Wednesday, January 18, 2017

This Is Us 1x12 Review: "The Big Day" (Another Big Three)


"The Big Day"
Original Airdate: January 17, 2017

Some of my favorite episodes of television are the ones about characters' origin stories. These prologues, if you will, are ways for us to better know the people we see on our television screens each week. They're shaped by their experiences in the past, and we're shaped by learning more about them. This Is Us is one of the few shows on television that has managed to balance out its present-day elements with its flashbacks. And this week, we were treated to an entire episode of flashbacks — the day that the triplets were born. You'd think that knowing the story and the key players — Jack and Rebecca, Dr. K., and the fireman (Joe) who found Randall in front of the station — this episode would lack emotional prowess or a gut punch. You would, of course, be wrong. I have yet to encounter an episode of This Is Us where my eyes did not well up, and "The Big Day" was no exception. A stellarly-crafted hour of television, this week we get the opportunity to peek behind the curtain and know a little bit more about the people who are so intimately tied to Randall, Kate, and Kevin.

EMPTY CHAIRS AT EMPTY TABLES


I'm going to start with the story of Dr. K, because I feel like his is rather important. He is, after all, the man who became a mentor and confidante for Jack when he was in his darkest moments. He loved the Pearson family, and in "The Big Day," we see him as the grieving widower. In the pilot of This Is Us, Dr. K. tells Jack about how he lost his wife to cancer recently (and how they, as a couple, lost a child years ago). From the beginning, he was always such a humanized character — very well-rounded, believable, and yet also incredibly warm and comforting. Jack took solace in Dr. K.'s presence, but it went further than that — the doctor spoke words of encouragement over him that led him to adopt Randall later that day.

But what humanizes him even more is that we get the opportunity to sit in Dr. K.'s grief with him this week. If you've ever lost someone you loved, as I suspect you have, you know how hard it can be to cope with the loss of that person. In our good doctor's case, he was married to his wife for more than 50 years, and hasn't coped well since her death. He keeps his house the same way she left — her medicines in the medicine cabinet and her items left in their bedroom. It makes moving on utterly impossible for Dr. K., but that's fine. He doesn't want to move on. He wants to stay in his grief because it oddly comforts him. He talks to his deceased wife at the dinner table — a place set for her and all. If he moves on, he leaves her behind. And he can't do that yet.

Of course, Dr. K. has children and they're worried about him. His son, Paul, confronts his father about moving on — maybe inviting someone he knows to go see a movie — and the doctor avoids the subject repeatedly, until he can't take it anymore. He isn't in denial about what happened. He KNOWS what happened. He knows he buried his wife. He loved her and he was forced to bury her. It's an utterly heartbreaking moment, played expertly by Gerald McRaney. 

He didn't expect it when he walked in for his shift, but Dr. K. is going to be the reason that Jack and Rebecca are okay — better than okay, actually. He will be the reason they're whole and they have a whole family. And in return, Jack will be the reason that Dr. K. actually starts living instead of simply sitting in his grief. Dr. K. and Jack rescue each other, and I think that's rather beautiful.

RANDALL'S HOME


Speaking of rescue, I like that we got backstory on Joe, the fireman who found Randall on the front step of the station and eventually brought him to the hospital. I have to add the caveat of "eventually," because that's not what Joe does first when he finds the baby. See, Joe and his wife, Samantha, have been having marital issues. She's snapping at him and he escapes to work as a way to avoid fights. They can't have a baby of their own, this episode reveals, and Joe is looking for a miracle to save their marriage. He pays a visit to a priest for one, and bam! Randall shows up on the step. Coincidence?

Samantha thinks so. Even though she spends the majority of the episode snarking at Joe for one thing or another, her point is valid: a baby doesn't fix a marriage. And Joe cannot believe that it will. Samantha instructs him to bring the baby to the hospital, rather than keep him. Even though Joe and Samantha don't keep the child, just the presence of one seems to soften both of their hearts toward reconciliation. They've gone through a lot, and decide to start over — with introductions and a "first date."

