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

This Is Us’ party-filled penultimate episode had us at hello

Illustration for article titled This Is Us’ party-filled penultimate episode had us at hello
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

There are certain episodes of This Is Us that just click. The storytelling is well-balanced, the characters all get a chance to shine, and the actors effortlessly navigate the show’s tricky tonal shifts. “Jerry 2.0” is one of those episodes. It’s a surprisingly low-key penultimate hour that groups the show’s characters in two different locations across two different timelines, and then lets them bounce off one another in sweet, naturalistic ways. Writers/showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger know this world inside and out, while director Milo Ventimiglia brings out a lovely chemistry from his cast of colleagues. There’s a tension to this episode too, as Kevin and Madison’s future seems to hang in the balance. But what emerges most strongly is This Is Us’ small, romantic humanism. “Jerry 2.0” is an ode to the relationships that shape our lives. Whether they’re written in the stars or forged through hard work.

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Admittedly, “Jerry 2.0” is also a bit of a frustrating episode too, because it takes the question of whether Kevin and Madison will actually end up together and punts it to next week’s finale. It that sense it could be described as “filler”; a stretched-out breather in this already weirdly stretched out season. But that would suggest that we come to This Is Us first and foremost for plot. And I’ve long accepted that the best way to enjoy this show is to put aside its actual story and just invest in its characters instead.

Kevin and Madison’s respective bachelor and bachelorette parties give the show a chance to mix up its usual character combos this week. Kevin flies Nicky, Toby, and Miguel out to meet Randall at the cabin for a relaxed guys weekend, while Beth joins Kate and Rebecca for Madison’s equally casual at-home affair. It’s nice to have some big, fun group scenes at the tail end of this pandemic season. But the heart of this episode really belongs to Rebecca. And This Is Us continues to prove that it was worth delaying these last three episodes in order to give Mandy Moore more substantial screentime after her maternity leave.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us’ party-filled penultimate episode had us at hello
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

“Jerry 2.0” cleverly takes Rebecca’s absence from big chunks of the season and makes it an active element of her character arc. Though Rebecca’s Alzheimer’s has stabilized for now, it’s also changed her dynamic within her family. Miguel watches over her with worried eyes, while her kids no longer ask for help like they did before she was diagnosed. Rebecca is a woman who put aside her personal ambitions to define herself as the world’s greatest caretaker. And now she’s stuck in a strange state of limbo where she’s still capable of doing a lot of that same caretaking, only no one wants to bother her with their problems anymore. They assume they’ll be a burden, when what Rebecca actually wants more than anything is a sense of normalcy.

Which is why it’s so lovely that “Jerry 2.0” returns to the always great Rebecca/Beth relationship. Ever since Moore and Susan Kelechi Watson locked into a wonderful warmth in the 2008 flashback episode centered on Tess’ birth (the same flashback episode where Rebecca reconnected with Miguel on Facebook), Rebecca and Beth have been one of the show’s best and most underutilized pairings. And “Jerry 2.0” delivers something of an origin story for their friendship in a sweet scene where Rebecca and teen Beth bond during a trip to the family cabin.

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Illustration for article titled This Is Us’ party-filled penultimate episode had us at hello
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Beth and Randall got together at such a young age that Rebecca really became a second mom to Beth. One who was slightly more emotionally open than Beth’s own reserved, success-minded mother. But teen Beth also sees Rebecca’s humanity in a way that Randall, Kate, Kevin, and even Sophie don’t. She and Rebecca have a special bond as artists who know the pain of having to set aside a dream. And that means their relationship feels as much like a friendship as it does a mother/daughter one. Rebecca gives Beth the courage and confidence to chase her dreams—first in accepting a prestigious urban planning internship as a teen; and later in setting out to change the toxicity of the traditional dance world from within. And Beth gives Rebecca a sense of being genuinely seen and valued, not just taken for granted.

