One of my favorite episodes of This Is Us remains “Number One,” the Kevin-centric first installment in the show’s first Big Three trilogy. That episode was a revelation because it took everything we thought we knew about Kevin and recontextualized it, bringing new dimension to the character and giving Justin Hartley a standout showcase. “The Guitar Man”—the last Kevin-centric installment of the series—aims for that same level of poignancy and, unfortunately, falls flat. Instead of feeling revelatory, it mostly just feels undercooked.
Indeed, the one downside of This Is Us’ commitment to this Big Three trilogy format is that it’s really hard to write three equally substantial stories for three different characters all set during roughly the same periods of time in the show’s world. A few nice character beats aside, kid Kevin’s family outing to the pool and 20-year-old Kevin’s drunken existential crisis add little that feels new or meaningful to Kevin’s arc. And his present-day storyline is really more of a Cassidy story, which makes it all the more jarring that Kevin’s perspective takes up so much narrative room in a heavy story about PTSD in military vets.
The ostensible hook of this episode (and of this entire Big Three trilogy) is to explore how Rebecca’s big “be fearless” monologue motivates her children to find their next step in life. As the flashbacks drill home, Kevin has always been a bit lost—eager to achieve big goals without doing the work it takes to make them possible. As a kid, he wanted to jump off the diving board before he could even swim. As a young adult, he wanted a shortcut to stability by marrying Sophie without putting in the work to be a committed, faithful partner. And as a 40-something, he still feels like he’s desperately trying to be some idealized version of a good person, rather than just being a good person in an authentic way.
I will say, I like that this is a Kevin-centric hour that doesn’t center on his love life, which is a rut the show can sometimes get stuck in. While Cassidy is definitely still in the mix as a potential future partner for Kevin (assuming he winds up with anyone at all), I like the way this episode explicitly frames her as Kevin’s friend. He doesn’t really have those outside of his family, and that gives Cassidy a unique weight in his life. He’s loyal to her not because he’s trying to woo her, but because he genuinely cares about her. And while his idea to relaunch Big Three Homes and staff it with vets is a way to honor his dad and Nicky, it’s equally a way to honor Cassidy as well.
But, the fact is, it can be hard to make a rich white male celebrity’s umpteenth existential crisis dramatically interesting. And there’s something decidedly clunky about how this episode goes about trying to give Kevin a big/small revelation about what he wants to do with his life. Even the details of this episode feel off. It beggar’s belief that Kevin is full-on living in Kate and Toby’s guest room with both of his kids (and sometimes a nanny?). And it’s strange to hear Uncle Nicky monologue about how vets with PTSD “don’t just get better” when that’s basically exactly what the show has done with his peppy 180 this season.
Worst of all is Kevin’s big waiting room monologue, which is clearly meant to be a commentary on his sense of self-indulgence but also just plays as self-indulgent too. (Staying at the hospital all night also felt self-indulgent to me, but I’m not sure the show agrees there.) Obviously This Is Us’ priority is always going to be to its main characters, but it’s strange how little of Cassidy’s perspective we get in an episode that ultimately hinges on her depression and suicidal ideation brought on by her role in a cruel war.
Don’t get me wrong, Jennifer Morrison is great, as she always is on this show—both steely and vulnerable at the same time. And her climactic monologue about how much she’s been struggling is incredibly moving. But I would have loved to have spent more time with Cassidy in this pivotal moment in her life. That screentime is devoted to Kevin instead, yet, weirdly, I don’t know if I come away knowing all that much more about him either. He’s a shallow screwup who’s taken 40-some years to find himself; he’s constantly looking for a cheat code to skip past the hard parts of life; he’ll monologue to literally anyone about the deepest anxieties of his life; and he’s great at cheering kids up by talking about his painting hobby. For an hour-long deep dive, that’s not much new ground.
In the end, the most interesting part of “The Guitar Man” is actually the relatively brief runner featuring Jack and Rebecca with the kids at the pool. Jack’s tough-love attempt to show Kevin that he’s not ready for the deep end by letting him struggle in the water toes right up to that unnerving parenting line that makes Jack such a fascinating figure for the show to dissect. And the scene between Rebecca and little Kevin is lived-in and poignant in the best way. (“Tell me what happened.” / “Dad tried to drown-ed me.”)
Indeed, “The Guitar Man” proves that This Is Us is at its best when it’s fleshing out its characters through action and behavior rather than over-written monologues and clunky metaphors about foundations and roofs. There are glimmers of that throughout this episode—the shot of Kevin sitting by Cassidy’s bed side, his sweet interactions with his kids on the plane. But, like Kevin, it feels like the show didn’t quite trust itself this week.
- I wonder if this episode might have worked better as the middle entry in the trilogy rather than the first one. I wanted a little more set up for the Big Three’s 1980s pool day and the reference to present-day Randall’s “rough night” with his kids was more confusing than enticing.
- After all the drama they’ve had over the years, I really like the sense of camaraderie the adult Big Three have here.
- I still find it a little weird how quickly and easily the show paired Nicky with Edie, but I loved the moment she played along with Kevin’s joke about Nicky holding her hostage.
- “Celebrities, they’re just like us, am I right?” / “You already said that. And I don’t know who you are.”