Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

As a human being, I have innate emotional reactions to the media I watch, and as a critic, it’s my job to analyze and explain why the media made me feel that way. But that’s sometimes easier said than done. I spent most of the second half of “Katie Girls” feeling really choked up and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not designed to be a tear-jerking episode in the way that This Is Us sometimes is, and it shares some of the same problems as last week’s overstuffed, disjointed episode. But first time This Is Us writer Julia Brownell brings a welcome level of nuance to her character interactions, which—much more so than the big, tear-jerking moments—is what tends to separate a good episode of This Is Us from a great one. “Katie Girls” reminded me a lot of my favorite episode from last season, “Brothers,” which was similarly a lower stakes but emotionally nuanced episode. Or maybe the reason I connected so strongly to tonight’s episode is simply because it put my favorite character front and center.

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Though it’s named after Kate (who gets the episode’s most gimmick-y storyline), the episode’s most compelling thread belongs to Rebecca Pearson, who has emerged as not only my favorite character on This Is Us, but one of my favorite characters on TV. “Katie Girls” picks up where the third season premiere left off, with Rebecca’s high school sweetheart Alan Philips (Hunter Parrish) showing up on her doorstep with flowers while Jack looks on in dismay. But unlike the premiere, which seemed to find little storytelling juice in its 1970s storyline, “Kate Girls” actively deepens Rebecca as a character. On paper, equality-minded, career-focused Alan seems to be an ideal guy for Rebecca, especially once he proves he’s willing to give up a dream job in London to move to a place where they can both pursue careers. But Rebecca can’t stop thinking about Jack, a guy who seems totally wrong for her and yet connects so strongly with her anyway.

What I love about Rebecca’s storyline—both in general but in this episode in particular—is that it’s bittersweet in the truest sense of the word. This Is Us often feels the need to wrap up its emotional storylines in a neat bow, but Rebecca’s is messy and unfinished in a really honest way. Though This Is Us sometimes struggle when it comes to depicting Jack as anything other than The Most Perfect Man Alive, the show at least recognizes that marrying The Most Perfect Man Alive doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have The Most Perfect Life Ever.

That’s encapsulated in the image of Jack and Rebecca washing dishes together at the end of the episode. Their moment of domestic equality stands in sharp contrast to the opening montage in which young Rebecca watched her mother play dutiful housewife while her father was busy with his career. In that way, the dish washing scene is a sign that Rebecca was right to follow her instincts with Jack rather than betting on a sure thing with Alan. Yet, in another way, their joint dish washing is a symbol of the domesticity that will eventually come to define Rebecca’s life, despite her best efforts. Jack and Rebecca may plan a spontaneous roadtrip to L.A., but we know Rebecca eventually winds up exactly where she didn’t want to be—back in Pittsburgh and frequently at home with her kids, waiting for Jack to return from work. Of the two dreams they describe in their grocery store re-meet-cute, Jack’s is the one that comes true. That doesn’t mean Rebecca’s life is a tragedy; she loves her kids and she loves Jack. But it definitely isn’t a complete fairy tale either.

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That bittersweetness is echoed in Alan’s mother Mrs. Philips (a wonderful Jane Kaczmarek). As a woman born a generation before Rebecca, she had to make her own compromises in the ambitions she had for her life. She got to go to college, but her father made her study English, rather than science. And you get the sense that marrying Alan’s father was it’s own kind of compromise. Given the regressiveness of the era, she didn’t necessarily have a huge array of equality-minded men to choose from, so she held on to the first one she met. More so than anyone, Mrs. Philips knows that life can be incredibly complicated even if you surround yourself with the best kind of people. I absolutely love the way she’s so deeply protective of Rebecca and how warmly the episode depicts their friendship.

Those kinds of thoughtful, nuanced interactions exist throughout this episode—from Randall and Toby’s conversation about the way men are taught to hide their emotional struggles, to the lovely flashback scene between Beth and William, to the unexpected fallout of the Randall/Kate conflict. After being so firmly on Randall’s side last week in his hurt over Kate’s comments about passing on Jack’s legacy to her biological kids, I was shocked by how quickly this episode swung me around to Kate’s point of view. After all, Randall and Beth also made the choice to have biological children, and just because their pregnancy journey was easier than Kate’s, that doesn’t make her choice to do the same any less valid.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

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Unfortunately, the weakest part of the episode is Kate’s anesthesia-induced fantasy in which she hangs out with the younger versions of herself. Yet even there, the episode at least grapples with an issue I’ve long had with This Is Us—that kid Kate, teen Kate, and adult Kate feel like three entirely different people. “Kate Girls” tries to smooth over those rough edges by more clearly establishing that teen Kate’s snarky personality was built in direct opposition to the extreme naiveté that characterized her youth. Now that she’s moving on to a new phase of life, adult Kate is trying to embrace the optimism of her childhood without forgetting the hard lessons she’s learned along that way. Though it’s a bit on the nose, it mostly works. What works less well is the “maybe Kate will stay in heaven with Jack!” feint the episode tries to throw in at the last minute.

Elsewhere, “Katie Girls” sets up a dynamic between Beth and Randall that echoes the one between Rebecca and Jack. After years of being the quietly confident rock in their relationship (or the bass to Randall’s trumpet, as William puts it), Beth has her confidence rattled when she’s unexpectedly fired from her job. It remains to be seen whether Randall can now rise to the occasion and become a true support system for her. Given how much the Rebecca/Mrs. Philips relationship echoed the warm one between Beth and Rebecca back in “The 20's,” hopefully Rebecca can play a role in supporting Beth too. Because This Is Us tends to be at its best when it puts Rebecca front and center.


Stray observations

  • Elsewhere in the episode, Jack finally gets his mom out from under the roof of his domineering, abusive father. Meanwhile, some probing interview questions from Terry Gross inspire Kevin to learn more about his dad’s time in Vietnam. That serves as our intro into next week’s much-hyped Vietnam War flashback episode, which was co-written by Tim O’Brien.
  • Speaking of which, I really loved the scenes in which Jack reacts strongly when young Kevin wants to play “war” at the toy store. I also love that This Is Us is confident enough to throw a whole bunch of different timelines into one episode, including that conversation between William and Beth, which takes place during the events of the first season episode “Jack Pearson’s Son.”
  • Does Randall’s plan to run for councilman involve moving his entire family to Philadelphia? Or can he run for the job while living in an entirely different state?
  • I found Mandy Moore shockingly credible as a 16-year-old.
  • Miguel, Beth, and Toby (a.k.a. “the Others”) have a group text where they share GIFs while Miguel occasionally offers searing insights into the Pearson family’s neuroses.

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