By David Canfield
September 24, 2019 at 10:00 PM EDT
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Welcome back, This Is Us fans! As ever, the show decided to shake things up with its season 4 premiere, “Strangers,” by introducing a host of new characters and dynamics. We break down the five biggest takeaways.

THIS IS US -- "Strangers" Episode 401 -- Pictured: (l-r) Chrissy Metz as Kate, Chriss Sullivan as Toby -- (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Things Are Moving As Planned

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: This Is Us’ present-day timeline kicks off a little bit after where we left off at the end of season 3 and is progressing the main storylines about exactly as expected. Randall, Beth, and the kids have moved to Philadelphia; Kevin, whose arc flatlined a bit after last season’s Vietnam saga, is spending more time with Miguel and Rebecca, who have officially relocated to L.A.; and while Baby Jack is continuing to improve, Kate and Toby are still weathering difficulties as they wade through various medical problems. Oh, and it’s the day of the Big Three’s birthday — a This Is Us tradition that, of course, takes us back to the series pilot.

But anyway, there was a lot of new material introduced in this season premiere that connects to the Pearson family in various ways.

Nicky Meets His Match

Around a subplot revolving around Rebecca and Jack’s early courtship — more on that later — we’re introduced to three never-before-seen characters, who at first glance have nothing to do with any of the This Is Us regular cast. (The discerning viewer, of course, will quickly realize their relevance will come in the form of a late-breaking reveal.)

The meatiest of these three launches, arguably, belongs to Cassie (played by Jennifer Morrison). As we meet her, she’s serving in the Marines in the Middle East, video-chatting with her husband about missing him and their child, before heading back into unknown danger.

The bulk of her story, however, concerns her experience as a veteran: returning home to a warm welcome party, only to struggle with the demands and grind of normal daily life. She can’t find a job. She can’t get along with her husband (Nick Wechsler). And when she hits her child, the family reaches a breaking point. She separates from them and starts attending support groups at the VA. In one session, as she’s telling her story, the glass window behind her abruptly, violently shatters — and we learn that Nicky Pearson is the man responsible. He’s arrested, and back in L.A., Kevin is called to come to his rescue. But there’s a moment where Nicky and Cassie lock eyes — indicating that these two characters may have more encounters in the future.

Deja Has a Love Interest

The second new character, Malik (Asante Blackk), is a seemingly carefree teenager who, we soon learn, is carrying much more responsibility than most people his age: He’s a father. He lives with supportive, hardworking parents — his mother is played by Marsha Stephanie Blake; both she and Blackk were Emmy-nominated for When They See Us — and works with his dad in an auto shop on the side. But the pressures of supporting his own family remain. He’s intrigued by less-than-legal work run by an acquaintance of his father (Omar Epps), but he’s a good kid from a good family and gets talked away from that world — at least for now.

He ends up at a barbeque one of his friends is hosting, and while he’s flipping burgers, is introduced to a girl who’s new to town — Deja. The two strike up an immediate connection. Safe to say this is one spark that won’t be dying out anytime soon.

Baby Jack Will Build on the Pearson Women’s Legacy

Finally, we have an unnamed man who appears to be living fairly well. He wakes up hungover in his bed, empty bottles surrounding his large apartment. But then in a surprise, we find that he is legally blind, with an adorable pup by his side. He heads to a diner for food, banters with the waitress, and they connect immediately. In This Is Us fashion, the action hurtles forward: We watch them grow more comfortable with one another; he proposes to her (successfully!), and then, the woman breaks the news that she’s pregnant — a bit before she wanted to be, perhaps, but a joyous piece of news for them nonetheless.

As to how he connects to the broader This Is Us tapestry? This bit of info takes the longest to come into focus, if only because it’s the biggest. The lack of name-dropping — not to mention lack of period signifiers — is very much by design, because in the episode’s climactic montage, we realize he is Baby Jack Pearson, all grown up. In the present-timeline, intercut with this revelation, Kate and Toby learn that their baby is and will remain legally blind.

And Jack as an adult? He’s doing just fine. Earlier in the episode, he hinted about his musical aspirations; the last glimpse we get is him walking onto a stage before a huge, multi-tiered crowd, going crazy for him as he’s introduced. He performs, beautifully — a lovely making-good on the musical aspirations of his mother and grandmother.

Jack and Rebecca’s Father Have a Rivalry

The theme of “Strangers” is, fittingly, the power of a chance encounter. “It’s crazy … how just like that, a stranger can become a big part of your story,” Rebecca tells Jack. The final piece of this particular This Is Us puzzle takes place just after Rebecca and Jack, knowing each other for only a week, drive cross-country to L.A. for Rebecca to fulfill her musical dreams — only to have them quietly broken when she’s told she’s merely “Pittsburgh good.” It’s fitting that the early days of the central love story of This Is Us anchor an episode filled with chance encounters.

And so we watch Jack and Rebecca continue to fall into each other’s rhythms. The main event is a dinner with Rebecca’s parents and family friends at their country club. Jack is out of place (he has to wear a sports coat, which he borrows on loan from a friendly salesman… who is Miguel! Another first meeting) and fields difficult questions, but gathers strength: asserting who he is, what he’s been through, and why he cares for Rebecca, for all to hear. The triumph of his winning Rebecca’s people over is quickly undercut, however, by Rebecca’s father (Tim Matheson) pulling him aside after the dinner ends on a high note. He tells him that he’s not the man for Rebecca — he won’t be a good provider, he’s carrying too much from the war — and he’ll do everything he can to stop it. Good luck with that! Though we’ll surely see this tension play out more in the weeks to come.

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Episode Recaps

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