Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

In my last review, I described the structure of a prototypical This Is Us episode, and—lo and behold—“Kamsahamnida” fits that structure almost to a tee: The episode offers a thematically resonant story about the Big Three’s elementary school years coupled with a story for Kate on the West Coast and a joint story for Randall and Kevin on the East Coast. Beth gets a welcome subplot as well, which is new for the show, but overall this feels like This Is Us at its most familiar. “Kamsahamnida” is an episode in which the Pearsons slow down to take stock of where they are before moving forward with their various journeys. That means it’s the sort of episode you could either describe as “a breather” or “filler,” depending on how charitable you’re feeling. I’d mostly describe it as This Is Us comfort food—funny, heartfelt, and emotional without being emotionally traumatic.

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The central theme of “Kamsahamnida” is the way couples communicate with one another in times of emotional stress. When he comes home from a sparring match with a black eye, Rebecca tries to convince Jack to give up boxing altogether. But after struggling to find the right words, he eventually manages to explain that it’s a much-needed form of therapy for him. In fact, talking about boxing even gets Jack to open up about Nicky, which—as Rebecca’s surprised reaction conveys—isn’t something he often does. Once she realizes just how important boxing is to him, Rebecca adapts to fit Jack’s needs. That’s also what happens with Kate and Toby as they negotiate their individual anxieties about their fledgling marriage. Kate isn’t sure how to help Toby as he struggles to manage his depression while re-adjusting to his meds. Toby, meanwhile, is worried that Kate will leave him now that she’s seen how bad his depressive spells can be. Like Jack and Rebecca, they eventually work it out with a little honest communication. That’s also true of Beth and Randall after she finally opens up about how much she’s been struggling lately. Being fired wasn’t just a logistical inconvenience, it was a challenge to her entire sense of self. Armed with that knowledge, Randall comes up with a plan to give Beth a new sense of purpose by… offering her a job on his campaign?

Listen, we need to talk about this “Randall runs for City Council” storyline because it’s one of the most bizarre tangents this show has ever taken. First of all, I still don’t understand how we got from “Randall wants to foster a child to honor William’s legacy” to “Randall must run for political office in another state to honor William.” (Also doesn’t he still have a whole apartment building to manage too?) The logistics involved are baffling. Who is making all of those posters, t-shirts, and electoral maps when Randall seems to be the only one who’s ever in his campaign office? How does he have the money to take on two new staffers by the end of this episode—especially when one of those staffers is his wife whose job had previously been supporting their five-person family? Who’s going to take care of Tess, Annie, and Deja while Randall and Beth are both running a campaign miles away from where they live?

Money has always been a nebulous thing in This Is Us’ present-day storylines. (There was a big chunk of time when Kate seemed to have no job at all. Now she’s presumably being supported by Toby, who hopefully works for a company that’s progressive about providing disability leave for mental health issues.) I’d be more willing to overlook the “how are Beth and Randall supporting their family?” question if Randall’s campaign storyline felt rooted in a larger emotional truth. But I have some pretty big questions about that too. Namely, are we supposed to think that Sol Brown is a bad councilman? On the one hand, Randall has some valid points about the problems with the area. On the other hand, Sol’s community seems to absolutely adore him. Is it possible the district is plagued by issues of limited resources that go beyond how earnestly one local politician wants to help? Does Randall even have any concrete plans for how he can actually improve the community after he wins their vote?

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At first I thought the campaign storyline was at least partially about challenging Randall’s suburban savior complex and the arrogance of thinking he can come into a poor community and singlehandedly save it. But “Kamsahamnida” seems to go full-in on the “rah-rah Randall!” storytelling. Jack tells young Randall that he’s the kind of person who will use his smarts, not his physical strength to defeat his enemies (so much for those karate lessons I guess), and the episode ends with Sol plastering on a fake smile to hide the strategic blow Randall delivers by revealing his plan to win over Koreatown. (Maybe play that strategy a little closer to the vest, Randall?) And the whole Koreatown subplot is clearly designed to sell Randall as an earnest do-gooder who really can change the world. Even skeptical Koreatown resident Jae-won (Tim Jo) is so immediately won over by a single speech that he agrees to become Randall’s campaign manager.

It occurred to me while watching this episode that Randall’s political aspirations might have been designed as way for This Is Us to tie into the real-world midterm election season. And I guess trying to inspire civic engagement is a worthy enough goal. It’s just strange to watch this earnest family drama suddenly become an earnest political one, especially when it feels like there’s so much left to explore in Randall’s home life. How is Deja adjusting to life as an official Pearson, for example?

Though I’ve largely focused on its flaws in this review, “Kamsahamnida” has its strengths too. It’s great to see Beth finally start getting her own storylines, which gives Susan Kelechi Watson even more of a chance to sign. Beth’s big talk with Deja was absolutely fantastic (more Lyric Ross please!) as was the scene in which Jack helps young Randall work through his insecurities about not sharing a biological connection to his parents. Though the Koreatown subplot felt a bit thrown together, Tim Jo is an immediately likable addition to the This Is Us cast, and I will always be charmed by a plotline that deals with Kevin being a famous TV star. (The Manny is apparently the number one show in South Korea, where it’s called The Baby Man.) But as the Pearsons take stock of where they’re going in life, This Is Us could stand to take stock of where it’s headed too.

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Stray observations

  • In honor of this episode’s impassioned celebration of voting, please do register to vote and make your voice heard in this midterm election!
  • The episode never makes it completely clear, but “kamsahamnida” means “thank you” in Korean.
  • After a bunch of tedious stalling, Kevin finally decides to take a trip to Vietnam with Zoe, which we already knew was coming because it was featured in the second season finale flashforward.
  • Given Kevin’s open assertion that Jack was clearly in love with the Vietnamese woman in the photo, I’m now thinking that might be a fake-out and we’re in store for another twist.
  • I love that This Is Us continues to deepen Rebecca and Kate’s ever-improving relationship. Their phone calls in this episode were very sweet.
  • It feels like Faithe Herman was engineered in a lab to be the cutest child in the world.

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