Photo: This Is Us (NBC)

One of the things I vividly remember about being a kid is the excitement of going somewhere new with your parents. Whether it was a camping trip, a fancy event, or a fishing expedition, in that new environment the rules were a little different and you got to switch up your routine; you might get to stay up late or wear a cool outfit or eat a special meal. Sure it was a little scary, but it was the good kind of scary, especially because you still had the security blanket of your parents there to make the newness less intimidating. Yet though I’ve never experienced it myself, I have to imagine that taking your kids somewhere new is quite a different experience from a parent’s point of view. Sure, you get the joy of watching your kids experience something for the first time, but you also have to do the work of arranging the logistics and guiding them through the process. And more importantly, you don’t get a security blanket. Instead you have to be that security blanket for someone else. If something goes wrong, it’s up to you to fix it and you have to do so in a new, unfamiliar environment without letting your kid realize you’re just as lost as they are.

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“Brothers” is an episode full of stories about Pearson (and Pearson-adjacent) kids and parents visiting new environments. Jack takes 10-year-old Randall and Kevin camping in an attempt to build a brotherly bond between the two. Rebecca and Kate are all set to enjoy their own mother-daughter weekend until their best-laid plans of movies and manicures fall by the wayside when the nursing home calls with news that Jack’s estranged father Stanley is dying. In the present day, meanwhile, Randall encourages the first genuine bit of enthusiasm Deja has shown since moving in and takes her to Sophie’s swanky hospital fundraiser where Kevin is being auctioned off for a date night. And back in the 1950s, young Jack and Stanley set off on their own father-son fishing trip.

Jack, Rebecca, Randall, and Stanley offer a study in contrast when it comes to parenting in new environments. Stanley doesn’t provide the security blanket his kid (well, kids—we’ll get to that) need in an unfamiliar place. Instead he leaves his boys in the car as he stops off for a pre-fishing beer, forcing young Jack to repeatedly reassure himself that everything will be okay. Unsurprisingly, Jack and Rebecca are far more attentive when it comes to making their own kids feel comfortable in new spaces, whether that be a camp site or a nursing home lobby. Jack and Rebecca work great as a team, but they also trust each other to have their family’s best interests at heart when they’re parenting on their own. And that’s the same trust Beth puts in Randall as he takes on the particularly tricky job of providing a security blanket for a foster daughter who doesn’t fully trust him yet, in an environment unlike anything she’s experienced before.

I really, really liked tonight’s episode of This Is Us, but it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly why. It did happen to have a lot of elements that reminded me of memories from my own life, so it’s possible I’m largely connecting to it on that level. But I also love that it’s an episode that prioritizes small, lived-in moments over big, histrionic ones. I thought for sure we were headed towards a tear-jerking deathbed introduction between Stanley and young Kate, but instead we get an smaller moment from Rebecca. She respects Jack’s wishes by keeping his daughter away from his father, but she still leaves the dying man in front of her with a tiny bit of comfort: the knowledge that his son grew up to be a great man.

Similarly, the episode doesn’t have Jack use some over-the-top team-building exercise to miraculously fix young Randall and Kevin’s relationship problems—we already know those problems continue well into their adulthood. Instead, Jack gives them time and space and just a little guidance and lets them come together on their own. Roasting marshmallows together may be a small victory, but it’s still a victory. And decades later, Jack’s advice about giving Kevin some breathing room helps adult Randall remember not to be too overeager in his attempts to connect to Deja. Which is good because in his eagerness to build a perfect relationship with Deja, Randall almost missed out on the imperfect one they had already been building.

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Randall and Beth might think that Deja hasn’t made much progress during her time with their family, but it’s clear that she’s come to trust the Pearsons far more than they realize. Though she’s understandably still scarred by her past history of foster care abuse, she takes a big step in telling Randall about what happened to her. It’s almost impossible to imagine Deja opening up like that just a few weeks ago, and though This Is Us doesn’t present Randall and Deja’s bathroom conservation as a magical cure-all (hopefully Randall and Beth will get her into therapy for abuse survivors), it’s a small, meaningful step in the right direction. And the episode folds time like an accordion to show us how it came to pass: Stanley’s shitty parenting taught Jack patience, which is a virtue Jack then purposefully passed on to his son, who can now use it to make a connection with his foster daughter. That’s the power of This Is Us’ unique structure in a nutshell.

