When This Is Us’ fourth season finale aired at the end of March, we were just entering what many assumed would be a short period of lockdown and social distancing. Now seven months later the world looks a whole lot different, and so does This Is Us, which has decided to incorporate the pandemic into its storytelling this season. It’s a decision a lot of network TV shows are making right now, and I’m curious to see how it will age—both throughout the course of the season and in the distant future when we look back on this strange period in time. Do we want our TV shows to embrace the chance to deliver COVID verisimilitude or are we longing for escapism?
This Is Us, of course, is uniquely poised to offer both. While the Big Three must deal with the realities of COVID as they prepare to turn 40, the flashbacks still offer a sense of normalcy—a world where people can hug and share indoor space sans masks. Though my immediate instinct was that the show should’ve just ignored COVID entirely, this episode handles the pandemic far more gracefully than I would’ve thought possible. The opening scenes hop through the early months of quarantine, using the pandemic for both comedy (Beth’s whispered delivery of the news that Tom Hanks “got the corona”) and character building (Kevin and Madison’s decision to quarantine together speeds up the emotional intimacy of their burgeoning relationship). And then the episode cleverly uses the family cabin as a communal space for the quarantined Pearsons to mostly live like normal.
The biggest downside is that the flashforward from last year’s Thanksgiving episode no longer makes much sense. The playgrounds, grocery stores, and restaurants a confused Rebecca spends the afternoon wandering around should probably look a whole lot different than they do. And Kate and Kevin definitely wouldn’t be making mask-less small talk with a cop inside their quarantined cabin. Viewers certainly shouldn’t be taking their medical advice from this episode, which has an absolutely baffling sense of what constitutes safe quarantining procedures. But given that the show was stuck between a rock and a hard place with the pre-existing flashfoward scenes, I’m inclined to give it some grace.
Writers Dan Fogelman, Kay Oyegun, and Jake Schnesel mostly use this two-hour premiere to gently ease viewers back into the world of the show and its new normal. Apart from the major twist at the very end (which we’ll get to), there’s no massive melodrama or major blowouts. The tensions from the end of season four are still simmering under the surface, but “Forty: Parts One & Two” largely centers on quieter, more complex character and thematic material. Even Rebecca’s intense memory loss is revealed to be a temporary side effect from a drug interaction, rather than her new status quo. It’s an unsettling glimpse into her future, but that future isn’t quite here yet.
As the premiere brings us up to speed on things we knew were coming, like Kevin and Madison’s engagement and Kate and Toby’s adoption (which, admittedly, kickstarts far quicker than I was expecting), it also introduces a new throughline for the season. Along with the pandemic, season five will be addressing the renewed Black Lives Matter activism that happened in response to George Floyd’s murder this spring. The premiere uses those events as a jumping off point for Randall to grapple with his own experiences as a Black man raised by a white family—an identity crisis that’s been a cornerstone of his character since the very beginning of the series. But This Is Us also smartly uses our country-wide racial reckoning as a major storyline for Kate too. After all, a big part of what made this year’s movement so unprecedented is the way it galvanized suburban white people who had never really been forced to think about racism or white privilege before. And well-meaning Kate is an ideal avatar for that experience.
Randall and Kate’s conflict in “Forty: Part Two” is a brilliant example of how well This Is Us knows its characters and their relationships to one another. Randall and Kate’s tense exchange outside the cabin is completely different and yet no less wrenching than Randall and Kevin’s explosive blow-up in the fourth season finale. Kate the peacemaker and Randall the fixer both genuinely want to comfort each other. Yet Randall gently helps his sister understand that her sudden desire to be appreciated as a good ally and his sense of obligation to prioritize her emotional comfort are both part of the subtle systemic racism that the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to dismantle. It’s a nuanced emotional impasse that uses This Is Us’ premise and relationships to the fullest, and gets fantastic performances from both Sterling K. Brown and Chrissy Metz.