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There are thoughtful character moments like that scattered throughout this episode. Uncle Nicky has a whole arc where he briefly reverts to his self-destructive habit of lashing out at others to hide his insecurities, only to apologize with genuine vulnerability and then decide to seek out his old flame Sally (!!!). Elsewhere, the show finally returns to Kate and Madison’s friendship as Kate checks in to make sure Madison is genuinely excited to be marrying Kevin. And Miguel just about steals the episode with his lovely monologue about how some romances are written in the stars while others are the result of choice and hard work.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us’ party-filled penultimate episode had us at hello
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC
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The big question is which camp Kevin and Madison fall into, and whether they’re even on the same page about it. And the results are… inconclusive. At their respective parties, Kevin and Madison both reflect on the odd, unromantic way they first got together. But they also seem to experience opposite arcs over the course of the day. While Kevin is initially eager to reconnect with Sophie after taking her congratulations call, he winds up deleting her number after hearing Miguel’s speech. Madison, meanwhile, is initially charmed by Kevin’s goofy answer to a pre-recorded Newlywed Game question about their future, only to later spot an unsettling moment of genuine self-doubt in her fiancé’s eyes.

Like many a rom-com couple, Kevin and Madison find themselves at odds just when they should be closest. But that raises the question of whether they’re actually the rom-com couple we’re supposed to be rooting for. “Jerry 2.0” doubles down on the season premiere’s brilliant observation that Kevin is basically just Jerry Maguire. It turns out that seeing the classic Tom Cruise sports rom-com-dram for the first time was a “spiritual experience” for young Kevin. And he’s spent his life striving to embody Jerry’s idealistic, self-driven ethos—all while looking for the woman who “completes” him.

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Only he’s inadvertently wound up replicating Jerry’s flaws too. Like his big screen idol, Kevin is impulsive and impractical with a tendency to leap before he looks. Instead of addressing Sophie’s very real concerns about their youthful marriage, teen Kevin sweeps them under the rug with a big Jerry-inspired “mission statement” about how their relationship will always be perfect, which, of course, we know it won’t be. Teen Kevin wants the romantic fantasy without actually putting in the work. But, on the other hand, it’s also telling that he can imagine a long-term future with Sophie in a way present-day Kevin can’t with Madison. Is that because he’s more pragmatic about love now that he’s a sober adult? Or is because he’s not actually in love with Madison?

Illustration for article titled This Is Us’ party-filled penultimate episode had us at hello
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC
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What’s exciting is that I genuinely don’t know how this is going to pan out. I could see the finale going any number of different directions. And, best of all, I think (and hope) that this episode lays enough nuanced emotional groundwork that whatever happens won’t just feel like overblown melodrama. From Kevin and Madison’s cold feet to Toby’s potential new job in San Francisco, “Jerry 2.0” introduces a lot of dangling threads for the show to weave together next week. And while whatever happens in the finale will probably retroactively color how I feel about this episode, for now, “Jerry 2.0” offers a welcome chance to celebrate This Is Us at its low-key best.


Stray observations

  • Of all the ridiculous modes of transportation This Is Us has ever depicted, the idea that Kevin would charter a private jet to fly Nicky, Toby, Miguel, and himself across the country might be the most absurd.
  • On the other hand, it did give us Uncle Nicky’s unbridled excitement for “plane melon” so maybe it was worth it.
  • No one in the show has raised this as an issue, but I don’t understand why Kevin and Madison are in such a rush to get married. They got engaged less than a year ago (in the middle of a pandemic and a pregnancy!) after only a few months of dating. If anyone could’ve used a long engagement, it seems like it would’ve been them.
  • Randall and Beth referring to themselves as Cuba and Regina was very cute—and even better because Regina King actually directed that 2008 flashback episode I mentioned!
  • Mandy Moore’s deadpan delivery of “the latter” is maybe her funniest moment on the show to date, and apparently it was an improv from her! (Also, Rebecca’s nude figure painting was so good??)
  • “This is why you should always bring a puzzle.”
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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.