This Is Us s1 ep 17; s1 ep 18

As we’ve said before on Unpopcult we’re nothing if not completists. And so, a few weeks later than scheduled, with CJ’s broken Sky PVR having complicated matters further, I’ve picked up the This Is Us baton to round the season off.

Episode 17 is the first one after William’s death, which inevitably looms large in the present-day timeline. He left a letter instructing that Randall and Beth’s daughters should plan his memorial service, which they’re willing to do. Meantime Randall is still finding out more about his father: he was, says William’s partner, “a soft armrest for weary souls to lean on”; he went walking with the mailman. It’s never too late, seems to be the message, to cherish people while they’re still with us. The one person not embracing the melancholy yet celebratory vibe is Beth, who feels under-appreciated by William. She will turn out to be wrong about this, but in the meantime it’s hardly a good look to make your father-in-law’s death all about you.

In the middle of all this Kevin is trying – again – to get his play off the ground, and reconnect with Sophie. He’s unable to persuade Big Important Drama Critic to come to the second first night, after what happened to the first first night. As it happens, even though the critic doesn’t attend, the play seems to go well, as a result of which Ron Howard – and I wasn’t spoiled for this, so it came as a genuine surprise – hits him up and offers him a film role in LA. Which is great and all, but would mean leaving Sophie, just as she’s let him back into her bed. Tricky. And Randall is so empowered by the death of his father and the success of Kevin’s play that he leaves his well-paid job without lining anything else up; a quixotic gesture loved by TV characters, less so by people in real life.

And Kate tells Toby that she’s struggling to tell him about her father’s death, because she was responsible for it. Which takes us to this week’s flashbacks, in which Rebecca is off on tour with former boyfriend Ben; and Jack, drinking with work colleagues, is hit on by Heather-from-the-office. He declines the offer, but Kate then wonders why he’s not gone to Cleveland see Rebecca’s gig, whereupon – somewhat under the influence of alcohol – he drives off into the night.

We’re clearly meant to think he’s going to kill himself in an accident, and that it was all Kate’s fault for persuading him to go see Rebecca. However, as episode 18 reveals, nothing of the sort happens. In fact, it’s a low-key season finale, mostly about Jack and Rebecca’s past: of course Ben is hitting on Rebecca; of course, when Jack finds out, he responds by smacking Ben about.

This leads to the episode’s key scene, and it’s terrific: a hold-nothing-back argument between Jack and Rebecca which is wonderfully well-written and acted. The thing is – and I suspect that someone on the writing staff knows this – when a happy couple generally don’t argue with each other, this actually raises the stakes for any fight they might have, because there’s a danger that all of the stuff they’ve been holding onto for years will come pouring out, and things which are said can’t then be unsaid. Which means that, the morning after, Jack and Rebecca agree to separate for a while. This is interspersed with the story of how they met – a flashback within a flashback – which turns out to be something to do with blind dates that didn’t happen, and a poker game that went wrong. It’s kind of charming.

And, back in the present day, the other characters don’t get too much time, although it could be argued that Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson, in particular, have done more than enough this season already, and deserve to be on the beach clutching a cold one. Kate decides that she wants to pursue her dream of a singing career. Randall tells Beth that he wants to adopt which, coming soon after he left his job, starts to smack of a midlife crisis provoked by William’s death. And Kevin heads off to LA for the Ron Howard gig, leaving Sophie pouting on the New York sidewalk.

Which is a nice place to leave This Is Us. It would be easy enough to identify (Toby) the occasional storyline and character (TOBY) which haven’t worked (TOBY TOBY TOBY) but, all in all, the show has been a triumph; and, in America at least, a ratings success, already renewed for two more seasons. It’ll be interesting to see if it manages to pick up any Emmy recognition on the back of that, or whether cable and streaming dramas will squeeze it out. But I will certainly be watching the next season. (And, if CJ can’t face it, probably reviewing it as well.)

This Is Us s1 ep 16

Saying too much about this episode and spoiling it would be a disservice – it’s one to be watched alone rather than read about. And truth be told, I’d like to minimise the risk of sobbing all over my screen (again), so I’ll keep it brief.

