By David Canfield
September 26, 2018 at 12:18 AM EDT
  • TV Show

This Is Us is back — and to prove it’s still in its prime, the Dan Fogelman-created drama offered plenty of what it does best: heartrending speeches, crushing disappointments, sweeping montages, and cryptic reveals that only have us asking more questions. It’s good to be back.

However, things open in “Nine Bucks” a little unusually: We observe a mystery man’s morning routine as he confesses his nerves to his mother over the phone, jumps on a bus, and heads toward an unknown destination. His blink-and-you’ll-miss-them scenes are intercut with quick check-ins on the Pearsons, the day of Kate’s wedding (which closed out season 2) and the days that follow. Kate wants to press on with having a baby despite her recent miscarriage; Deja stays living with the Pearsons, but is dealt the trauma of her mother formally giving up parental rights in court; and Kevin is still courting Beth’s cousin, Zoe. We then move toward the opening’s climax, in which it’s revealed that the mystery man is, in fact, Franco Harris, the legendary Steelers halfback, whose famed “Immaculate Reception” occurred the very night that Rebecca and Jack met.

The core of “Nine Bucks” is, indeed, Jack and Rebecca’s first date, right down to the episode’s title, which refers to the amount of money he had to spend on her that night. He takes her to a carnival, paying for the tickets and buying her a candy apple and a hot chocolate, and covers for her when she doesn’t know the “game” that everyone’s talking about. (“New to America,” he explains to the carnival ticket-taker.) Things, however, will soon go south.

THIS IS US -- "Ave Maria" Episode 301 -- Pictured: (l-r) Mandy Moore as Rebecca, Milo Ventimiglia as Jack -- (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

That “bumpy ride” is an experience shared by the Pearson siblings in the present-day timeline. After a bit of catch-up, we’ve reached the triplets’ 38th birthday — the traditional beginning for a new season of This Is Us. Beth is throwing a party for Randall, but there’s drama scattered in the house: Deja is nervous she didn’t get anything for her foster dad, and Zoe is staying with them for the time being — a problem, since Kevin’s invited to the party and it’s painfully obvious to Beth that they’re having, erm, relations. (“They’re knocking boots,” Beth laments to Randall, who hears that phrase for the first time. This recapper had the same experience.) She strongly disapproves of the budding relationship but swears — on Oprah — she won’t make a thing of it at the party. Randall, meanwhile, is gearing up to tell Deja some big news: They want to formally adopt her.

But both are handed tough doses of reality. For Beth, it’s an inability to keep quiet as she watches Zoe and Kevin dance around one another. (It’s worth noting that the pair already have great chemistry, and as a season 2 flashforward indicated, they’re in it for the long haul.) She screams at Zoe while Kevin listens with Tess and Annie by his side. And Randall’s big plan — taking Deja to William’s old apartment building, which he and Beth have bought — doesn’t exactly pan out. He makes a big speech about his own struggles with being adopted and losing his dad so quickly after meeting him. He says to her, “We don’t want [the adoption] to happen unless it’s your choice.” She scoffs. “Don’t tell me we’re the same, Randall,” she says, angry that he tried paralleling their experiences. “Don’t tell me I have a choice in anything.” They leave with no “choice” made.

Then there’s Kate and Toby, who are still working hard to conceive. She learns she has Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, while he’s reminded that taking antidepressants — a reveal from last season’s finale — may make the process more difficult. They meet with a fertility doctor whom Kate has high hopes for, but who nonetheless informs them she can’t take them on as patients. The doctor tells Kate, bluntly, that her weight would render the necessary IVF treatments unsafe, and that there are liability issues. Another hopeful new beginning. Another painful setback. (Recap continues on page 2)

And then, of course, there’s the Jack-Rebecca first date — the stuff you’d think would be of legend but is shown instead to be an increasingly awkward, even disastrous affair. Rebecca keeps asking Jack questions that force him to dig up ugly stuff from his past — the war, his brother’s death — to the point where he apologizes for the somber mood turn. She then decides to play a game: “Cats or dogs?” Then: “Mushrooms or pepperoni?” on pizza. They say opposite things both times, and then it starts to rain. Jack has run out of money but doesn’t want to admit this to Rebecca. So they stay hiding under shelter, as it pours, with him seemingly refusing to buy an umbrella.

