By Amanda Ostuni
March 17, 2020 at 10:01 PM EDT
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

This latest episode of This Is Us flexes the creative muscle of the show’s writers harder than ever, taking the already ingeniously crafted time-hopping format and applying it to something new: the hypothetical.

The episode centers entirely around Randall in a single therapy session with Dr. Leigh (Pamela Adlon).

The session begins with Randall telling her about his fight with Kevin over Rebecca’s care and how he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about his what-if scenarios since he asked Kevin that night if he, too, has ever wondered what would’ve happened if Jack had survived the fire.

Dr. Leigh asks him what exactly he thinks would’ve been different. With that, we’re transported into the first future-past fantasy.

Different but Exactly the Same

It’s the night of the fire. Randall succeeded in preventing Jack from going back in for the dog. When Jack and Rebecca arrive at Miguel’s from the hospital, Jack tells the kids he’s fine. What’s more, the dog survived, rescued by a fireman. Everyone wins!

But the next morning, Rebecca looks perturbed. She slowly brings herself to tell Jack some secret she’s long held. Cut to Jack and Rebecca confronting Randall. Rebecca admits to Randall that she met his birth father William when Randall was a baby. She says she didn’t tell anyone because William wasn’t well — he was an addict. Randall is shocked. He looks angrily at Jack but Rebecca says Jack didn’t know. Randall demands to know his father’s name and address.

Jack goes with Randall to William’s apartment. William answers the door looking fairly put-together. He welcomes them in. Randall and William talk about Randall’s school success, his lack of musical abilities, what his birth mother was like and what happened to her. William tells Randall he was never not wanted. Then he gives him the poetry book he wrote for him.

On the way home, Randall is ecstatic. Jack warns him to temper his expectations because he thinks William is still using — William’s hands were shaking while they talked — but Randall reminds Jack he’s an addict too. This upsets Jack but then we see Jack and William in meetings together, then William and Randall hanging out. Randall makes the same college choice he did in reality, going to Carnegie Mellon nearby instead of moving away to Howard — but now, it’s to spend time with William.

When Randall leaves for school, his relationship with his mother is still fraught. Then, because he’s still at Carnegie, he meets Beth. She attends her first Pearson family dinner, where she breaks out the hot sauce gift. All throughout dinner, Randall puts Rebecca down, until Beth privately scolds him for being so cruel to his mother. Beth is the best, always.

Later during dinner, when everyone except Rebecca — who’s hurt over Randall’s earlier actions — is joyously engaged in telling Beth a family story, Randall tenderly suggests Rebecca finish the story. It’s their moment of reconciliation. Cut to Randall proposing to Beth. Then Jack giving a speech at their wedding, with William there, too. Then William, Jack, and Rebecca at the hospital gazing lovingly at newborn baby Tess, Randall catching William’s stomach cancer early enough to save him, and the Pearsons gathered at a holiday dinner where Jack and Randall acknowledge that Rebecca’s having memory issues.

Here, Dr. Leigh cuts in, resuming reality. In a tone that implies he’s naïve to imagine such a perfect world, Dr. Leigh recaps Randall’s fantasy: “your father lives, you immediately find your birth father, get him clean, your parents’ marriage survives, you have the same wife and kids, cure stomach cancer, and you get your mother into this clinical trial.” She then suggests Randall is playing games, and she demands he be more honest and tell her what scares him most about what could’ve been.

All Bonds Broken

In the second hypothetical world, again, the day after the fire, Rebecca tells Jack about William. This time, we see that conversation. Jack is furious. Rebecca says she kept the secret to protect Randall, and because she was afraid William would take Randall from them. Jack says she shouldn’t have made that call alone, and that keeping Randall from William was cruel and unlike her. Randall overhears everything.

Cut to Randall and Jack at William’s door. Randall says he’s his son. But William, who looks less put together than in the other fantasy, denies it and shuts them out. Randall immediately decides that he’s going to attend Howard University — he has nothing to stick around for.

At the family dinner later that year — where Beth met everyone, only Beth isn’t in Randall’s life since he never went to Carnegie Mellon — things are still icy between both Randall and Rebecca and Jack and Rebecca.