I spent my own quarantine rewatching This Is Us from the beginning, and the biggest thing I took away from the series—and from last season in particular—is that this show is really good at playing the emotional long game. While there have been times when the series has dropped the ball (like with Kate’s weight loss camp subplot in season one or Randall’s god-awful campaign storyline in season three), more often than not, it’s proven to be smarter than it looks at first glance. Things like Beth’s anxiety over her family’s home invasion or Randall’s resentment towards his mother seemed to disappear entirely only to bubble up to the surface as unexpected gutpunches.
That’s why I’m hopeful that there’s much more to come from plotlines that seem a little too easily handwaved away here, particularly the conflict over Rebecca’s clinical trial. (We learn the trial was cancelled due to COVID, which makes the conflict a moot point, and also makes me incredibly curious about what the writers originally had planned for this arc.) In a press panel for the season, creator Dan Fogelman promised that Randall and Kevin’s rift would be “front and center of our show for quite a bit,” and their tentative peace here clearly has a lot going on beneath the surface. I’m also hoping that we’ll get a deeper exploration of how Madison’s new position in the Pearson family impacts her friendship with Kate—especially since Randall notes that Madison was basically their family’s only non-related friend. (Although what about Jae-Won?!?)
But the biggest leap of faith centers on the absolutely wild reveal that Randall’s biological mother Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes) is still alive—or at the very least, didn’t die when William thought she did. The timeline around Randall’s birth has always been a bit murky, and this episode clears it up only to turn it on its head. While the episode at first seems to be using William and Laurel’s lyrical flashbacks-within-a-flashback as a counterpoint to the show’s central themes of parenthood, race, and addiction, it turns out This Is Us is actually setting up a whole new mystery. And it’s one that could break the series if not handled correctly.
Admittedly, I had similar concerns when the show pulled this trick with Uncle Nicky (who goes curiously unmentioned in this episode), and he turned out to be one of the best additions to the entire series. On the other hand, well, the show already pulled this trick with Uncle Nicky, and I’m not sure that “seemingly dead relative is secretly alive!” is a twist you can really use twice.
For now, however, I’m choosing to take things one day (well, one episode) at a time. This Is Us has a tendency towards unnecessary melodrama, as with Jack’s rather theatrical monologue in the hospital chapel during Rebecca’s emergency delivery. But it’s also capable of incredibly rich moments of subtle character-centric storytelling, like Jack’s short yet deeply layered phone call with his father. Though the former is what earned This Is Us its reputation as America’s favorite weepy, it’s the latter that makes it a truly great TV show. Hopefully the series won’t forget that as it settles into its new normal.
- In a show full of grand gestures, Miguel making Rebecca lasagna and then giving her apple tree seeds is truly the most romantic thing This Is Us has ever done.
- I’m so glad this episode didn’t have Jack and William actually meet at the hospital chapel, which would’ve been gilding the lily way too much.
- Toby’s monologue about dealing with the indefinite permanence of depression is his best scene to date, and beautifully delivered by Chris Sullivan.
- The moment Rebecca repeats her question about whether Beth and the girls are with Randall is so quietly haunting, as is Kate’s description: “She was gone. Her face was not her face.”
- Some incredible dark comedy from Madison: “I free you from your kind of sweet, kind of bizarre ‘Jerry Maguire at the U-Haul,’ ‘what if’ marriage proposal that you made after we thought I killed one of our babies by falling over a suitcase.” (Also, comparing Kevin to Jerry Maguire is a brilliant read on her part.)
- It’s really nice to have this show back on TV and (mostly) feeling like it’s old self! There are so many wonderfully warm moments in this episode, from the lovely sister chemistry between Tess, Annie, and Deja to the sweet moment Miguel tells Rebecca, “The kids slept in.” Maybe best of all is Randall’s absolutely delightful new dynamic with Malik, which the episode uses for both hilarious comedy and really moving multi-generational pathos.
- Speaking of which, you can read more here about the story of Jonny Gammage and his death at the hands of police in 1995.