Original Airdate: October 18, 2016
First off, surprise! I'm not Bibi. I'm your friendly Just About Write editor-in-chief, Jenn, who is filling in for Bibi while she's at a work conference. I'm falling in love with This Is Us just as much as everyone pretty much is — it's this quiet, emotional show that fills the Parenthood-sized hole in my heart. Thank you, NBC, for coming through for me again with a stellar family drama. And that's really what this show is about, at its core: family. But this week we also experience something else pretty important, and that's the subject of identity.
I'm a huge fan of origin stories. I think some of the best parts of movies involving superheroes and villains are when we get to see who they were before they donned masks. I love when shows explore backstory, like every flashback episode of Friends or New Girl. I love those moments because understanding who a character was or how they were raised or what they experienced along their journey helps us relate to and understand them more in the present. So when we see Randall bristle during his daughter's play at the laughter around him or watch as Kevin calls Kate over and over again, we understand why these characters are the way they are.
This week, I'm going to explore the origin stories one by one, and talk about what they revealed to us about the characters and their motivations.
JACK AND REBECCA
We're told, thanks to previews, that we'll get to see Jack and Rebecca's "true" origin story next week — what they were like before they had the triplets in their lives — but I would consider "The Pool" to be an important origin story nevertheless. Because for as much as we've cooed and flailed over how adorable these two are, this week we got a deeper glimpse into their flaws as parents and as people. And I think that's really crucial if This Is Us wants to tell a long-lasting story. Perfect characters are unrealistic, and perfect parenting would mean that Jack and Rebecca had three little robots instead of children.
Because for as much as they've tried, Jack and Rebecca are still human and they're still stumbling and falling in this quest to parent their triplets successfully. In "The Pool," we get to see a few of these issues with each child (which carry over heavily into the present-day stories): Jack and Rebecca tend to ignore Kevin and make him responsible for looking out for Randall; Jack and Rebecca try to parent Randall exactly the same as their biological children, which is only hurting him; Jack and Rebecca clash over how to protect Kate from the horrible people of the world who will make fun of her weight.
"The Pool" proves that Jack and Rebecca don't often do everything well. When they get to their destination, Rebecca immediately wants Kate to wear a shirt over her bathing suit (which she struts around in proudly because it has Care Bears on it). And when Randall wanders off to play with African-American families and children, she chastises him and snaps at the families. Then, because no one is paying attention to him, Kevin almost drowns while trying to chase his football and no one even bats an eye or looks over at him.
This isn't condemnation on Jack and Rebecca, who are trying their hardest to be good parents. And I think that if anything, this show makes us realize that we should give grace to them because they're trying. Their kids still ended up kind of messed up from their childhoods, but honestly... who of us didn't? The resolution that this storyline comes to though is that Jack and Rebecca will do anything for their kids. They might not always do it well, and they might mess up and admit it to their kids (parents admitting their failures to their kids is SO important, not just in television but in real life), but they're all in it together — they're a family. And the final shot of the episode reminds us that families stick together, whether they're happy or fighting. It's love that binds and that is not easily broken.
I'll start off with Kate's story, since it's probably the most clear-cut to talk about. Kate has always struggled with her weight and it's something that brings her immense insecurity, with good reason. In the flashbacks, we learn that while Kate proudly wore her Care Bears bikini to the pool, her friends did not think she was that cool. In fact, they signed a note and gave it to her calling her a pig and saying that they were embarrassed to be seen with her. Ouch.
First of all, kids are cruel and the worst. When I was in eighth grade, I just moved to a new state and was slipped a note that said something along the lines of: "You're ugly. Go back to where you came from." It was a horrible moment, and yet it was also a glorious one — because I looked so sad on the bus, a girl sat down next to me. And she became my best friend. We're still friends, fourteen years later!
But in spite of Jack's adorable speech to Kate about how much she's loved and will always be loved by him (and how he thinks she is a princess; seriously, I cannot get over that t-shirt moment), Kate has carried so many insecurities with her from the past to the present. In the present-day, as she has lunch with Toby, she notices him go off to the bathroom and be stopped by a fit young woman who — surprise! — is Toby's ex-wife. And because Kate is so insecure, she Facebook stalks the woman and then shows up at her boutique.
Accidentally assuming Kate was there for an opening at the store, Josie (I'm pretty sure that was her name but correct me in the comments) ends up hiring Kate. When Kate has to reveal this to Toby, it sends him on a rant that actually made me appreciate his character. I've been on the fence about Toby for a while now. On the one hand, some of the stuff he does and says sounds sweet; but a lot of it sounds kind of creepy and weird and pushy. But in Toby's speech, he is angry and incredulous that a woman can inspire self-confidence in Kate while he's been trying to get her to see how amazing she is for weeks.
