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

This Is Us delivers a brotherly reckoning that’s been a long time coming

Illustration for article titled This Is Us delivers a brotherly reckoning that’s been a long time coming
Photo: NBC

One thing that makes This Is Us feel like a realistic depiction of family is that old issues can come bubbling to the surface at anytime. Though the show’s first season was all about healing the rift in Kevin and Randall’s relationship—of getting Kevin to the place where he prioritized helping his brother’s mental health crisis over opening a Broadway play—that wasn’t a magical one-time fix for their lifetime of antagonism. When conflicts arose over their mom’s medical care last season, they quickly fell back into old patterns, culminating in the massive fight they’ve spent all year trying to recover from. As Kevin and Randall sit down to bury the hatchet tonight, This Is Us demonstrates that it’s become a much smarter show than it was in its more simplistic debut season. Before “Brotherly Loves” arrives at a place of trademark This Is Us sentimentality, it boldly reckons with five seasons and 40 years worth of brotherly conflict—specifically when it comes to race.

Advertisement

Writer Jon Dorsey smartly leans into the awkwardness of the situation. It’s one thing to get into a massive blow-up fight or make tentative amends over the phone. But it’s something else entirely to fly across the country for a formal sit-down conversation about your “racially charged childhood.” Kevin is over-rehearsed and under-informed with a simplistic apology that suggests he’s more interested in forgiveness than accountability. Yet just because Randall is more racially aware than Kevin, that doesn’t mean he has all the answers either. While Randall is able to call out his brother’s shortcomings, he’s a little unclear on what he actually wants from their conversation too. It takes both of them wading through the emotional muck together to finally reach a place of peace.

Details like that help balance out some of the episode’s weaker impulses. “Brotherly Love” is occasionally a little overwritten, which is something This Is Us often struggles with in these talk-y episodes that are built almost like plays. This hour also lacks the visual elegance that usually comes from the flashback storylines, which here feel just a tad clunky and underbaked. But “Brotherly Love” also makes some smart big-picture choices too. Rightly so, Randall and Kevin don’t mend all their fences in one single conversation. They barely broach the topic of Rebecca’s medical care or Randall’s manipulative behavior, which is what led to their fight in the first place. Because before they can tackle those more recent issues, they have to dig into the heart of where their lifelong conflict actually stems from.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us delivers a brotherly reckoning that’s been a long time coming
Photo: NBC

This episode eventually emerges as a joint character study of two brothers who grew up in the same household yet came away with entirely different understandings of their childhoods. All Kevin remembers is that his brother got a special seat and a lot of attention from their dad when they attended a taping of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But he missed that all that special attention was Jack’s attempt to smooth over the awkward moment when the show’s P.A. didn’t realize that Randall was Jack’s son. So much of what Kevin perceived as Randall’s “special treatment” was actually just its own kind of painful othering. And little Randall was often left caught in the middle—aware of an adult unease he didn’t fully understand yet and then cruelly bullied by his brother’s misplaced jealousy.

“Brotherly Love” is all about perspective, and it repeatedly deploys the phrase “I don’t see it that way” to drive that point home. Teen Kevin uses it to defend himself when Randall calls him out for being rude to a Black cab driver—shifting the focus off himself and his own racial blindspots. Randall quickly drops the issue because he’s already internalized the idea that he shouldn’t make waves lest he seem ungrateful. But he uses “I don’t see it that way” to more positive ends when Kevin opens up about how much he’s struggling in L.A. When teen Kevin refers to himself as “the family failure,” Randall lifts up his brother by reassuring him that he doesn’t see him that way at all. “I know you don’t,” Kevin responds with genuine gratitude.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled This Is Us delivers a brotherly reckoning that’s been a long time coming
Photo: NBC

This episode walks a fine line when it comes to making Kevin’s racist microaggressions brutal without losing his complex humanity in the process. The bigoted dad Randall encountered before prom was an overt racist you could easily chuck into the “antagonist” box. But This Is Us doesn’t offer such an easy out with Kevin. That makes him a much more honest avatar for the insidious way internalized racism so often operates. Though present day Kevin thinks he’s being openhearted and generous, he’s actually myopic, woefully uninformed, and disinterested in actually putting in the work to understand Randall’s perspective. So he easily falls back into old defensive patterns instead: “Look, man, I know our experiences growing up in our family were different,” Kevin tells Randall during their increasingly tense conversation. “But I just don’t see it the way that you do.”

Advertisement

The grace note of This Is Us’ complicated portrait of Kevin is that it’s actually his long history with Randall that leads to their current day breakthrough. Randall recalls the way that Kevin opening up about his painting and his troubles in L.A. shifted the tenor of their conversation during that tense teen visit. So he decides to make a similar gesture of emotional vulnerability in the present. He tells Kevin about his “Ghost Kingdom,” the imagined fantasy world where his parents were the weatherman and the local librarian, the only two Black adults he consistently saw growing up. And he also shares that his complicated feelings of love and guilt caused him to include his adoptive family in his daydreams too. “I couldn’t even create a fantasy world without you guys, Kev,” Randall explains. It’s a statement that’s both deeply sweet and quietly tragic.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us delivers a brotherly reckoning that’s been a long time coming
Photo: NBC
Advertisement

It’s Randall’s vulnerability that finally takes Kevin out of his defensive posture and kicks off a trio of apologies: Kevin apologizes for not understanding Randall’s experiences growing up. Randall apologizes for saying that Jack died ashamed of Kevin. And, finally, Kevin makes even more detailed amends for being actively racist in his sibling rivalry—for connecting Randall’s Blackness to the way he was treated within the family and then trying to take him down a notch because of it. It’s a moment of racial reckoning that feels purposefully instructive for the audience, but also well-earned for Kevin as a character. Randall gives Kevin the perspective he didn’t know he was lacking. And Kevin gives Randall the sort of genuine apology he didn’t know he needed.

The brotherly healing inspires an internal healing in Randall as well. He leaves behind the bifurcated, guilt-ridden Ghost Kingdom he’s been stuck in since childhood, and dreams a new one instead: One where he, William, and Laurel are a happy family of three. Like the spiritual vision of Laurel back in “Birth Mother,” it’s a sign that Randall has let go of some major lifelong baggage. Now that he and Kevin are in this new, more comfortable place, it’ll be fascinating to see what happens when the show inevitably returns to the motherly tension that drove them apart in the first place.

Advertisement

Stray observations

  • While Mandy Moore’s absence felt conspicuous last week, saving her for just that one shot in little Randall’s Ghost Kingdom was incredibly powerful this week.
  • We first learned about Kevin’s painting hobby back in the first season episode “The Game Plan,” in a monologue that increasingly feels like a thesis for the entire show.
  • If my dad took my brothers to see Mr. Rogers while I was out of town, I would never forgive him.
  • Relatedly, I see what the show was going for with the Daniel Striped Tiger/Neighborhood of Make-Believe bit, but it just felt creepy to me.
  • It’s weird that there’s no mention of Sophie in the L.A. flashback, especially since Kevin specifically points to Randall’s relationship with Beth when comparing the trajectories of their lives. Does that mean Kevin and Sophie are already divorced by this point? Or is their teen marriage just on the rocks?
  • I really laughed at Randall’s neighbor happily telling Kevin that she hated his Sylvester Stallone movie. Also, I can’t believe Kevin got a Golden Globe nomination and the show didn’t tell us about it until now!
  • “Why don’t you take off your Model UN face and put on your Model F-U-N face.”
Advertisement

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.