This Is Us seems like it was built to pull off a Christmas episode; it has the requisite heart, family drama, and hopefulness to wring all of the tears and cheers out of the holidays. It’s no surprise, then, that “Last Christmas” is one of the show’s best episodes. The episode offers the show’s usual mix of subtle (and not-so-subtle) emotional wallops, but it successfully pulls the narrative out of some of the murkier familial dysfunctions that have been overwhelming the middle of the season, reestablishes the stakes of the series, and offers up a surprisingly upsetting last minute twist. Whilst recent episodes have had a stronger focus on Randall’s (Sterling K. Brown) emotional battle with Rebecca (Mandy Moore), “Last Christmas” spreads the narrative net, deepening everybody’s story in interesting ways.
“Last Christmas” opens on Christmas Eve 1989. Rebecca is worried that they have gotten the kids too many presents — a fear that Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) quickly dismisses — and pre-teen Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicak), Kevin (Parker Bates), and Randall (Lonnie Chavis) run around, excited for the upcoming festivities. Rebecca’s anxiety over the kids’ lack of religious knowledge seems like an interesting little insight into her past; she clearly wants there to be a stronger emphasis on Christianity, despite her family’s protestations when she mentions church.
Further, as we know so little about the circumstances surrounding Jack’s death, it’s hard not to read into every little interaction in an attempt to discover some clues. The show has, pretty stealthily, suggested that Rebecca and Jack’s marriage may have been rockier than the writers are willing to fully reveal; after all, how did Rebecca end up married to Jack’s best friend and work colleague? Were they together before Jack died? Did Jack’s alcohol problems ever reemerge? Kate complains of a severe stomachache, which Rebecca first puts down to eating the cookies that they’d reserved for Santa Claus, even as Kate’s temperature spikes. After a bit more complaining, Rebecca and Jack take Kate to the hospital to discover that her appendix has burst and she requires an appendectomy.
As a frightened Kate is wheeled into surgery, Kevin walks along with her, refusing to let go of her hand. This is a nice way of reintroducing their cosmic twin connection (the show has shown us a few times that what one feels the other one has to deal with too) and makes for a sweet, moving scene. Adult Kevin (Justin Hartley) can sometimes be difficult to connect to, and all of his most annoying traits have been distilled into the characterisation of him as an adolescent, so it’s actually quite affecting to see him a little vulnerable and empathetic.
Whilst Rebecca is wandering around the halls, desperate to hear news about Kate, she hears Dr Katowski’s (Gerald McRaney) voice complaining about the quality of the hospital blankets. They talk for a while before Rebecca learns that the doctor who delivered Kevin and Kate and encouraged Jack to adopt Randall has had a car accident and is very ill. He explains that his family won’t have time to get to the hospital before his operation and that he doesn’t expect to live anyway. McRaney is always a welcome addition to the show; he manages to strike the perfect balance of dry and sincere. Even with a short amount of camera time, he’s done an excellent job of making the character feel real and vital, a person with a lot of wisdom to impart without seeming preachy or like an advice-dispensing machine.
In the present time, Kevin and Sloane are in a heated argument after their tryst in the log cabin last episode; she blames him for her play being cancelled, and he argues about the extent of his culpability. Since Kevin broke up with Olivia (Janet Montgomery), she’s gone missing and refuses to come back to work, thus losing the production its star and the publicity that she would bring with her. Sloane admits that she’s told her mother she’s dating “The Manny” in an attempt to impress her, something that’s especially important now that her first play has been cancelled, so she convinces/guilts him to go to dinner with her family.
There’s a lot of warmth between Hartley and Vayntrub; their interactions have a kind of spark that makes them seem like a viable couple, something that never came across with Kevin and Olivia. Sloane is a good addition to the group and feels like she fits neatly into the world of This Is Us; she’s sweet but also a little spiky. Her fears that she’ll never be successful in her parent’s eyes is relatable without being cloying, and when she tells the story of the Maccabees during Hanukkah dinner, she demonstrates her abilities as a storyteller. It’s a moving scene that Vayntrub nails, and it leads Kevin to a (pretty obvious) revelation: Sloane should replace Olivia as the lead actress, and he should use some of his money as collateral to make sure that the show goes on. If they can get audiences to see a play called “Back of an Egg”, then they deserve all the credit that the theatre world can throw at them.
Meanwhile, present-day Randall is at a work party with Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) to celebrate Christmas Eve; she knows that something is wrong with him because she’s heard through the grapevine that he’s bought a boat. Upset, she convinces him to go and talk to the owner and renege the offer; as she points out, they live in the suburbs and nobody in the family has a particular interest in the nautical lifestyle. After a quick search, Randall finds Andy (Jimmi Simpson), the owner of the boat, standing on the roof, precariously close to the edge.