Randall and William are headed to Memphis so Randall (and the audience) can learn a bit more about his father’s story and the “whole other family” he has out there; which means that, yes, it’s road trip time. Few shows can do the road trip episode well, but by focussing on the depth of the relationship between these two wonderfully-drawn characters played by two incredible actors in Sterling K Brown and Ron Cephas Jones (both of whom can move mountains with little more than a look), This Is Us does it brilliantly; in their hands, this episode becomes a hauntingly beautiful elegy for life, love and family which I genuinely don’t have the words to describe. I started crying quietly early on (when they visited REDACTED’s resting place) but for the last fifteen or so utterly devastating minutes, I was inconsolable, and the deeply melancholy feeling hasn’t really left me since. Which is a strange way to recommend what is supposed to be entertainment, but there we go. This was piercingly sad, but exquisite.

This Is Us s1 ep 15

A resolutely downbeat, quieter episode, this one.

Perhaps the most cheerful thing to happen is Kate telling that asshat Duke – whose parents apparently have zero problem with their son sexually harassing paying customers, and zero problem with turning away said paying customers when they take issue with it – where to go, and having a proper conversation with her fiancé, instead of an argument about kale chips. Even if the proper conversation is somewhat morbid, at least it’s honest. And not about being fat.

Or actually, since I don’t like Kate or Toby, the most cheerful thing to happen might be Kevin and Miguel having a really sweet scene, where Miguel is lovely to Kevin, and Kevin is…. not horrible to Miguel. Aw.

Everything else, however, is a bit of a bummer. In the past, Jack and Rebecca are all cute and romantic on the Valentine’s Day before her tour with Sam from True Blood – minor upsets like finding out Kevin’s having sex with Sophie, Kate wearing suspiciously large amounts of eyeliner, and Randall freaking out about Hamlet notwithstanding – but it all turns ugly when Sam from True Blood does that thing I’m sure he used to do in True Blood as well, ie, trying to get between Rebecca and Jack, and does such a terrific job of it that Valentine’s Day ends in a fight and a fall from the wagon, and this does not bode well for anybody.

The character who fares the worst, though, is Randall, who, in every scene, in every timeline, is under so much pressure from every side (and has been for so long), that his breakdown is nowhere near as shocking as it is inevitable, the only surprising thing about it being that it’s REDACTED who runs to his side and the huge sacrifice he makes to do so. A sacrifice I was really sad about myself, to be honest; as usual, the episode had some stellar acting all round (Sterling K Brown continues to break my heart), and some wonderfully-written, perfectly-calibrated scenes, but like I said – a bit of a bummer.

This Is Us s1 ep 14

I’m always impressed by the structure of episodes of This Is Us – the way the stories in the different timelines always seem to fit, albeit sometimes more loosely than others, round an idea or a theme, which means for all the stories and timelines are separate, the episodes hang together entirely coherently.

This week, for instance, the theme seems to be noticing and understanding what you’ve got, or what you don’t, while there’s still time. So in the 80s, Miguel and Shelly splitting up prompts Jack to bring the romance back into his marriage and jerk Ben being a jerk reminds Rebecca that her husband’s terrific. All of which is lovely, and just as well, because Kevin and Kate’s storylines are significantly less so.

Kevin’s pursuit of his ex-wife is, I guess, supposed to be romantic, and Justin Hartley does everything he can to try and make it come across that way, but it made me uneasy for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate – is it because it feels more creepy than romantic? Because it’s all about Kevin feeling lost and nostalgic rather than actually about his ex-wife at all? Because he’s blown up her life once before and here he is back to do it again? Or is it because setting up a fake Facebook profile to trick your ex into helping you spy on her is very, very bad indeed?

Perhaps it’s all of the above. It’s almost as if Kevin has been taking lessons from “great guy” Toby in how to mask controlling, annoying behaviour as “romance.” This week, the Tobester turns up at Kate’s fat camp to try and mess up her schedule completely, and when she refuses and her other controlling, annoying suitor Duke spooks him, Toby stays put, gets on Kate’s nerves – because God forbid she should be paying attention to anything but him – and is “a total ass.” For a brief, shining moment, it looks like Kate and the show have maybe turned a corner: she recognises Toby’s behaviour for what it is (INFURIATING) and calls him out on it. Hurrah! Normal service is resumed almost immediately, though: “I thought I was being myself,” he snits, before pulling the heart attack card, the loneliness card and the grandmother’s ring card, and hey presto! Kate’s the one apologising and in the wrong yet again. FFS. Of course, being Kate, this doesn’t make her want to avoid any more asshattery for the evening. Instead, she’s torn between making up with Ass No.1 and making out with Ass No.2, which is kind of like being torn between slapping yourself in the face and punching yourself in the gut.

