When people revisit this season of This Is Us in the future, its many starts and stops will disappear into the blur of a binge-watch. But for those watching live, the release date choppiness has been a big hurdle for getting into the flow of the season. The show returns after a month-long hiatus tonight and jumps right back into the deep end with its many, many storylines. In the middle of a binge-watch, this hour would make for a nice little transition out of Randall and Kevin’s big dramatic reconciliation. But as a reintroduction to the series after a four-week break, it’s a bit disorienting. Kevin dashing off his movie set or Jennifer re-entering Malik’s life now feel like plot points from eons ago, not things are characters are still in the midst of grappling with.
It doesn’t help that “The Music And The Mirror” is one of those slightly scattered This Is Us episodes that mostly stays in the present and checks in on a bunch of different storylines. The Chorus Line-inspired title refers to Beth and her long deferred dream to make a career in dance. But almost all of the main cast get a spotlight this week in an episode about careers and the way they shape our identities. While Kate is wonderfully fulfilled by her new job as a music teacher, Beth, Toby, and even Kevin are all floundering in their professional lives. And that means it’s time for the Pearsons to do some major self-reflection about the paths they’ve taken since childhood.
One big upside of the recent hiatus (and, in fact, the reason I suspect it might have happened in the first place) is that it allows Mandy Moore to return for more substantial filming after her remarkably quick mid-season maternity leave. Though the show has done an elegant job working around its leading lady’s pregnancy, it definitely feels like we’ve gotten much less Rebecca this season than was originally planned (especially given how central her Alzheimer’s diagnosis was to the end of season four). And it’s nice to finally see the Pearson family matriarch front and center again.
In fact, Rebecca delivers this episode’s most cathartically tear-jerking moments, like filling in as a pseudo-mom for Madison while wedding dress shopping and having a really sweet heart-to-heart with Kate about her long road to rediscovering her joy. It’s This Is Us at its most conventionally heartwarming—to the point of having a choir of angelic children sing Joni Mitchell in Rebecca’s honor. But it works because of how well Moore sells it, and because of how many years we’ve spent exploring Kate and Rebecca’s complicated mother/daughter relationship.
It also helps that “The Music And The Mirror” balances out some of that sweetness with an intriguing level of ambiguity. The overall gentle nature of the episode tricked me into assuming it would leave its characters in a positive, upbeat place. Instead, there’s a level of unease at play in the episode’s final few moments. Beth’s dance studio isn’t magically saved by a last-minute arts grant. Kate and Toby don’t suddenly resolve their communication issues. And Kevin’s seemingly perfect new family life is rocked by a jolt of self-doubt brought on by an offhanded comment from an ex.
This Is Us has a tendency to give its characters easy wins, and I like that “The Music And The Mirror” doesn’t do that. Kevin may have earned the forgiveness of both Robert De Niro and his artsy director, but it turns out the movie they made together is terrible. (A reveal that really made me laugh). Plus Kevin has developed a reputation for being a difficult actor who storms off sets. (A nice use of the show’s long-term continuity.) Kevin’s career is in shambles, and now his personal life might be too. During a chance Zoom encounter with Zoe at his agent’s office, Kevin is clearly shaken when she points out that he has a tendency to commit to whatever’s in front of him, even if that means changing his preferences to do so.
Though This Is Us has never really articulated that idea directly before, it does feel true to Kevin’s character. While there’s an element of Kevin that’s stubborn and selfish, there’s also an element that’s loyal and giving too. And those two halves combine into one deeply neurotic movie star. From his teenage marriage to Sophie to pretending he didn’t want kids while dating Zoe to going “all in” with Madison, Kevin has a certain impulsivity when it comes to trying to live out a picture-perfect fantasy of what he thinks his romantic life should look like. And that may be preventing him from getting in touch with what he actually wants.
What’s even more exciting is that I genuinely don’t know where this storyline is heading. Maybe this is the start of a dramatic arc in which Kevin realizes that he’s actually still in love with Sophie and rearranges his entire life to be with her in the sort of big gesture his dad loved to pull. Or maybe this is the start of a more bittersweet story about Kevin comprising some dreams but still building a happy life anyway. A story that echoes his mom’s complicated life path. The image of Kevin bundled up on the couch with Madison and their newborn could be read any number of different ways. Is he cozy or is he trapped?
That same sense of ambiguity elevates the ongoing saga of Kate and Toby’s marital woes too. Though their relationship has never been my favorite This Is Us throughline, the scene where they politely tiptoe around each other is a guttingly realistic depiction of communication issues. And it lands even harder since the episode primes us for Toby to have an emotional breakthrough after receiving some warm advice from his father. Unlike the image of Beth and Randall temporarily putting aside their problems to enjoy a dance together—which is both deeply romantic and deeply supportive—Kate and Toby repressing their struggles to watch The Great British Baking Show together is unnerving. It’s a smart example of This Is Us contrasting two similar relationship moments towards drastically different ends.
The ambiguity of “The Music And The Mirror” is its biggest asset, but it also makes it a little hard to evaluate as an episode in its own right. A lot of the themes that are brought to the forefront here will live or die based on how well the show sticks the landing with them. “The Music And The Mirror” feels more like an ellipsis than a complete episodic story. But with two weeks left and no more planned hiatuses, at least This Is Us will get to finish the rest of the season straight through.
- Not to keep repeating myself, but this season’s depiction of the pandemic has been so strange. This Is Us skips over the emotional resonance of the Pearsons getting their vaccines, but then still has Kevin and Zoe’s reunion happen over Zoom, which feels so dramatically inert.
- We already knew that Kate spent most of her 20s working at a diner, but I like the reveal that she decided to get a job there because it’s one of the last places she and Jack had a big father/daughter conversation before he died.
- I highly doubt that Beth could immediately fill a brand new dance studio with a bunch of high-level teenage ballet students. That seems like the sort of thing it takes years to establish.
- It’s nice to see Timothy Omundson’s Gregory back again, if only briefly!
- Two great Uncle Nicky moments: Buying Godfather onesies for the twins, and being really excited to read the script for a Tom Clancy adaptation that comes Kevin’s way. (“They already made that one twice.” / “Well, I’ll see it again.”)
- Rebecca’s monologue about seeing “every Kate” when she looks at her daughter is the latest in This Is Us’ meta commentary on its own premise.
- “Let’s be honest, I’m a Pippa at best.”