The problem with This Is Us’ Big Three trilogies is that it’s really hard to find parallel stories that are equally important for all three Pearson siblings. Last time, Kate got the short end of the stick with a middle episode that just didn’t quite sing like the others. This time around, that unlucky position falls to Kevin. While we don’t yet know how the final entry in this trilogy will fare, between Kate’s present-day marital problems and her ominous teenage experience with Marc, the show at least has two big, meaty storylines to work with. The problem with “A Hell Of A Week: Part Two” is that Kevin’s storyline feels scattered and unmoored. It lacks the thematic focus of Randall’s anxiety episode, and rather than filling in details about Kevin’s past and how it relates to his present, it just made me frustrated about how much of Kevin’s life we’ve skipped over.
To be fair, “A Hell Of A Week: Part Two” warns us upfront that we might not be satisfied by the end of the hour. In a cheeky opening sequence, Kevin complains to M. Night Shyamalan about the lack of resolution in the new ending of their film. It’s a clue that even though “Part Two” seems to promise some kind of resolution on the Kevin/Sophie dynamic—either they’ll get back together or they’ll realize they’re better as friends—the episode will ultimately end on a less decisive middle option. After an emotional day, Kevin and Sophie seem to settle on the “just friends” route, which sends Kevin running into the arms of Madison, of all people. (I can’t believe the show finally broke the seal on this pairing!) But not only is Kevin lingering in regret over his bad timing in life, we see Sophie looking longingly at the family ring Kevin once committed to earning for her. There’s not quite a sense of finality between them yet. Maybe there never will be. After all, this is almost the exact same place we left them back in “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away.”
As established in the preschool-era flashback storyline, Kevin doesn’t like change and he doesn’t like saying goodbye. He can’t sleep without the sheep mobile that used to hang above his crib. Kevin wants to hold on to what he had, which is a perfectly understandable impulse when you’re a kid, but not always the healthiest outlook when you’re an adult. Holding onto the comfort of the past can become destructive—both for yourself and for the people around you. On the other hand, there’s a fine line between knowing when to tap out and knowing when to fight for what you really want.
The present-day portion of “Part Two” actually works pretty well. Improbably, Kevin has somehow emerged as my favorite member of the present day Big Three, and Justin Hartley has consistently turned in phenomenal work ever since fully locking into the character in the previous Big Three trilogy. This episode builds on Kevin’s complexities as he returns to Pittsburgh to attend the funeral of Sophie’s mom Claire (Jennifer Westfeldt). Once there, he tries to find the right balance between supporting Sophie without blowing up her life with her fiancé Grant. Or maybe, just maybe, he does want to blow up her life with Grant.
Alexandra Breckenridge also does lovely work capturing the complexities of Sophie’s grief. She had a loving but tumultuous relationship with her mom, who had a long battle with MS before she died. Sophie’s already difficult situation is made even harder because Grant hasn’t experienced the death of a parent, nor did he really get a chance to know her mom. Kevin’s own familiarity with parental loss, not to mention the fact that he was close with Claire, makes him the ideal person for Sophie to grieve with. But is their connection something more than that? That’s the tension that hangs over their scenes, and the fact that they’re both aware of it only makes those scenes more compelling.
Where this episode falls down is with its flashback storyline, which mostly made me realize how frustratingly little we know about Kevin’s character-defining adolescence. Some TV shows anchor their entire runs around the four formative years of high school, but This Is Us has reduced that time in the Big Three’s life to just a handful of episodes—far less time than we’ve gotten with their elementary and middle school years. That’s not hugely detrimental for Randall and Kate, who feel like people who had their personalities shaped elsewhere, but it’s a huge hinderance for Kevin, who feels like the kind of person whose personality was really shaped by his high school experience, not to mention his high school romance.
Tellingly, this episode actually jumps back in time to Kevin and Sophie’s high school days—a rarity for This Is Us, which tends to keep the Big Three’s storylines moving in one direction in each of their timelines. We see a more extended look at what Kevin and Sophie were up to the night of Jack’s death, which included seeing the first two-thirds of Good Will Hunting and then committing to never actually watching the real ending. (Again, Kevin doesn’t like finality.) Yet the dynamic between teenage Kevin and Sophie feels broad and thinly drawn. It’s a cutesy relationship with no sense of depth or specificity. I still don’t have a good sense of how they handled the emotional rollercoaster of Kevin’s injury and Jack’s death. Nor do I understand why they spontaneously got married without telling their families, especially when Sophie’s defining traits are her practicality and empathy.
Elsewhere, the introduction of Claire sits somewhere between an interesting revelation and a frustrating retcon. It’s fascinating to see what teenage Kevin’s life was like outside the Pearson family home, but it’s also odd that we’re just now meeting this figure who apparently played such a major role in his adolescence. (And was his mother-in-law for a good number of years!) That’s no fault of Jennifer Westfeldt, who’s an immediately winning presence in her own signature way. Her relaxed, free-spirited style of parenting is clearly a welcome respite for Kevin, even as it proves frustrating for Sophie. It’s just strange to meet Claire for the first time in the same episode in which we also have to invest in the graveside speech where Kevin says a poignant goodbye to her.
Of course, the one caveat to all of this is that This Is Us is uniquely capable of rewriting or revisiting its own history at anytime. Maybe, eventually, the teen Kevin/Sophie relationship will cohere in a more satisfying way, particularly as we delve into their youthful marital dynamic (which this episode also doesn’t really do). On its own, however, “A Hell Of A Week: Part Two” feels a bit like filler dressed up with the veneer of pathos. This Is Us uses Shyamalan to reassure us that the show has a bigger plan:“Trust me Kevin, this is the ending everyone wants, and they still won’t see it coming.” Now it’s just a matter of how much we trust him.
- It’s wild to think that after telling preschool Randall to tough it out and go back to bed, Jack immediately spends all that time searching the house for Kevin’s sheep mobile.
- This episode repeats extended sequences from the previous one (i.e. Kevin and Sophie’s arrival; Kevin and Randall’s phone call), which felt like screentime that could’ve been better used elsewhere.
- Just as I was pondering whether it was sweet or weird for Kevin to leave his headshot on Claire’s grave, there’s a great joke where he immediately takes back the gesture.
- I loved the shot of Kevin reflected in the window as Sophie answers his phone call inside the living room.
- Good Will Hunting is, of course, a film about a guy who learns to process his trauma and work through his commitment issues before putting everything else aside to chase after the woman he loves. So, yeah, there could definitely be some Kevin Pearson parallels there.
- The “Sad Three” agree to escape their problems with a trip to the family cabin, which seems like an incredibly unhealthy way for Randall to manage his debilitating anxiety, but also very much in keeping with the Pearson family’s “just soldier through” ethos!