To add salt to the wound, Toby reveals that his ex-wife is actually a terrible person, and that his scars run deeper than Kate knows — including revealing that he thought seriously about suicide at his lowest point. Kate is astounded, and I don't think even she knows why she is acting the way she is. Why does she crave attention from someone she envies? Because it boosts her self-esteem. A thin, seemingly put-together woman is what Kate aspires to be. So when Josie tells her how beautiful she is, Kate automatically feels better about herself. Josie isn't an angel, though: she's that girl at the pool that Kate desperately wanted to be, but who would turn around in a second and shut her down cruelly.
I'm definitely excited to see Kate develop more and face her insecurities head-on. It seems like she has some unresolved issues with her mother (understandably because of those childhood weight comments and insinuations), and I'm hopeful we'll get some scenes with them in the present-day soon!
Can I just say that I love Randall and Beth so much? Because I do. I love their family unit and I love that Randall built himself a life without anyone helping him. And I love that this week we got the chance to see a lot of Randall's insecurities creep up, especially when William makes a fuss in front of neighbors. You've got Randall and William contrasted, both of whom are black men living in a world where some people look at the color of someone's skin as a threat or a hindrance. When a police officer confronts William and accuses him of loitering because Randall's (white, affluent) neighbors didn't know who he was, William begins to put up a fight but Randall stops him.
All Randall has ever wanted is to find his place. Growing up, he felt alone constantly and found solace at the pool with black kids and families. He makes notches in a little notebook that we learn — heartbreakingly — later are marks for each time Randall saw a black person growing up. I love that This Is Us has tackled the subject of interracial families especially in the time period it is set. Growing up, Rebecca and Jack weren't sure how differently to treat Randall. They wanted equality among the three, so much so that they almost gave him a matching name. But as William pointed out to Rebecca, the parents needed to let Randall be his own person. Rebecca is offended at the pool when the mother of a boy Randall is playing with insinuates that she doesn't know what's best for him.
At least, that's how Rebecca takes it. But in reality, this woman was trying to convey a hard truth — Rebecca can't treat Randall exactly the same. He needs a different barber who knows how to cut black hair, and he needs to do different things when he gets out of the pool. For as much as Rebecca and Jack try to isolate and protect their son, they're also isolating him from other people who care about him and can connect with him.
As an adult, Randall explains why he doesn't get externally angry about the subtle racism that he sees everyday. William is from the generation of marches and protests; Randall is from the one of slight jabs and biting stereotypes. He tries to keep composure because if he doesn't, he'll be mad all the time. And he can't do that. He just can't.
But that doesn't mean things don't bother him. They do. Randall sits and watches people laugh at his daughter — his beautiful little black daughter — for playing Snow White. (Sidenote: people are the worst. The literal worst.) At the end of the night, Randall confesses all of this to his father, who turns the stories around and tells him that he's a good father and a good person. Randall's used to wonder who his father is and where he was and if he even cared. William, obviously, regrets the decisions he made and the promise to Rebecca in a lot of ways. But what I love is that even though Randall emerged from his childhood with some bitterness and baggage, he turned those things around into productivity. He's an amazing father and a husband and a person. And William makes sure that he knows that.
And lastly, we come to Kevin who recently decided to quit his popular multi-camera television comedy in order to pursue more serious acting endeavors. So he heads to New York City and auditions for a play, which fails miserably. Seriously, it's the most cringeworthy thing you'll watch on television all week. When Kevin meets his scene partner on the street and gets a drink with her, she advises him to go back hoe to Los Angeles and to stop pretending to find himself in a craft he doesn't know anything about. Unfortunately for her, in the very next instant, she gets a text notifying her that he got the part. The producers want to sell tickets and they think the former "Manny" star will help sell them.
Kevin has been kind of aimless for the last week or two, but it's understandable. His world is shaken up and he constantly relies on people around him for support. He wants to be recognized and noticed and he wants people to care about him all of the time. It stems from the fact that as a kid, Kevin was constantly ignored. So as an adult, he seeks out relationships and situations that make him feel adored. It leads him down the egotistical path, but we know he actually does have a heart of gold. Still, the issues with Kevin all come from the fact that he demands to be the center of everyone's universe — and no one more so than his sister.
And I get the pain that Kevin feels is the pain of abandonment. It's real and it's deep and he needs to find a way to cope with that. Unfortunately for right now, the pain of rejection and abandonment is cured by... finding someone else to occupy his time with! At the end of the episode, Kevin crashes with Randall and Beth and meets William. DUN-DUN-DUN.
This week gave us another solid episode of This Is Us, with some pretty down-to-earth but important emotional components and stories. What did you all think of "The Pool"? Sound off in the comments below!