I wasn’t on board with you running, you would stop,” she reminds him. And he says he understands, but adds, “This family will always be my priority, but I need to see this through, Beth.” She appears stunned — for the first time, it seems like they could be irrevocably out of sync. She leaves and gathers bedding for Randall to sleep on the couch.

The show then flashes forward to that future timeline, where an aged Randall and an adult Tess are going to see the mysterious her. Last we saw this flash-forward involved Toby, but he’s nowhere to be seen here; instead, the show confirms the her they’re seeing is Rebecca — as to her state, we still don’t know anything. But the real twist is that it appears Randall and Beth are in deep trouble — separated, perhaps, though again nothing is confirmed. Beth is working at what looks like a ballet company and agrees to see Rebecca on Tess’ message. But she and Randall aren’t talking.

The other game-changer takes us back to Vietnam. Early scenes from the war in the episode depict Nicky as increasingly lost, unable to be helped. He keeps getting high. He keeps lashing out at Jack. The idea of him shaping up within the two-week window Jack was given is, at this point, beyond wishful thinking. It’s impossible.

One day Nicky disappears. Jack goes looking for him but can’t find him. Then, the sound of a huge explosion — and news of a boat blowing up in the river. Is it Nicky, as we’d assume? Jack dives into the water and swims faster than he probably ever has before on exactly that thinking. But it’s the last we see of the scene.

Instead, we’re taken back to the present, where Kevin and Zoe are getting ready to head home. The tour guide offhandedly mentions there’s no indication that anyone in Kevin’s family died in the war. “My uncle died in the War,” Kevin reminds. But the guide says he checked the database — and there’s no one under Nicky’s name. Whaaa?

Cut to a doozy of a flashforward: Nicky, with mail featuring his name in hand, is still alive in the present day. Did Nicky fake his own death? What did Jack know? What does anyone else know? So many new questions. But we’ll have to wait until next year to start getting some answers.

Related content:

Episode Recaps

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