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This Is Us serves up an ominous surprise for Thanksgiving

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (This Is Us)
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“So Long, Marianne” is the perfect case study for the ways in which This Is Us’ love of twists too often distracts from the small-scale human stories it actually does best. So much of what makes this episode sing feels slightly irrelevant after the big clue-filled twist ending designed to leave viewers asking a laundry list of questions as the show heads into its midseason hiatus. It turns out the subplot about a memory-loss-addled Rebecca wandering around town is actually taking place nine months in the future—a flashforward timeline that’s neither the flashforward timeline where Rebecca is on her deathbed nor the flashforward timeline where Baby Jack is an adult. (Oy vey, there’s a lot to keep track of on this show.) It’s a mostly effective reveal that still can’t quite shake the feeling that it’s also a bit of a cheap trick.

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To its credit, This Is Us cleverly uses our willingness to assume this show is badly written against us. I was rolling my eyes at the way this episode suddenly and unbelievably ramped up Rebecca’s memory loss for the sake of drama, which kept me distracted from wondering if something else was at play. What works so well about the moment of the reveal itself is that it’s disorienting in a way that reflects Rebecca’s experience. When the cops pulled up to the Pearson family cabin, my stomach dropped at just how big of a mistake she’d made. Watching Kevin open the door to greet her completely threw me off, to the point where I was wondering if the whole thing was a dream sequence. But, nope, it’s just nine months into the future on the Big Three’s 40th birthday.

The flashforward scene leaves us with all sorts of questions, most importantly, who is Kevin’s pregnant fiancée? Also what happened to lead to Randall’s complete estrangement from his siblings? (We see his number calling Rebecca’s phone earlier in the episode, so presumably he’s still on speaking terms with her?) Also, who’s living in the cabin and is it a bad sign that Toby isn’t around? Assuming This Is Us maintains its tradition of opening each season with a Big Three birthday celebration, those questions will presumably be teased out over the rest of the season and firmly answered in the fifth season premiere. For now, however, they provide a ticking time clock for all sorts of storylines, especially Rebecca’s memory loss.

With three paragraphs of this review dedicated to approximately three minutes of screentime, let’s delve into all the other great stuff in this episode, which is unfortunately too easily lost in the excitement of speculating about the future. Apart from the fake-out of the Rebecca storyline, “So Long, Marianne” isn’t a particularly showy episode of This Is Us. Instead, its strengths lay in its willingness to embrace the gray areas of life. One of the best scenes is when Beth and Kate pull each other aside and confess their worst inner thoughts. It’s an unexpected pairing, as the two haven’t had the best relationship in the past. But I totally bought that they’d turn to each here.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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Recounting just how much the issue of weight and weight loss has been a cornerstone of Kate and Toby’s relationship adds more specificity to the current tension between them, which is partly about being new parents and partly about a deeper disconnect. Kate’s not mad about Toby’s new fitness journey, she’s upset that he took it without her. Beth, who knows a thing or two about being in a long-term relationship, delivers some appreciably no-nonsense advice: “You should tell him how you feel... Because if you’re only going to other people about what’s happening in your marriage, it can be dangerous territory.” Unfortunately, it turns out it’s advice that neither Kate nor Toby are following. While she’s been venting to Beth, he’s been venting to his CrossFit group text. And, for now at least, it doesn’t seem like either of them has the courage to bridge the communication gap between them.

It’s a domestic drama that’s in some ways incredibly small and in some ways incredibly big, which is how relationship issues so often are. The same goes for Beth’s tensions around Shauna, who shows up to Thanksgiving the best she’s ever been. Despite this being exactly what Beth had been praying for, it’s a shock to see it actually come to fruition. As Beth points out, Randall is the only dad Deja has ever known, which makes it easier for him to slot into her life. Beth, on the other hand, has a somewhat more nebulous role to play as the adoptive mother of someone who still has another mom in her life.

