This Is Us Recap: The Prequel

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This Is Us - Season 1
Mandy Moore as Rebecca. Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC
This Is Us

This Is Us

The Big Day Season 1 Episode 12
Editor's Rating 5 stars

It’s risky to bench two-thirds of your stars — an entire timeline, really — in order to shine some light on some pretty minor characters for a whole episode. Yet, that is exactly what This Is Us does with “The Big Day.” And I’m happy to report it works. It really, really works.

Breaking form, “The Big Day” hits pause on the present-day Pearson shenanigans, and instead gives us a clearer picture of what happened the day the Big Three were born in 1980. Good-bye, my darlings Randall and Beth, I shall miss you the most. It expands what we saw in the pilot episode to show us more of those interconnected stories Kevin told his nieces during all that painting talk way back when. So, yes, we follow Jack and Rebecca’s story from that day, which is as lovely as you’d expect since Jack and Rebecca pretty much glow during pregnancy stories. But we also spend some time with Dr. K — and more surprisingly, the firefighter who brings Randall to the hospital. If you thought he was only around to offer Jack a cigarette and reveal the big premise twist, you’re wrong. His name is Joe (Brian Oblak), and he will make you cry.

In the beginning, Rebecca was a big fan of her pregnancy. But when picking out names and dancing to Stevie Wonder made way for being unable to get out of bed without assistance and an inability to find a pair of shoes that fit, her feelings changed. Big time. On delivery day, Rebecca hates being pregnant and … well, everything, really. In her own words, she has become a monster. In all fairness, she does have three humans taking up space inside of her body. If you can’t act like a monster then, when can you?

Unfortunately, Rebecca’s unknowingly being extra-monstrous to her husband on his birthday. Jack, a regular ol’ Mary Poppins, is practically perfect in every way, and never stops his wife’s rants to remind her. He does, however, send up a little prayer for Rebecca, whom he worries is possessed by demons. Other than that, he gives her some space and meets BFF Miguel at the golf course. Jack hates golfing, and quickly realizes that the only reason Miguel and the other guys spend four to five hours out on the golf course is to get away from their nagging wives and pukey children. The thing is, Jack doesn’t want to get away from his family. In fact, he wants more time with his family. It would all be very swoon-y if it weren’t so freaking sad. All I could think about during Jack’s “I wish I could freeze time” speech is, “YEAH I BET HE DOES WANT TO FREEZE TIME WHEN HE DIES TOO YOUNG, SHOW.” This Is Us just loves to rub that one in, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, Rebecca realizes that she forgot Jack’s birthday. She feels terrible. She wants to make him a fabulous cake, but has, like, half a cup of sugar in her entire kitchen. Always resourceful, she duct-tapes a pair of Jack’s flip-flops to her feet and walks to the closest store. Sure, it’s a liquor store and all the cashier can offer Rebecca is a banana-nut muffin and some Twinkies — she’ll have to squeeze out the filling to make icing — but it’s the thought that counts.

She adds in a Pittsburgh Steelers Terrible Towel for good measure and makes her way home to prepare her sad little banana muffin cupcake. As she waits in the nursery for her husband, she has a heart-to-heart with her babies. Has Mandy Moore ever been better than she is in this moment? I’ve had a hard time completely warming up to Rebecca, but her speech about how she’s excited to meet her little sidekicks, watch them completely freak out when they discover how awesome their dad is, and how she promises to protect them fiercely? Well, it made me feel a lot of things. All of which were expressed via tears streaming down my face.

Of course Jack is standing in the doorway, listening to the whole thing — with a video camera to capture the moment. Rebecca apologizes to the World’s Greatest Husband and Father, and promises birthdays full of cheesy mugs that say just that. Jack finally gets his birthday dance and cupcake from his wife, as we watch that scene from the pilot again, knowing the Pearsons are just moments from heading to the hospital.

Which is, of course, where they end up meeting Dr. K, a man who can heal with his hands and his words. Before their lives collide, we get to learn a little bit more about the doctor. Just when you thought Dr. K was done making you cry, This Is Us decides to show us how he is coping with the death of his wife. He’s not doing well. All of Caroline’s things are still in the house: her clothes in the closet, her makeup and perfume in the bathroom. He cannot and will not move on, no matter how worried his son is or how many widow-hotties ask him out while grocery shopping.

What Dr. K is feeling is more than just grief. He goes to visit Caroline’s grave and reveals a much deeper pain. He doesn’t want to live without her, and has thought about ending things. Before he breaks down too much, his pager goes off and he’s hospital-bound.

There’s one more piece to the Big Three puzzle: Randall has to wind up at the same hospital as the rest of the crew. Enter Joe the Firefighter. We meet Joe while he’s making his confession at church one morning. Things are really bad between him and his wife (Virginia Kull) and he asks the priest to pray for a miracle. When Joe goes to the firehouse and finds a baby outside, he thinks his prayers may have been answered. Joe tells his colleagues that he’s bringing the baby to the police, but instead goes home. He tells his wife that he thinks this baby could fix them. Their marriage fell apart because they couldn’t have kids; this baby could change that. His wife, Samantha, knocks a little sense into him: A baby isn’t an answer to their problems. He needs to take the baby to the hospital. They are very sad, you guys.

With all the players in place, we jump through the big moments from the pilot: Rebecca going into distress, Dr. K giving his “Lemonade” speech, Jack meeting the firefighter and seeing Randall. The biggies. But it goes even further, and we hear conversations we weren’t privy to last time. The first, when Jack tells Rebecca they lost the baby, and then later, when Rebecca tells Jack she feels like they were meant to have three babies and he offers up a way for that to still happen. The latter broke my heart into a million little pieces.

The reverberations of the day’s events are still being felt in Dr. K and Joe’s lives, too. Dr. K learns that Jack took his advice and is pushing through the most difficult moment of his life. This inspires Dr. K to push through as well. He cleans out Caroline’s things and takes that pretty lady up on her offer for dinner. He starts living again. Meanwhile, Firefighter Joe goes home and finds Samantha moved by her husband’s effort to mend their relationship. She wants to start over and she recreates a moment from the day they met. It’s a testament to the writers and the actors that even though we just met these two, I am so invested in Joe and Samantha.

In the end, though, this is the story of the Pearson family. We flash forward to Father’s Day several years later. Jack sips out of his World’s Greatest Dad mug, surrounded by the triplets, and puts on the video of Rebecca talking to her belly that we saw him take earlier. Mom and Dad smile at each other, remembering that day.

Man, those present-day story lines have some real work to do if they want to move me as much as this one just did. I’m looking at you, Back of an Egg.

This Is The Rest:

  • Rebecca’s frantic rant on Shelley’s answering machine was delightful. I think everyone worries about dental hygienists named Stephanie stealing their husband.
  • “Thanks again for the bathroom sex at Froggy’s, Jack!”
  • I especially loved how even the firefighter’s cigarette from the pilot was given a new layer of meaning with this retelling. What we thought was just a prop to clue the audience into the timeline twist was also a big character moment for Joe. Or maybe I’m just obsessed with Joe? Send help.
  • How about that big ol’ wink to the show’s own twists while Dr. K dismissed his son’s review of The Empire Strikes Back and its big twist ending? I see you, This Is Us.

This Is Us Recap: The Prequel