Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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To borrow a term from Rebecca Pearson, there sure is a whole lot of friggin’ stuff that happens in this episode. “The Graduates” dives into an underexplored past timeline while moving some present-day stories forward in a major way. Befitting the episode’s title, all that tumult is anchored around three graduation ceremonies. In the present day, Toby throws an over-the-top party to celebrate Kate’s graduation from community college. Meanwhile, back in 1998, the Big Three celebrate their much more somber high school graduations, just four months after Jack’s death. (Randall is valedictorian of Hanes Academy, while Kevin and Kate earn their diplomas from McKinley High.) Elsewhere, Kevin’s alcoholism spirals out of control, a conflict at Deja’s school potentially inspires a crisis in Randall and Beth’s marriage, and—most dramatically—Kate goes into preterm labor at just 28 weeks. Like I said, it’s a lot.

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The episode tries to create a sense of thematic cohesion in largely exploring its disparate stories through the lens of parenting and the passage of time. That’s best encapsulated in Rebecca’s lovely monologue at Kate’s college graduation. After Jack’s death, Rebecca and Kate both struggled to deal with the idea of experiencing new life milestones without Jack there to see them. They processed their grief by trying to freeze time in place, refusing to be active participants in their lives. It’s only in the past couple of years that Kate truly processed her grief and seized control of her own life again. As this episode indicates, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the path Rebecca walked to reach her own sense of peace.

This is a really good episode for Rebecca, who gets some incredibly sweet present-day scenes and some really complicated flashback ones. There’s an argument to be made that Rebecca’s imperfect solo parenting negatively impacted the Big Three almost as much as Jack’s death did. (We’ve already seen her let Kevin’s drinking slide and allow Randall to shape his college plans around her needs.) Without letting her off the hook for that, “The Graduates” finds immense sympathy for Rebecca’s early months as a widow too. She has a full-on panic attack at Randall’s graduation ceremony, which eventually culminates in her calling Miguel to ask him to drive her to a grief counseling group that night. This episode draws a lot of parallels between Rebecca and her kids: the anxiety she shares with Randall, the passivity she shares with Kate, and the denial she shares with Kevin—a denial that causes them to resist seeking help until they’ve truly hit rock bottom. After a destructive bender, Kevin is on his way to his own support group meeting when Kate’s water breaks.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

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Befitting a duo playing mother and daughter, Mandy Moore and Chrissy Metz both have great moments of silent acting in this episode. Moore’s comes in Rebecca’s aghast reaction to a single dad asking her out for coffee. Without any dialogue, Moore conveys that this is the first time Rebecca’s even considered the idea that the world will now see her as a single woman who has the potential to be in the dating pool again. It’s an Earth-shattering moment for her. Metz, meanwhile, plays Kate’s preterm labor not as a moment of histrionic panic, but as a moment of quiet terror, which is so much more effective.

Speaking of acting MVPs, Lyric Ross gets to carry her first major storyline in ages, and she unsurprisingly hits it out of the park. Deja is understandably pissed when her English teacher oversteps by publishing Deja’s personal essay on the school’s website without permission. It’s such a real, realistically rendered dilemma—from Ms. Cunningham’s infuriating naiveté to the way she bursts into tears when Randall confronts her about it. This Is Us offers some subtle but pointed commentary about the way Deja’s white teachers are overeager (perhaps even just subconsciously) to celebrate her “heroic” journey from a kid who lived in a car to a major academic success. Deja’s desire to reject the “inspirational story” narrative the world keeps trying to thrust on her is something teenage Randall grappled with in his college admissions essay back in “Six Thanksgivings.” Now—in the one week out of the year Randall’s decided to be an actual parent—he has to grapple with the same issue from a parental perspective.

Weirdly, however, the episode mostly drops Deja and Randall’s rightful anger over her essay being published online (taking it down doesn’t undo the fact that all the other kids already read it!) to transition into a story about how Deja wants to savor the passage of time in her newly stable environment, rather than rush through it quicker than she needs to by skipping a grade. It seems like a perfectly reasonable position to me, far different from the unhealthy coping mechanism of passivity that Rebecca and Kate adopted after Jack’s death. And I think the episode is on Deja’s side, although given the way Randall reacts, I’m not entirely sure.

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I actually have a lot of question marks about Randall’s storyline and how This Is Us wants its audience to feel about it. We’re definitely supposed to see the frustrating hypocrisy in Randall asking Beth to “put a pin” in her dreams in order to allow him to pursue his. But are we meant to utterly despise who Randall has become lately? Because that’s kind of how I’m feeling right now, and I’m not sure that’s what the episode intends—especially not when it ends on the big “hero” moment of Randall showing up in Kate’s hospital room. (All I could think was, you left Beth and your kids alone again?!?)

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

The weakest thing about “The Graduates” is the way it tries to shoehorn in a throughline about siblinghood into an already overcrowded episode. First of all: No matter how many times This Is Us bluntly states it, this show has made zero effort to actually depict the “magical twin connection” that supposedly links Kevin and Kate. Their teenage storyline is supposed to be about the betrayal Kate feels at Kevin’s decision to leave her behind to move to New York to become an actor. But it doesn’t register as a betrayal because it barely feels like they have any relationship at all, much less a co-dependent one. Outside of some cute toddler footage in this episode, I can name way more meaningful childhood moments between Kevin and Randall (their camping trip and squabble over bedrooms) and Kate and Randall (their sequin fight and Sex And The City marathons) than I can between the supposedly inseparable twins who exist within the Big Three’s larger dynamic.

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Sure there’s something sweet (if a little cloyingly sentimental) about the Big Three’s graduation night conversation being intercut with the image of them supporting each other as adults. But it just feels like a strange capper for this particular episode. Surely, it would make much more sense for an episode about parenting to end with Rebecca (who’s already in town!) loyally sitting by her daughter’s bedside instead of Randall flying across the country. “The Graduates” leaves the Pearsons in crisis mode on all different levels and in all different timeliness. There’s a lot of potential in those various cliffhangers (particularly the struggles of having a premature baby, which is an experience that’s very seldom depicted in pop culture), I just wish the journey to getting to them had been a little smoother.


Stray observations

  • Milo Ventimiglia only appears in a handful of scenes, but he really makes the most of them. That opening “Radio Shack Jack” scene was a full-on charm offensive. I hope the show eventually spends some substantial time in the Big Three’s baby/toddler years—we need more Beardy Jack!
  • Obviously the group is built around anonymity, but could a celebrity like Kevin truly just go to a random AA meeting without it becoming a major gossip story? This Is Us can be frustratingly inconsistent about when it wants to deal with Kevin’s fame. Has his big Ron Howard movie come out yet? Wouldn’t that be a major game-changer in his level of celebrity? Does he even have an agent or manager or anyone in his life who isn’t a family member?
  • I found Randall’s assertion that he and Beth needed to hire an “experienced adult” and not “some college kid” to occasionally babysit their elementary and middle school-aged children to be bizarre and kind of off-putting.
  • Also are we meant to believe that Randall and Beth have never used any kind of childcare before, even when he worked full-time and she worked part-time?
  • Madison handing Kate and Kevin mocktails while announcing “pregs, sobes” really killed me.
  • If you’re curious, here’s some info on preemie survival rates and experiences.

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