Photo: This Is Us (NBC)

So let’s get one thing out of the way up front: Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, and Justin Hartley are all talented and attractive people, but that doesn’t change the fact that none of them look 28. They do, however, look like people in their late 30s/early 40s pretending to be 28, and that’s the biggest thing holding this episode back from fully soaring. If you’re willing to put that dress-up aspect aside, however, (and for the most part I was, especially on Halloween) this is yet another lovely This Is Us episode about the long, messy path of growing up.

My biggest concern about This Is Us introducing a new era to its timelines was that it would feel like filler. We know about the Big Three’s adolescence and we know about their present day lives, which means there’s only so much the show can do to make their 20s interesting without just relying on low-stakes dramatic irony (the fact that we know things about the characters’ future that they don’t). And that’s the problem with Kevin’s 2008 storyline, which is the least successful part of the episode. It basically just tells us what we already know, or at least reasonably could’ve guessed: Kevin struggled as an actor for a while before he made it big. Even weirder, the episode entirely ignores the biggest question mark we do still have about Kevin’s 20s—the details of his divorce from Sophie. Apparently they split up before Kevin got famous, rather than because of it, which I suppose is new information. But too much of his story feels like it’s treading water tonight.

Instead, the most interesting parts of this episode belong to Randall, Kate, and Rebecca, and it’s within those stories that This Is Us proves its trip to the triplets’ 20s is worth the screen time and bad wigs. But first things first, let’s jump back to Halloween night 1990. (I didn’t find this episode’s various timelines particularly confusing while I was watching, but they are a little tricky to write about.) As Jack and Rebecca dress as Sonny & Cher, Randall as Michael Jackson, Kate as “good girl” Sandy Olsson, and Kevin as a cigar-smoking bum, the episode introduces its central themes: Randall channels his anxieties into perfectionist tendencies, Rebecca feels unmoored without her partnership with Jack, and Kate over-romanticizes the world. And because this is This Is Us, those qualities continue to shape the Pearsons for the rest of their lives. So let’s tackle them one by one, shall?

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What I really like about Kate’s 2008 storyline is how much it subverted my expectations. When TV shows tell stories about plus-sized women and failed romances, they’re almost always stories of rejection. And that’s where I thought we were headed with Kate and her dreamy diner customer. When she joined the Diner Dreamboat (I don’t think he’s ever actually given a name) at his neighborhood bar, I was sure she’d be awkwardly rejected by a guy who saw her as “just a friend.” But instead the episode tells a far more interesting story: 20-something Kate is no longer the naïve 10-year-old unaware that Billy Palmer was paid off (in candy) to hold her hand; she knows that her Diner Dreamboat is married, even if she doesn’t actively acknowledge it. But because of her insecurities, Kate has come to expect less for herself. Her Diner Dreamboat is flirty and interested enough to ask her about night school (a low bar, as Kevin notes), and she’s convinced herself that that’s enough. It’s only after she sleeps with him that she realizes it’s not. It’s easy to make Kate the Charlie Brown of This Is Us—someone who perpetually has the football pulled away from her. But here she’s not only the Charlie Brown, she’s also her own Lucy as well. And after realizing she deserves more than a life of self-sabotage, 28-year-old Kate decides to leave Pittsburgh and move to L.A. to live with Kevin. Like Kevin’s story, Kate’s utilizes dramatic irony (we know it’s going to take her far longer than she thinks it will to figure out her life), but it also allows her to be an active character within her own narrative.

Randall, meanwhile, is also struggling with a turning point in his life, although he’s about five years ahead of Kate and Kevin in terms of major life milestones. Two months after the mental breakdown Beth described to William last season, 2008 Randall and Beth are still walking on eggshells as they countdown the days (well day) until Tess’ birth. “Guy is freaked out about becoming a father but pulls it together once the baby is born” isn’t the most original TV storyline in the world, but it gives Sterling K. Brown another chance to prove he’s one of the best actors working today. And it adds some depth to the present-day Randall/Beth partnership too. Their marriage may be strong now, but it’s had its less-than-perfect patches too. Thankfully, there’s nothing like an unplanned home birth to bring a family together.