Thankfully, however, the present timeline is redeemed, as is so often the case, by Randall’s storyline, as he struggles to balance work, home and his increasing fear of William’s approaching death. It’s not easy or even comfortable to watch, but it’s beautifully written, plotted and acted, with Sterling K Brown the treasure he always is and Susan Kelechi Watson and Ron Cephas Jones as wonderful as ever. Their scenes and their story are terrific.

This Is Us s1 ep 13

*SPOILERS*

After last week’s Pure 80s episode, we’re back to business as usual. In the past timeline, we get a series of adorable birthday home movies, just so we know that the Big Three wanting separate parties for their tenth birthday is not just a logistical nightmare, it’s a punch to their parents’s guts. And the hits just keep on coming, with Kate and Randall both having “challenging” birthday experiences, and Kevin starting a lifetime of landing all the chicks, because the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The modern timeline provides further evidence of that too, as a day out with self-styled romance expert Toby – FFS – helps Kevin realise exactly whom he thinks his soulmate is, and it ain’t Olivia, thank God, but, somewhat disconcertingly, it’s not Sloane either. Well.

As Kevin tries to relight REDACTED’s fire, meanwhile, Kate is also busy proving my point. After being thoroughly obnoxious to her doctor/medical person, she heads off to Fat Camp where she continues her usual whining about wanting to lose weight, with her usual not actually wanting to do anything about it, till – surprise! – she meets her usual style of arrogant, overbearing jerk who thinks not taking no for an answer is a) attractive, b) romantic and c) going to work. After all, it did for Toby.

Never mind any of that, though. The 80s stuff is so sweet, it would have been worth watching for that alone, but the show goes one better by giving us William and Randall’s Big Day Out – a lovely, poignant handful of scenes made all the more touching because everyone, on-screen and off, knows that William doesn’t have many more Days of any kind left at all. Sob. Sterling K Brown and Ron Cephas Jones are wonderful as ever, and both William’s and Jack’s imminent deaths looming large over the weeks to come makes even the happiest of scenes hurt a bit to watch. I really do love this show, but I’m genuinely scared to sit down and watch it now because, when the inevitable happens, it’s going to break me.

This Is Us s1 ep 12

The first This Is Us to dispense with the modern timeline entirely and stick with the past is a strangely superfluous one, repeating so many scenes we’ve already, er, seen, in a bid to flesh them out with detail I really don’t think we needed.

So, the babies’ in utero jam was Stevie Wonder! Rebecca really struggled in the last few days of her pregnancy! She forgot Jack’s birthday! Jack was lovely! The fireman who found Randall was going through a very rough marital patch! And Dr K… Well, Dr K is never superfluous to anything; Gerald McRaney is terrific and his story was quietly devastating, winning this week’s prize for making me cry the most.

Although, in fairness, Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia gave it a good shot with Rebecca and Jack’s story as well – their easy, comforting chemistry is lovely to watch – and even though I have never ever found myself wondering how the fireman who found Randall was getting on with his wife at the time, the ending of that story turned out to be sweet enough as well. Not a necessary episode, then, but a nice one: I smiled, I cried, and I didn’t have to put up with Kate and Toby, so I’m fine with it.

This Is Us s1 ep 11

*Spoilers*

Time for our regular mix of the sublime and the infuriating.

The present timeline has Toby (still alive, natch) in hospital proving even more annoying than Toby anywhere else, which is a staggering level of annoying, and why Kate would agree to marry him would be a mystery were it not for the fact she’s pretty annoying too. Everything is going tremendously for Kevin and Sloane, meanwhile, who are just adorable together, and this obviously means that it’s time for Olivia – who is also Toby-levels of annoying – to return with a stupid new haircut and a load of New Age guff, try to ruin everything, and – hurrah! – fail! Except that Kevin then manages to ruin everything accidentally anyway. FFS, Kevin!

Thank goodness then, for Randall and William’s strand of the story, which is both beautiful and devastating and had me crying the tears of all three babies that Rebecca and Jack are back to expecting in the 80s part of the show, that part being very sweet and emotional too, if not making me bawl like Randall and William did. At this point, I’m slightly concerned that This Is Us might actually kill me – all this crying can’t be good for a person – but I love it anyway.