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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Even a sitcom-y subplot can’t drag down a thoughtful This Is Us

Illustration for article titled Even a sitcom-y subplot can’t drag down a thoughtfuli This Is Us /i
Photo: NBC
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It’s easy to admire the big, showy episodes of This Is Us. But what I really appreciate are episodes like “Honestly,” which switch up the show’s go-to formulas in subtler, more layered ways. “Honestly” elegantly loops through two separate flashbacks that fuel present-day storylines that then intersect emotionally. This is ostensibly a Kevin-centric episode, given that his happiness is at the center of both flashbacks. But “Honestly” also paints a nuanced portrait of a whole bunch of different characters and relationships, all while introducing some intriguingly ambiguous new threads to the season too. Unfortunately, it also contains one of the worst “comedic” subplots in This Is Us history, but more on that later.

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As is often the case, Jack and Rebecca are the most compelling part of this week’s episode. Their wildly divergent parenting philosophies take center stage in both flashbacks. In the Big Three’s infant days, Jack is determined to let Kevin cry himself to sleep. And in the middle school years, Jack is determined to push Kevin to be the best football player he can be—even if that means encouraging his son to work himself to the point of exhaustion. In both cases, Rebecca prefers a softer approach. She doesn’t want to run the risk of emotionally traumatizing her child over something that’s ultimately not that big of a deal. But Jack is determined to give his kids the sort of focus, determination, and concrete goals that he felt he lacked growing up.

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What’s great about “Honestly” is that it doesn’t try to argue one approach is right and one is wrong. Jack clearly succeeds at instilling a sense of drive in both of his sons. But he also passes along plenty of neuroses when it comes to needing to be the best, repressing all negative emotions, and never asking for help. Young Kevin doesn’t recommit to football because he discovers a newfound passion for the game, it’s because he overhears his dad call him “soft.” Kevin and Randall may move through the world with confidence as adults, but deep down they’re insecure and desperately in need of validation. Like father, like sons.

Illustration for article titled Even a sitcom-y subplot can’t drag down a thoughtfuli This Is Us /i
Photo: NBC
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It’s worth acknowledging that “Honestly” is a sort of Schrödinger’s cat of This Is Us episodes. This show has a mixed track record when it comes to how aware it is of its characters’ flaws, so it’s possible some viewers will come away thinking this episode is way more pro-Jack than I did. But—to quote the Rolling Stones cover that plays over the final sequence—I don’t think we’re necessarily supposed to agree that young Kevin didn’t always get what he wanted, but always got what he needed. That may be Jack’s point of view, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the objective truth. While Jack’s opinions are loud, they’re not always correct.

For instance, while middle school era Jack suggests that Rebecca always gets her parenting way when it comes to Kevin, in the other flashback we see him physically bar her from leaving a room in order to force her to accept his “cry it out” approach. Jack’s steadfast confidence and Rebecca’s peacemaker ways means they usually follow his lead, not hers—and ignore his hypocrisies in the process. After all, we know that Jack and Rebecca’s dynamic is almost entirely reversed when it comes to Kate. We’ve seen Rebecca try to get Jack to make Kate’s health a priority, only for Jack to spoil his daughter with ice cream because he can’t stand to see her unhappy.

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“Honestly” is full of small moments that challenge its characters’ perception of their own lives, particularly during Kevin and Kate’s fascinating phone call. Kevin complains that their parents only ever focused on Randall even as we’re shown two examples of times when they were deeply focused on him. And while Kevin claims he wants to give his mom the gift of seeing him win an Oscar (okay there, buddy), the way he describes his acting as “tired” reveals that what’s actually bothering him is his fight with Randall.

“Honestly” is about what’s not being said as much as what is. And Kate’s use of the titular word clues Kevin into the fact that there’s more on her mind than she’s letting on too. This Is Us introduces a hitherto unknown teen pregnancy into Kate’s past, which looks like it will be key to the pieces of her backstory that we’re still missing. We know teen Kate pulls away from her mom and goes through a dramatic physical transformation during her late teens/early twenties. It might be time for This Is Us to finally start delving into that journey.

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Illustration for article titled Even a sitcom-y subplot can’t drag down a thoughtfuli This Is Us /i
Photo: NBC

And then there’s Randall’s storyline, which starts strong, briefly becomes the single worse thing This Is Us has ever done, and then manages to pull out of the nosedive. Everything about Randall’s burgeoning mentorship with Malik is great; everything about his shirtless viral mishap relies on a level of contrived sitcom hackery that’s well, well beneath this show. (There’s no way Randall wouldn’t immediately check in with Malik to see how the livestream went.) That this is how the show has decided to start dovetailing Randall with his birth mom is especially baffling. At least we get Beth’s barely contained glee as the smallest of silver linings.

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ShirtGate aside, “Honestly” is an episode that moves this season out of the intro stage and into the meat of its major themes. Kevin’s odd dynamic with his new director will give him a chance to work out his daddy issues in one way, while Randall’s mentorship of a young man he explicitly sees as a younger version of himself will let him work them out in another. Plus the promise of finally putting Kate’s past front and center is particularly exciting too. This Is Us currently has a whole lot of dangling threads, but if it can weave them together as elegantly as this episode does, we’re in for a great season.


Stray observations

  • My initial assumption was that teen Kate had an abortion, but on second thought I’m wondering if she wound up having the baby in secret and putting it up for adoption? That would explain why she withdrew from Rebecca so dramatically, although it would also be an awfully big swing for this show to take.
  • I like the balance this episode strikes in letting Ellie remain confident in her adoption decision while still having a few emotional wobbles too. She knows Kate and Toby should be free to name their baby whatever they want, but she also can’t quite put aside her bad associations with the name “Chloe.”
  • I can’t get a read on whether Kevin’s new hotshot indie director is a meticulous artist or a power-hungry creep.
  • Mandy Moore is so great in the scenes where Rebecca is fighting to comfort baby Kevin. “Enough with Miguel and Shelly! Who made them experts anyway? Their kids are train wrecks.”
  • Speaking of which, we get official confirmation that Rebecca and Miguel are still living at the cabin.
  • I hope the Randall/Malik mentorship doesn’t come at the expense of more screentime for Deja and Tess. Also, I’m absolutely obsessed with Annie’s Little Women obsession.
  • Though the season just got started, this is actually the last episode before the mid-season break. This Is Us will return in January, where there will hopefully be even more Jae Won!
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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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