For its season finale, This Is Us has babies on the brain. The Big Three are celebrating their first birthdays in the past, Baby Jack is turning one in the present, and his grown-up self is welcoming his own first child into the world in the far-future. Plus we learn about not one but two new additions to the Pearson family clan! Toby’s absolutely right that the Big Three are so defined by siblinghood that there was no way Kevin and Kate were only going to have one kid apiece. But I was so hung up on the show’s other mysteries that I hadn’t spent much time thinking about it. While “Strangers: Part Two” finally answers questions we’ve been speculating about for a while now (like the identity of Kevin’s pregnant partner), its biggest surprises are ones we didn’t even think to wonder about (like the fact that she’s having twins).
This season finale revisits the formula This Is Us used for its season premiere. Like “Strangers,” “Strangers: Part Two” introduces several mysterious new characters only to slowly reveal how they fit into the This Is Us tapestry. I’m not sure it’s my favorite mode of This Is Us storytelling (it’s too effortful an attempt to recapture the magic of the pilot), but it at least works a little better this time around. For one thing, the episode doesn’t withhold its surprises for quite as long. For another, it finds a much better balance between its mysterious teases and the substantial Pearson-centric storylines we actually care about.
Since we’re clearly supposed to think elegant art curator Hailey (Adelaide Kane) is the mother of Kevin’s baby, she obviously turns out to be something else entirely. She’s actually Toby and Kate’s future adopted daughter, who rushes to the hospital to welcome her niece Hope into the world. The Kate/Toby throughline is easily the sweetest part of this episode. They visit the NICU to post a photo of Jack on the ward’s celebratory wall, and the episode flashes back to the moment Kate first woke up from her C-section to learn the terrifying news that her baby weighed only 2.5 pounds. It’s a deeply emotional reminder of how far the Pearson-Damons have come in just a year, and it makes Kate and Toby realize they want to seize the day and add to their family. For now, at least, their marriage and their parenting seem to be back in sync.
The other stranger we meet—a calm horse trainer with a wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter—turns out to be the episode’s biggest fakeout. He’s actually the OB/GYN to Madison (!!!), who’s pregnant (!!!) with Kevin’s twins (!!!). As Madison admits, it doesn’t exactly feel like a big sweeping romantic climax to Kevin’s quest to find love (nor her own). But since her history with bulimia meant she didn’t think she could even get pregnant, she’s decided to go through with having the babies. And in a moment that sits somewhere between clarity and panic, Kevin decides to go “all in” with this new family. His kids will be the loves of his life.
While that all but confirms that Madison is Kevin’s pregnant fiancée from the immediate flashforward timeline (though Kevin hasn’t actually proposed yet), it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s the woman he’s married to in the “Rebecca’s deathbed” flashforward timeline. The prominent shots of Cassidy (who’s still hanging out with Uncle Nicky) and Sophie imply that Kevin’s future is still somewhat up in the air, even if it definitely involves the two adorable blonde moppets he has with Madison. And, eventually at least, it involves reaching a sense of peace with Randall too. Turns out Kevin really was just a wild horse in need of the time and space to be himself.
For now, however, Kevin and Randall finally have that big blowout fight we’ve long known was coming. “Strangers: Part Two” is a slow-building episode where nothing seems to happen until suddenly everything is happening all at once. The sweet early scene between the Big Three (and the sweet moment Randall congratulates Kevin on his first year of sobriety) ensures we really feel the brutality of the fall that comes once Kevin realizes Randall manipulated Rebecca into agreeing to the clinical trial in St. Louis.
The final confrontation between Randall and Kevin is one of the sharpest bits of writing and directing This Is Us has ever delivered. Kevin is already spiraling from Madison’s news when Randall jumps right back into their quarrel. The brutal climax unfolds in one unbroken take, which emphasizes just how quickly things can escalate between family members. After Randall accuses Kevin of being selfish, Kevin lashes out by suggesting he could’ve saved Jack when Randall didn’t. It’s hard to say which subsequent moment is a bigger gut punch: Randall saying Jack died ashamed of Kevin or Kevin saying Randall’s adoption was the worst moment of his life.
