Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

After three episodes focused on the devastating death of Jack Pearson, tonight marks the start of a new era for This Is Us. The show no longer has a big storytelling secret at its core and it’s free to explore the part of its timeline we still know very little about (the years immediately following Jack’s death). For now, however, This Is Us takes a break from stories about grief to party it up in Las Vegas. “Vegas, Baby” is neither the best nor the worst episode in This Is Us history. But it does at least offer the novelty of a new setting and some new character pairings.

One of my frequent complaints in these reviews is that despite having such a big ensemble, This Is Us is weirdly reticent about switching up its character combos. We almost always get Kate and Toby in one storyline, Randall and Beth (and sometimes Kevin) in another, and then a story about Jack and Rebecca in the past. The warmth of the Rebecca/Beth friendship in “The 20’s” was such a pleasant surprise because that was pretty much the first time we’d seen Beth have a meaningful interaction with a Pearson who wasn’t Randall. I can probably count on one hand the number of conversations Kate and Randall have had on this show, either in the past or the present. Even the Kevin/Kate bond—which is so foundational to the show’s premise—is something we’ve seldom seen in action because those two characters have been on different narrative paths since early in the show’s first season.

“Vegas, Baby” is very much an attempt to course correct all that. It’s full of lightly meta moments in which characters admit how weird it is that they only ever interact with one or two other people. Toby jokes that his co-dependent relationship with Kate has left him with a non-existent social circle while Kate admits she’s only ever spent about seven minutes alone with Beth. Toby and Kate’s parallel bachelor/bachelorette parties in Vegas offer a chance for This Is Us to try out some new character combinations for once (Beth is invited to Kate’s party while Randall and Kevin are invited to Toby’s). And while it’s an idea that works better in theory than in practice, I still appreciate the effort to mix things up.

The biggest problem with “Vegas, Baby” is the lack of subtext or subtlety in its dialogue. Rather than trust that we’ll see Beth bristle when Randall calls her “detached,” the episode has Beth and Randall immediately discuss her frustrations in an extended conversation. And rather than demonstrate Toby’s discomfort with the “filler friends” he invites to his bachelor party, the episode just has him explain that idea out loud a couple of times. This Is Us is never a particularly subtle show, but this episode is notably heavy-handed with its exposition.

The weakest part of the episode is the flashback story, which mostly just exists to reassure us that there are still many happy Jack Pearson moments left to be had despite the fact that we’ve now witnessed his death. After years of being out-gifted by her husband on their anniversary, Rebecca asks for a year free of the pressure of getting each other presents. It feels like a story that’s building towards something unexpected, like Rebecca surprising Jack with a big gift or Jack realizing his need to be a hero can wind up making other people feel inferior. But instead it just kinds of peters out with the Big Three arranging a romantic rooftop meteor shower viewing for their parents. It’s all pleasant enough, but it’s also relatively detached from the present-day storyline. Even worse, it feels like the kind of thing we’ve seen far too many times on this show; I’m still not convinced there’s a lot of storytelling material left to be mined in the Big Three’s elementary school years.

Though the present day stuff isn’t any subtler, it at least has the novelty of feeling like something new for the show—both because of its Vegas setting and because of its new character combinations. The on-the-nose dialogue doesn’t leave me with much to analyze that’s not overtly stated in the episode, but for the most part I still enjoyed watching the story unfold. And scenes like Toby bonding with Kevin and Randall or Kate buying Beth chocolates offer some refreshing sweetness after all the heavy drama of the past few episodes.

The episode’s biggest conflict is between Randall and Beth, who are processing Deja’s brief return to their lives in very different ways. Randall hasn’t stopped obsessing over Deja’s well being ever since she showed up at their door asking for money to help her mom pay their heating bill. Beth, meanwhile, is trying to be practical about the boundaries that need to exist in their relationship to Deja now that she’s officially back in Shauna’s custody. Randall and Beth are generally such a rock solid couple, it’s interesting to see them blow up at each other (at a Magic Mike Live show no less!). And while This Is Us is always trying to push Jack and Rebecca as its fairy tale couple, the idea that Randall and Beth have a massive fight every few years without it ever threatening the stability of their marriage is, in its own way, a really lovely testament to the strength of their partnership.

But the dynamic in “Vegas, Baby” that interests me the most is the one between Randall and Kate, which is a pairing I wish the show would return to more often. Though this episode mostly stays away from the topic of Jack’s death, it also gives me hope for a future in which This Is Us doesn’t have to awkwardly write around it all the time. While making amends at a slot machine, Kate casually mentions that after their dad died, Randall became a rock for her. They spent the next year eating Hot Pockets and watching Sex And The City marathons. It’s the sort of detail that feels like a natural thing for her to bring up in the moment, but which This Is Us likely wouldn’t have included back when it was committed to keeping everything about Jack’s death a secret. Brief as it may be, the flashback to teenage Kate and Randall lounging in the living room adds some much needed depth and specificity to their relationship. Now that it’s free to explore the post-Jack’s death era in detail, I’m hoping This Is Us will include more small but meaningful moments like that moving forward.

With its stylish montages and lighter tone, “Vegas, Baby” is very much designed as a palate cleanser between the recent arc about Jack’s death and whatever drama lies ahead in the season finale (which has to center on Kate and Toby’s wedding, right?). Though it has its requiste This Is Us melodrama, “Vegas, Baby” is an easy watch in a way the past few episodes haven’t been. After three episodes all about loss, it makes sense that This Is Us would want to give its characters some wins. And what better place for a win than Vegas?


Stray observations

  • Like Jack, Toby also has a hitherto unseen little brother who I have to imagine will play a dramatic role in Toby and Kate’s wedding given how much Toby talks about him here.
  • “You guys are so Mike & Molly, I can’t stand it,” is an absolutely brilliant microaggression to have Madison deliver.
  • Calling a hugely famous director to speechify about getting cut out of a movie without confirming you were actually cut out of it is peak Kevin Pearson. Too bad this show is apparently going to reward him with an Oscar?
  • Kate requesting that her mom dress like Julia Roberts on the cover of Pretty Woman really feels like something a slightly confused pre-teen girl would do in the name of romance.
  • Randall is clearly a Charlotte, not a Miranda.

Next week: A Deja-centric episode will catch us up on what happened after she left Beth and Randall in “Number Three.”