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

This Is Us returns with answers to a whole bunch of mysteries

Illustration for article titled This Is Us returns with answers to a whole bunch of mysteries
Photo: NBC

Back in the This Is Us season premiere, Randall longed for a year without surprises. And while the show, of course, used that as a springboard to immediately introduce a bunch of new twists, the midseason premiere displays an admirable commitment to not dragging out those mysteries longer than it needs to. In short order, we get official confirmation that teen Kate had an abortion after finding herself pregnant by Marc. And we also learn that Randall’s birth mom Laurel died in 2015, meaning that while there’s still plenty of her story yet to be explored, we’re not in for another long-lost relative reunion.

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It’s both a surprise and a relief to see This Is Us lay its cards on the table so quickly. This show is at its strongest when it’s about its characters openly processing their histories and traumas, not searching for or hiding from them. But while this midseason premiere makes some smart big picture decisions, “A Long Road Home” is something of a mixed bag as an episode in its own right. It’s predominantly focused on the present day Big Three, which is where This Is Us often struggles. And there’s more than a little unevenness as the show transitions back into its season-long storytelling.

This week, Randall, Kevin, and Kate all face hard truths and try to break old patterns. For Kevin, that means figuring out how to balance his career and his family, which is something he’s struggled with ever since his youthful marriage to Sophie. For Randall, it means figuring out if he wants to potentially tarnish his memories of William by reaching out to Hai Ling (Vien Hong), the Vietnamese grandfather with a connection to his birth mom. And for Kate, it means finally confronting the long-buried trauma tied up with her abusive relationship with Marc.

Kevin and Randall’s storylines are both a tad under-baked. They mostly function as recaps for returning viewers and setup for the rest of the season, rather than rich narratives in their own right. Kate’s storyline, on the other hand, crams far too much into the span of just one episode. While Marc has been an ominous player in the This Is Us world since last season, this is the first episode of the show to explicitly name him as one of the biggest causes for all of the emotional issues Kate experienced during her late teens and twenties. It’s not exactly a reveal, since we’ve seen Marc’s abusive behavior firsthand in his trip to the family cabin with Kate. But it is a bit of a recontextualization as to just how deeply that experience—coupled with the abortion teen Kate got in secret—shaped the next two decades of her life, to the point where Kate is only just now able to talk about any of this for the very first time with Toby.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us returns with answers to a whole bunch of mysteries
Photo: NBC

That level of life-long repression speaks to an issue that’s just as deep and thorny as Kevin’s alcoholism or Randall’s struggle with identity. Yet while Kate’s brothers got multi-season arcs to unpack their issues, This Is Us is in a rush to wrap up Kate’s storyline almost as soon as it’s introduced. I got emotional whiplash going from the scene where Kate reveals just how much Marc-related baggage she’s been carrying all these years to the big, empowering sequence where she confronts her toxic ex and symbolically hands that baggage back to him. To introduce the depths of Kate’s issues with Marc and have her stand up to him all in one episode robs that arc of some of the catharsis it might have had coming on the heels of a longer build-up.

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Which isn’t to say that there’s not still some catharsis there. The idea of a woman getting the chance to safely and articulately confront her toxic ex is a powerful kind of wish fulfillment. And the sequence is crammed full of compelling, relatable ideas—particularly the notion that a relationship that might seem like a blip from the outside (Kate and Marc were only together for six months 20 years ago) can still have a major impact on someone’s life. The aimless 40-something version of Marc is a very believable evolution of his character. But it’s a scene that lives or dies based on how much the audience is willing to fill in the gaps of how relatively little we’ve actually seen of Kate and Marc’s dynamic.

In contrast, when Randall and his therapist discuss Randall’s deep desire to know the history of where he came from, they cite examples we’ve seen from throughout the show’s run—like little Randall asking Black adults to roll their tongues in season one or teen Randall placing an ad to find his birth parents in season two. We just don’t have that same level of specificity about Kate and Marc’s tumultuous relationship. Much more so than her brothers, Kate is a character whose central trauma is absolutely defined by her late teen years. And because This Is Us has explored those years with much less detail than it does the Big Three’s middle school ones, Kate has always gotten the short end of the stick, character development wise.

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Illustration for article titled This Is Us returns with answers to a whole bunch of mysteries
Photo: NBC

Of course, the one caveat you always have to make with This Is Us is that there could be more to come from this story. We’ll almost certainly see more fallout for teen Kate as her story unfolds in the late ’90s. And it’s possible that present day Kate will realize she still has more to unpack than one single confrontation with Marc can resolve too. But given This Is Us’ track record, I’m not entirely optimistic. This episode somehow manages to pivot Kate’s major moment of self-empowerment into a monologue about how great Toby is.

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Outside of the confrontation scene and some harrowing flashbacks for teen Kate, “A Long Road Home” is a surprisingly low-key affair. Thanks to an oddly placed holiday break and the logistics of introducing the pandemic to the show’s universe, This Is Us’ fifth season hasn’t quite gotten a chance to kick into high gear yet. “A Long Road Home” is yet another episode that revs the engine without fully stepping on the gas. Hopefully the slow and steady approach characterized by Kevin and Randall’s tentative, unexpectedly sweet phone call will pay off in the long run. But if this season is purposefully taking a more patient approach with its emotional storytelling, it would be nice if that could extend to Kate as well as her brothers.


Stray observations

  • Though it’s much more common to see an abortion storyline on TV than it was even a decade ago, it still feels like a big deal for a popular network show like This Is Us to include one. It’s also interesting to see an abortion experience from the late ’90s, which is actually something I wish the show had explored even more specifically.
  • The producers have confirmed it was just a continuity error that saw teen Kate holding an ovulation test instead of a pregnancy one in the previous episode.
  • According to the first season of This Is Us, Kevin and Sophie’s marriage ended after he moved to L.A. for his career and then cheated on her. The timeline for when exactly that happened is a little vague, although it’s suggested it’s around the time they’re 24.
  • On the one hand, I’m glad that teen Kate cut ties with Marc. On the other hand, I’m bummed that we (presumably) won’t be getting any more of Austin Abrams’ eerily great performance!
  • I don’t know why it never occurred to me that Marc could be a character we’d meet in the present, but I was shocked when Toby suggested tracking him down.
  • I’m still not sure that embracing the pandemic was the right storytelling decision for This Is Us. While it leads to interesting details like Kevin’s movie having to shoot in Vancouver because there are less COVID cases there, Kate’s encounter with Marc and Randall’s plan to travel to New Orleans both seem absolutely bizarre in this context.
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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. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.