Photo: This Is Us (NBC)

I was really nervous heading into “Number Three.” As I mentioned in my review of “The Most Disappointed Man,” TV seldom gets depictions of the foster care system right. In the real world, reunification of a child with their parent is almost always the goal of foster care. But on TV, foster care is usually used as an easy way for a show to add a new permanent character to the main cast. When I saw the preview for this episode, I was worried that This Is Us would expect us to side with Randall and Beth while throwing Dejà’s birth mother Shauna under the bus. But instead This Is Us does the unexpected: It tells a story about foster care that’s sympathetic to every single person involved and ends with a realistic, hopeful outcome.

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Shauna may not be the perfect parent, but then again few parents are. And she may not live the life of luxury that Randall and Beth do, but wealth isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for a happy childhood. I think I’m especially sensitive to stuff like this, but I found Randall and Beth’s initial plan to get Shauna into legal trouble so as to ensure Dejà would stay with them to be pretty despicable. And I’m actually impressed that the This Is Us writers let them get so close to going through with it. Randall and Beth are sometimes in danger of coming across as a little too perfect and watching them nearly take such a huge misstep out of a misguided sense of protectiveness adds an interesting wrinkle to their characterization. Thankfully, Randall realizes they’re making a mistake just before beginning a process that could’ve ruined Shauna’s life forever.

Randall’s third of this Big Three trilogy isn’t quite as thematically tight as Kevin or Kate’s. But “Number Three” tells a more wide-ranging story about the spaces people feel comfortable in and how our environments shape our identities. Dejà’s story centers around the question, “Which environment is best for her?” And that question is also at the heart of Jack and teenage Randall’s visit to Howard University. Yes, going to college is about getting a good education, but it’s also about forming an adult identity outside of the environment you were raised. And while Jack thinks Randall should go to the most academically prestigious school possible (ideally Harvard), Randall realizes he has other factors to consider too.

While hanging out with his friend Keith at Howard, Randall is completely surrounded by black students—which is new for him and for This Is Us. The show doesn’t usually feature big crowd scenes with just black actors. And that drives home what a different kind of environment Howard is for Randall. It also allows Jack to get a tiny taste of how his son felt growing up in a predominantly white environment. One of the most quietly effective scenes in this episode is Jack and Randall’s discussion of the way Randall briefly hesitated before introducing Jack to his new Howard friends. It’s a tiny moment, but it registers for both of them. And that allows Randall to put into words something he’s never quite been able to before: The uncomfortableness Jack felt at being ever so slightly out of place at Howard is how Randall feels all the time. For his whole life.

Jack and Randall’s conversation serves the double purpose of being relatable for those who’ve felt like Randall and eye-opening for those who’ve never been in a space where they’re the minority. It’s certainly not This Is Us’ job to use Randall’s storylines to teach white people about race. But it’s hard to imagine the show doing a better job of that than it does here. Jack and Randall’s conversation isn’t confrontational or melodramatic, just honest. And it inspires Jack to open up to his son about a different but related topic: the way he felt out of step with the world after returning from Vietnam. I expected this Big Three trilogy would end with a big reveal about Jack’s death. But I like the choice to go with something quieter, especially in a setting as beautiful as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The fact that Jack feels comfortable enough to open up about his time in Vietnam (at least a little bit) adds more dimension to the Jack/Randall relationship. There’s a real warmth and trust and respect between father and son, and when Jack tells Randall he’s spectacular, you can tell he truly means it.

While the main threads of Randall’s present day and ’90s storylines are just about perfect, there are a few missteps around the edges of this episode. As lovely as it is to have both Ron Cephas Jones and Jermel Nakia back onscreen, William’s story about following Rebecca home only serves to make the world of This Is Us feel way too small. Rebecca going to visit William was already a big reveal and adding another reveal on top of that starts to feel a bit silly. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I cried like a baby during William’s fantasy sequence about being there to watch Randall grow up. But the fact that William knew where the Pearsons lived seems like the kind of thing that would entirely change the William/Randall dynamic (William apparently told this story to Randall last Thanksgiving, although we’re just seeing it for the first time now). But the episode just doesn’t have time to dig into the ramifications of a story that’s mostly just there to be a parallel for Randall’s present predicament.

And the episode totally goes off the rails in its final few minutes as it suddenly returns to Kevin’s storyline and gives us a bizarre fake-out about Kevin and Tess getting into a car crash. I guess the thinking here was to give the audience the thrill of a twist ending without actually going through with it? But though I’m glad This Is Us didn’t have them crash, it’s still a really strange scene that doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the episode at all.

But let’s end this review on a better note than the episode does by singing the praises of the departing Lyric Ross. Ross has been a fantastic addition to this series and I’m sorry to see her go, even if her departure makes the most sense for Dejà’s storyline. This Is Us doesn’t make me cry as often as its branding would suggest, but I was a total mess during the latter half of Dejà’s story, pretty much from the moment she referred to Randall as her “foster dad” during her presentation. This episode really highlights the fact that underneath her (totally understandable) pre-teen petulance and sullenness, Dejà actually has a huge amount of emotional maturity. We first see that when she advises her mom to go through the proper legal channels to get custody. And we see it again when Dejà spends her final few moments with Randall making sure he’s emotionally prepared for her departure.

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Despite the difficulty of saying goodbye to Dejà, Randall and Beth both agree they want to foster another kid and we get a glimpse of the young boy who seems destined to end up as the next honorary Pearson. He’ll have big shoes to fill—both for the Pearsons and for viewers. So it’s a good thing the This Is Us casting department hasn’t let us down yet when it comes to child actors.


Stray observations

  • Speaking of young actors, Niles Fitch is utterly charming in this episode as teen Randall.
  • I like that this episode acknowledges all of the Pearson Thanksgiving traditions (like watching Police Academy 4) without having to show them all again. Also it’s really weird to air a Thanksgiving-themed episode after Thanksgiving.
  • Between this and Gilmore Girls’ famous “Why did you drop out of Yale?!?” line, Milo Ventimiglia has made a career out of playing characters who encourage people to go to Ivy League schools.
  • Jack’s dynamic with Randall’s friend Keith is such a great depiction of the relationship between parents and their kids’ friends. I also love that Keith’s mom instructed Jack to give Keith a once over.
  • Perhaps the most interesting thing about setting all of the flashbacks on the same day is demonstrating just how much Jack is dealing with at any given moment. In addition to managing his own personal issues, he delivers sage words of wisdom to both Kevin and Randall—neither of whom realizes how much parenting he’s doing elsewhere.
  • Debra Jo Rupp turns in a great performance as Linda, and I love the moment she politely but firmly reminds Randall and Beth that this is what they signed up for. In addition to DejĂ , Shauna, and the Pearsons, Linda is another foster care-related character this episode has a lot of empathy for.
  • Have we ever actually seen adult Kate and Randall speak to one another in person?
  • I know it’s a reference to the order in which they joined the family, but does anyone else think it’s a little weird to literally nickname your kids Number One, Number Two, and Number Three? It feels so preferential.
  • This Is Us is off until January 2nd. I’ll see you back here then!

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