We should’ve known the Big Green Egg was just a red herring. The only thing This Is Us likes more than a tease about the future is a twist in the present. So while viewers went into tonight’s episode assuming we’d be seeing sweet little Jack somehow burn himself on his dad’s new smoker, the story behind his forehead scar is a little bit different. In a moment of chaos during Rebecca and Miguel’s anniversary party, Jack sneaks out of the house, makes his way to the park, and falls and hits his head bad enough to need several stitches.
It’s two terrifying parental rites of passage all wrapped up in one: The first time your kid gets lost and the first time your kid has a major medical emergency. And while that experience might bring some parents closer together, here it’s a breaking point for Kate and Toby. All of the resentments that have been simmering just beneath the surface coming pouring out in a lawn fight that rivals Kevin and Randall’s big blow-out from season four. (Is Toby and Kate’s front yard cursed or something?) And the beginning of the end of Toby and Kate’s marriage seems to be well and truly here.
When you break it down, “Saturday In The Park” is ultimately a pretty simple episode anchored around that tense afternoon in the present and a runner about Jack and Rebecca’s goofy anniversary date back in 1986. But that simplicity is an asset because it allows the show to zero in on the real-time terror that comes when a toddler goes missing. While I usually praise the flashbacks for having an understated realism that the present-day storylines lack, here it’s actually the other way around. Screenwriter KJ Steinberg has a real ear for the realistically mundane snipes and passive aggressive barbs of a chaotic day shared by two people who aren’t in a good place.
Indeed, what’s great about Kate and Toby’s arc this season is that it allows the show to recontextualize its own history in a new light. In the past, I’ve complained about This Is Us getting too repetitive with Kate and Toby’s storylines; inserting random tension only to swing around and reinforce what a great couple they are. Now, however, it’s clear the tension was never random. The fights over Toby’s secret weight loss or Lady Kryptonite or their differing approaches to Jack’s blindness weren’t aberrations—the moments of reconciliation were. What seemed like This Is Us inelegantly making the case for Kate and Toby as a great couple was actually the show purposefully making the case for why they were never meant to last.
In fact, you might even say their relationship is like a leaky waterpipe that’s been inexpertly patched up. (Another smart callback to a storyline from last season.) And while I still think this is more a case of two people growing apart than one person simply being a villain, it’s reassuring that the show seems to agree that Toby is more in the wrong here. It’s immensely satisfying to watch Kate call out his tendency to pull away and shut people out when things get tough. And it’s equally satisfying to watch her actively spell out her parenting philosophy when he questions it: “Dignity. Independence. Confidence. Self-respect. That’s what we need to be instilling in him now, Toby... So he can get it in his soul, in his cells. So he knows that he’s not broken.”
Again, it’s an idea that’s been under the surface for a while now, but one the show has never put so bluntly before. It’s a parenting philosophy that’s specific to Jack’s blindness. But it’s bigger than that too. Kate is trying to instill her children with the sense of self-confidence that she lacked for so many years—echoing Jack and Rebecca’s positive parenting style but also enhancing it too. She wants her kids to feel strong enough to withstand anything and everything the outside world might throw at them.
And she’s not the only Pearson experiencing a big revelation this week. With Randall there as moral support, Kevin manages not to spiral into crisis when he finds out Elijah is going to propose to Madison. Instead of making a “rash romantic decision” that will “reverberate for decades,” he comes to terms with the fact that it’s time to let Madison go in a real way, not just a halfhearted one. And that final “emergency contact” conversation between Kevin and Madison strikes a really lovely balance when it comes to acknowledging that they can be important to one another, even if they aren’t a couple. (This season is basically just Kevin learning he can be friends with women.)
In a roundabout way, that all ties back to Rebecca, who gets to be the big hero this week, as she figures out that little Jack went to the park and rushes to rescue him. But her bigger accomplishment is a bittersweet one: She’s raised kids who can survive without her because they have each other to lean on. It’s what she realizes on her anniversary in 1986, when the Big Three band together against a less-than-warm babysitter. And it’s what she witnesses again in the present as she watches Randall and Kevin be there for Kate as her marriage falls apart.
In some ways, “Saturday In The Park” is one of the tensest episodes This Is Us has ever delivered. Even knowing little Jack was going to be okay, his solo trip to the park is terrifying to watch. And the edge of cruelty to Toby and Kate’s fights is chilling too. In the end, however, the show sticks to its sweet spot: The emotional catharsis that comes on the other side of a hard, hard day.
- I’m fascinated that Rebecca chooses to confide in Kevin when she can’t remember Jack’s medical information. Is it because he’s the one most likely to know Jack’s info too? Or does she think he’ll be less panicked than Randall or Miguel?
- I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a toddler have to carry an episode of TV the way Jonathan Kincaid does in this one. Kudos to him and the whole team for pulling that off.
- Beth and Toby bonding over how annoying it is to have Kevin crash at their house was a great callback to season one. I also appreciated Toby acknowledging that Beth sacrificed a lot in agreeing to move to Philadelphia to make Randall’s political dreams a reality without ruining their marriage in the process.
- Have we ever seen anyone but Jack call Kate “Katie girl” before? I was so touched when Randall did that.
- So Nicky didn’t come to Rebecca and Miguel’s anniversary party?
- Mandy Moore is very funny as drunk Rebecca, but Milo Ventimiglia is equally great as the straight man who makes her jokes land.