This Is Us recap: Pearson growing pains loom large in 'Changes'
After a rollercoaster two-episode season premiere, This Is Us went on brief hiatus last week due to a little thing called the 2020 election. How fitting it is, then, that the show returned tonight with its third episode dubbed “Changes.” The episode transported us from our world in political transition to the Pearson’s world, where transitions of puberty and of expanding families loomed large.
Woven around the adult Pearsons dealing with big changes in their lives in the present-day are two parallel plots. One of them, which clearly connects to the present-day stories, is a flashback to a day from the Pearson’s past when the kids were in the eighth grade, showing signs of puberty and growing into things like relationships and school sports. More on the second side plot later.
First, let’s dive into the many threads and how they all intertwine, starting with Kate.
In the pubescent Pearson era, Kate is still reeling from a previously mentioned break up with her first boyfriend, her classmate Stuart. She thinks he still might like her, though, because he chose to be in a group project with her and her friend Tonya. However, she’s disappointed to learn he just liked the project they were assigned. Rebecca tells Kate that following your heart can be hard because it means getting hurt sometimes, but most of the time it will work. She’s proud of Kate for believing in love.
In the present, Kate and Toby meet a potential birth mom for their adoption. The woman, Ellie, is a 30-something who already has an 8-year-old daughter, Willow. She’s giving up her new baby because, whereas Willow was born to Ellie and her high school sweetheart, who’s since passed away, this baby was conceived in a drunken one-night stand with a stranger. She thinks the baby would be better off with two parents who really want her. Ellie and Kate and Toby hit it off, despite a minor stumble in the form of the couple fighting in front of Ellie — Kate accuses Toby of never owning up to mistakes and Toby conversely says he’s a “blame piñata.” However, they make-up affectionately, and Ellie says the way Kate and Toby fought and recovered makes her optimistic about them. The couple comes away from the meeting hopeful.
Eighth-grade Kevin wants to become a football quarterback. But he’s small for his age and needs to bulk up. So, Jack excitedly begins showing him how to lift weights, despite Rebecca’s concerns. We see father and son work out in the garage, interspersed with flashbacks of Jack’s father teaching him to weight-lift. Both boys push themselves to impress their fathers. But whereas Jack’s father’s hardness is evident in his face and tone, the experience between Jack and Kevin is primarily tender. However, it’s still laden with complex father-son dynamics, and we see the not-so-pleasant effects of that in Kevin’s present.
Kevin’s present-day revolves around him and Madison still trying to figure out their relationship and each other. After a morning encounter of various awkward half-conversations, passive-aggressive comments and facial expressions, and words left unsaid, Madison later blows up at Kevin. But she doesn’t want to talk about what’s upsetting her with him because they’re basically strangers.
When she does eventually open up, she tells Kevin about her lifelong eating disorder, and that she’s struggling to reconcile her related insecurities with her pregnancy. Kevin’s incredible fitness isn’t helping. Later, Kevin tells Madison he works out an unhealthy, obsessive amount because of his own problems, like being an alcoholic and struggling with father and brother issues. He and Madison both have issues they’re afraid of passing on to their kids. (This scene made me cry, but I still can’t get past the fact that Kevin is 40 and Madison looks 21 and I just don’t think they fit).
Kevin implies they need to be open and honest with one another if they want to be good parents. And, implying he wants to do better, Kevin notes even his parents, who were super connected, “missed so much” about their kids… cue young Kevin sneaking into the garage at night to work out more. It’s clear we’re seeing the beginning of Kevin’s obsession — an addiction that could have been avoided if his parents had noticed it burgeoning back then. And Kevin’s not the only one his words apply to…
In a session with his new, Black male therapist, Randall awkwardly makes it a point to note his wife is Black. Reading this as Randall’s effort to give himself the Black identity credit we’ve learned he’s long been chasing in juxtaposition to his whitewashed upbringing, the therapist assures Randall he has nothing to prove. Then he gives Randall an assignment: to write down a childhood story that sheds light on who Randall is.
As the day progresses, Randall and Beth deal with their daughters’ teenage attitudes — echoing the flashback pubescent Pearsons. In particular, Tess gets in trouble at school for posting a video in which she and a friend, Alex, profanely call out teachers for misdeeds — touching Tess’s and other Black students’ hair, not using the pronouns Alex prefers of they/them. Though he goes along with Beth’s response of disciplining Tess for going about her cause inappropriately, Randall admits he’s glad Tess is not internalizing things that bother her the way Randall always did.
This segues into what happens to eighth-grade Randall. Kate’s friend Tonya flirts with him when she’s at the Pearson’s for the group project. When Randall realizes she’s flirting, he tries to flee. She stops him and based on what seems like a slight smile of excitement on Randall’s face, I think we’re meant to be rooting for them to kiss. But then… Tonya says, “I always wondered what it would be like to kiss someone like you.” This strikes Randall as a hurtful, racial comment, but he doesn’t say anything to Tonya nor to his parents.
That’s the story Randall writes for therapy. It’s the latest example of Randall suppressing his racial identity struggles because he didn’t feel he could talk to his family about it… a massive problem Jack and Rebecca missed, and that is partly why Randall needs therapy now. It’s gut-wrenching and I find it hard to reconcile such a monumental parental failure with the good people we know Rebecca and Jack to be. But I guess that’s the point, isn’t it? To realize no one is perfect, to reflect on real-world issues. Randall’s journey isn’t easy, but it’s real, raw, poignant, and necessary — quintessentially This Is Us.
The season’s big mystery continued...
Also quintessentially This Is Us: a season-long BIG MYSTERY. In the premiere, we learn this season’s big reveal is about Randall’s mom. We learned she lived, seemingly unbeknownst to William, and thus, any of the Pearsons. In this episode, we learn more, and it’s perhaps even more unexpected.
The episode opens with a Vietnamese grandfather fishing with his granddaughter. We don’t know when in time it is, or even where. Later, while the father cooks the fish, he tells his granddaughter she must learn patience and how to cook. He says he learned to cook to impress someone special. She asks if he’s referring to the woman in all the pictures in their house. At the end of the episode, he admits it is. The camera zooms in, and we see that woman is none other than Laurel, Randall’s mother. WHAT THE—!
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.