But the real star of this episode is Rebecca, who has long been one of This Is Us’ most fascinating and underrated characters. It would’ve been easy to make the story of Randall becoming a father an examination of the Jack/Randall relationship, but I really like the choice to frame it largely as a Rebecca story instead. This episode’s various Rebecca storylines all paint a portrait of a woman who doesn’t like to tackle problems on her own, but who will always rise to the occasion when she has to. That’s what she does when young Randall finds out about the full circumstances of his adoption mid-trick-or-treating. Telling Randall about Kyle’s death isn’t something Rebecca was prepared to do without Jack by her side. But when the Larsens inadvertently spill the beans, she finds a way to make her son understand that though there was tragedy in the Big Three’s origin story, bringing Randall into the family was “the way it was always supposed to be.”

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Adopting Randall was a moment of happiness tinged with a moment of sadness, which is also how 2008 Rebecca feels about Tess’ birth. She couldn’t be more overjoyed to be a first-time grandparent, but she’s also painfully aware of the fact that Jack isn’t by her side to experience it too. I don’t think Mandy Moore gets nearly enough praise for her work on this series, especially considering she has the added challenge of appearing in more timelines than anyone else on the show. Is her old age makeup perfect? Perhaps not. But she’s excellent at altering her physicality, demeanor, and voice to embody Rebecca in all sorts of different eras of her life. (The way 50-something Rebecca nonchalantly asks Beth for help setting up a Facebook account because she can’t quite admit how lonely she feels is heartbreaking and perfectly played.) And Moore knocks it out of the park in a beautiful final sequence that juxtaposes Rebecca’s first conversation with newborn Tess with her first conversation with newborn Randall.

Both conversations are catalysts for new beginnings: 1980 Rebecca starts to come to terms with the fact that though her new family is unlike the one she was picturing while she was pregnant, it will be no less full of love. And 2008 Rebecca starts to come to terms with the fact that life without Jack doesn’t have to mean life without companionship. The episode’s “twist” (which, once again is mostly just new information rather than an actual twist) is that Rebecca didn’t fall into Miguel’s arms immediately after Jack’s death, as many have assumed. Instead she spent years living on her own until she reconnected with him via Facebook in 2008. It’s a fascinating wrinkle that recontextualizes the Rebecca/Miguel dynamic. Her relationship with Jack is one that started with the vibrancy and passion of two 20-somethings (maybe it’s the Sonny & Cher costumes, but Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia have truly insane levels of chemistry in this episode). Her relationship with Miguel, however, is one that started from the quieter, more mature place of two 50-somethings. Because whether you’re 10, 28, 36, or 57, it’s never too late for a new beginning.


Stray observations

  • Jack Death Watch: Kevin notes that 2008 Kate likes to sit in her car and stare at “where the house used to be” and that she’s specifically sitting “in the exact same spot” she was when “he” left. We’re meant to think it’s a conversation about Jack and it almost certainly is, but the fact that they never explicitly say the word “dad” also makes me just a little suspicious.
  • This episode was directed by actor Regina King. I don’t know if it was her direction or something inherent in the writing, but I really loved the warmth between Rebecca and Beth. I hope that continues in the present-day timeline too.
  • If you, like me, struggle to remember when everything happened on this show, The Hollywood Reporter’s timeline is very handy.
  • Present day Rebecca has always looked a bit like Diane Keaton, but 2008 Rebecca really looks like Diane Keaton. Turns out the Because I Said So casting directors were really onto something when they cast Mandy Moore as Keaton’s daughter.
  • For the most part, This Is Us hasn’t done a particularly great job of depicting Kevin and Kate’s “magical twin connection” in their childhood/teen flashbacks. But little Kevin trading away all his candy to ensure Kate got a special moment with her crush was so freaking sweet.
  • The episode tries to lampshade it, but Randall assuming that a hardware store employee with a turban must have “Eastern wisdom” is insanely racist. Was that supposed to be a commentary on the fact that 2008 Randall was less “woke” than 2017 Randall?
  • The 2008 Obama/Biden stickers were a real shot to the heart in our current political climate.
  • “Great, so I’m Rhoda with a mustache.”

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