The key to This Is Us’ success is the way it balances realistic family drama with heartwarming sentimentality. And this final Big Three trilogy has been a case study in how the show can get that balance right and wrong. Kevin’s episode tried to engage with drama far above its paygrade and felt a little shallow when it circled back to a sentimental endpoint for his mid-life crisis. Kate’s episode, meanwhile, did an excellent job digging into the tension of a seemingly mundane weekend and finding the complicated, unresolvable fractures in her marriage. Now Randall’s episode sits somewhere in the middle. It’s a little too low on tension and high on sentimentality for my taste, but the balance is only off by a matter of degrees, rather than miles.
It helps that this episode regularly deploys my favorite This Is Us visual device: jump cuts that contrast a shot of present-day Rebecca and her kids with a moment from their childhood. When a pissed-off Deja runs away from the family cabin to try to salvage her relationship with Malik, Randall and Rebecca set off on a road trip to Boston to get her back. And that extended mother/son time reminds them of all the simple, mundane things they used to do together when he was little—riding in cars, brushing their teeth, taking vitamins, reading on the couch.
I’ve always maintained that This Is Us is better with visual storytelling than with dialogue, and those brief memory snippets wind up being just as evocative, if not more so, than the stuff with little Randall at the pool or 20-year-old Randall and his siblings. On the whole, the two flashback storylines haven’t been the most interesting element of this Big Three trilogy. But they do at least manage to paint a strong throughline of who Randall is and how he’s always been.
From an early age, Randall’s purposeful, driven path through life often made him slightly disconnected from his family, even as he also felt deeply responsible for their safety and happiness. When little Randall sees his parents struggling to get Kevin and Kate to have a happy day at the pool, he decides it’s his job to make that happen. And when 20-year-old Randall sees a potential night in a jail as something that could break his family’s already broken spirit, he decides it’s his job to talk the cop into letting the Big Three off the hook. (Randall’s deep need to impress and ingratiate himself with authority figures is another life-long personality trait.)
Rebecca feels bad that Randall spent his late teen and young adult years not getting to be a carefree young person because he saw it as his job to step up to the plate and help her after Jack died. But the truth is, Randall never even really saw himself as a kid either. He was always pushing himself towards responsibility and success; figuring out how to shoulder his own burdens so he could help other people shoulder theirs too.
The ironic thing, however, is that because Randall was such a “good kid” growing up, he can now sometimes struggle to understand his own children as they make very different decisions than the ones he would have made at their age. Deja is, of course, a great kid, but not in the way Randall was. Where he was people-pleasing, rule-following, and deferential, she’s independent, self-possessed, and a little rebellious. And though that self-confidence will no doubt serve her well in life, it makes her a pretty stressful teen to parent as she repeatedly decides she’s old enough to make grown-up decisions for her own life.
I will say, given how much dramatic weight the Deja/Malik saga took up in the first half of the season, its resolution feels a little anticlimactic here. It’s sweet that Rebecca’s advice to give Deja a little space ultimately works out. (Unlike Randall, Rebecca does know what it’s like to parent rebellious teenagers.) But given how mature Deja and Malik act here, it’s bizarre that they ever seriously considered the idea of her dropping out of high school and moving to Boston. I also found it strange that Randall seems to give more post-breakup support to Malik than to his own daughter, although I suppose that’s mostly because the show wants to give Asante Blackk a proper sendoff scene and it’s hard to be mad about that. (“Thank you for looking out for me,” made me cry.)
In the end, “Every Version Of You” keeps things a little nicer and calmer than maybe it should, and that goes for the Rebecca/Randall storyline as well. I yelped at my TV when Randall passive aggressively told Rebecca, “Or maybe we should just let Kate handle it, since she handles all the big stuff now.” And I wouldn’t have minded if this episode had unearthed more of that old tension from the time Randall tried to emotionally blackmail his own mom into signing up for a clinical trial she didn’t want to do—which is surely on Rebecca’s mind as she imagines what her future might look like.
Instead, however, it turns out Rebecca’s decision to have Kate handle her medical care was less about not trusting Randall and more about not wanting to be a burden on him again. As her health declines, she wants him to be able to embrace the sense of carefree ambition he never got to have as a child. And Randall reveals that… he maybe wants to be President of the United States?
Given how much I hated Randall’s campaign storyline from season three, I’m really not looking forward to a return to more political stuff for him as he gears up for a potential run for State Senate and beyond. (Or is he considering running for a U.S. Senate seat? My brain refuses to compute that.) This Is Us tends to be strongest when it’s digging into the small, everyday problems of its main characters (Kate and Toby’s marriage) rather than tackling big social issues that are more disconnected from its core ensemble (Cassidy’s PTSD, whatever Randall has ostensibly done as city councilman). And I don’t want the show’s final run of episodes to get bogged down in annoying political campaign logistics again.
Indeed, This Is Us is in a slightly weird place as it heads into its final eight episodes. After the Thanksgiving dramatics of “Taboo” seemed to launch the show in a new direction, this Big Three trilogy has felt as much like an awkward pause as an active continuation. (Here’s hoping we never have to hear Rebecca’s big “be fearless” speech again.) Yet this trilogy has also offered some highs that reassure me the show still knows what it’s doing—especially in the quieter bonding moments between Randall and Rebecca tonight.
I was particularly struck by the image of Rebecca, Randall, and Deja sitting in the car together—three generations of Pearsons, none of whom are biologically related, but all of whom have shaped and been shaped by the family they’re a part of. “I don’t want to have a whole talk about it right now, but you’re my dad,” Deja tells Randall by way of apology for her earlier outburst. “You’re the only one I ever had.” If there’s anyone who understands the full weight of those words, it’s Randall and Rebecca. Sure it’s a moment where This Is Us prioritizes sentimentality over dramatics. But maybe there’s a power in that too.
- I’m obsessed with the way Jack full-on palms that creamsicle when little Kevin shoves it at him. What a dad move.
- Of course Randall was a competitive Scholastic Book Club kid. Of course.
- I love Randall’s salmon colored sweater in the final scene. That’s a great color on Sterling K. Brown.
- I was confused about Rebecca’s selfie obsession in this episode, but I think it’s maybe meant to call back to her conversation with Nicky’s long-lost love Sally (remember her??) about still wanting to be photographed as you age.
- Another subtle callback: Rebecca tries to brush off 20-year-old Randall’s phone call with “Don’t let me keep you,” the same phrase Jack’s mom used to use in their weekly phone calls. Instead of going along with it, however, Randall stays on the phone and surprises her with a cookie.
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