I really enjoyed this story, not because I have any emotional investment in Joe and Samantha's relationship (since we didn't really know anything about him before this episode anyway), but because This Is Us is so good at reminding us that people are connected — people need other people to make it through all the curveballs life throws at us on a daily basis. Joe and Samantha needed to be reminded of the sweet innocence of life and of starting over in order for them to save their marriage. It's not a sugar-coated ending, necessarily, because we don't know if they'll actually make it. 

But it's a start. And it's hope.

BEST OF MEN AND BEST OF HUSBANDS


I've already mentioned how much I love Milo Ventimiglia in this role, right? I do. And would you like to know why? Because he brings earnestness to a character who could have easily been flat and uninteresting. Perfect characters are often boring. Why? Because they're predictable and they're too good to be true. Jack isn't perfect, and I think everyone knows that. But he's always, ALWAYS sincere and pursues people, be it his wife, his kids, his dreams, etc. And Milo conveys all of that so strongly that it is impossible to not root for Jack. He's an incredible character and an incredible husband and — as we have seen — an incredible father. I cannot sing the praises of Milo enough for his incredible emotional range, the little tics he adds to his character (smirks and eyebrow raises add to the subtle comedy of this show), and the way he's so in tune with who Jack is and what he wants out of life.

The stand-out scene for me in this week's episode is when Miguel insists on whisking Jack away for a day of golf (which Jack doesn't care about or play) to get away from Rebecca's hormonal, pregnant self. She's oscillating between emotions that day and essentially drives Jack away. But instead of reveling in the fact that he gets to be away from his family like the other men are (ugh, Miguel is the worst), Jack laments the fact that he's not with Rebecca and his unborn babies. No matter what happens and how rough it gets, he'll ALWAYS want to be with them.

Oh yeah, and Miguel insists that Jack spend some money, frivolously, on himself because that's the one thing he'll be able to control once the kids arrive. Does anyone else not see how Rebecca ends up with this guy? HOW DO YOU GO FROM JACK TO THAT PERSON? Nevertheless, Jack takes Miguel's advice and spins it: he gets a camera to document all of the important moments in his, Rebecca, and the triplets' lives. What a stand-up guy.

And Rebecca knows that, too. She spends most of the episode freaking out because she forgot Jack's birthday. She waddles to the closest store to get him something special, and ends up working with what they have at the convenience store: a banana muffin, Twinkie frosting (literally squeezed out of a Twinkie) and sprinkles. Oh, and she gets Jack that infamous towel from the pilot episode which he thinks is hilarious. While Rebecca stresses out over all of this, Jack reminds her that he doesn't care about presents — he cares about the traditions they have together.

One of the sweetest moments in the episode comes when Rebecca monologues to her unborn babies. Mandy Moore does a spectacular job capturing all of Rebecca's emotions — elation over meeting the babies soon, fear over not being a good enough mother, and sheer wonderment of being pregnant with triplets. She makes promises to the babies for when they arrive, and tells them all about how much they'll love their father.

This makes it all-the-more painful when we relive scenes from the pilot that end with Rebecca losing the baby, and Jack being forced to tell her. Both actors deserve all of the awards for the way they portray this couple, both separately and together. But even in the midst of harrowing pain, there is joy as "The Big Day" chronicles the moment Jack and Rebecca decide to adopt Randall. 

You have to take the good with the bad, after all. This Is Us taught us that from the very beginning, and I think it's a noble message. Not many shows on television these days are founded in the hope of humankind and its spirit. With 2017 just beginning but uncertainty after uncertainty piling up on the horizon, I'm happy there is a show that I can escape to that contains this promise.

... Even if I do have to cry while learning its lessons.

And now, bonus points:
  • "Life has enough twists," says Dr. K. when his son and daughter-in-law prompt him to go see Star Wars because of the twist ending.
  • This might be the first episode all season that doesn't feature any of the adult children, right?
  • I don't know how, but this show made me cry during scenes I've already seen in the pilot.
What did you think of this week's This Is Us? Sound off in the comments below!

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