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This Is Us mixes a great episode about golf with an okay one about sex

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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The best episodes of This Is Us are often the ones that zero in on a specific story or theme, rather than trying to find something for everyone in the cast to do. “The Club” is almost one of those episodes. It explores a complex father/son story told across three era-hopping golf games. Unfortunately, it dilutes the power of that triptych with tangential present-day subplots for the other members of the Big Three. Kate and Toby rediscover their sex life in a healthy way (yay!) while Kevin and Cassidy turn to sex as an unhealthy outlet for their respective struggles (oh no!). And while both of those storylines are perfectly fine in their own right, they undercut the power “The Club” might have had if it was an even more focused episode.

The main thrust of “The Club” is centered around three golf games: One with Jack and Rebecca’s dad Dave (Tim Matheson) in the 1970s, one with Jack and middle school Randall in the early 1990s, and one in the present day as Randall joins three of his fellow councilmen at the swanky country club where he has an in. It’s been a while since we’ve had an episode that digs into present-day Randall’s relationship with his father, and This Is Us delivers a real doozy as it offers maybe the show’s most nuanced exploration of Jack’s racial blindspots yet.

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Back in my review of the second season episode “Still There,” I expressed concern that This Is Us was making Jack and Rebecca just a little too unrealistic “woke” in their ability to spot and call-out racism. “The Club” delivers what is, in my opinion, a much more truthful look at the potential blindspots of white, interracial adoptive parents, particularly in past decades. While out on a Tiger Woods-inspired game of golf, Jack is desperate to draw a parallel between Randall’s barrier breaking as the first black kid on his school’s debate team and his own struggles as a working class kid trying to fit in among the wealthy. And when Randall tries to explain that feeling socially uncomfortable and facing racism aren’t the same thing, Jack falls back on the cringe-worthy chestnut, “I don’t look at you and see color. I see my son.”

It’s a misstep many well-meaning white people make in their attempts to end prejudice—and one that transracial adoptees, in particular, often struggle to deal with. Thankfully, Mr. Lawrence’s mentorship has given Randall a vocabulary and a perspective he couldn’t get from his parents alone. “Then you don’t see me,” he responds.

One of the problems with including Kate and Kevin’s storylines in this episode is that they take up screen time that could’ve been spent fleshing out the main throughline. The last time we saw Randall and Mr. Lawrence, it was during a slight conflict over Randall’s shoes—one that seemed to crush Randall’s dreams of finding an ally in his new teacher. I would’ve loved to have seen the connective tissue that got them from that moment to the close bond they’ve now built in a mini before-school book club where they read James Baldwin and discuss Muhammad Ali.

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Still, it’s nice to see This Is Us introduce a foil to explore Jack and Rebecca’s white obliviousness in a way the show hasn’t consistently done in the past. In fact, “The Club” also picks up what’s long been a dangling thread for the series—the all-black dojo Randall attended in the first season episode, “The Trip.” It was a defining moment in the fairly simplistic “Jack-as-hero” storytelling This Is Us tended to indulge in during its first season, and it always felt a little weird that the show never returned to the dojo, especially considering it was set up to be a such an important space for Randall to find black role models. “The Club” turns that lack of continuity into a plot point.

It turns out Jack and Rebecca let Randall quit the dojo after just a few lessons. Maybe that was because he wasn’t that into it and it wasn’t worth the hassle, which is how Rebecca remembers it. Or maybe it was because, as Jack counters, he and Rebecca felt uncomfortable in an all-black space and therefore more willing to take an easy out when it was offered to them. This Is Us lets us linger in that ambiguity, which is a welcome choice for a show that be fairly didactic. Regardless, it’s clear that his parents’ willingness to let him quit the dojo is something that’s stuck with Randall all these years.

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Yet “The Club” balances its critique of Jack’s parenting with a celebration of it as well. The juxtaposition between the 1970s golf game and the present-day one offers a lovely depiction of how parents can use their own mistakes to inspire their children to be better. While it’s understandable that Jack would bristle under Dave’s gross, classist, paternalistic attitude, it’s also true that he looks a gift horse in the mouth. Jack’s pride causes him to get drunk and lash out, rather than trying to make the best of a bad situation and maybe even get a swanky job interview out of it.

In retrospect, 1990s Jack realizes his pride set a limit on how high he could climb in life. He doesn’t want his son to put those same limits on himself. He encourages Randall’s interest in golf, since it’s a sport that will come in handy in his son’s future encounters with the rich and powerful. But more importantly, he also passes on a lesson in the value of humility and the importance of being tactical. Randall puts those lessons to great use as he bonds with Councilman Wilkins by pretending to be terrible at golf. In presenting himself as a self-deprecating underdog, Randall wins the friendship of his fellow councilmen, who no longer view him as an outside threat coming to shake things up.

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While I had a feeling the “Randall is actually great at golf!” twist was coming, the montage that reveals that information is very well done. As is the fact that Randall’s final tribute to his dad is a golf ball sent into the water. It’s a lovely encapsulation of the fierce but flawed man Jack was. If only “The Club” had been willing to focus on that throughline alone.


Stray observations

  • Kevin’s almost-fling with Smoothie Girl is the prime example of a time when I’m not sure This Is Us is fully considering the fact that Kevin is a celebrity. Her flirtations initially feel motivated by his fame, but then his career never comes up on their date, so it plays out like a generic “girl fawns over hot guy” storyline without any specificity.
  • On the other hand, Toby’s weight loss adds welcome specificity to what would otherwise just be a fairly familiar “sex after baby” TV drama storyline.
  • There are two moments in this episode that I’m genuinely unclear if we’re supposed to see as flawed or heroic. One is Jack parroting Dave’s paternalistic “Do you see yourself there?” speech back to him. (Does Rebecca get any say in her own future??) The other is Jack somewhat condescendingly suggesting that Mr. Lawrence is at fault for not calling Randall’s parents to tell them their son is “asking complicated, heavy questions about his place in this world.”
  • Especially because Mr. Lawrence’s (very funny) microexpression at meeting Jack seems to imply he didn’t know Randall’s parents were white. And “I expect someone to call and tell me when my black son is struggling with systemic racism” seems to be an attitude that would be very specific to white parents raising a black child.
  • Jennifer Morrison doing pull-ups!!
  • Jack promises to “listen better and lecture less,” to which I wrote “Amen!” in my notes.
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About the author

Caroline Siede

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.