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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Rebecca shines asi This Is Us /ivisits New York City three times over
Photo: Will Hart (NBC)
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A couple weeks ago, This Is Us aired a trilogy that focused on impactful moments in three different eras of the Big Three’s lives. Tonight Rebecca gets what amounts to her own installment in that series. “New York, New York, New York” follows three of Rebecca’s pivotal trips to the Big Apple—one in the Big Three’s middle school years, one in their college years, and one in the present day—as well as a runner about her childhood. And though it ends with a tease for next week that’s so enticing it’s hard to talk about anything else (more on that later), this episode once again proves that Rebecca Pearson is one of This Is Us’ greatest creations.

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Rebecca came of age during the patriarchal 1950s and ’60s and lived to see the rise of 21st century intersectional feminism, but feels apart from both of those eras. She’s the generation of Elizabeth Warren and Diane Sawyer and, yes, her “spirit animal” Helen Mirren. And though young Rebecca initially embodied some of the ethos of second-wave feminism, she eventually became defined primarily by her domestic suburban existence. Ever since the show started deepening her character in season two, This Is Us has essentially been using Rebecca to ask the question: What’s the interior life of a 1990s sitcom mom?

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It turns out there’s quite a lot going on in Rebecca’s mind, more than she usually lets on when she’s putting her family’s happiness above her own. Present-day Rebecca’s post-diagnosis “carpe diem” spirit has emboldened her to finally ask for the things she’s always wanted. As Rebecca puts it, “My life has been full of ‘next times.’ Things I always assumed I’d get to eventually. But now I realize that I am running out of time to do them... I want to spend however many good years I have left, I want to spend it with my family. I want to try new things, like walking on red carpets. I want make up for all of my ‘next times.’”

Though Jack’s death lingers over the late ’90s portion of “New York, New York, New York,” this is more so an episode about small compromises than big tragedies. As she did in the third season episode “Katie Girls,” writer Julia Brownell paints a nuanced portrait of the bittersweet aspects of Rebecca’s life. Early ’90s Rebecca isn’t lying about how happy she is to have spent a day in New York City with her family, and she’s clearly genuinely touched by Jack’s big romantic gesture of a carriage ride through Central Park. But none of that entirely erases the fact that she was the only one in the family who didn’t get to do her chosen NYC activity—specifically because Jack refused to let go of his World’s Greatest Dad mentality and listen to her superior subway knowledge.

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Illustration for article titled Rebecca shines asi This Is Us /ivisits New York City three times over
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

Beneath Jack’s Perfect Dad mask lurks a whole lot of insecurity, which bubbles to the surface when he decides he must guide his family through New York City with the same confidence that Rebecca’s dad did during her childhood. Jack’s one-sided rivalry with a memory of Dave throws a wrench in the day, one that Rebecca has to emotionally and logistically handle all while making sure she doesn’t undermine Jack’s authority in front of the kids the way he rudely did with her. Rebecca lets Jack be the hero when he couldn’t even let her give him directions. And yet she’s still the one who bears the brunt of the mistake when they run out of time for her trip to The Met.

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There’s an air of melancholy to “New York, New York, New York,” which is epitomized in the scene where Kevin’s handsome acting teacher Kirby (Dave Annable) inadvertently taints Rebecca’s happy carriage ride memory and once again derails her plans to go to The Met. This Is Us often explores problems that are ultimately resolvable, like Toby and Kate’s martial drama or even Kevin sobriety journey. But “New York, New York, New York” examines issues that feel messy and unending—like Rebecca’s grief and especially her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

As much as “New York, New York, New York” is about Rebecca, it’s also about Kevin and Randall and the limits of how much they understand their mom— starting with present-day Randall’s incorrect assumption that Rebecca will want to lean heavily on her children for help choosing her treatment plan. Middle school Kevin is similarly mistaken in assuming it’s Jack who saves the day when the Pearsons get lost in New York City. And college Randall over-protectively misjudges just how much Rebecca could use adult friends in her life, even if she isn’t entirely sure about dating as a widow. Though teen Kevin could’ve been a little subtler in his matchmaking, he has good instincts about Rebecca and Kirby hitting it off.

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Illustration for article titled Rebecca shines asi This Is Us /ivisits New York City three times over
Photo: Will Hart (This Is Us)

Finally delving into the Big Three’s young adult years is delivering dividends when it comes unearthing the deep scars that linger under their sunnier present-day relationships. Kevin and Randall’s slow-building tension over how to handle their mom’s treatment is one of the most believable conflicts This Is Us has ever explored—especially when Kevin brings up financial realities in a way this show seldom does. Befitting his self-image as the responsible son, Randall is absolutely adamant that Rebecca enter a clinical trial at Washington University, which would require her to live in St. Louis for nine months. As the “fun son,” however, Kevin is more willing to follow Rebecca’s lead, even if that means letting her enjoy the time she has left rather than prolonging her life at the cost of her happiness.

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It’s a good conflict because you can understand both points of view, as well as the long road that’s led them to their respective corners. Thanks to his sobriety journey, Kevin is much more at peace with the tumult of his family’s past and the unpredictability of its future. Randall, on the other hand, is still living with decades of unchecked resentment, guilt, and anxiety. In the lead-in to next week’s big “what if Jack lived?” episode, Randall makes the heartbreaking confession that he’s spent basically every single day of the last 20 years wondering if he could’ve saved Jack and fantasizing about how different life would’ve been if he had. If the end of this episode is any indication, next week’s hour is going to be an absolute gut-punch.

Though “New York, New York, New York” doesn’t have the same kind of showy hook as next week’s episode, it’s more emotionally complex than your average This Is Us. There’s just so much to unpack in the image of a young girl starring at the epitome of 1950s womanhood starring at a once scandalous portrait of 1880s femininity. Though young Rebecca idolizes the glamorous woman who spends hours at The Met in front of John Singer Sargent’s Portrait Of Madame X, the close-up on her face reveals someone who looks less like a satisfied patron of the arts and more like a woman troubled by her own inner burdens. In peeling back the layers of a suburban mom archetype, This Is Us tells a story of female compromise that’s both specific and universal.

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Stray observations

  • Given how much the term “spirit animal” is tossed around in casual vernacular, it’s certainly believable that the Pearson family would use it. But just a heads up that it’s generally considered an appropriative or insensitive term for non-Native people to use.
  • The Big Three’s New York City requests are all perfect: Randall wants to go to the Natural History Museum, Kate wants to drink high tea like Eloise, and Kevin wants to reenact the entire plot of Home Alone 2.
  • It’s also adorable that middle school Randall and Kate both try to call the middle seat on their road trip. Young Kevin really underestimates how much his siblings adore him.
  • Teen Kate seems curiously chipper following the Marc fallout. I’m assuming something else is going on there.
  • I could’ve written a whole review just about how perfectly Rachel Naomi Hilson and Logan Shroyer play the warm but awkward Beth/Kevin hug after his acting showcase.
  • Kevin jokes that he gets the scraps of “all the Chrises,” which in this case means maybe working on a Patty Jenkins project in Morocco after Chris Hemsworth drops out.
  • “Is it me or is Kevin weirdly comfortable at a fancy hotel?”
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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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