Cut ahead to Jack giving a toast at a wedding. This time, it’s Kevin and Sophie’s wedding. Randall has a random woman with him. She calls him RP and says he’s never talked about his family.

Randall congratulates Kevin. It’s clear the two have been estranged. They swap small talk about work — Kevin works with Jack at their real estate company the Big Three, Randall is a professor. Kevin comments about Randall’s girl — she’s his T.A., and Randall says it isn’t serious — Randall doesn’t do serious relationships. Kate approaches them and the ensuing conversation ends in Kevin angrily calling out Randall for never spending time with his siblings, and Randall essentially admitting he only came to the wedding because Jack asked.

That night in his office, Randall looks at a box he received. It’s William’s things he passed on to him after dying from stomach cancer. The poetry book is included.

One morning later on, another T.A. wakes up with Randall. Then Jack calls and begs Randall to come home for Thanksgiving. Randall initially protests but then Jack tells him Rebecca isn’t well.

Cut to Randall running up to his parents’ front door. Rebecca answers, and they embrace in reconciliation.

At this, Randall pulls himself out of the fantasy and asks Dr. Leigh what the point of the exercise is.

Enlightenment

Dr. Leigh says Randall must acknowledge there’s a million possibilities for how life would’ve turned out even if Jack lived. She then asks Randall why he’s so sure he could’ve saved Jack.

Randall envisions Jack ignoring his plea to not go back in the house for the dog. He tells Dr. Leigh Jack’s heart killed him … metaphorically and literally. Randall imagines being with Jack in the hospital room when Rebecca steps out and Jack’s fatal heart attack hits. Randall is sure he could’ve done SOMETHING in that moment because fixing things is what Randall does.

Randall thinks at least knowing he tried would’ve helped him process Jack’s death better — because with William, he was able to accept William’s choice to stop trying to be saved because Randall did everything he could and his efforts were more harmful than helpful. Bet this will happen with Rebecca.

After suggesting that he only dealt with William’s death better than Jack’s because he didn’t know William long, Randall admits that what matters most is he thinks if he had had his way, he wouldn’t have lost either father.

Then Dr. Leigh says Randall thinks the exercise is about losing his fathers, but it began with a fight about his mother. Dr. Leigh says Randall’s life has been more defined by his mothers than his fathers — the mother he lost at birth, and the one who lied to him.

Randall insists he’s made peace with not knowing his birth mom and with Rebecca’s lie about William, but Leigh is doubtful. She notes it’s interesting Randall always imagines the first thing that happens after the fire is Rebecca’s confession. Dr. Leigh then suggests Randall chose her as a therapist because she’s similar to Rebecca, and he needs that to help him process Rebecca, her illness, and her lie. Then Leigh points out that in all his hypothetical lives, Randall ultimately forgives Rebecca. She suggests he should confront her again about William, so he can redeem Rebecca in reality, before it’s too late.

Randall arrives home looking haggard. He tells Beth about learning of his unresolved resentment toward Rebecca. Beth isn’t surprised, then kisses him, proud he’s embracing these emotions.

Randall calls Rebecca while she’s playing Pictionary with Miguel, Kevin, Kate, and Toby. He mentions the clinical trial, to Rebecca’s discontent. Interspersed with his next words to Rebecca, we see Randall tell Dr. Leigh that what she’s said makes sense, but the fact is, he couldn’t prevent the loss of his fathers, but now his mother is sick and he has options to help; he cannot lose her too or he will break, so instead of hashing out things about the lie, he’s going to focus on preventing her health decline, whatever it takes.

Randall tells Rebecca that he’s never asked for anything, didn’t resent her for sins like lying about William, he’s been a good son — but now he’s asking for one thing: for her to do the trial. Rebecca looks on at the others happily playing Pictionary, and then very reluctantly, tearfully, agrees to do the trial.

So. Many. Tears. So. Much. Frustration. With. Randall. Is he justified? Is he horrible? Weigh in in the comments… while we wait to see the inevitable fallout of Randall’s move.

Bonus bits

  • Kate’s with Toby in one vision, and in the other, with a man named Ethan. Is he a real love interest that happens between Mark and Toby? Kate has kids in both worlds—  a boy with Toby, two girls with Ethan.
  • Miguel is essentially a non-factor. Poor Miguel.

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