Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iThis Is Us /iturns Randall’s anxiety into a horror movie
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

After last week’s terrifying cliffhanger, it’s a relief that “A Hell Of A Week: Part One” isn’t an hour-long home invasion thriller in which Randall has to fight to save his family. Instead, the break-in is resolved in the opening few minutes, as Randall gives the invader money and convinces him to flee before the cops arrive. Yet even once the physical danger is over, the episode doesn’t shake the unsettled feeling that characterized last week’s unnerving ending. “A Hell Of A Week: Part One” explores Randall’s anxiety by turning it into something akin to a horror movie via surreal nightmares in which Randall is rendered powerless and voiceless. For viewers who don’t live with anxiety, the nightmare sequences are a way to make the experience tangible and relatable. For those who do, “A Hell Of A Week: Part One” delivers a powerful pang of recognition.

Advertisement

“A Hell Of A Week: Part One” kicks off a trio of Big Three centric episodes, which will unfold across the same week in the Big Three’s present and teen years, with a childhood flashback to their first night in their “big kid beds” anchoring the whole thing. It’s a format the show deployed to great success in its second season, and one I’m excited to see the series tackle again. That also means that, for now, mysteries like what happened to teen Kate and how Kevin fared in Philadelphia will have to be answered in subsequent episodes. This week it’s Randall’s turn to take center stage.

Randall’s anxiety has always been central to his character, but this episode digs into where it comes from, how it operates, and why he’s so unwilling to seek help for it. In a nice bit of character continuity, the only other time we’ve seen the show use this kind of nightmare imagery was way back in the first season episode “The Trip,” when Randall hallucinated his mom’s anxiety as its own kind of locked door horror movie. Some of Randall’s nightmares play out with similar bluntness, with his loved ones in danger and him powerless to help. Others are more surreal and cerebral, like the one that places Jack at the family dinner from “Storybook Love.” What should be a happy image becomes an unsettling fever dream, as no one will listen to dream Randall as he tries to tell them that Jack is dead.

Illustration for article titled iThis Is Us /iturns Randall’s anxiety into a horror movie
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

When it first debuted, the central thesis of This Is Us seemed to be that the Pearson family’s trauma all stemmed from the tumultuous years following Jack’s death. Yet the past few seasons have slowly picked that idea apart, bringing Jack’s flaws to the surface and exploring the deeper issues that shaped the Big Three well before the loss of their father. So while, yes, the way that Rebecca unfairly leaned on Randall after Jack’s death undoubtedly contributed to his anxiety issues and his refusal to ask for help, that wasn’t the sole cause. By that point, Randall’s imperfect coping mechanisms were already well in place.

Advertisement

One of the sharpest observations in “A Hell Of A Week: Part One” is the way that parents can unknowingly pass on neuroses to their kids. The first time little Randall comes to Jack to tell him he’s scared, Jack responds, “It’s okay to be scared sometimes, bud. I’m really happy that you were brave enough to tell me. See, that way I can help you fix it.” It’s a perfect moment of parenting, one that seems to cement Jack’s status as the World’s Best Dad. Later, however, once Jack is at his wits’ end after a long night of solo parenting, he half-jokingly asks Randall to please be his well-behaved kid because Kevin and Kate are kind of a handful. It’s a quietly gutting moment because we know Jack doesn’t really mean what he’s saying and we also know that Randall is going to take it to heart for the rest of his life. You want to shout at Jack to take it back in the same way you might shout at horror movie protagonists who decide to split up to search the house.

Though Randall inherited his anxiety condition from William, his coping mechanisms are pure Jack: Build your identity around your love for a good woman, distract yourself with exercise (in Jack’s case boxing, in Randall’s case running), and, when all else fails, bury your issues and pretend everything’s fine. Humor tends to be Randall’s go to defense mechanism, but his pointed “asked and answered” to Jae-won calls to mind any number of moments of Jack Pearson stubbornness. We know that middle-aged Jack was just beginning to develop healthier coping mechanisms by attending AA meetings. Tragically, it’s a shift he never fully got to follow through with, and one that came at a time when his kids were less malleable to his influence anyway.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled iThis Is Us /iturns Randall’s anxiety into a horror movie
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

The central tragedy of “A Hell Of A Week: Part One” is Randall’s almost pathological inability to accept the help that’s so frequently offered to him. This episode is filled with moments where characters ask if he’s okay, both in the present and the past. Even frazzled Rebecca doesn’t let the arrival of Kevin and Sophie distract her from trying to follow up about the nightmares Randall offhandedly mentions. But at a certain point, Randall’s refusal to admit that anything’s wrong becomes a wall no one can break through, not even Beth, who’s been a partner in his mental health struggles longer than anyone. “A Hell Of A Week: Part One” argues that for as strong as their marriage is, Randall’s dependence on Beth is also part of the unhealthy, repressive way he manages his anxiety. And that’s long put an unfair burden on her.

Advertisement

Yet for as much empathy as this episode clearly has for the outsized role Beth has had to play in helping Randall manage his mental health, I also think there are ways in which it gives her the short shrift too. For instance, she has virtually no reaction to the reveal that the armed intruder entered the room where she was sleeping, which you’d think would traumatize even the most well-adjusted human being. Instead that reveal is presented as another stress for Randall alone.

That’s the biggest of the relatively few quibbles I have with this episode, which is otherwise a unique, thoughtful, emotional hour of television. One of the best things about This Is Us is the way it’s carved out space to tell appreciably specific stories, particularly about the black experience. Darnell puts aside his political frustrations with his councilman to reach out to Randall as a friend—acknowledging that black men are often taught to mask their emotional vulnerabilities and opening up about how much he’s benefited from therapy. It’s a great scene for Omar Epps, and the type of conversation you rarely see on network TV.

Advertisement

“A Hell Of A Week: Part One” is also a fantastic showcase for Niles Fitch and Sterling K. Brown, who both do phenomenal work capturing the raw nerve energy beneath Randall’s semi-put-together exterior. Randall’s breaking point comes from what’s publicly hailed as a heroic moment. But Randall knows that brutally beating a mugger was an example of him losing control, not regaining it. The final scene where Randall breaks down and calls Kevin is some of the best acting Brown has done on the show and a testament to how far their sibling relationship has evolved over the past four seasons. Now that we’ve seen this hell of a week from Randall’s point of view, it’s time to see what Kevin’s been up to.


Stray observations

  • This is the first time we’ve properly met the new preschool generation of the Big Three and they’re suitably adorable!
  • The fact that Jack is watching The Shining is a nice tie-in to this episode’s horror movie feel.
  • I don’t think my college dorm ever did a fire drill, much less one in the middle of the night. The idea that Beth and her friends would just sit around chatting through the deafening alarm was also pretty bizarre.
  • Other than that, however, this is a great episode for Rachel Naomi Hilson, who continues to do wonderfully empathetic work as teen Beth.
  • I’m not sure if we’ve had the date explicitly stated before, but thanks to Randall’s security code, we now know that Jack and Rebecca got married on May 16, 1976. For other points of reference, their first date takes place December 23, 1972 (the night of the “Immaculate Reception”) and the Big Three are born August 31, 1980.
Advertisement

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.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter