BWW Recap: Solving Old Mysteries Creates New Ones on the Season 3 Premiere of THIS IS US
After a long summer without our Pearson family fix, NBC's "This Is Us" returned tonight to solve some mysteries, present some new ones, and be the perfect, escapist, tear-jerking family drama we've come to expect it to be.
We find this family, as always, in various time periods, emotional states, and physical locations. Following with tradition, the season premiere centers on the Big Three's birthday--this time, they're 38, and they're each going through it in their own way. Kevin (Justin Hartley) has been secretly dating Beth's awesome cousin, Zoe (Melanie Liburd), who is staying with Beth and Randall while she's directing a documentary shooting in New York; Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) are gearing up to adopt Deja--if she'll have them; and newlyweds Kate and Toby (Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan) are going through the endlessly heartbreaking process of trying to get and remain pregnant.
Back in the seventies, we bear witness to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore)'s first ever date. We've seen bits and pieces of this night before--we know Jack was almost involved in a robbery, but doesn't follow through after hearing Rebecca sing. We get to see how the whole night plays out this time--a drink and then a carnival, which we expect will be perfect and romantic.
We're wrong. Jack only has nine dollars to spend. What starts as a sweet "challenge" ends up stressful when Jack can't afford to buy an umbrella when it starts to rain. The great-first-date energy they'd built up falls flat, and they stand there, embarrassed and wet.
Rebecca gets some answers that we've all been waiting for in this scene--after last season's reveal that Jack was a veteran of the Vietnam War, we've been dying to know the details. Here, we find out that Jack, an Army mechanic, indeed lost his younger brother in combat. We also find out that he's had a very hard time since returning to the United States, presumably with PTSD, a disease that, in 1972, had not yet been named and could not yet be treated.
The night ends with Jack apologizing for the lousy date while dropping Rebecca off at her house. We get the first chronological glimpse of the honesty and openness that made Jack and Rebecca's romance so solid and long-lasting. These people were great communicators from the start--so it seems! We're surprised when Jack returns to Rebecca's house the following day and sees her kissing another man. What we thought was an uncomplicated happy ending became something new, a love triangle that could take the whole season to resolve.
Back in 2018, Kevin (doing press for his new movie) is secretly dating Beth's cousin, Zoe. He seems happy for the first time in a while--we don't see him pick up a drink or a pill bottle in this episode, and he doesn't seem to even contemplate using. It seems the source of the conflict will be the hiding of the new relationship, but, from the beginning, Beth smells a rat. It takes less than thirty seconds for her to be sure that the two of them are "knocking boots."
What follows is a series of serious (and funny) family spats between Beth and Zoe and Beth and Kevin. It's some great acting from Watson (seriously, @ Emmys, please stop ignoring this powerhouse performance) and great development, especially for Beth and Kevin's relationship. Up until now, we've primarily seen Beth irritated by the other Pearson brother. This is the first time we really see the love they share--it's more than familial obligation, it's a true mutual admiration and respect. Beth tells Kevin that she loves him, and that's why she's so opposed to this union--she also knows and loves Zoe, and she thinks she will eat him alive.
While this is happening, Randall has taken Deja (who's in therapy now!) to William's old apartment building to officially ask to adopt her. It's a beautiful-if-saccharine moment, one that he seems to have given a lot of thought--he says that being adopted defined his whole life, that meeting and loving his birth father put things into perspective, and that he and Beth would be privileged to adopt her and give her the love she deserves.
Deja immediately calls him on projecting. She tells him they are NOT the same--her parents gave her up because they didn't want her, and he has no right to compare their situations when he has always had parents who cared. It does not seem like she wants to be adopted by the Pearsons.
Watching Randall learn is one of the most satisfying parts in the whole of watching "This Is Us." He is a wonderful, thoughtful person who often gets caught up in his own savior complex. The moments where he is challenged in his thought and action really prove how wonderful and thoughtful he really is.
Deja sneaks out to go and see her birth father later that day--we see him in a flashback early in the episode, so we know that Deja knows where he lives and works. Mirroring Randall's first meeting with William in the pilot, Deja tells her birth father that she has found people who want her, people who tell her she is exceptional, and that she does not and never will need him--for anything except this one thing. She uses her one favor to buy Randall an expensive pair of sneakers for his birthday, which she uses to tell the Pearsons she wants them to adopt her (arguably the better present, but Randall really did love those sneakers).
In the midst of all of this, Kate and Toby are trying again to have a baby. After the heartbreak of last season's miscarriage and the frustration of not being able to get pregnant again, they go and see a fertility doctor, who diagnoses Kate with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a common uterine illness that is rarely talked about on television) and Toby with a low sperm count as a side effect of his antidepressants. Knowing the risks, they decide to inquire about In Vitro Fertilization (IVF).
The IVF doctor refuses the optimistic Kate and Toby, citing Kate's weight as a liability for herself and her practice. "This Is Us" has been dealing with the reality of fatphobia in the medical field for three years, but it still feels revolutionary whenever these stories come about. It's gut-wrenching watching Kate and Toby's faces fall as they realize they will have to explore other avenues of parenthood yet again.
Metz and Sullivan both give gorgeous performances in this episode--Metz particularly, in displaying the understated grief that comes from a long and painful fertility process. "This Is Us," at its best, makes us smile and cry within the same moment--we see Kate enjoying her birthday brunch until it's time to make a wish and something inside her breaks. It is particularly hard to stay collected during Kate's lowest points, and there are many of those in this episode.
But we don't end in that low, dark place--Kate and Toby later receive a phone call from the IVF doctor, who has had a change of heart after the earlier devastation she dealt out. She says that she talked to colleagues who HAVE had success with IVF with women at Kate's weight, and agrees to take on their case.
As Kate buzzes around her apartment, thrilled at the 10% chance that she will become pregnant, Toby stands, anxiously, in the bathroom, reading notes back to himself. He cannot stop focusing on the 90% of cases that fail. Afraid of what his low sperm count will do to their chances, he flushes his antidepressants down the toilet--giving some context to the depressed, lethargic future-Toby we briefly met at the end of last season.
One big mystery remains--who is the "she" that Randall and Tess referred to at the end of last season? Who are they going to see? Why aren't they ready? We get a little more in this episode, with future-Randall calling future-Toby and asking him if he's coming, but we have no concrete evidence either way. Is it Kate? Is it Beth? Is it someone we don't yet know? Presumably, we will find out over the course of this season.
The season premiere, which opened with a classic montage of intertwining Pearson narratives, introduced a mysterious new character going about his morning routine. He talks to his mother on the phone. She's cooking and parenting at the same time--a monumental feat, as her family seems big and vibrant, full of an energy she seems to feed off of rather than succumb to. The mysterious character gets off the phone and gets ready for work. And then, the reveal: mystery man is Franco Harris, a Pittsburgh Steeler who became legend for his performance in the 1972 game that is dramatized in this episode as precursor to Jack and Rebecca's first date.
The Franco Harris narrative frames this episode--we close with him returning home to his family post-game, with their excitement, with his joy at having done something good, with his joy at having someone to come home to.
Franco Harris is not going to become a season regular on "This Is Us." Rather, his story is in this episode to remind us that the Pearson family does not have a monopoly on human complication. A person is an amalgamation of the people who made them, their day to day experiences, the little joys and heartbreaks that make up every human life. We may not all have our "Immaculate Reception" play, but we all have people who make us happy and people who make us crazy. We have the ability to affect others just by nature of existing. If "This Is Us" teaches any lesson, it's that it's worth suffering through the heartbreaks to get to the joy--because, as long as we're loved, that joy will always come.