It’s clear that Andy is distressed and seriously considering suicide; he reveals that he’s been having an affair for a year, his wife has left him, and he’s made a series of risky financial decisions that their boss doesn’t know about yet. It’s an affecting scene, and beautifully acted by both Brown and Simpson; it’s also pretty intriguing and expansive. Andy explains that his wife, at some point in their marriage, went from being his wife to his best friend and teammate, which changed their sexual dynamic in a way that he didn’t know how to navigate. He’s worried that his daughter will never forgive him and that he’ll never be financially stable again. Randall explains that his daughter will surely never forgive him if he turns her story into that of the girl whose father killed himself on Christmas Eve. It’s all beautifully done and sensitively rendered; Helen Hunt (Academy Award winner and star of Mad About You) directs the episode,and imbues it with a lot of compassion and skill, but this sequence seems to come from the left field.
This Is Us is always a balancing act due to the fact that it spans so many stories and time frames, and this sequence throws things off; it doesn’t tell us anything about Randall, and it doesn’t seem to have ramifications for anyone else’s story. Of course, shows should feel free to challenge their structures and embrace diversions, but here it just doesn’t really work. Randall has just come off an emotional gut punch, and it seems odd to throw him in the middle of somebody else’s emotional tumult. Randall’s impassioned speech, which boils down to the idea that children will love parents who love them regardless of the decisions they make, does speak to his relationship but Rebecca, but it still feels odd. Susan interrupts Randall, who’s horrified when he turns around to see Andy is gone. Happily, he sees Andy walk through the door, evidently willing to imagine that there’s a better future out there than the one he’d created through his mistakes.
Back at the hospital in 1989, Rebecca has told Jack about Dr Katowski’s operation, so they spend some time with him, becoming his de facto family in his biological family’s absence. Randall buys a snow globe and presents it to Dr. K, thanking him for encouraging Jack and Rebecca to adopt him. Chavis is excellent in this sometimes very challenging role; he’s vulnerable and well-attuned to the storyline around him and this scene is genuinely moving, which is an apt description for almost every scene that This Is Us has produced.
Dr K explains that the only present he needs is for Randall to carry on the tradition of kindness and inclusivity that brought him to the Pearson family. This Is Us sometimes has trouble unpacking how it feels about Randall and his relationship to the other characters in his life; it can make Rebecca and Kevin seem like villains and Jack a martyr, but the writers never lose sight of the love that surrounds him. It’s an important drum for the show to bang because it reinforces the idea that Rebecca’s decision was made from a place of fear rather than malice.
In the present day, Rebecca goes to the doctor with Kate (Chrissy Metz) to finalise the details of her upcoming bypass surgery. Rebecca is shocked to learn that Kate is a binge eater and took anti-depressants before she learned that they made her put on weight. This shows how disconnected they are from each other, and how much more complex Kate’s relationship with food is than simply eating too much. When the surgeon reels off the potential side effects of the surgery, Rebecca is horrified and clearly shaken; Kate doesn’t seem deterred, and she’s too integral to the show for this threat to raise the stakes in any particular way.
Things are tense as they drive home. The relationship between Rebecca and Kate is potentially fascinating, but the show seems slightly reluctant to properly examine it, and when it does it tends to position Rebecca as “the bad guy”. It isn’t particularly interesting to suggest that Rebecca is the sole arbiter of Kate’s happiness, or lack thereof, because it can’t help but feel inauthentic. It’s difficult to know why we become the people we become, but it’s too simplistic to suggest that there’s a single reason. When Rebecca stops the car to ask Kate if her weight gain was her fault, Kate admits that she doesn’t know. It works as a kind of détente between the characters, but it feels somewhat shallow.
In 1989, Kate wakes up from the surgery, as does Dr Katoswki, lending credence to Rebecca’s earlier assertion that “nothing bad ever happens on Christmas Eve”. This mantra is challenged in the present day in a surprising and shocking way. Everyone gathers together at Randall’s house to begin the Christmas celebrations when Toby (Chris Sullivan) charges through the front door, declaring his love for Kate and his willingness to go back on a diet to support her mission to lose weight. The character of Toby has been problematized in significant and important ways, but Sullivan sells the character’s grand romantic gestures with a kind of gusto that can’t help but feel charming. Everybody seems like they are settling in for a fantastic holiday when Toby collapses and is rushed to hospital. It’s incredibly well set-up in so far as it comes as a genuine surprise without feeling like a cheat, leaving the audience with more than a twinge of sadness and rendering the moment a successful cliff-hanger.
Although not everything works, “Last Christmas” is a sweet, tricky, and mature addition to the pantheon of great Christmas episodes.