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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled An elegant iThis Is Us /ire-anchors the season
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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“Clouds” is my favorite kind of This Is Us episode: Simple and smarter than it looks. Season four hasn’t been hugely cohesive in its themes and narratives, but “Clouds” functions as a palette cleanser and a reset that brings a bunch of storylines to a head before the final three episodes of the season. Randall attends his first therapy session; Kate and Toby move past their marital tension; Kevin reckons with the role he plays in his family; and Rebecca receives a preliminary diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. “Clouds” has the makings of a typical This Is Us episode—a flashback storyline to the Big Three’s happy middle school years intercut with thematically relevant present-day storylines—but it goes above and beyond in the intelligence of its storytelling and the nuance of its relationships.

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One thing that really stands out is how well this episode balances the five central Pearsons. It’s rare to find an ensemble story that doesn’t give at least one of them the short shrift, but “Clouds” (which takes its name from Joni Mitchell’s second studio album) delivers welcome complexity for Rebecca, Jack, Randall, Kevin, and Kate, all while offering some nice moments for Toby, Madison, Miguel and Beth too. Jack gets the least amount of screentime of the five main Pearsons, but writers Kevin Falls and Jonny Gomez zero in on some fascinating tidbits about his strengths and flaws—and the way his flaws are so often dressed up as strengths.

Though Randall’s first therapy session winds up centering on his unhealthy co-dependent relationship with his mom, “Clouds” doesn’t let Jack off the hook as easily as his son does. After middle school Randall begins to spiral when his straight A record is marred by an A-, Jack ignores Rebecca’s suggestion that they speak to a guidance counselor and instead insists that all Randall needs is to blow off steam and get his blood pumping with some exercise, the way Jack does with boxing. Jack passes on his own imperfect mental health coping mechanism to his son. And while it makes sense that Randall’s early therapy sessions would focus on his deep-seated issues with Rebecca, what with her diagnosis looming, I suspect he’s going to have a lot to unpack about his father too—far more than he even realizes.

Illustration for article titled An elegant iThis Is Us /ire-anchors the season
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

The limits of Randall’s perspective is a big theme of this episode. The camera stays locked on him throughout his first therapy session, so that we don’t see the dripping coffee pot or even the face of his therapist (the wonderful Pamela Adlon) until late in the episode. It’s a bit of a distractingly showy device, but it gives Randall’s monologue an added sense of unease and disorientation. Sterling K. Brown, unsurprisingly, knocks the speech out of the park, letting a lifetime of familial resentments bubble forth in tightly controlled rage. As someone who’s spent a lot of time self-managing my own anxiety, Randall’s defense mechanisms, self-diagnosis, and intense need to control the conversation all rang incredibly true: “I know my faults. I know what triggers me. But I think my faults are good faults, and I would rather have them than to not have them.”

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When Randall tells Beth he doesn’t think therapy is for him, This Is Us reveals another place in which it’s been keeping us locked in his perspective. It turns out my concerns about This Is Us ignoring Beth’s emotional reaction to the break-in were unfounded. Instead, she’s been hiding her own anxieties for fear of overburdening her husband. The heartbreaking scene where Beth reveals her pepper spray, prescription sleeping pills, and the iPhone she’s bought to keep in touch with Annie is an excellent rug pull—and a reminder that I could stand to give This Is Us a little more benefit of the doubt when it comes to its long-term storytelling plans.

Illustration for article titled An elegant iThis Is Us /ire-anchors the season
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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Elsewhere, “Clouds” explores one of This Is Us’ most compelling relationships: Kevin and Rebecca. While Randall is still repressing his complex feelings towards his mom, Kevin’s sobriety journey allowed him to work through his own issues with her and reach a much healthier place. And as she did with Kate in “A Hell Of A Week: Part Three,” this new “carpe diem” Rebecca helps Kevin put his own life in perspective. While Kevin is often perceived as an unserious or vapid person, the flipside of that is a zest for life that can be a powerful uplifting force on those around him.

