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This Is Us returns to form as it emotionally weaponizes its own past

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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Though it may feature a cameo from the master of movie twists, M. Night Shyamalan, tonight’s episode of This Is Us is free of the mysteries and surprises that categorized last week’s premiere. Instead, it centers around the kind of stuff This Is Us has always done far better than tearjerking melodrama and twist endings: Small, deeply felt portraits of family life. It also introduces a brand new storytelling tool to the This Is Us toolbox. Given that we’ve spent several real-life years watching the Pearsons, the show can now emotionally weaponize our own nostalgia. This episode is a specific follow-up to the first season episode “The Pool,” one that reminds us just how much we’ve watched the Big Three grow up in the past three seasons.

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This Is Us sometimes flies off the handle when it tries to tackle too many storylines at once, but there’s a real elegance to how credited writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger construct this episode. “The Pool: Part Two” gives pretty much every major character a meaty storyline but anchors all those plots around the theme of parenting. Back in the 1990s, Jack and Rebecca coerce their kids into one last Pearson Family Fun Day before the Big Three head off for seventh grade. Randall and Beth try to do the same for their own kids in present day Philly. Over on the West Coast, meanwhile, Kate and Toby invite Rebecca, Miguel, Kevin, and Madison to their first session with a consultant who specializes in raising blind infants—thus expanding the parenting theme beyond just literal parents to the metaphorical village it takes to raise a child.

By the end of the episode, Kate decides to approach raising Baby Jack with hope rather than fear, which speaks to the fine line that so often defines parenthood. You hope for the best for your kids, you worry about the worst case scenario, and you struggle to find the line between giving them space to make their own mistakes and stepping in to protect them when they need it. 1990s Rebecca is right to be concerned that the two popular girls who invite Kate to spend the day with them have ulterior motives. But there’s ultimately a lot of hope in the fact that she raised a daughter who can make the best of a bad situation. In one of the episode’s most endearing storylines, middle school Kate turns a mean practical joke into a sweet first kiss—a rare and welcome win for her.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

What’s great about “The Pool: Part Two” is that it doesn’t artificially inflate its stakes. Over in Philly, Tess wants a new haircut and Deja wants to ride the city bus to school by herself. Those may be small requests in the grand scheme of things, but they’re exactly the kinds of things that feel monumental when you’re a teen (or the parent of a teen). And they’re exactly the kind of relatable details of childhood that This Is Us gets so, so right.

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“The Pool: Part Two” is particularly interested in what it’s like for parents and children who have very different lived experiences. Baby Jack is a blind kid being raised by sighted parents, Deja is a city kid being raised by suburban parents, Tess is a queer kid being raised by straight parents, and middle school Randall is a black kid being raised by white parents. When Kevin worries about whether he’s a good person, Jack can speak directly to the experience of what it’s like to be an emotionally tortured Pearson man. But when Randall faces an insult about his blackness or Tess privately worries about how she expresses her gender and sexuality, they keep those fears a secret. Their parents would no doubt react with compassion and empathy, but in both cases the kids seem to have an innate sense that their struggles are something their parents can’t relate to on a personal level.

Deja is the most forthright about how she’s feeling, reminding Randall that the things that make him uncomfortable remind her of how she grew up. (It certainly doesn’t hurt that her bus route takes her right by Malik’s dad’s auto shop.) We know that teenage Randall eventually opens up to his dad in a similar way when they visit Howard together. Hopefully Tess will find her voice too, as her anxious look into the mirror at the end of the episode implies her journey is a rockier one than she’s letting on, even if her new haircut is super cute!

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Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

As is so often the case on This Is Us, the dialogue lacks the elegance of the show’s visual storytelling. The episode is bookended by two big monologues in which Kevin discusses his struggles with sobriety, the first at an AA meeting and the second to Baby Jack (and inadvertently to Kate, who’s listening in on the baby monitor). They’re both fine, but they’re not nearly as emotionally effective as the beautiful way the episode’s editing dreamily intercuts images from the pool with scenes in the present day. This Is Us is always at its most powerful during its montages, and this episode delivers an absolute doozy in a final sequence that jumps from the Big Three’s middle school pool day to their elementary school one to a previously unseen preschool one.

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Like so many of the best This Is Us episodes, “The Pool: Part Two” is quietly bittersweet rather than overtly tragic. It’s true that Rebecca is remembering the events of “The Pool” with rose-colored glasses. That was a stressful and complicated episode, with stories about Kate’s body image, Randall’s racial identity, and Kevin’s feelings of abandonment. (And Rebecca herself was one of the most stressed-out characters.) But it’s also true that it represented a simpler time in the Pearson family’s life, when it was easier to resolve things with a big group cuddle. “The Pool: Part Two” also ends with the Pearsons united, but this time they’re each on their own chairs and they’re each a bit more world-weary than they used to be. It’s an image that’s both hopeful and sad, but most of all truthful.

Though the gamble of last week’s premiere wasn’t exactly a misfire, it didn’t launch the season with nearly the same confidence as this episode does. “The Pool: Part Two” functions as a statement of purpose. Despite all the new additions to its cast, This Is Us is clearly still just as interested in continuing the stories of its core characters too. That’s great news considering this episode proves there’s still a lot left to explore in their storylines, both in the present and the past.

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Stray observations

  • I’m still unclear on how famous Kevin is. Did his Ron Howard movie elevate his profile? Hopefully Rebecca and Miguel’s deep dive into The Hollywood Reporter will provide more context!
  • It’s such a well-observed detail that Rebecca knows the exact popularity hierarchy of Kate’s classmates while Jack has absolutely no idea who the two girls who approach Kate are.
  • Another beautifully well-observed detail is Beth’s post-salon compliment to Tess: “I couldn’t really picture it before, but now that I see it, I love it.” Such a classic mom move!
  • The pre-teen Big Three actors continue to be an absolute delight. Lonnie Chavis threw some excellent shade at Stewart for being arrogant enough to think he could beat Randall in the library’s summer read-a-thon. (Stewart later gets his own redemptive moment in his sweet scene with Kate.)
  • I complained that last season rushed through Baby Jack’s NICU stay too quickly, so I love that this season is really digging into the nuances of what it’s like to raise a blind child. That includes the importance of voice and touch in place of the facial expressions people so often instinctually use around babies.
  • Though it was strange to see him given such prominence in the season trailer, this was a good use of M. Night Shyamalan, and I appreciated his willingness to go along with an “I see dead people” joke.
  • In terms of twists, there’s a brief moment where Kevin seems to be headed towards a movie job in Chicago only to show up on Nicky’s doorstep instead. Elsewhere, Toby is secretly doing CrossFit. Is he Batman?
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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.