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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Kate’s This Is Us episode tells a powerful but imperfect story about loss

Photo: This Is Us (NBC)
Photo: This Is Us (NBC)
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TV dramas don’t necessarily shy away from depicting miscarriages, but more often than not they’re used as a plot device when a character doesn’t want to have a baby but the show doesn’t want to depict her getting an abortion. Miscarriages of wanted pregnancies, however, are depicted onscreen far less frequently. That helps contribute to the fact that losing a pregnancy is still a subject surrounded by a veneer of shame and secrecy—despite the fact that miscarriages are not that uncommon. Before this episode aired, This Is Us executive producer Issac Aptaker told Entertainment Weekly, “This is one of those issues where once you started talking about it, every single person in our writers’ room either had experienced a miscarriage or a sibling or an incredibly close friend who experienced a miscarriage, and yet it’s something that you so rarely see dealt with on network television.”

The most powerful scene in “Number Two” centers on two women openly talking about their experiences with pregnancy and loss. Even more so than depictions of miscarriages, Rebecca and Kate’s conversation truly feels like nothing I’ve seen on TV before. Their discussion is honest and real without a hint of melodrama, and it’s so refreshing to see two female characters specifically talk about their experiences as women in this way. Because they were the ones who physically carried and lost their pregnancies, their experience is different than that of their partners, even if, as Toby rightly points out, he also experienced the loss too. Coupled with both Kate and Toby’s blowout fight and their sweet makeup, the latter half of this episode is a powerful portrait of grief and recovery. Unfortunately, the first half struggles to externalize what’s largely an internal struggle.

Toby’s story, in particular, is a very clunky attempt to externalize his pain. He becomes obsessed with the idea of stopping the baby bathtub he ordered from being delivered to his house, lest it upset Kate. But Toby’s storyline is just too broad for this grounded episode, even if the moment he eventually gives the bath away to Carl is well done. Kate, meanwhile, decides to return to work just 12 hours after finding out she lost the baby. Physically, she’s capable of slipping back into her life like nothing happened. Mentally, however, she clearly isn’t. But this is the rare This Is Us episode that pulls its emotional punches. It shies away from fully depicting both Kate’s onstage breakdown and the moment she first starts to experience the miscarriage (both play out in montage). I appreciate that the This Is Us writers are sensitive to the fact that there’s a fine line between telling a story about loss and exploiting Kate’s pain for the audience’s emotional catharsis. But in this case, they may have aired just a tad too much on the side of caution.

The biggest problem with this episode, however, is its flashback storyline. The conceit of this “Big Three” trilogy is that each episode takes place on the same day in the past and the present. So the phone calls Toby and Kate make to Kevin in this episode are the ones he ignored in the middle of his bender in the previous one. And we return to the days surrounding Kevin’s football injury to check in on what teenage Kate was up to at the time. But after the initial coolness factor of seeing the same night from a different perspective wears off (so that’s why Kate’s dog peed in the house, etc.), there’s just not much there. This doesn’t feel like a particularly meaningful night for Kate. Instead it feels like we’re just getting a glimpse of what Kate happened to be doing on a meaningful night for Kevin.

The episode tries to give teen Kate’s story resonance by centering it on her relationship with Rebecca. But whereas I came away from last week’s Kevin-centric episode with a much better understanding of teenage Kevin and a much clearer sense of the arc that took him from childhood to adulthood, this episode doesn’t do the same for Kate. The three versions of Kate still feel like three distinct characters, and I don’t really have much more insight into her difficult relationship with Rebecca than I did before. I gave This Is Us a pass for the same problem back in “A Manny-Splendored Thing” because I could project my own experiences onto Kate in order to relate to her behavior. But This Is Us has gone far too long without explaining why Kate acts the way she does towards Rebecca. In their chat in the hospital waiting room, Rebecca sums up their relationship problems with a nebulous “we never got there.” But that’s a pretty unsatisfying explanation that mainly just feels like the This Is Us writers falling back on the hack idea that all mother/daughter relationships are inherently fraught with tension. Which, in my experience at least, isn’t true at all (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, however, disagrees).

Compare what we know about Rebecca and Kate’s relationship with what we know about Jack and Kevin’s. As a kid, Kevin utterly idolized his father but also felt constantly ignored by him. Then as a teenager Kevin had to grapple with the earthshattering fact that his hero was a flawed, vulnerable human being with addiction issues. All of those factors explain the emotional push-pull in Jack and Kevin’s relationship and help us understand why teen Kevin was such an asshole at times. But we just don’t have the same level of nuance about the Rebecca/Kate tension. Teenage Kate accuses Rebecca of trying to live vicariously through her, but that’s not really something we’ve seen Rebecca do. Far from being a Mama Rose, Rebecca seems to be nothing but generous and kind towards her daughter, so teen Kate’s hostility feels really unmotivated. Do all of their problems literally stem from that one time kid Kate heard Rebecca singing in the shower? Although I’m glad the episode winds up softening Rebecca and teen Kate’s relationship a bit, knowing how long their problems continue later in life also makes that scene kind of disheartening.

If I had to sum up Kate’s arc from childhood to adulthood, I’d say she was an incredibly emotionally open child who got burned for it and overcompensated by processing things internally as she got older (her initial instinct is to keep both her Berklee application and her pregnancy secret for fear of disappointing herself and others). But that’s me doing a lot of work on the show’s behalf. And given that her teenage sullenness clearly happened long before Jack’s death, we still don’t know exactly what caused Kate to become such a closed off person.

Thankfully, none of that undoes the emotional power of the moment in which Rebecca shows up at Kate’s door to comfort her daughter. And I’m hoping this is the start of a new status quo for the two characters going forward. Because although this is a heartbreaking episode, it’s also one that ends with hope. Kate and Toby reaffirm their love for one another and decide they want to try for another baby soon. Narratively, this isn’t one of This Is Us’ strongest outings. But if it’s an episode that helps people struggling with their own pregnancy loss feel a little less alone, well, maybe that’s enough.

Stray observations

  • Knowing what’s coming, the scenes of Kate and Toby’s excitement at the start of this episode are so, so hard to watch.
  • I really liked the detail of Toby holding the hospital curtains closed while Kate changed clothes.
  • Hannah Zeile has a lovely singing voice, but I feel like “Summertime” is a weird song choice for a white teenage girl.
  • I’m not really sure what we’re supposed to take away from the scene where teen Kate oversees Jack and Rebecca comforting each other in the parking lot after Kevin’s accident. I guess it’s just supposed to be a moment in which Rebecca is humanized for her?
  • As always, Mandy Moore is fantastic in this episode. From young Rebecca’s emotional breakdown while buying onions to older Rebecca’s monologue about losing Kyle, she’s asked to depict Rebecca in so many different walks of life and absolutely nails them all.

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.