This Is Us has an interesting conundrum on its hands. Back when the show debuted, the present-day Pearsons were a fractured bunch. Kevin and Randall barely had a relationship; Rebecca and Kate were completely at odds; and none of the core four Pearsons had fully processed Jack’s death. As This Is Us finally starts to dig into the tumultuous years between the Big Three’s idyllic childhoods and their transformative late 30s, it’s going to have to start being okay with things not being okay. And that’s not a mode the show is particularly comfortable with.
Take, for instance, the 1990s portion of tonight’s episode, in which newlywed teens Kevin and Sophie come for a big celebratory dinner at Rebecca’s new house. The dinner itself is full of awkward tension and petty squabbles, including one fantastic moment where Rebecca drops her polite demeanor and just tells her kids what’s what. (Great delivery from Mandy Moore!) But in the end, a poetic metaphor from Miguel is enough to turn the evening around. Rebecca gives a heartwarming speech about the importance of remembering Jack’s life, not just mourning his death. There are smiles all around.
It’s a lovely scene, but—as in the episode where Rebecca managed to hold herself together for Jack’s funeral—it threatens to undermine what we know of the Pearson family’s past; to add a sentimental spin to a period that can’t be sentimental in order for the show’s premise to work. Thankfully, just like last week’s episode, this one also ends with a cliffhanger that assuaged some of my concerns. After receiving the family piano as a baby present from Randall and Kevin, Kate discovers polaroids from the night of the big house warming dinner. The episode ends on a note of ominous ambiguity as Kate comes across a photo of her first boyfriend Mark (Austin Abrams). “I was trying so hard to hold it together that year after your father died,” Rebecca explains at she worriedly glances at the image. “And I wanted to believe so badly that you kids were happy, I didn’t see what was happening.” “I didn’t see it either,” Kate replies.
We don’t yet know what happened between teenage Kate and her 23-year-old beau—who mostly comes across as a charmer in this episode, which only makes the mystery more unsettling. But it’s at least a moment where This Is Us proves it’s not planning to paper over the hardships in the Pearsons’ past, nor rewrite Rebecca’s history. A big part of the This Is Us canon is that Rebecca fell apart after Jack’s death. This episode acknowledges that larger reality, even as it also finds smaller moments of uplift—like her lovely performance of “Storybook Love” from The Princess Bride.
My other concern about “Storybook Love” (the episode, not the song) was that it felt just a little bit overstretched. Writers Casey Johnson and David Windsor lock into a really lovely formula by contrasting the 1990s Pearson family dinner with the late 1970s, where Jack and a pregnant Rebecca are also enjoying their first dinner in a new home. And while the present day portions of this episode are strong too, I kind of just wanted to live in the parallel flashbacks alone. Like teenage Kate, I agree that there’s way more to unpack in Kevin and Sophie’s impulsive courthouse marriage and how everyone reacts to it.
Yet by the end of the episode, “Storybook Love” had won me over to its tapestry-like structure. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in poetic and purposeful breadth. This episode is filled with parallels beyond just the two dinners. Randall’s conversation with Beth about the guilt he feels over passing his anxiety onto his child is almost word-for-word the same conversation Beth had with William around the time of Randall’s panic attack in the first season episode “Jack Pearson’s Son.” Beth comforts Tess and Randall by reminding them that three of her favorite people deal/dealt with the same anxiety issues, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Elsewhere, Cassidy’s husband Ryan uses that exact same “favorite person” language to describe their youthful courtship and the pain he feels at how PTSD has changed her.
In his first time behind the This Is Us camera, Milo Ventimiglia gets wonderfully lived-in performances from his actors. Justin Hartley and Griffin Dunne, in particular, lock into an engagingly amiable oil-and-water dynamic in Kevin and Nicky’s relationship. And while I’m not sure if this was something Ventimiglia added or something inherent to the script, “Storybook Love” also utilizes my all-time favorite This Is Us technique: Flashback snippets that use the audience’s knowledge of the show to evoke the real-life sensation of memory.
While trying to help Tess process her first panic attack, Randall flashes back to all the ones he’s experienced throughout his life—moments the episode doesn’t have to do any extra work to contextualize because we’ve seen them all before. The same goes for the brief image of Michael Angarano’s Nicky floating in the water following the grenade accident in Vietnam. With just a second or two of imagery, This Is Us can convey everything present-day Nicky is feeling as he rushes to escape the triggering environment of a booze-heavy hockey game honoring veterans. It’s an editing tool that turns the show’s multi-timeline premise into a huge storytelling boon.
Those little flashbacks help create the tapestry feel of this episode, which is about—as Rebecca says at dinner—embracing the moment for what it is, rather than trying to make it perfect. But the scene that really sold me on “Storybook Love” is the final one between Nicky and Kevin. Their ice cream bonding session represents the pinnacle of the kind of deeply emotional yet also deeply grounded family storytelling that This Is Us does best.
In offhandedly bringing up a childhood memory of Jack cutting a carton of ice cream into slices, Kevin doesn’t realize that he’s tapping into a childhood memory for Nicky too. It turns out the ice cream trick was something Jack and Nicky’s dad used to do for them when they were kids, in one of the few happy moments of their tough childhoods. It’s a reminder that even though Kevin and Nicky are in many ways strangers, they have deeper connections than they realize. With a simple slice of ice cream, Kevin and Nicky each recapture a childhood memory they thought they’d never get to share again. More so than sentimental speeches or ominous cliffhangers, it’s those kinds of beautifully observed familial details that This Is Us does better than any show on TV.
- In addition to the mystery of Kate’s boyfriend, the other big thread introduced in this episode is Randall’s refusal to see a therapist to help manage his anxiety, even though he’s totally supportive of the idea of Tess seeing one.
- Miguel’s big metaphor about wine and patience felt unnaturally poetic for him. His nerdy dad joke about Modest Mouse being a shy cartoon character was much more in-character.
- Always nice to see William return in a flashback! For those who need more Ron Cephas Jones in their lives (and who doesn’t?), he gives a lovely performance in Hulu’s Looking For Alaska miniseries.
- I really can’t express how hard I laughed at Nicky’s deadpan, “You have strange relationships with people.” It was also a nice way to lampshade Kevin’s complete overstep in trying to call out Ryan’s behavior on Cassidy’s behalf. The Pearsons have truly never met an interpersonal boundary they wouldn’t cross!
- That being said, Kevin’s little smile as he told Cassidy, “He still likes you,” was heart-meltingly great.
- I’m choosing to take Jack’s fear of birds as an homage to Jess Mariano’s troubled run-in with a vicious, vicious swan on Gilmore Girls. Also, Milo Ventimiglia played Jack’s bird-related panic absolutely perfectly.