Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

This Is Us bundles seven babies into four cars for one stressful drive home

Illustration for article titled This Is Us bundles seven babies into four cars for one stressful drive home
Photo: NBC

The past few episodes of This Is Us have been defined by cars. First there was Kate’s journey to confront Marc. Then Randall and Beth’s road trip to New Orleans to learn about his birth mom. And finally Kevin’s rush to make it back to L.A. in time for the birth of his twins. “The Ride” continues that theme with an episode all about the first drive home from the hospital after the arrival of a new baby. It’s the simplest episode of the season so far—a low-key, character-centric outing that lets the This Is Us cast shine in some close-quarters acting. Plotwise, there’s not much to it, and it’s surprisingly muted emotionally too. But “The Ride” is at least an effective reminder of how charming these actors can be and how lived-in the show’s characters feel five seasons in.

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The novelty of the episode is the diversity of experiences it encapsulates via one shared milestone. Rebecca/Jack and Kevin/Madison are first-time parents bringing home multiple babies, while Toby/Kate and Randall/Beth are parenting pros bringing home a second kid apiece. (Having already seen Tess’ birth back in season two, we finally get to see Annie’s early days here.) But each experience is still unique. Rebecca and Jack are dealing with the emotional whiplash of having lost one baby and spontaneously adopted another. Kevin is grappling with the extra burden of being famous. Toby and Kate are facing the new status quo of their relationship with Ellie when she shifts what she wants from their open adoption. And Randall is struggling to fully focus on his new daughter as he keeps daydreaming about expanding his family further.

It’s a well-balanced episode with something to like in each storyline, which isn’t always a guarantee on this show. And “The Ride” pulls off the neat trick of letting its storylines echo one another without feeling repetitive. Kevin and Jack share the same instinct to get macho-aggressive when they feel their new families are being threatened, but their different circumstances—and their different partners—result in that instinct being reined-in in different ways. Meanwhile, Kate and Randall grapple with the experience of adoption from different ends of the spectrum. Randall is an adoptee with a new biological child. And Kate is a new adoptive mom who wants to ensure her daughter has a more positive adoption experience than her brother did.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us bundles seven babies into four cars for one stressful drive home
Photo: NBC

The downside is that this episode is a little too simple at times, as characterized by the warm dream sequence where Dream Jack helps Kevin process all his new-parent anxiety with just a few lines of dialogue. “The Ride” dances around big, thorny issues like Jack’s alcoholism, Rebecca’s grief, Kate’s concerns about Hailey’s identity, and Toby’s unexpected job loss, but it ultimately exists in an emotional realm where a few loving words from a partner can smooth over all the bumps. Last week I praised This Is Us for delivering surprise happy endings for everyone. This week I could’ve used just a tad more emotional messiness.

Still, there are also places where that simplicity is lovely, particularly when it comes to Madison’s natural knack for parenting and the newfound confidence she seems to have gained from motherhood, which are welcome shadings for her character. I’m not sure I needed yet another engagement scene for Kevin and Madison, but I really enjoyed her skill at handling the paparazzi who was stalking their car. “The Ride” remembers that while Madison can be flighty and anxious at times, she’s no pushover either. I’m excited to see what sort of storylines the show has in store for her moving forward.

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Illustration for article titled This Is Us bundles seven babies into four cars for one stressful drive home
Photo: NBC

The simplicity also winds up being an asset for the flashforward timeline, which returns for the first time this season. To me, at least, it felt fairly obvious that the med student the episode opens on would turn out to be either Annie or Deja (mostly because This Is Us deployed a similar structure to introduce Adult Tess). And once it became clear it was going to be Deja, that also prepped me to see what the episode was building towards in its broader look at how families are formed. As a young father to newborn Annie, Randall is hyper-focused on his biological connection to his daughters. It’s something he lacked growing up as the Black son of an adopted white family. Now he feels like he can finally start the “real” family tree he didn’t have as a kid. One he hopes to expand with more children, or at least more grandchildren and great-grandchildren—all of whom he assumes will share his DNA.

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But Randall’s experience of his own adoption is long and ever-changing. And This Is Us finally remembers that adopting Deja was a major part of that journey too, which is something the show has moved away from in the past few seasons to focus on Randall’s relationship with his birth parents instead. “The Ride” returns to Deja’s place in the Pearson family in a really moving way. She might not be biologically related to Randall, but she’s still a crucial branch of his family tree—a tree that will get even bigger now that she’s pregnant with what I’m assuming is Future Randall and Beth’s first grandchild. It’s through raising his own adoptive daughter that Randall can finally come to understand the validity of his own place in his big, diverse family tree.

What makes This Is Us such a special show is its ability to zoom in on simple car ride conversations and then zoom out to macro multi-generational issues. And the real poignancy of this episode comes from the broader knowledge of the series that the audience brings to it. Rebecca and Jack’s car ride is colored by the immense sense of grief we know they aren’t fully processing yet. And their mutual parenting pep talks are colored by our understanding of the ways they’ll go on to succeed and fail as parents—successes and failures that later influence the Big Three as they become parents themselves.

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Illustration for article titled This Is Us bundles seven babies into four cars for one stressful drive home
Photo: NBC

Still, despite its thoughtfulness, “The Ride” isn’t This Is Us at its very best. This is a gentle placeholder of an episode designed to transition this uneven season from its first half to its second. The flashforward introduces plenty of new long-term mysteries: Did Deja and Malik’s teenage relationship make it through into adulthood? Is he the father of her baby? And just who is pulling up in the latest car to arrive at Rebecca’s sickbed? Plus there are more immediate questions for the show to answer too: Will Ellie decide to become more involved in Hailey’s life? How will Toby’s job loss impact him and Kate moving forward? And is Kevin actually all-in with Madison? But I think my biggest question of all is where This Is Us’ fifth season is going to put its focus now that it has (hopefully) said goodbye to dramatic car rides for a while.

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Stray observations

  • This episode is written by Julia Brownell and directed by none other than Miguel himself, Jon Huertas.
  • Another era, another great Beth hairstyle! Also, I very much relate to Beth’s love of a classic Dairy Queen Snickers Blizzard.
  • They should create a special acting Emmy just for silent facial reactions and give it to Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia for their absolutely stellar work in this episode, particularly in the opening hospital scene.
  • The idea that Rebecca can’t even fit in the backseat alongside her babies sells the magnitude of raising triplets better than This Is Us has ever done in the past.
  • It’s a nice reversal that after Kate was the calmer parent during Baby Jack’s early days, Toby is the calmer parent during Hailey’s.
  • This wasn’t a particularly tear-jerking episode for me, but Moore’s delivery of “one hell of a ride” really got me.
  • Also, in a wonderfully serendipitous bit of timing, Moore just announced the birth of her own first child, so congrats to her and her family!
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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.