A lot season four has been about visiting themes from the show’s first season, like the swimming pool, the dojo, and Randall’s resentment over Rebecca hiding William from him. I’ve actually been revisiting the first season myself lately, and I’d forgotten just how grim a portrait it paints of Kevin and Randall’s relationship. In the brutal first season episode “The Best Washing Machine In The World,” Randall describes his teenage self as a beaten dog who kept coming back to Kevin for affection he never got. “Strangers: Part Two” leans into the idea that in times of stress, we revert back to our childhood patterns—and our childhood grudges.
The other place in which this finale revisits the first season is with the Jack and Rebecca storyline (including cheekily recreating the opening “birthday suit” scene of the pilot, one year later). As in the first season episode “Kyle,” Jack and Rebecca both admit that they’re struggling with how to mourn the baby they lost while still embracing the joy of the three children they have, particularly on an anniversary that marks both birth and death. So they seek out Dr. K for some wise words of comfort. After a joking nod to his famous “lemons into lemonade” speech, he suggests that life is about tragedy and joy constantly intermingling—which comforts Jack and Rebecca, but feels like a pretty generic sentiment to end the season on.
This Is Us has never been particularly great with season finales, mostly because it has so many timelines going at once that it’s nearly impossible to figure out a way to give them all a sense of closure. For as sweet as the Jack/Rebecca subplot is, it feels odd that the teenage Big Three timeline—which was pretty central to this season—is just left hanging at the events of “New York, New York, New York.” The drama between Kate and Marc never really added up to anything greater in the way I expected it to. Plus characters like Cassidy and Malik, who were so important to the first half of the season, are the vaguest of after thoughts here. (At least Nicky gets a few nice moments with Kevin.)
Taken all together, this has been a rather strange season of This Is Us. It’s avoided the lows of the show’s worst missteps, but I’m not sure it’s reached as many highs as previous seasons either. It’s felt lacking in cohesion, without one big idea to anchor the season, the way season two had Jack’s death and season three had all the Vietnam War/Nicky stuff. Yet season four has also given me faith in This Is Us’ longterm storytelling abilities in a way I definitely didn’t have before. It’s proven the show can take storylines that seemed dropped or forgotten and revive them in exhilarating new ways. That’s a crucial skill as This Is Us slowly starts to weave its broad tapestry of stories towards their eventual endgames.
- I really hope Toby and Kate’s future daughter doesn’t fall in love with her annoying art museum friend. Can there be one woman on this show who doesn’t end up with an overbearing man???
- Other season one connections: The home movie of pregnant Rebecca comes from “The Big Day” and the three-layer birthday cake was first introduced in “Three Sentences.”
- While Rebecca may feel uneasy about her role in the domestic sphere, she makes a pretty damn impressive birthday cake in any time period. Leveling cakes that evenly is no easy task.
- This is a great episode for comedy Beth! I love comedy Beth!
- There wasn’t nearly enough Jae-Won this season.
- Oh, and I definitely thought we’d get more payoff with the Gregory storyline too. Why wasn’t he at Baby Jack’s birthday party?
- Love that floral dress and sneakers combo on Chrissy Metz! Super cute.
- I remain confused by the fact that Nicky has barely aged at all between the present and the “Rebecca’s deathbed” timeline. Maybe we invent some breakthrough anti-aging serums in the near future?
- I missed it on my initial viewing, but Nicky is wearing a wedding ring in that future timeline too.
- Thanks for reading this season of reviews! As I mentioned, I’m spending this quarantine time rewatching the series and sharing some of my thoughts over on Twitter if you want to follow along. Best of luck to everyone in these strange times—stay safe!