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This Is Us finally acknowledges that money is a thing

Illustration for article titled This Is Us finally acknowledges that money is a thing
Photo: NBC
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The big houses. The ambiguous careers. The spontaneous cross-country flights. For years the vague but luxurious financial situation of the Pearson family has been something of a running joke among This Is Us fans. Five seasons in, the show finally decides to tackle the issue head on, with an episode all about money. Admittedly, it’s a little silly to hear 40-year-old Kate exclaim, “Money, it’s the worst!” as if it’s the first time she’s ever thought about the topic. But it’s interesting to watch This Is Us mine a new area for its patented emotional drama. Especially when the show uses the lens of financial hardship to tell stories about insecurity, agency, and complex interpersonal dynamics.

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After operating in “very special episode” mode for the past five episodes, This Is Us returns to a more classic template this week. “I’ve Got This” is a funny, emotionally nuanced, character-centric episode with storylines that complement and contrast one other. After a lovely opening montage set to John Prine’s “How Lucky,” we’re treated to three tense dinner parties: Kevin and Madison invite Toby and Kate over for a new baby celebration; Beth and Randall host what was meant to be a goodbye dinner for her mom Carol (a returning Phylicia Rashad), who it turns out was watching the girls while they were in New Orleans; and back in the past, new dad Jack attends a high-stakes business dinner as he tries to angle for a promotion.

The money stuff is most revelatory in the Kate/Toby/Kevin/Madison throughline. Toby is still reeling from having lost his job with no new prospects in sight (we do at least get official confirmation that he works in IT management). And that makes him especially jumpy around Kevin, who tosses around his movie star wealth in a way that’s either incredibly generous or incredibly condescending, depending on your point of view. Yet while Toby and Kevin’s “awkward sushi skirmish” is ostensibly about Toby’s frustrations with Kevin’s gauche displays of wealth, it’s actually far more about their differing definitions of family. Kevin views his wider extended family as part of his inner circle—the people he would spare no expense to help. Toby, meanwhile, takes a more insular point of view. He sees his family as limited to a strict, conventional nuclear unit: Himself, his wife, and their two kids.

I suspect that says a lot about Toby’s complicated, distanced relationship to his own family, which is a fascinating insight into a character This Is Us has never fully nailed down. I actually think “I’ve Got This” misses a trick in not more directly contrasting Toby’s point of view with that of Madison—another supporting character who could use just a touch more shading. Not only is she a regular person suddenly thrust into Kevin’s wealthy world, she’s also someone who has no real connection to her biological family either. In many ways Madison and Toby are foils for one another—metaphorical orphans who have differing views on whether or not the interconnectivity of the Pearson clan is a blessing or a curse.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us finally acknowledges that money is a thing
Photo: NBC

It’s a theme that carries over to the Randall/Beth storyline, which ultimately ends with Beth declaring that her relatives deserve the same attention the Pearsons have always enjoyed. “Your entire family treats our house like a Ramada Inn,” Beth explains while informing Randall that Carol will be staying with them indefinitely. “It’s my turn.” This episode is a great showcase for Susan Kelechi Watson, both comedically and dramatically. But in between its funny, moving character beats, the Randall/Beth storyline also helped me put my finger on what’s been so frustrating about the way this season has tried to have it both ways with the pandemic.

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A story about where Beth’s 70-something mother is going to live is exactly the sort of thing that should be brimming with COVID-specific anxiety. Yet the pandemic is at best subtext for a story that acknowledges the chaos of virtual schooling and the loneliness of self-isolation, but also features Randall and Beth casually asking Carol when her train leaves—as if she’s just paying a totally normal visit and traveling is no big deal. Part of the reason the childbirth-centric episode “In The Room” worked so well is because it made the pandemic an active driver of its emotional storytelling, not just a vague bit of window dressing. I’m baffled by This Is Us’ refusal to lean into that idea elsewhere. Maybe because doing so would require acknowledging that Randall and Beth are basically one dinner guest away from hosting a super spreader event.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us finally acknowledges that money is a thing
Photo: NBC
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It’s not enough to ruin the storyline, which has a lot of fun, shifting dynamics and lived-in interactions, not to mention some welcome emotional payoff for both Beth/Carol and Randall/Deja. But given that the whole point of embracing the pandemic was to make This Is Us feel more relatable to our current reality, it’s frustrating that the uneven, intermittent way the season has depicted the coronavirus has turned out to be the most distancing thing about it.

What elevates “I’ve Got This” is the way it uses the Jack/Rebecca storyline to dovetail the money-focus of the Kevin/Kate stuff and the family-focus of the Randall/Beth throughline. To its credit, This Is Us has actually always been pretty good about acknowledging the financial realities of Jack and Rebecca’s situation, and that continues here when Jack accidentally spends $230 trying to impress his bosses. As usual, Milo Ventimiglia shines when tasked with playing a younger version of Jack shoved out of his comfort zone (and Miguel emerges as a true BFF MVP in how he subtly guides Jack through the world of fancy business dinners). But the twist on this fairly familiar This Is Us setup is the reveal that Rebecca actively took charge of the family’s finances during the Big Three’s early days. It’s a great example of the way Rebecca quietly held her family together even as Jack so often came away with the showy “Hero Dad” reputation.

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Illustration for article titled This Is Us finally acknowledges that money is a thing
Photo: NBC

Rebecca’s quiet agency is echoed in the present by her daughter and daughter-in-law. Beth confidently announces that Carol will be staying, while Kate tells Toby that despite his earlier objection to her going back to work, she’s taking a job as a teaching assistant at Jack’s Music School for the Blind. In the end, “I’ve Got This” unexpectedly becomes an episode about women reclaiming their agency in relationships where their husbands often threaten to suck up all the oxygen. It’s a welcome shift for This Is Us’ usual storytelling patterns, and a fascinating prism through which to frame the show’s first sustained look at money woes.

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Stray observations

  • The house guests don’t stop coming as Uncle Nicky unexpectedly shows up at Kevin and Madison’s doorstep. It’s actually less of a climatic reveal than I was expecting (I was wondering if Cassidy was going to show up pregnant or something), but I’m always here for more Uncle Nicky!
  • By far my biggest disappointment with this episode is the way Kate and Madison’s once formative friendship is barely even acknowledged.
  • For an episode all about Kevin’s financial security, it’s weird that there’s no mention of fallout from him abruptly quitting his most recent film.
  • I love the meta commentary of Deja telling Randall that his storylines should center on her and not her boyfriend.
  • Admittedly, I haven’t lived through this pandemic with kids/teens, so maybe I’m just out of the loop on the realities of how they’re socializing. But Beth casually telling Tess she could go to Alex’s house for dinner another night struck me as absolutely wild. How big is their quarantine pod???
  • Even beyond Beth’s struggle to master “they” pronouns, I feel like she and Randall are kind of terrible parents to Tess? Neither of them follow up with her after she leaves the dinner table deeply upset.
  • It’s interesting that Kevin mentions he’s still “barely talking to Randall.” I thought they’d mended more fences than they apparently have.
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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.