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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Kate’s relationships spiral in two emThis Is Us /emtimelines
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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A few seasons ago, Kate and Rebecca could barely make it through a conversation without it devolving into a fight. Tonight, Kate admits that her mom is becoming her best friend. “Stranger things have happened,” Rebecca jokes, but it’s well-earned payoff for a throughline that This Is Us has slowly, realistically developed over the years. The idea that it’s never too late to let go of past familial grievances and create healthy bonds is an incredibly hopeful one, especially because we know it took Kate and Rebecca so long to get to this point. The wonderful warmth of their mother/daughter relationship anchors an episode that otherwise feels just a tad unfinished.

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While the first Big Three trilogy was made up of relatively standalone stories, it’s clear that these three episodes were designed to get the Pearsons barreling towards their family cabin in two different timelines: The Sad Three are meeting up there in the present, while Rebecca, Randall, and Kevin are on their way to rescue Kate in the past. Next week’s episode is called “The Cabin” and will hopefully deliver some of the resolution that “A Hell Of A Week: Part Three” lacks. Because unlike “Part One” (which mostly offered a self-contained exploration of Randall’s anxiety) and “Part Two” (where the lack of resolution was kind of the thematic point), “Part Three” really feels like a tease for bigger, more dramatic things to come in Kate’s relationships, both in the past and the present.

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Though we don’t get “answers” in the traditional sense, we do at least get a better sense of the relationship dynamics at play, particularly with Marc and Kate. “Part Three” does a really effective job of depicting the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) hallmarks of an emotionally abusive relationship. The most dramatic sequence is the one where Marc abandons Kate on the side of the road after he spirals out of control on their drive to the cabin. It’s a terrifying scene (this is an incredibly tense episode in general), and it’s devastating to see Kate willing to get in the car with him again when he returns to “apologize.”

“Part Three” finds even greater success in detailing the smaller red flags of their relationship. The most interesting scene in the flashback storyline is the one where Rebecca, Kate, and Marc grab coffee before her birthday dinner. Marc arrives in a tizzy, Kate is able to calm him down, they have a sweet moment of connection over Meatloaf, and then Marc starts deploying the manipulative, controlling tactics that are a hallmark of his relationship with Kate. There are a lot of complex dynamics at play in that scene, and it’s understandable that Rebecca is concerned. Unfortunately, Kate isn’t in a place to hear those concerns.

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Though Rebecca tries to discuss her worries as gently and empathetically as possible, that only causes teen Kate to get more defensive. Kate is right that her mom doesn’t have firsthand experience of what it’s like to go through the world as anything other than thin and conventionally attractive. Rebecca’s suggestion that she understands what Kate is going through is kind of true and kind of not, which leaves space for Kate to give in to negative assumptions about her mom’s motivations. Teen Kate’s insecurity is a huge part of the power imbalance between her and Marc. He makes her feel chosen and wanted in a way she never has before, and that puts her in a headspace where she’s willing to put up with his mistreatment for fear of losing him.

Illustration for article titled Kate’s relationships spiral in two emThis Is Us /emtimelines
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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Present-day Kate is dealing with fear and insecurity too, although, thankfully, she’s in a much healthier place now. And she’s more open to hearing her mom’s perspective too. It makes a lot of sense that becoming a parent has made Kate soften towards her own mother. She’s come to realize that even if Rebecca doesn’t have her exact same lived experience, she still has valuable perspectives to share, particularly about marriage and parenthood. When Toby seems uninterested in attending a retreat for families raising blind children (he’s still holding onto hope that Jack might miraculously gain more of his vision), Kate leaps at the chance to have her more supportive mom join her instead. Once she’s at the retreat, however, Kate realizes just how painful it is not to have Toby by her side.

This Is Us has sometimes struggled to tell stories about Kate’s weight without suggesting it’s the sole thing that defines her. “Part Three” finds just the right balance in exploring Kate’s relationship to her body as part of a larger portrait of her life—in the same way that Randall’s anxiety is one part of a larger portrait of his. As Kate contemplates a worst-case-scenario future in which Toby abandons their family entirely, she begins to worry about the limitations of what she might be able to do with her son. Some of those limitations are physical, like riding a bike. But others are psychological. Raising Jack alone would mean taking him to the pool alone, which would mean the absolute terror of wearing a bathing suit in public alone.

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There’s something so real and relatable in the story of a little girl who absolutely loved swimming and then gave it up entirely for decades because of deep-seated body insecurity. It’s a metaphor for Kate’s journey as a person: In the freedom of childhood, she was full of deep, endless empathy for everyone, including the “lightbulb bugs” she used to catch in her hand. As teenager, however, the world got harsher and Kate put on a mask of snarkiness and cynicism to try to protect herself (or misplaced her empathy, as she does with Marc). As This Is Us previously explored in the third season episode “Katie Girls,” Kate’s journey into a healthy adulthood has been about peeling away that cynical exterior and getting back to who she used to be. And that means getting back into a bathing suit and enjoying the weightless freedom of swimming.

Illustration for article titled Kate’s relationships spiral in two emThis Is Us /emtimelines
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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Guided by director Justin Hartley (a.k.a. Kevin himself), Chrissy Metz turns in series-best work in this episode. She conveys a sense of wariness and resignation that we’ve never seen from Kate before, which really makes it feel like she’s reached a wall she has no idea how to break through. But beneath those surface anxieties, Metz also makes it clear that Kate is more focused and centered than she’s been in years. We don’t yet know what will happen in Kate’s relationship with Toby, but it’s lovely to watch Rebecca lift her daughter’s spirits with a little Alanis Morissette karaoke and a late night trip to the pool. “You’re fat. I’m ancient. We’re gorgeous!” she enthuses by way of motivation.

I was worried that Rebecca’s noticeably perky demeanor in this episode was a sign of some kind of mental degradation, but it turns out it’s actually the opposite. Having a preliminary diagnosis (which she shares with Kate) has empowered her to embrace her fun side, rather than getting bogged down in fear. Though we’ve seen glimpses of tragedy and stress in Rebecca’s future, “Part Three” reassures us that there are uplifting stories left to tell too—particularly in the way Rebecca is able to empower Kate to embrace her own strength. In fact, this episode suggests that when This Is Us finishes it run, we might realize that Rebecca has been its central heroic figure all along.

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Stray observations

  • I’m incredibly confused by the timing and location of Kevin and Madison’s hookup. I thought they spontaneously slept together at Kate’s house, but I guess we’re meant to believe they left and went to Madison’s house instead?
  • I remain super intrigued by what This Is Us is building to with the Kate/Gregory friendship. With Toby so distant, she’s turning to Gregory more and more for emotional support.
  • Around its margins, this episode packs in a welcome amount of detail about blindness and raising blind kids.
  • Jack and little Kate’s bedtime story was annoyingly cloying and way too on-the-nose, but the reveal that Kate based her story around finding her mom absolutely destroyed me, so well done show!
  • I like that this episode has Kate and Rebecca sound like slightly lame karaoke singers rather than full-on professional performers. For those who missed it, Chrissy Metz did give a full-on vocal performance at this year’s Oscars:

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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