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THIS IS US: SEASON 2, EPISODE 1: A FATHER’S ADVICE
Things not said
Is it easier there
Yes, I guess
Yes. – William Hill (Poems For My Son)
Often, life is about its punctures, its pushes, and its peculiarities. The world of Dan Fogelman’s This Is Us appears simple, but the stories often portray a far different reality for characters that are easy to typecast, yet sometimes impossible to quantify. what is indubitably accurate about the series, however, is that we can find some piece of ourselves in most of these characters.
Last season, the Pearsons and those near to them went through a lifetime of events.
William died in Memphis in an incredible hour of television. Kevin moved from one woman to another and from one lucrative job to a passion project, before discovering his heart was with his childhood sweetheart and ex-wife, Sophie. Randall experienced a nervous breakdown as his life sucked all of the air out of the room. We were with Jack and Rebecca as they went through the highest of highs and lowest of lows, including the “sourest lemon a man can receive.” We watched as Kate met Toby and dealt with weight challenges for 18 episodes.
This Is Us teaches multiple lessons, but they’re usually similar in structure and meaning. We’re reminded that we are all fixer-uppers as human beings. Even someone we grew to love in Jack Pearson raised his voice to his wife, dealt with alcoholism, and could have become a thief, or worse.
The people we meet and those we see portray a Facebook existence, but in fact are more the words not written and the pictures discarded. When in a relationship, or even attempting to woo a new flame, we take photos of ourselves to share. But, how many remain on the cutting room floor because we feel we can do better?
The Big Three turned 37 to begin Season 2, and I’ll turn 39 in less than a month. Our problems are different, but they’re the same in that we all have our box of issues. Some feel too much emotion, while others can’t handle a cooperative heart, and run from it rather than believe it could actually last. Others struggle financially, have connection issues, or wake to crippling loneliness and an absence of external support.
The Pearson family does not lack for someone to talk to when times are tough, but as we see when Kevin finds it difficult to allow Toby to replace him as his sister’s “person,” it can make those outside the base unit feel either obsolete or unnoticed.
Not a soul on this show doesn’t battle with feelings of inadequacy. Kate, whose story infuriates me because of its one-note tenor, may have turned a bit of a corner last night. When she’s abruptly cut off while trying to belt out “Nothing Compares to You” at the audition, she jumps to the one conclusion she lives to trot out. I’m fat, I’m not as attractive as these women, so you’re not taking me seriously.
No, “you’re just not good enough honey.” That was an important moment for this show, and one that gives me hope that the great Chrissy Metz is going to have more to do in the fall of 2017 than sigh and cry on camera over her character’s obesity. Her stories were by far the most uninteresting in the first season, and if we can get to a place where the weight becomes just one part, rather than the main focus of what she does, Kate Pearson could become exceedingly more valuable.
In contrast to Kate was Randall, where Sterling K. Brown gave one of the year’s great performances, and where the show’s writing was at its apex. Randall, especially when paired with Ron Cephas Jones, whose voice was soothing to say the least last night, was magic for This Is Us.
Randall quit his job at the tail end of the last season, after channeling Biff Tannen and replacing “All you got for me is light beer” with “All you got for me is this wooden box of pears?” His boss asked him what he would do without the gig, and he didn’t have an answer, except that he might slow down and behave as his biological father did.
For now, that’s what’s happened. Beth is working and Randall is taking a few morning walks with his runs, maybe stopping to get to know the mailman a little better. He’s staying home, he’s helping get his children ready for school, picking them up in the afternoons, and making sure they’re safe. For someone so driven to perfection, the idea he would then latch onto wanting to adopt a newborn, as Jack and Rebecca did for him on that fateful day, is intriguing.
It makes sense, because Randall balances his logic with neuroses. His reality is still grounded – unless he accidentally drinks half of your magic mushroom smoothie in the woods – but he’s on a search for what’s flawless. It’s affected him positively, but it’s led him down, into, and even through some dark paths. Beth tells him at the end of the season premiere that she wants to take him somewhere that might alter his “perfect plan” and then describes their ‘imperfect, perfect life.”
Again, the quantifiers surrounding all of these people center on the blemishes, the bruises on the fruit (maybe not pears), and the things we hide from those we love or respect. About what we’re most sensitive, some of us joke and others constantly try to pave over the potholes, but forget to fill them in first. Through all of Randall’s successes, there’s always been a mental emptiness, masked in the facade of the guy saying, “It’s going to be a great year,” on the sidewalk.
Life is tough, even for the best of us. This Is Us asks its audience to consider within themselves whether God would ever put more on our plate than we can take? Priorities and a tacit understanding of what’s important lead to the best choices, as Kevin finally appreciates Sophie, and is ready to atone for his past. Even while working underneath Ron Howard in Los Angeles, unable to see his lady, his attitude is proper. He’s also more confident, but still must pull his sword to defend against the inadequacy of whether he’s more than just “The Manny.”
The best moments of This Is Us aren’t the triumphs or the failures, but the love, the communication, and even the forgotten, half-completed puzzle that finally gets attention. One of Jack’s finest speeches was the one he delivered before picking up that duffel bag and walking out of the home he’d helped build for his family. Even in sorrow, we can still find remnants of our best selves.
Also on display last night, and throughout the series, is the concept that people don’t always know what’s right for them. They may think something is forever that might walk out on a whim. They might assume this job is THE job, only to discover it’s tearing a hole through them. In the case of Randall and Beth, he initially thought of duplicating what Jack and Rebecca did, hoping he’d find even more purpose in adoption.
