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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

This Is Us goes full Sliding Doors

Illustration for article titled emThis Is Us /emgoes full emSliding Doors/em
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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It was all but inevitable that This Is Us would eventually do a “what if” Sliding Doors-style storyline. I assumed it would be “what if the third triplet had survived?”, but instead we get “what if Jack had lived?” Well, kind of. This Is Us smartly realizes that there’s only so much dramatic weight in wondering about futures that never happened. So while “After The Fire” delivers some of the classic pleasures of an alternate universe story—like seeing characters we know in strange new scenarios—it anchors that speculation around a character study. “After The Fire” initially seems like it’s using Randall’s therapy session as a framing device for its “what if” storyline, only to reveal it’s actually using that “what if” storyline to deep dive into Randall’s psyche. The result is one of This Is Us’ most thoughtful episodes ever.

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Since bursting onto the scene as This Is Us’ breakout character in the first season, Randall has had an uneven run across the rest of the show. There have been high points, like the recent episode about his anxiety or his adoption storyline with Deja. But there have also been lows, like when he randomly bought an apartment complex or randomly ran for city council or randomly moved to Philadelphia as a magical fix for his marital problems. Ever since the show resolved the William storyline in season one, This Is Us has felt like it hasn’t quite known what to do with Randall. But as in many a good therapy session, Randall comes to realize that the one thing he thought was resolved is actually the one thing he still has to work on.

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When Dr. Leigh asks Randall to imagine what would’ve happened if Jack had lived, Randall immediately spins out an idyllic scenario where everything good in his life still happened but all the bad stuff was fixed. Rebecca confesses to knowing about William, teenage Randall is able to have great relationships with all three of his living parents, his romance with Beth is exactly the same, and he manages to cure both William’s stomach cancer and Rebecca’s Alzheimer’s. When Dr. Leigh (rightly) calls bullshit on that, she asks Randall to come up with a worst case scenario instead. This time around, he imagines that Rebecca’s confession tore his parents’ marriage apart, that William rejected him, that he never met Beth, and that he estranged himself from his family after heading off to Howard.

Illustration for article titled emThis Is Us /emgoes full emSliding Doors/em
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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Dr. Leigh eventually points out something that’s immediately apparent about both scenarios: They ultimately revolve far more around his mother than his fathers. Like all the Pearsons, Randall tends to simplistically associate everything bad that’s happened in his life with his dad’s death. But while Randall can at least talk about his lingering guilt over not trying harder to save Jack’s life, he can’t even bring himself to admit that he still feels enormous resentment towards Rebecca for lying about William’s existence for 36 years. It’s a topic This Is Us has barely explored since season one, but it turns out it’s still a massive part of Randall’s complex feelings towards Rebecca—the woman who lied to him and then unfairly leaned on him, but who also raised him with fierce love and protection.

“After The Fire” delivers some satisfying TV therapy moments in which Dr. Leigh puts Randall’s musings into context to point out patterns he’s missing—like that fact that he selected a therapist who’s the same gender and race as his mother, and about the same age as Rebecca was when Jack died. But the episode doesn’t take the lazy route of arguing that a single therapy session can “cure” Randall either. Though Randall can be incredibly thoughtful and self-aware about his issues, there are many ways in which he’s still in deep denial too. Even after reckoning with his shortcomings, he clings to unhealthy choices with the full-awareness that they’re unhealthy.

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So while Dr. Leigh suggests Randall’s best course of action is to use the time he has left with Rebecca to work through the wounds he has from her, Randall makes a different call. In a twisted kind of devil’s bargain, Randall decides to spare his mom the pain of confronting the William lie if she joins the clinical trial in St. Louis. He believes that knowing he did everything he could to try to prolong her life is the only thing that will give him true closure after her death—which he found with William but not with Jack. In the most gutting scene of the episode, Randall plays the “good son” trump card in a way he never has before. As he sees it, this is the first time he’s ever put his own needs above Rebecca’s.

It’s a deeply unhealthy impulse but a deeply relatable one too. Like Jack, Randall is someone who wants to fix every problem he sees. He’s not comfortable living in grey areas or accepting uncertainty. That’s what led him to become Rebecca’s support system in the first place—even once it was clear she could take care of herself. And it’s what leads him to selfishly take control of her healthcare now. Based on what we know about the immediate flashforward timeline, however, it’s probably also the thing that causes the kind of familial estrangement Randall associates with a worst-case-scenario version of his life.

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“After The Fire” is one of those episodes that proves This Is Us is far smarter than it often gets credit for. It could’ve left things with the schmaltzy fantasy of the “perfect” timeline or it could’ve indulged in the equally schmaltzy “everything happens for a reason” implications of the “bad” timeline. In letting Randall continue to dig himself deeper into a hole, however, This Is Us proves it’s well-aware of its characters’ flaws; it just prefers to underplay that knowledge until the characters themselves come to face them. It’s a method of storytelling that can be rocky in the moment, but ultimately pays dividends when it finally starts to deliver.


Stray observations

  • Pamela Adlon and Sterling K. Brown prove to be quite the dynamic duo. Stellar performances from both of them.
  • While Randall is busy at therapy, Beth has been binge-watching HBO’s Watchmen.
  • There are some interesting details around the edges of Randall’s alt-universe speculations. For instance, he imagines that instead of going into acting, Kevin joins Jack’s construction company and marries Sophie at a more reasonable age.
  • It’s also interesting that Nicky doesn’t factor into either of Randall’s alt-universes. You have to imagine that if Kevin were doing this “what if” experiment, a Jack/Nicky reconciliation would be a major part of it.
  • Of all the scenarios that play out in this episode, the one that seems the most plausible is teen Randall trying to stop Jack from going back into the burning house and Jack doing it anyway.
  • I feel like there’s a lot to unpack in the fact that Randall imagines going to Howard as one of the major fulcrum points that separates him from his family in the worst-case-scenario alt universe.
  • So what’s the exact year Jermel Nakia becomes Ron Cephas Jones?
  • See you all back here next week for the season finale!
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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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