Elsewhere, Kate and Kevin’s plotlines do go somewhat bigger in their storytelling, to mixed results. But thankfully both storylines also find time to shade in small details too. Though Kate and Madison’s support group confrontation rang false to me, I was surprisingly touched by their post-crash parking lot make up (Chrissy Metz is much better at playing vulnerability than anger). And while I was worried we were in for an over-the-top story about Kate hiding her pregnancy from Toby, instead we get a more toned-down, relatable one about Kate feeling torn between wanting to celebrate her good news and being terrified of getting her hopes up about something that might not actually happen. Well, at least it was toned down until Toby’s Hootie and the Blowfish-scored celebratory flashdance, which I’m going to go ahead and assume was just a collective fever dream we all experienced and will never speak of again.

And then there’s Kevin. Oh Kevin. It’s not that this addiction storyline isn’t worth telling; addiction is partially hereditary and it absolutely makes sense that Kevin would struggle with the same issues as his father did. But it’s hard to make a story about a handsome movie star becoming addicted to pills not feel cliché, and so far This Is Us isn’t avoiding that trap. In fact, “missing a loved one’s big event while trying to score pills” is basically addiction storyline cliché 101. But what saves the Kevin storyline, at least a little bit, is Justin Hartley. Up until now I’ve been fairly neutral about Hartley as a performer, but this episode made me realize that I’ve been underestimating him. Watching Kevin attempt to breakthrough Deja’s stoic exterior is maybe the most charming Hartley has ever been, and his later dramatic scenes with Randall and Sophie offer hints of depths I hadn’t seen from him before. Hopefully going forward the show can find a way to play up Hartley’s abilities while downplaying those overly familiar addiction beats.

Yet even with some less-than-perfect Kevin and Kate stuff, I found this episode a joy to watch. It makes time for beautifully observed character moments that don’t necessarily move the plot forward but that do make the world feel more lived-in—like Beth advising Randall not to comment on how Deja looks or Rebecca joking about her kids being “egg heads” as babies. Across the board, this episode balances its timelines and its tones with grace, and then it goes ahead and puts a perfect cherry on top with a delightful episode-ending “twist.” Of course, the fact that Jack has a little brother isn’t really a twist so much as just new information (I believe Rebecca has a sister we also know very little about). But there’s no doubt that seeing Nicky pop up in the backseat of Stanley’s car is a charming surprise, made even better if you knew going in that this episode was called “Brothers.” And much like Kate’s pregnancy being the “twist” of last week’s episode, the Nicky reveal opens up a ton of new storytelling possibilities going forward. Because besides the security blanket of your parents, the other thing that can make going to new places less scary is having a sibling by your side. Perhaps that’s how Jack and Nicky wound up in Vietnam together.


Stray observations

  • Randall telling Kevin that Deja had been with them for a month made me think there was a big time jump in the present-day storyline, but since Kate was 6 weeks pregnant in the last episode and 8 weeks pregnant in this one, it’s only been two weeks.
  • In addition to enjoying Hartley’s performance as adult Kevin, I was also once again really impressed by Parker Bates as young Kevin. He and Milo Ventimiglia have developed such a palpably real father/son chemistry that I keep wondering if they’re actually related.
  • Similarly, Lyric Ross continues to absolutely blow me away with her performance as Deja. Everything about her crush on Kevin was adorable and perfectly played.
  • Sterling K. Brown either does a very good Patrick Stewart impression or a very bad William Shatner one while quoting the Star Trek opening voiceover.
  • I think we’re supposed to assume Nicky died in Vietnam, but I also wouldn’t be totally surprised if he’s still alive in the present day either. Milo Ventimiglia in old age makeup and nerdy glasses, perhaps?
  • Whatever happened to that beloved family cabin the Pearsons owned? Are we ever going to see them actually use it?
  • In terms of heartbreaking sentences, “If Kevin thinks you’re being annoying, try talking about Karate Kid” is right up there with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

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