After last week’s emotionally heavy funeral episode, This Is Us swerves in the opposite direction this week. The first half of “Heart And Soul” is a chipper, strangely meta affair—what with Randall and Cassidy discussing Kevin’s love life as if they’re viewers of the show, and Beth and Randall trying to preemptively guess Deja’s secret like they’re searching for the next melodramatic This Is Us twist. Though “Heart And Soul” eventually gets to some intriguingly thorny places, it starts out just a bit too broad for its own good. When have we ever seen Uncle Nicky and 1990s Rebecca this happy?
If you squint, this episode is sort of about the Big Three dealing with romance from three different points of view. Back in the 1990s, teen Kate is reeling from the idea of her mom starting to date again, while in the present Randall is struggling with his own teen daughter’s big romantic dreams as she announces she wants to graduate early to move to Boston with Malik. Kevin, meanwhile, is still grappling with his own love life, as he reunites with Cassidy only to (seemingly) cross her off his list of potential future spouses.
The trouble is, this “timing” centric episode doesn’t quite have the focus it needs to make its parallel storylines work in harmony. This is also an episode that wants to put Kate and Rebecca’s relationship front and center, which could’ve been a strong anchor for a whole hour but gets a bit lost in the shuffle here. Still, at least the Rebecca/Kate stuff tells a thematically complete story. Everything else just feels like dangling threads that start and stop at random.
Indeed, “Heart And Soul” delivers a strange mix of storylines that are either stalling for time or rushing ahead. For instance, Malik and Deja’s big plan to move in together feels awfully rash for the two smart, mature teenagers we know them to be. From Beth and Randall’s point of view, this episode does a good job emphasizing how overwhelming it is to parent a teen, and I appreciate that Beth understands the high stakes of this Romeo And Juliet-style situation even better than Randall does. But I’m just not sure I buy this storyline from Deja and Malik’s point of view, even if it’s intriguing to see Deja weaponize Randall’s “you’re wise beyond your years” platitudes against him.
I have similar concerns about how quickly This Is Us is rushing Uncle Nicky into an almost sitcom-y romance with his future wife Edie. This is a man who was so agoraphobic that even getting on a plane was a major hurdle last season and so emotionally stunted that just a few episodes ago he was still pining after a brief fling from 50 years ago. Now he suddenly has enough game to woo a flight attendant during the course of one plane ride and somehow wind up in a full-on relationship with her where she’s eating cutesy dinners with his family and spending the night? I know This Is Us likes a happy ending, but this one feels way too contrived.
On the other hand, maybe the show is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I did appreciate how much this episode subverted my expectations with the Kevin/Cassidy throughline—first with their wonderfully frank discussion of whether they were going to hook up or not, and then with her hilarious rejection of his attempt to start up a romantic relationship. Kevin is a character who desperately needs a dose of pragmatism, and it’s nice that Cassidy can give him that as she points out they could never actually work as a couple. (Or is that just a savvy bit of misdirection on the part of the show? After all, we do know that future Kevin winds up on the East Coast with his kids, which would alleviate the long-distance problem.)
In the end, though, it’s the Kate/Rebecca stuff that emerges as the most compelling part of “Heart And Soul.” What starts as a Rebecca/Miguel speed dating rom-com unexpectedly pivots to a brutal mother/daughter fight, which reflects the difficulties of dating as a single parent. Rebecca is no longer the carefree young woman she was when she met Jack, and that makes her dating life a whole lot more complicated. Not only is she still dealing with her own feelings of loss, she also has to factor her kids’ emotions into the equation too.
Though I was initially thrown by the lighthearted tone this episode uses for Rebecca’s speed dating experience and sweet first date with Matt, leaning towards that frothy joy makes it all the more startling when the bubble suddenly bursts. Teen Kate’s cruelty slashes through the sliver of optimism that Rebecca had allowed herself to feel during her evening with Matt. It’s both brutal and believable to watch Rebecca slap her daughter and then sob her heart out to Miguel about the deep, unbearable grief she carries with her every day.
“Heart And Soul” features characteristically great work from Mandy Moore (her quiet “I won’t date anymore” absolutely broke me), and it also hits on something visually powerful in the jump cuts between the tension of teen Kate’s relationship with her mom and the warmth of their present day one. Of course, the whole thing would’ve been even more effective if previous seasons had built more nuance into Kate and Rebecca’s decades-long tension, which has always been a weak spot for This Is Us. But this episode manages to do a lot with imperfect building blocks, which is impressive in its own way.
I also like the reversal we get in the present. Though Rebecca can probably logically understand why her dementia might make Kate and Toby wary of having her watch their kids alone, she’s also sensitive about the issue too. Yet instead of meeting her mom’s anger with anger, Kate has empathy for what it’s like to snap at someone you love because you’re frustrated with the world. Though Kate feels guilty about all the time she “wasted” with her mom, This Is Us sees that something was gained from the tension Kate and Rebecca went through too. Part of the reason Kate can now be an empathetic support system is because Rebecca already showed her how. That’s a nice way to add a note of earned optimism to a difficult storyline.
- In continuing last week’s theme of parallels between Kevin and his parents, Kevin and Cassidy washing dishes together was very reminiscent of Jack and Rebecca doing the same back in “Katie Girls,” which was also written by Julia Brownell.
- It was sweet to hear Rebecca call Kate her best friend, but it also reminded me what a bummer it is that This Is Us entirely dropped Kate and Madison’s friendship once Madison entered Kevin’s orbit.
- Loved the subversion of Kevin’s “u up?” text being friendly advice to Elijah. It was a nice payoff for the airdropped phone number moment at the start.
- I like the When Harry Met Sally thing that 1990s Rebecca and Miguel have going on, particularly that shot of Miguel wistfully looking on while Matt asks Rebecca out for coffee.
- “Rebecca, it’s time. You can’t just sit here with me every night for the rest of your life.” Or can she Miguel?? Or can she?!?
- This Is Us is taking two weeks off for the Olympics and will return on February 22. See you back here then!