(Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

The most interesting idea at the core of “The Fifth Wheel” is that the Pearsons are a family of addicts. It’s an idea that flows naturally from what we already know about Jack, Kevin, Kate, and Randall, but which also manages to feel like somewhat of a reveal. And it comes at the start of the episode’s best scene, an eight-minute sequence in which the Pearsons move away from the “polite” therapy they think is expected of them and into the kind of real confrontation that’s been a long time coming. This Is Us executive producer Issac Aptaker described the sequence to Entertainment Weekly as an “11-page, nonstop, tour de force scene” that unfolds like a one-act play. And he’s spot on. Writer Vera Herbert pens a great sequence that both challenges what we know about the Pearsons and opens up a whole bunch of new storytelling avenues for the show. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode around it isn’t quite as strong.

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“The Fifth Wheel” feels very much like it’s designed as an entry point for those who’ve finally decided to jump into This Is Us after hearing all the buzz about it or after watching Sterling K. Brown win a much deserved Golden Globe this weekend for his work on the show. There’s an awful lot of recapping going on, both of recent events (following his DUI arrest, Kevin was sent to rehab where he’s been disconnected from the outside world for a month) and of the show’s general premise. The flashback storyline, in particular, mostly just reinforces things we already know about the Pearson family dynamic. This Is Us has done a pretty comprehensive job exploring the elementary-school-age era of the Big Three’s lives and there are diminishing returns each time the show circles back to it. But, hey, at least that beloved family cabin finally came back into play.

The other weird thing about “The Fifth Wheel” is that it’s a very meta episode. The Pearson family therapy session seems to have inspired some self-reflection from the show’s writers as well. At one point Miguel randomly blurts out that he married his best friend’s wife and it’s weird that no one ever talks about it, which feels like the This Is Us writers realizing how weird it is that the show never talks about it. There’s also another strange moment in which Kevin accuses his brother of living in the “Randall Show,” which is something I’ve heard people jokingly call This Is Us when they want to point out that Randall’s storylines are so much more interesting than everyone else’s. Even more bizarre is the moment in which Randall wishes someone had documented the Big Three’s childhood “Boyhood-style” so they could have an objective record of what actually happened... which is basically just a description of This Is Us’ premise.

(Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

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And then there’s the whole B-plot about Beth, Toby, and Miguel grappling with the fact that they’re supporting characters on someone else’s TV show. Okay, it’s actually about Beth, Toby, and Miguel dealing with the fact that they married into a very tight knit family who “lived through something very unique” when Jack died, but that’s roughly the same thing. Yet the fact that This Is Us has to continually go out of its way to tell us how close the Pearsons are is an indication that the show is surprisingly bad at showing it.

For instance, though we’ve been told a thousand times that Kevin and Kate share a magical twin connection, that’s something we barely ever see in action, either in the flashbacks or the present day. In fact, the vast majority of Kate’s present-day storylines center on Toby so for him to complain about being on the outside looking in just rings false. The same can be said for Randall and Beth too. It’s not that I don’t understand what this episode wants me to take away about the Pearson family’s bond (in fact, it’s impossible not to given how explicitly everything is laid out), it’s just that too many of those relationships still feel undeveloped. Jack and Kate’s special bond is absolutely something the show has established before, but is Rebecca and Randall’s?

All of which probably makes it sound like I enjoyed this episode far less than I actually did. It’s rare that the This Is Us cast can’t salvage a so-so storyline with sheer charisma alone. So even though I have some storytelling complaints about the day drinking excursion of Beth, Toby, and Miguel (a.k.a. “The Others” a.k.a. “The New Big Three”), it’s almost impossible not to enjoy watching Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Sullivan, and Jon Huertas bounce off one another.

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And then there’s that therapy sequence, which is genuinely one of the best things This Is Us has done this season. A lot of that comes down to Mandy Moore, who is great at playing young Rebecca but truly fantastic at playing older Rebecca. And Moore does some series-best work as Rebecca tries and fails to keep her emotions in check as she’s asked to justify every parenting misstep she ever made. Though it’s far from the most original metaphor, Randall’s speech about getting fitted for glasses and realizing how many different perspectives people can have on the same situation has a real ring of truth to it. It’s easy for Kevin, Kate, and Randall to think of Rebecca as their mom without remembering that she’s a person in her own right too. But her heartbreaking therapy outburst drives home the fact that as much as Rebecca may have disappointed her children at times, they often disappointed her too.

What’s great about the therapy fight and the subsequent apology scenes is that no one is completely right or completely wrong. Yes, Kevin was sometimes at the bottom of Jack and Rebecca’s priorities because he seemed more put-together than his two siblings. But it’s also true that Kevin’s self-pity became a self-fulfilling prophecy. His childhood wasn’t lonely because his family forgot about him, it was lonely because he so often melodramatically removed himself from his family. Kevin’s addiction problems may be hereditary, but Randall isn’t wrong that Kevin also has an inherent need for attention that fuels his behavior as well.

(Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

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The Big Three have gotten used to blaming all their emotional problems on the fact that their dad died when they were young, but the truth is much more complicated than that. While the image of Jack as an infallible saint is something that bonds the Pearsons together, it’s also given them an impossible standard to live up to. Because in reality, Jack wasn’t perfect. And Rebecca didn’t just protect his legacy in death, she protected it in life too—taking on the role of the “bad guy” within the family so that he could always be seen as the “fun dad.” In fact, part of the reason present-day Rebecca has such strained relationships with Kate and Kevin is because she was expected to be the disciplinarian in a way Jack never was. And Jack’s carefree optimism had other downsides too. While Rebecca tried to sensitively tackle her concerns about her daughter’s health, Jack was the one who ignored or even enabled Kate’s potentially addictive relationship with food.

Those are all fascinating ideas for the back half of This Is Us’ second season to explore and the cast are clearly more than up for the challenge. Now let’s just hope the show has gotten all that meta exposition off its chest for a while.


Stray observations

  • Jack Death Watch: We might have already known this, but Rebecca specifically notes that the Big Three were 17 when Jack died. She also adds that Randall was the only one who didn’t “abandon” her in the aftermath.
  • 10-year-old Kevin deciding to sleep on the floor next to his family like some kind of unwanted child from Les Mis is the definition of melodramatic.
  • Perhaps I’m just projecting too much from my own life, but the idea that 10-year-old Kate’s body issues all seem to stem from other people directly commenting on her weight rather than from internalizing societal beauty standards strikes me as false.
  • On the other hand, Kevin’s sadness over his family going on vacation without him while he was at football camp rang very true to me.
  • I didn’t love Toby’s Star Wars monologue, which felt too on-the-nose and also seemed to really undervalue Chewie’s role in the Star Wars canon.
  • Randall falling on the floor after Tess claims her babysitter’s brownies are better than his was adorable.
  • Speaking of which, congrats to Sterling K. Brown on his win at the Golden Globes this weekend. He’s the first black man to win Best Actor in a TV drama, and you can watch his excellent acceptance speech right here:

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