We see that in the way middle school Kevin’s quest for a 1991 John Candelaria baseball card turns Rebecca’s boring afternoon of errands into a fun day out. But it’s been one of Kevin’s most consistent character traits across the series—from making Sophie laugh at an elementary school talent show to entertaining audiences on The Manny to lifting Tess’ spirits with his willingness to speak her teen language. In his therapy session, Randall rails against Kevin’s irresponsible nature, yet we’ve seen countless moments from their childhood in which Kevin’s can-do spirit was exactly what Randall needed in a moment of panic. Once again, Randall’s point of view isn’t nearly as objective as he thinks it is.

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On paper, Kate gets the simplest storyline this week, but, again, there’s welcome complexity around the edges. In my review of last week’s episode I worried it was too easy for Toby to get over his issues with Baby Jack in a single weekend, and it turns out Kate has the exact same concerns. She’s not in the right mindset to accept his apology nor his big romantic gesture of a home recording studio/playroom. But some no-nonsense advice from Madison during a “sorry I slept with your brother” apology brunch allows Kate to shift her perspective.

Illustration for article titled An elegant iThis Is Us /ire-anchors the season
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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To put it in Jack’s terms, Toby isn’t an imperfect waffle to be tossed away, just one who needed a little more time to cook as a parent. Marriage is about being willing to see your partner at their most messily vulnerable while believing they can still return to their best selves (which, incidentally, is something This Is Us has long demonstrated in Randall and Beth’s relationship). Kate realizes that the resentment between her and Toby isn’t doing anyone any good and that it’s better to turn over a fresh page as partners and parents. In a final montage set to Crosby Stills and Nash’s “Our House,” we see the role that Toby’s studio played in helping Baby Jack grow into the superstar musician we know he becomes.

Montage is the storytelling mode that This Is Us does best, and the one that ends this episode juxtaposes the past and the present in beautifully understated ways. We see young Randall happily running with his dad, teen Randall somberly running alone, and adult Randall taking the brave step to put aside his usual coping mechanism and return for a second therapy session instead. Elsewhere, the domestic bliss of Jack and Rebecca curled up on the couch for movie night is juxtaposed with the image of Miguel and Rebecca doing the same years later. Sometimes life moves forward and sometimes it circles right back to the beginning. The episode’s final image is of Kevin buying a $2 John Candelaria baseball card as a reminder not to lose his sense of fun and freedom as the Pearsons head down the scary road of Rebecca’s new health journey.

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Stray observations

  • This episode really drills home the disparity between the amount of detail we have about the Big Three’s elementary/middle school years vs. how little we know about their high school years. Is the show waiting for the young cast to age up to tell those stories? Or did Dan Fogelman and co. just not have particularly formative high school experiences?
  • The runner of 1970s Jack and Rebecca searching for Joni Mitchell’s house adds a nice tapestry quality to the episode. Plus the juxtaposition of giddy young Rebecca and tentative old Rebecca singing “Our House” is further proof that Mandy Moore needs an Emmy!
  • Parker Bates is another standout performer this week. He captures young Kevin’s endearingly smug demeanor so, so perfectly.
  • Middle school Kevin mentions that Sophie’s mom is a fun mom, which is a nice bit of continuity from “A Hell Of A Week: Part Two.” I’d love for Jennifer Westfeldt to become a recurring player in the flashbacks.
  • It’s played off as a cute family tradition, but theatrically comparing your kids’ report cards seems like a very bizarre parenting move.
  • I enjoyed Kevin’s awareness that a TMZ story about breaking into Joni Mitchell’s old house with his mom could actually play very well with the public.
  • I was feeling fairly confident that Madison was just a red herring and not actually in contention to be Kevin’s pregnant fiancée, but this episode now has me leaning the other way. She’s already listened to all the relationship podcasts!
  • Madison, the best friend we all need: “You just say the word. I will Kill Bill all of them and help you raise that child myself.”
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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