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This Is Us’ waiting room bottle episode is tedious rather than tense

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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Thank god for Madison. She’s the one bright spot in this otherwise incredibly tedious episode, which takes place almost exclusively in the waiting room of Kate’s maternity ward. Though it’s not the first This Is Us episode to take place entirely in the present, it’s the first to feature one singular storyline rather than multiple timelines and subplots. The goal is to make “The Waiting Room” feel like a play—one where tensions and inter-family conflicts unfold in real time over the course of one tension-filled night. (The episode forgoes any musical scoring to keep us locked in the Pearsons’ present.) To be fair, that means “The Waiting Room” is to some extent designed to be a frustrating watch. We’re meant to feel the tension and exasperation of being kept away from the main dramatic action with Kate, Toby, and their baby back in the maternity ward. And we do. But there’s nothing within those frustrations to elevate them into something worth watching.

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The closest parallel for this episode is the eight-minute therapy scene from the second season episode “The Fifth Wheel,” where Kevin, Kate, Randall, and Rebecca hashed out their issues with the help of Kevin’s rehab therapist. That scene worked really well, both because it was a smaller part of a bigger episode and because it felt like the tensions between those four characters had truly reached a boiling point and it made sense to let them explode. In comparison, “The Waiting Room” feels less like a purposeful, meaningful pause in the season, and more like a cheap gimmick—or maybe just a budget saving measure, as bottle episodes often are.

Though the Pearsons sit in self-flagellating vigil outside her hospital room (I audibly groaned at Rebecca’s self-righteous “This family stays”), they decide not to talk through the possibilities of what the future might hold for Kate. So instead, beyond some Rebecca stuff that bubbles up at the end, the episode’s main drama comes from two relationships on the verge of crisis: Kevin and Zoe, and Randall and Beth. The Kevin/Zoe stuff mostly just feels like a stall. In the previous episode, Kevin panicked at the idea of Zoe finding out about his drinking, which isn’t really an emotional throughline this episode picks up on in a major way. Instead, everyone has already learned about Kevin’s relapse off-screen, and Zoe is mostly willing to be supportive until she realizes (I’m not exactly sure when) that Kevin’s water bottle has been filled with vodka the whole night. It remains to be seen whether Kevin’s bold-faced lie will be a breaking point for Zoe, but that’s more of a cliffhanger than a substantive throughline to unpack.

The good news is, I found a solution to Randall and Beth’s childcare woes! They should simply hire whatever magical person they trust enough to watch their kids for a last-minute cross-country trip of indeterminate length. Because it turns out that not only did Randall needlessly fly across the country to sit in a waiting room, Beth did to! Look, if This Is Us wants to be a show that ignores tricky financial and parenting realities to tell dramatic family stories, that’s fine. Or if it wants to be a show that explores the nuances of everyday life, that’s also fine. But it cannot be both at once, and that’s what it’s become with this Randall/Beth storyline, wherein they can fly across the country at the drop of a hat, yet are simultaneously struggling to hash out nitty gritty details of their daily schedules and budgets.

Neither Beth nor Randall comes off well here. Yes, it’s super annoying that Randall chased his impossible dreams and put his family in a massive bind by becoming a City Councilman in a state in which he doesn’t live. But it’s also annoying that Beth now thinks that gives her license to chase her own dreams without any regards to practicality either. Teaching occasional dance classes on nights and weekends sounds more like a side hustle than a full-time job anyway. Was this Beth’s sole career plan? Couldn’t she pick up a part-time job or some freelance opportunities that would work alongside her dance class schedule? The only satisfying moment in their storyline was Beth snarking, “Apparently being a City Councilman requires a lot of hours, which comes as a real shock to Randall.” And even that’s undone when she pulls back to take things in a more positive tonal direction.

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Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

Elsewhere, Mandy Moore acts the hell out of Rebecca’s quiet tension, which first comes out in odd little observations before she finally explodes in a big monologue when Kevin and Randall won’t stop their petulant bickering. There’s something intriguing in the idea that Rebecca has so much trauma associated with waiting rooms, given how much they remind her of the night that Jack died. (Although, I actually thought the episode was going to go in a different direction and have Kate’s early labor remind Rebecca of her own experience losing a child in childbirth.) Like most things in “The Waiting Room,” however, Rebecca’s big monologue feels both overwritten and thematically inert. This Is Us has used its multi-timeline structure to tell some really compelling stories over the years. Taking away that premise reveals just how much the show struggles with writing realistic dialogue and crafting believable interpersonal conflicts between its present-day characters.

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The best scene in the episode is the one that moves out of the waiting room and follows Kate and Toby into the NICU as they bond with their new baby, who they unsurprisingly name Jack. (I like that Randall and Kevin lampshade the obviousness of that choice.) It’s a scene that feels vital and visceral in a way the rest of the episode doesn’t, mostly because there’s something so tangible about Kate and Toby gazing adoringly at their tiny baby surrounded by the scary-looking medical equipment keeping him alive. I think This Is Us has the chance to do something really special with the story of Kate and Toby’s journey through the experience of having a preemie. It’s something thousands of families go through each year, yet an experience I’ve seldom seen explored on TV. (Grey’s Anatomy has lots of storylines set in the NICU, but in more of a case-of-the-week style.) It’s just frustrating that the show decided to kickstart that journey by mostly keeping us on the outside of it.


Stray observations

  • Shout-out to Madison and Miguel for being the MVPs of this episode, and the only people I would actually want to spend time in a waiting room with. Their shared struggle to find a place within the Pearson family was the only genuinely moving part of this episode. It feels especially egregious that Madison was locked out of the waiting room when Zoe (who barely even knows Kate!) is just automatically treated as a Pearson.
  • That being said, I definitely disagree with Miguel’s assessment that pumpkin and watermelon are made better with chocolate (or that pumpkin is made better with ranch). Also, I don’t buy ranch as the game’s ultimate trump card because ranch would definitely be made better with more ranch!
  • Toby trying and failing to crack a joke at Miguel’s expense was a well-executed bit of dark comedy.
  • Instead of having Rebecca and Miguel move to California, I vote Kate and Toby should just relocate to the East Coast. That would resolve all the non-stop cross-country travel this show keeps having to utilize.
  • Caroline’s PSA corner: At one point Madison suggests “they” tell you not to make a birth plan, which I definitely have to refute. In fact, making a birth plan is actually a really positive and important way for those giving birth to advocate for themselves and gain additional confidence in dealing with medical professionals during labor and delivery. It’s not about tempting fate—it’s about reclaiming agency in a process that often isn’t automatically designed to grant you any. The American Pregnancy Association suggests making a birth plan (with flexibility and backup options) and meeting with your labor and birth department in advance to review it.
  • Give Mandy Moore an Emmy for her impression of what an electrical outlet looks like.
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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.