Oh goddamn you, This Is Us.
This is why this show is so fucking addictive. I spend the entire episode thinking, “Wow, it’s so nice that a show that is known for thrashing on our heartstrings actually has an emotionally complex entry, while still working in the confines of a genre — the Christmas episode — that is known for playing the exact same bullshit tricks as the show.”
And then they go and give Toby a heart attack.
So let’s start with the pre-emotional explosion. I approached the Christmas episode of This Is Us with some trepidation, as I said above, because Christmas episodes are at their core treacly and saccharine, more so than the decidedly secular Thanksgiving episodes, which are themed around unity minus the messy religious connotations and outsized expectations of grandeur. Christmas episodes should be where This Is Us’ worst habits come out but, save for Randall’s scene at the Christmas party, I was surprised by how restrained the episode felt.
Then, of course, Toby had a fucking heart attack.
And there can be so much power in that restraint. This Is Us’ success is due to two aspects: its casting and its structure. It’s constructed so delicately so that those big reveals have the most effect on us. Sometimes, that works better than others. The William revelation was of the latter. The way William (Ron Cephas Jones, who is doing some excellent understated work) and Jesse (Denis O’Hare) united and told their stories was delicate and sweet. William’s sexuality was never a topic of conversation not because of some character failing, but because he was so consumed with all of the other drama in his life. William’s life has been so consumed with this new family that he hasn’t had time to talk or energy to talk about his old one. “Last Christmas” allowed this storyline to have the air that it needed.
I also thought Kate and Rebecca’s scenes were effective in that they allowed Kate, and by extension Rebecca, a complexity that she’s often denied. When Rebecca asks if Kate’s weight is her fault, Kate honestly can’t say. That’s because there’s no pat answer, there’s no easy way to go about explaining Kate, and throwing her into this gray area is actually what her character needs. She’s been so focused on this weight loss goal, that everything about her character is so black and white. She abhors what does not directly help her goal, and obsesses over what does. To be a complete character, her life needs to be more complicated than black and white, and the discussion with her mother allows that in a certain way. She is the way she is and she doesn’t know how to fix it.
I even liked the flashback scenes, which are consistently one of my least favorites parts of each episode. Instead of watching Dr. K (Gerald McRaney) die in some tearful, over-the-top fashion, as I expected we would, he instead spends what he thinks are his last few moments on earth cracking jokes about catheters with the kindly couple whose triplets he delivered nine years ago. Randall and Kevin’s presences in those scenes were indications that the episode was about to get considerably more heavy-handed, but they were small and and inconsequential. It was still not the big sweeping moments, instead these wry and funny ones — Grand Canyon speech included — that made me like the beginning of this episode.
Until Toby had a fucking heart attack.
“Last Christmas” began to lose me as we visit Randall at his office party. I’m usually so excited about Randall scenes, but literally trying to talk a man off a ledge was a ridiculous way of sparking forgiveness for Rebecca, and gaining some sort of appreciation for what life has thrown at him. Instead, Randall’s conversation with Andy Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson) became another excuse for Sterling K. Brown to Act with a capital A. Look, Brown can do it, but Randall needs to give it a rest or it won’t be special anymore.
But the point of Randall and Andy’s confrontation was not to save Andy but to act as misdirection for what was to come. His scene was supposed to be the emotional peak of the show — although it didn’t work and rang false — so we’re lulled into this sense of safe happiness as the Pearsons and their growing hangers on celebrated the holiday. Nothing bad every happens on Christmas Eve, right?
No, because then Toby has a fucking heart attack.
This show has spent so long making us fall in love with Toby. He goes to great lengths for a women he’s barely met, constantly forgiving her failings (from stalking his ex-wife to straight up breaking up with him) and always coming back for more. He even goes so far as to redeem his one failing, he swears to diet just for kate. And then they try to kill him. Do I think Toby’s really dead? No, not even for a show that is built surprises do I think they kill off one of the more affable characters (then again, watch me eat my words come Jan. 10 when the show returns). But, like I said before, This Is Us is unique because of its complex structure, and sometimes that works better than other times. While William’s reveal was sweet and understated, Toby’s heart attack was big and sweeping, and, like its other big reveals, worked to distract from the other plot holes “Last Christmas” conveniently ignored.
Take Kevin’s plot: It was inconsequential for this episode, and mostly what he did was set up him and Sloane up for the next half of the season where they try to mount a play together. But, I’m a little concerned about Olivia. She disappears and no one seems all that worried about her. Also, those producers already sunk quite a bit of money into the show, finding another lead actress seems considerably cheaper than just cancelling the whole shebang.
Or what about Kate? Did she just stay on the East Coast post-Thanksgiving? What’s up with her job? She probably needs to go to that every once and awhile. Plus, if I were her boss, I’d be pretty pissed that my new employee decided to have an elective major medical procedure that will likely take quite a bit of recuperation time right after accepting the gig.
But we’re not supposed to think about those things because Toby had a fucking heart attack.
So the Pearsons have now taken us to the midway point in the show’s run and I still love watching this show every week. While I see what This Is Us does when they have the big Toby Has A Fucking Heart Attack moments, I’m still already so emotionally attached to Toby that I gasped when he fell over and collapsed. That’s where the show succeeds. But it also relies so heavily on these big reveal moments that I worry for the future of the show. What happens when there’s nothing left to reveal?