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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iThis Is Us /idigs up a time capsule
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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After three episodes of buildup, “The Cabin” is a rather lackluster capper for this latest Big Three trilogy. Most of the episode’s runtime is spent on characters catching each other up on stuff we already know, with surprisingly little in the way of major emotional fallout. There’s humor in Kate discovering that Kevin and Madison slept together, and tension in the moment where Kevin learns that Kate and Randall have been keeping Rebecca’s illness from him. But those conflicts ultimately pass relatively quickly. This Is Us can be an incredibly nuanced emotional drama when it wants to be, but “The Cabin” emphasizes the show’s simplistic schmaltzy side instead—all while feeling like a bit of a stall for time.

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It’s a good thing the “Sad Three” chose to meet up at the Pearson family cabin because the location does more to lift their spirits than they do for each other. Though I thought the whole point of this trip was to get together and help each other out, the Big Three are all reluctant to discuss their problems. Instead, it’s the past that does the heavy lifting. Back in 1993 (the halcyon days of Jurassic Park fever) Jack convinces his less-than-enthused family to bury a time capsule to dig up in five years, on the Big Three’s 18th birthday. Since he died before that was able to happen, however, it’s been sitting untouched all this time. Until a missing puzzle piece inspires Randall to finally dig it up.

It turns out Kate buried a game of M-A-S-H, Kevin buried a photo of him and Sophie, and Randall fell into a panic over how to choose something important enough to withstand the test of time. Thankfully, coolheaded Kevin realized a puzzle piece would be the perfect thing for Randall to bury—mostly because everyone would be so excited to find it. (Middle school Kevin continues to be the absolute best.) Reflecting back on the memory causes Randall to realize that his lifelong struggle with anxiety isn’t getting any better and that it might be time to finally seek professional help.

Like a lot of things in “The Cabin,” it’s a resolution that comes just a bit too easily. This Is Us is clearly going for a “small things can make a big impact” mode of storytelling, but the show has done such a great job depicting Randall’s impenetrable defense mechanisms that it’s kind of hard to buy this one memory making such a massive impact. Randall mentions beating the mugger as another tipping point, but, in general, this episode doesn’t flow particularly naturally from the events of the “Hell Of A Week” trilogy. Last time we saw Beth, she was absolutely adamant about sitting down with Randall and having a serious conversation about his mental health. Here she’s happy to exchange flirty banter before sending him off to the cabin with his siblings.

Illustration for article titled iThis Is Us /idigs up a time capsule
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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Present-day Kate doesn’t even really get a storyline in this episode, although we do follow Toby as he finally bonds with his son following a terrifying moment in which Baby Jack chokes on his food and Toby saves him. (Unfortunately, a pretty terrible prop doll somewhat lessens the scene’s impact.) A newly softened Toby realizes he can at least bond with his son over Star Wars sounds, if not visuals. But while it’s very charming to watch Chris Sullivan deploy a litany of Star Wars impressions, it’s yet another resolution that comes just a bit too easily.

Kate’s most important screentime is in her teenage years, where her trip with Marc goes from bad to worse. He belittles her emotions, breaks her dad’s mug, insults her appearance, and then locks her outside in the freezing cold after they get into a fight. She severely injures her hand while breaking back into the cabin and then tries to hide the entire experience from her family when they arrive the next morning to check on her. It’s the hiding that’s the scariest part. Teen Kate’s perky insistence that everything is fine demonstrates just how much Marc has warped her perspective and her sense of self. It’s a terrifying portrait of emotional abuse in action, and it’s incredibly satisfying to watch Mama Bear Rebecca take control and kick Marc out. But is it believable that Kate would willingly go along with being saved?

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I’ll be curious to see how This Is Us handles the fallout from all of this moving forward. Present-day Kate mentions that Rebecca’s diagnosis has made her frustrated by all the years she spent needlessly butting heads with her mom, but when the flashback timeline features a scene where teen Kate thankfully embraces Rebecca, that sentiment doesn’t fully land. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, there’s a tension between how fractured the Pearsons supposedly were in the Big Three’s 20s and This Is Us’ natural instinct to deliver heartwarming emotional catharsis at every turn.

Speaking of heartwarming emotional catharsis, the last remaining throughline of “The Cabin” is its big sentimental climax, in which we learn the origin story of Kevin’s snazzy house that everyone is visiting during the “Rebecca’s deathbed” future timeline. (We also get a glimpse of future Kevin, who’s aging very nicely into a bearded silverfox.) It turns out the design was sketched by Jack, who wanted to build a sleek place for Rebecca and him to retire on the picturesque land near the cabin. Years later, his son was able to bring things full circle and fulfill that seemingly impossible dream. The Cinematic Orchestra’s “To Build A Home” is the song that played over the montage of fire engulfing the Pearson family’s home. Here it plays as Jack’s sketch comes to life before our eyes.

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Illustration for article titled iThis Is Us /idigs up a time capsule
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

It’s another hero moment for Rebecca too, as it turns out she was the one who put the design in the time capsule, not Jack. Yet there’s some messiness in the execution of that big cathartic reveal. The idea of Rebecca saving the drawing is great and the idea of Jack leaving behind an audio tape is even better. (It’s incredibly emotional to watch the Big Three hear his voice for the first time in years.) Yet the two ideas don’t entirely gel. Jack’s tape overexplains the importance of Rebecca’s gesture while kind of undercutting it too. It turns out Jack was planning to salvage the drawing himself anyway, so Rebecca didn’t actually save the day, even though she kind of did by inspiring him to go retrieve it, even though it was his embarrassment at her seeing it that caused him to throw it away in the first place.

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While it’s lovely to hear Jack sing Rebecca’s praises, there’s a certain inelegance to the storytelling that stops it from being an all-time great This Is Us moment. For all the buildup, the Big Three’s trip to the cabin mostly wound up feeling like a detour. A lot of this season has been spent waiting for the show to get to the fireworks factory and with only four episodes left, I’m not even entirely sure what that looks like anymore.


Stray observations

  • Personally, I would’ve opened the time capsule inside, not out in a freezing snowstorm where all the paper items were bound to get wet.
  • 1993 Rebecca mentions she and Jack “justbought the cabin, so were they renting beforehand? Or was she using “just” to mean sometime in the past few years?
  • It’s going to be weird when the middle school Big Three become the new high school Big Three, but the costume designers are doing a great job giving Mackenzie Hancsicsak’s middle school Kate a style that really connects her to Hannah Zeile’s teen Kate.
  • Madison messing with Kevin by claiming they’re falling in love is a fun joke, but I laughed even harder at her increasingly panicked voicemails to Kate.
  • The metaphor of Jack literally being the “missing piece” that brings the Big Three together is maybe a bit much, but turning a family photo into a jigsaw puzzle feels like a very Pearson thing to do.
  • Justin Hartley does some great acting work with Kevin’s denial and defensiveness upon learning about Rebecca’s condition.
  • “You guys coming to kill me?”
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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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