This Is Us
Let’s be honest: This Is Us is not exactly the best show to watch when in need of escape or comfort. Everything is sad and terrible here. And yet, we will march on because well, for one, Sterling K. Brown and Niles Fitch are both so good in this Very Randall Episode that it might make you forget your troubles for a moment, and two, This Is Us really swings big here and it is puzzling? We should talk about it.
Welcome to your What If Jack Never Died episode, my friends! At one point Randall, who is in a therapy session throughout most of this episode, telling Dr. Leigh about what he thinks his life would be like if Jack had survived the fire, angrily asks: “What is the point of this exercise?” And reader, I must admit, I was asking the same question. It’s not that I didn’t like seeing Old Jack (you guys, Jack in his sixties at Philadelphia Thanksgiving? That Jack is a Hot Jack), or watching Rebecca and Jack playing out some of these scenarios, but it all felt … a little fan service-y? A little here’s something for Milo Ventimilgia to do-y? Yes, Randall working through the best case and the worst case of what his life would look like without that tragedy hanging over him leads to a big breakthrough and an extremely complex kicker. Aside from the ending, though (which was wow wow wow and we will get to it), does this episode do anything to push the plot of this series forward? I am extremely on the fence as to whether it was worth it to devote an episode to this. But maybe people loved it and I am a party pooper. It wouldn’t be the first or last time. The heart wants what the heart wants and all that.
Let’s run through Randall’s first Jack Survives scenario. He tells Dr. Leigh that since confronting Kevin about Rebecca going to St. Louis for the Alzheimer’s clinical trial, all he can think about is how his life would be different with Jack still in it. So she asks him to really imagine that. She wants to hear how he thinks things would be different. And so Randall tells us a story: He yells at Jack to not go back in the burning house, so his smoke inhalation doesn’t end up giving him a heart attack, and he survives. The fire, however, scares Rebecca into finally telling Jack that she knows who Randall’s biological father is and has been lying about it for 17 years. Jack immediately makes Rebecca tell Randall the truth. He’s beside himself, but he and Jack go to track down William. William welcomes them into his apartment, but is very obviously still using. When Randall tells Jack he wants to have a relationship with this man and that Jack should remember that he, too, is an addict, Jack starts bringing William to AA and gets him clean. Randall still goes to Carnegie Mellon to stay close to William and meets Beth, who tells him he should stop being a dick and forgive his mother already. And so he does. And William and Jack and Rebecca all revel in being grandparents to baby Tess together. Oh, and Randall catches the signs of William’s stomach cancer early, thus saving his life. Then, at Philly Thanksgiving, Rebecca forgets where her phone is and Old Hot Jack and Randall give each other knowing, concerned looks.
Many blessings for Dr. Leigh, who stops Randall right there. If you thought Randall’s story about how he cleans up his addict father and cures stomach cancer and teams up with his other father to save his mother was a little, um, much, well, you should hear Dr. Leigh’s reaction. What an angel, this woman. She calls Randall on his bullshit and tells him she has zero time for him to not be honest in this room. This isn’t the time for rose-colored glasses. She wants to know what his biggest fear, worst-case scenario is when he thinks about Jack surviving the fire.
And so we get the second Jack Survives story. Again, Jack survives the fire and Rebecca tells him about William, but this time around Jack doesn’t take it very well. He can’t believe that Rebecca would lie about this for 17 years. (I know this is a fantasy, but I couldn’t help thinking about how Jack lied to Rebecca about Nicky for their entire marriage, but what do I even know.) This does irreparable damage to Jack and Rebecca’s relationship and Jack starts drinking again. Jack and Randall still go to find William, but in this version, William screams at Randall that he’s not his father and to leave him alone, and this does irreparable damage to Randall. Randall flees to Howard, never meets Beth, can never forgive Rebecca, and yes folks, you saw that right: he gets his ears pierced. He becomes a college professor who sleeps with his TAs and has nothing to do with his family. When he shows up to Kevin and Sophie’s rehearsal dinner, because Jack begged him to, he is a virtual stranger and he and Kevin (who started Big Three construction with Jack!) get into a huge fight about how selfish he is. Kate’s there too — she has twin girls with not-Toby — but please no one tell her how little she factors into Randall’s fantasy world. He is sent a box of William’s things once he dies, but Randall tosses it into the trash. It’s only when Jack calls him to tell him that something is wrong with Rebecca that Randall finally comes home and forgives his mother.
Now we are getting somewhere, people! The first thing Dr. Leigh points out, which is obvious to anyone that spends like two minutes with Randall, is that Randall thinks he has control over everything. She has to remind him that his father died of a widowmaker heart attack and even if he had been sitting there next to him — which we have to watch play out in that dreaded hospital room even though WE DID NOT ORDER THAT — he wouldn’t have been able to save Jack. But Randall spirals (lol, what’s new?). At least he would’ve known he tried to do something. With William, he knew he had tried everything to save him and that brought him peace. Not even attempting to save Jack is what really haunts him.
And it’s here where Dr. Leigh digs deep because she is good at her job. Dr. Leigh points out that this whole exercise started because of a disagreement Randall had with Kevin about Rebecca’s care. She also points out that both scenarios had much more to do with Randall forgiving Rebecca than anything with Jack. Randall tells her that he’s forgiven Rebecca for what she kept from him and they’ve moved on from it. Literally no one believes this for a second, and when Randall tells Beth, who has known this about her husband for a while, she’s like, wait … am I a therapist?
Dr. Leigh pushes on: Did Randall ever think about how of all the therapists in all the gin joints in all the world, he chose her? She’s a white female around the same age as Rebecca was when Jack died. Is it possible that Randall picked someone similar to his mother to help him work out his relationship with her and process her illness? And maybe, just maybe, he should think about how there isn’t a lot of time left and if he wants to heal the wounds from her betrayal, he should confront her now.
Randall is not enthused by Dr. Leigh’s observations. He knows she’s right, but he refuses to reopen those wounds. He’s lost three parents in his lifetime, he isn’t losing Rebecca. “Losing my mother would break me,” he says. And he’ll do anything to stop that from happening. If you think that sort of sounds like a threat, it’s because, well, it sort of is.
That night, Randall calls Rebecca, who is in the middle of a rousing game of pictionary at Kate’s house. As if we couldn’t find Toby any more annoying, his drawing for “Mission to Mars” is just two straight lines? Ugh, god, I know there are bigger things happening tonight, but I’ll never get over that. He gets mad at Kevin for not guessing it. TWO STRAIGHT LINES.
Oh, right, sorry. Randall’s about to manipulate his mother into joining a nine-month Alzheimer’s trial. Priorities! So, Rebecca takes Randall’s call and it doesn’t take long for him to really go there. “I’m a good son,” he tells her. He’s a good son, he took care of her after Jack died and has never once asked her for anything. Now, he’s asking her for this. He needs her to do this trial otherwise he will spend the rest of his life wondering if he could’ve done something to save her. He cannot live with that. So, she needs to do this for him. And how can a mother, how can Rebecca, who knows how awful and deep her betrayal of her son is, say no? She can’t. So she agrees to do the trial.
You guys, can we for one moment stop and take in the fact that Sterling K. Brown is sitting alone, talking into a phone in this scene? It’s unreal how good he is here. I mean, the deployment of that Single Tear is perfection, and the desperation Randall feels is oozing out of him. It’s one of the best scenes of the season.
For now, it seems that Randall has played the biggest card he has when it comes to his mother and guilt-tripped her into this Alzheimer’s trial even though it is not what she wants at all. He may be at peace about it, but there is no way the other Pearsons (and Miguel! Justice for Miguel!) are going to take this well.