Beth, then, changes the paradigm in William’s favorite spot in that park. She suggests that if the couple is to take on another child, it should be a troubled adolescent. She points to a trio of kids in the process of making mistakes not far from the table at which they’re sitting, and says if we’re going to do this, we need to go all-in.
While Randall doesn’t respond, it’s fair to believe Beth won the argument, won her husband’s heart all over again, and we’re about to meet a new teenager within the next few episodes. It will bring a different dynamic, but with the huge loss of William Hill, a new face isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Also, we get more clues as to how Jack Pearson died. Because we’re discussing This Is Us, we don’t want to immediately believe everything we see, because this series adores the tactic of leading us to water, only to reveal it’s actually chocolate milk. We’ve probably only absorbed half the truth. There’s more coming, because there always is.
That said, the Pearson house burned down, and as we watch Kate and Randall sob at Miguel’s, while Kevin is making out with Sophie elsewhere, we are teased with a bigger reveal than we actually got. It seems likely Jack died as a result of the fire, but the cause, the reasoning, how long after he “got in the car” it happened, all of these facets are yet to be unraveled. We know he died in 1997, when the children were 17 years old. Fogelman has told IndieWire that by the end of Season 3, all the Jack questions will be answered.
So let’s enjoy this Milo goodness while we’ve got it.
Here, in its final minute last night, This Is Us also provided the gut punch it’s adept at creating.
Moments before, while standing ashamed just inside Miguel’s house, Jack admits to a determined Rebecca that he’s been drunk all day, and has been for weeks. He’s lied to her, he’s lied to his children, and he doesn’t feel he can step back into the family domicile until he fixes himself.
He hears a knock after closing the door on his beautiful wife. “Get in the car.” They’ll do it together, and she won’t let him go through this alone. He stripped himself down in front of her and became completely vulnerable in that sequence. It was then that she felt she couldn’t fail him, and instead had to be there for her husband, who isn’t infallible, but is pretty close to, and here’s that word again, “perfect.”
He needed his family, even if he felt unworthy of their love as he walked in despair. He needed help, and didn’t want to ask for it. He tried to shut down, to be alone, trying to work out whatever was wrong in his life, when that was the worst possible thing he could have done. It wasn’t going to work. You don’t flee from people offering you a warm embrace, at least not when it’s right.
Plus, we’re never going to get to the finish line anyway. We’re only trying to get closer to it. If we’re waiting for Randall’s ideal, we’ve become Sisyphus. It’s easier to roll a boulder up a hill with someone on the grind with us, even if we also need the balance created by a solo push in a barren, silent setting.
One of This Is Us‘ favorite tricks is to take one camera shot and morph it into another, but in virtually the same spot. It’s nifty, and I dig it every time. It reminds me of the Season 4 finale of Sons of Anarchy, where the photo of John Teller at the head of the SAMCRO table evolved into an almost identical shot, but this time with his son Jax in the same role.
Rebecca going from the filled passenger seat to the one only covered in a bag with her deceased husband’s personal effects is where the tears came last night, if indeed you shed any. Admittedly, I did, but that’s because I’m not a monster. It was an extremely effective close to an uneven episode. That’s been true more often than not with This Is Us, but that’s one of the reasons most of us enjoy and look forward to this show.
It’s like…us. We’re uneven. We’re looking for purpose, companionship, fulfillment, and perfection. The latter doesn’t exist in a non-cosmic sense, and our problems are varied, but by no means only germane to us. We’re all dealing with something.
Many of us are struggling mightily with one aspect of life or another. What we continually learn from this show, and it’s the lasting impact each episode has had on me, is that we’re usually better together than we are alone. We need each other, as the add on to the spot reserved for God (for those of the belief). Even though we also need our space, crave and require our individuality and our personal time, we cannot survive and certainly cannot thrive solely as hermits.
All people, even the purest of heart, are fickle, they’re unpredictable, and they can be surprising, uplifting, cruel, heartless, selfless or selfish. But the highs, when spent with the right people, can dwarf the lows. The imperfection leads to divorce, to separation, to sudden death, to loss, and to pain or misery. But good triumphs over evil, as long as we’re willing to look for it.
We should know, because we’re all guilty of being the black cloud, and we’re also blessed with the ability to be that shining force of good for another. Even when Duke comes on screen and we hate his guts, we recognize that there’s someone we’ve looked at in a less than moral fashion. Conversely. when we see Jack become Pilgrim Rick and save Thanksgiving, we have examples in our own lives. We hope someone else has seen us the way Kate, Kevin, and Randall, not to mention Rebecca, saw him that night in that scorching motel room.
Far too often in our lives, we default to a woe is me attitude. Shows like This Is Us, which speak volumes, even despite the accompanying cheese, should remind us that we should change our default app to a BLESSED is me belief. Carpe diem, not “Hit the road, Jack. No pun intended.
Life doesn’t owe us anything.
It’s not going to be perfect.
Sometimes, we just have to slow down and walk, rather than run.
We might need a moment to breathe, a few days to ourselves, but eventually we’ll come up with something in our lives, in some fashion, as stunning as this:
“It’s better to have loved and lost, surely, but try not to lose it at all.”
I’m @JMartOutkick. I need Ron Cephas Jones to narrate my life. Ron, if you’re reading this, I can pay you.