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Again, it’s a great example of This Is Us embracing nuanced, small-scale domestic storytelling. It turns out Deja is actually struggling with some of the same issues as Beth. She’s thrilled to see her mom doing so well, but she’s also devastated that Shauna wasn’t able to pull herself together earlier. It’s here where Beth gets to prove her phenomenal mom skills as she finds a way to comfort Deja by encouraging her to remember the good moments she had with Shauna—like the year they got revenge on their rude downstairs neighbor by loudly learning the Cupid Shuffle. It’s a sweet emotional button that doesn’t entirely resolve the issues at play because in many ways they’re fundamentally unresolvable. The complex feelings of the Shauna/Deja/Beth triangle will probably always be there, even as there’s love and strength in their dynamic too.

The same is true of Nicky’s throughline, which is my favorite element of the episode. Introducing Jack’s long-lost brother was the biggest gamble This Is Us ever took, but it’s paying off beautifully now. Like the ice cream slicing scene in “Storybook Love,” “So Long, Marianne” explores the strange ways in which Nicky and the rest of the Pearsons can bring the past to life for one another, finding deep connections despite in many ways still being strangers. While Nicky struggles with the reality of how fully his brother erased him, he also comes to appreciate the ways in which Jack kept his spirit alive too.

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The best Thanksgiving Jack and Nicky ever had was also the last one before Nicky was shipped off to Vietnam. It’s great to see Michael Angarano back again, and he and Milo Ventimiglia do a fantastic job capturing the moments of joy Nicky and Jack find against the backdrop of their shitty family life and the impending threat of the draft. Those moments of joy include Nicky’s explanation of the poeticism of the Leonard Cohen song “So Long, Marianne,” which is a message that Jack passed on to his family. Watching present-day Nicky try to hold back tears while Randall discusses the song is a beautiful parallel for the moment where Jack did the same thing as Rebecca sang back in “Sometimes.”

Griffin Dunne is the biggest standout of this episode. He’s still a great deadpan foil for the sunny, earnest Pearsons, but he beautifully modulates his performance to show off the softer side of Nicky that’s emerged thanks to his relationship with Kevin. Watching him get into the Jack-honoring spirit with a shrimp cocktail addition to the feast is a moment of emotional catharsis decades in the making. “So Long, Marianne” is clear-eyed about the fact that happy endings don’t always come easily. But it argues that they’re still possible, even when it seems like they aren’t. That puts a slightly sunnier outlook on an otherwise ominous flashforward.

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Stray observations

  • Bets on who Kevin’s fiancée is? It could be Cassidy and she’s pregnant from their fling. (The fact that she already had divorce papers last week did feel like suspiciously accelerated timing.) But I also think of morning sickness as a first trimester thing, not a third trimester thing, and the flashforward is set a full nine months in the future. Maybe the fling is a red herring? Will Sophie make her glorious return?!?
  • This Is Us almost always locks into solid gold when it pairs Kevin with one of his nieces. This episode is no exception as his subplot about helping Tess come out to her friends is a real highlight.
  • This is also a great Miguel episode. What an adorable, adorable dweeb.
  • Did not expect the Cats trailer and The Irishman’s 3.5 hour runtime to play such a crucial role in this episode. This Is Us, always topical! (The Ray Donovan reference maybe less so.)
  • We’re clearly supposed to find it heartwarming that Jack Jr. continues all of his family’s Thanksgiving traditions into the future, but I just found it to be an example of how exhausting the Pearsons are. They’re still doing the hot dog thing? And does it really need to be five full pounds of shrimp each year?
  • Present-day Rebecca’s sweater changes from maroon when she shows up at Randall’s door to blue when she’s in the kitchen later. It’s either a continuity error, a suggestion that she simply changed her sweater before dinner, or a massive clue to the fact that This Is Us is about to introduce an alternate universe timeline.
  • And that’s it for the first half of the season! See you back here in 2020.
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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.