This Is Us can certainly lay it on a little too thick, and the symmetry of each character’s journey in “Nine Bucks” is a prime example. (The looks on Jack and Rebecca’s faces when he said “pepperoni” and she said “mushroom” were cloyingly solemn.) But the actors still find room for resonance. When Kate goes from the doctor to the birthday brunch Madison throws for her, Chrissy Metz delivers the hell out of a post-birthday-wish speech. “I have been trapped in this body for so long. Trapped,” Kate says. “And I try to stay positive … I’m tired of smiling and pretending that it’s sunny out … When is the universe going to give me a break?” Similarly, Randall and Deja have a pained heart-to-heart when they get back home. After several agonizing seconds of silence, he says, “I miss talking to you,” but she’s still too shut down to reciprocate.

Lyric Ross was a revelation last season in her portrayal of Deja, and she proves again in “Nine Bucks” why she’s one of This Is Us’ strongest assets. After leaving Randall in the kitchen, she sneaks out to pay a visit to her biological father at his place of work. She confronts him with her pain, but also her good fortune, and Ross plays the moment beautifully. “I’m going to do something really great with my life and you’re going to miss it,” Deja tells him. “I met these people and they think I’m exceptional.” She then adds he’ll never need to hear from her again, but that she needs one favor: help on getting Randall a birthday gift. She returns for the party, presenting her foster dad with a new pair of sneakers. Then she adds, nonchalantly, that he can sign “the papers.” She’s made her choice. This is her family.

The great Franco Harris rears his head as the episode builds toward its climax, and This Is Us clarifies his symbolic role here. Sportscasters in the background of the past-timeline rave about how he led a comeback for the ages, where “it looked like it was all lost” — “the miracle of all miracles.” Same goes for Jack and Rebecca’s date: He drives her home, the feeling shared that it’s probably the last time they’ll see each other, but Jack goes for a Hail Mary confession. He tells her he had no money, that it hurts to talk about Vietnam and his brother, and that he feels a connection to Rebecca — she makes him feel like he’s “home.” She doesn’t let him off the hook, exactly — “It was a pretty bad first date,” she says bluntly — but she feels something too nonetheless. She leans in for a kiss. And she says goodnight, with an implicit promise of a second chance. (But there will be competition — Jack plans to show up at her door with flowers soon after, but as he pulls up in his car, finds a man on her doorstep already doing the same.)

This is a This Is Us season premiere, of course, so it wouldn’t be complete without a few tantalizing cliffhangers. But if we’re being honest they’re a tad disappointing here — either telling us what we already know or remaining too unclear to do much with. They both revolve around Toby, who isn’t exactly the show’s most compelling figure. The first, taking place in the present-timeline, is a reaction to some surprising news: The doctor has reconsidered and wants to take the couple on for IVF treatments, just when they were ready to give up on having kids biologically. Kate is moved deeply, but Toby evidently feels renewed pressure. He flushes his antidepressants down the toilet. It’s merely a reiteration, however, of what the season 2 finale teased of Toby in bed, really grappling with his depression.

The second brings us back to where we left off in season 2: Deep in the future, where Randall softly told an adult Tess that it was time to see “her.” Was it Deja? Beth? Kate? There was no way of knowing, no idea of what it could mean. We get a few extra seconds here, where Randall calls an old, bearded Toby and asks if he’s “coming down.” He says, “She wants you there, too,” but Toby isn’t so sure. Obviously, this points more in the direction of Kate, but as to the circumstances and who it really is, anything is still possible.

Seems that this mystery may be teased out slowly. Will we have to wait a year-and-a-half as we did with the saga of Jack’s death? Strap in, This Is Us fans. It’s time for another season of guessing, theorizing, and kleenex-grabbing.

Episode Recaps

NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.
  • TV Show
  • 4
  • Tuesdays at 9:00pm
  • 09/20/16
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