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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

This Is Us welcomes some new additions to the family

Illustration for article titled This Is Us welcomes some new additions to the family
Photo: NBC
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There are two versions of This Is Us: The big melodramatic tear-jerking show that’s earned the reputation as America’s favorite weepy. And the subtler, character-centric series that the show actually is in its best moments. Maybe more so than any other episode in the show’s history, “In The Room” succeeds at blending those two tones together. This childbirth-centric hour indulges in the biggest, most manipulative tactics in the This Is Us playbook, both when it comes to emotion and suspense. Yet it ultimately keeps things far more grounded and small-scale than I was expecting. The big “twist” is that everything works out okay for once.

While I can’t argue that “In The Room” is an all-time great episode of This Is Us, I can’t deny that it totally worked on me too. This episode made me cry for a substantial part of its runtime—sometimes about the specifics of its characters and sometimes just about what life has been like for the past year. Whatever quibbles I may have with its storytelling choices on an intellectual level, there’s something to be said for the power of uplifting emotional catharsis.

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The smartest choice “In The Room” makes is to have its two simultaneous deliveries be relatively straightforward. Having previously seen Rebecca lose a baby, Kate rushed into a premature emergency C-section, and Beth give birth on her living room floor, it’s a relief that things actually go right for this show’s pregnant women for once. Kevin makes it in time for Madison’s delivery. The birth moms and babies are all healthy. And the feint towards Ellie deciding to keep her baby turns out to be a moment to say a loving goodbye to her birth child as she sends her off to be with her new family. Even seemingly doomed COVID patient Rose gets to inspire Toby and Kate’s daughter’s middle name without dying in the process—a true miracle by This Is Us standards.

The only wrinkles to the otherwise smooth labor and deliveries are COVID restrictions, which limit how many birth partners Ellie can have in the delivery room and make Rebecca feel further away from her kids than ever as they go through such major life milestones on the other side of the country. This is the first episode of the season to really try to make COVID an active driver of the show’s dramatic tension, rather than just an inconsistent background detail. And while there are an endless number of nits to pick with the depiction of COVID safety (I really don’t think Kevin should be hopping off a flight and going straight to Madison’s side), it at least sort of makes the show’s decision to embrace the pandemic feel somewhat purposeful.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us welcomes some new additions to the family
Photo: NBC

In fact, the way this episode separates the Pearsons into their own little bubbles actually makes it a far more realistic depiction of what big family events are usually like for people, even in pre-COVID times. Getting news over FaceTime and text is much more relatable than camping out in a waiting room for days on end. The fact that Randall and Beth are still on their road trip back from New Orleans adds a sense of continuity that was often missing back when the Pearsons seemed to magically teleport across the country at the drop of a hat.

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In its most unexpected storytelling move, “In The Room” also features a tribute to Nasir Ahmed, the real-life computer scientist who helped invent the technology that makes photo and video sharing possible. It’s a new form of storytelling for This Is Us, which has featured mysterious guest characters before but never told a real-life story like this one. It’s another touch that marks this as a very special episode—manipulatively, but effectively. Like an uplifting “in these unprecedented times” commercial, This Is Us emotionally weaponizes our own personal experiences of pandemic isolation and virtual connection. But, hey, there’s a reason commercials so often make people cry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite throughline belongs to Rebecca, who gets the most low-key, character-centric storyline of the episode. “In The Room” contrasts Rebecca’s two marriages more directly than we’ve ever really seen before. There’s Jack, the hero dad whose big, bold yet deeply repressed emotions sometimes leave less room for her own. And there’s Miguel, the quiet partner who gives her space to process her messy emotional reality without putting his own baggage on her. The lovely moment Rebecca thanks Miguel for putting aside his Jack-related grief to support hers makes me really excited for This Is Us to finally delve into their love story, which the showrunners have long promised is coming. And Rebecca and Miguel’s charming cocktail banter about a trip to Puerto Rico introduces a whole new flirty energy between the two of them that’s really sweet to watch.

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Illustration for article titled This Is Us welcomes some new additions to the family
Photo: NBC

Beyond Rebecca’s reflections and the introduction of the “New Big Three” (hi Hailey, Nick, and Franny!), the other big event in “In The Room” is the healing of Randall and Kevin’s season-long rift. This Is Us continues the trend of retconning what their season four finale fight was actually about, and, by extension, how deeply flawed Randall was last season. Admittedly, a global pandemic is the sort of thing that can make you put aside old conflicts—even big ones about your mom’s health. But if that’s supposed to be what happened, I wish This Is Us had made it a more active part of its storytelling rather than implying that the original issue was about Kevin ignoring Randall’s lived reality.

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Still, for all my concerns, “In The Room” is an episode that speaks to my heart, not my head. It’s deeply manipulative and sometimes full-on cheesy, but, to be honest, I don’t mind a little uplifting cheese at the moment. “In The Room” isn’t This Is Us at its creative best. I don’t even think it’s This Is Us at its emotional best. But it might just be This is Us in its purest form.


Stray observations

  • I swear to god, I very briefly thought This Is Us was about to introduce time travel into its universe with the dramatic buildup to what Nasir Ahmed was working on.
  • After half a season of radio silence, “In The Room” finally returns to Uncle Nicky in a big way. Not only does Kevin name his newborn son after his newfound uncle, Griffin Dunne managed to make me weep with just two lines of dialogue!
  • This Is Us deploys the ultimate cheat code of casting Michael O’Neill to sell what’s ultimately a pretty hacky stock character of the ornery grieving husband. Has there ever been a better guest star in the history of television?
  • Rebecca on middle school Kate’s obsession with Beverly Hills, 90210: “I can’t even tell if it’s a terrible show or if she’s just terrible at recapping it.”
  • Jack and Rebecca’s debate about how much it’s appropriate to make fun of their kids is a conflict I’ve genuinely never seen in a family show before—although I wish it had been tied more to Jack’s guilt over Kevin hearing him call him “soft” rather than the more generic “our kids are growing up” fear.
  • Other COVID quibbles: No one’s masks fit properly, and I’m not sure why Toby is tailgating the birth in a parking lot instead of staying at home with his toddler son and FaceTiming from there.
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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.

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