Television

'This Is Us' Slows Down to Question the Meaning of the Word Home

Jay Bamber
Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) sign for their new home.

Home becomes a place to both run to and run away from in "The Right Thing to Do".


This Is Us

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
Cast: Mandy Moore, Justin Hartley, Milo Ventimiglia, Chrissy Metz
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 11 - "The Right Thing to Do"
Network: NBC
Air Date: 2017-01-10
Amazon

In so many ways, where we choose to live (assuming we are of the means to have such a choice) speaks to where we are in our lives. For some, our houses get bigger as our families grow or get smaller as our bank accounts diminish, they can feel too big when we're lonely, or too small when we're surrounded by people. In essence, they are often the stages upon which we play out our lives.

If "The Right Thing to Do" is about anything, it's about how people's lives constantly expand and contract, and the ways in which we're not particularly well equipped to respond to those changes. In this episode, characters find themselves in all kinds of uncomfortable positions, and the writers explore how they either cower away from or attack their problems.

At the heart of the episode, and in many ways the show in general, there are some interesting questions explored but never fully unpacked: To what extent can you "be" your own home? Is it fair to expect someone else to be a home for you? How far will people go to hold onto the home they've established for themselves? Is there power in dismantling all your preconceived notions of home and starting again? As always with This Is Us, "The Right Thing To Do" offers plenty to ponder, real emotion, and some of the most solid ensemble work on television.

The episode starts in an unexpected and surprising place: Jack's adolescence. It's quickly established that his upbringing wasn't a happy one; his father Stanley (Peter Onorati) is screaming at Jack's mother (Laura Niemi), who's cowering in the corner. A young Jack (Darren Barnet) tries to protect his mom but just becomes a target for a torrent of abuse. He hardly flinches, revealing that the domestic breakdown isn't a new development.

Stanley finally leaves in a rage, and Jack's mother cradles her son in her arms, making him promise that he won't grow up to be like his father. There is a great deal of pressure to place on somebody who's just learning who they are in the world, but it gives a lot of insight into the '80s-era incarnation of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia). We know that Jack sees the world in black and white; he easily and definitively shuffles moral quandaries into right and wrong in a way that can be frustrating to those around him. We see here that he's lived much of his life as a reaction to his father; his personality is constituted of all the qualities his father didn't possess. It's an interesting, if clichéd, way of bringing some shading to Jack, and makes for a truly effective emotional backbone to the story.

Meanwhile, adult Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) have found an apartment that they like. It's within their budget, spacious enough for a kid's room, and in the city. Of course, the viability of this space is thrown out of whack when they learn, to their surprise and dread, that they're having triplets. Just like that, they're forced to try and imagine a new life and find some way of getting a new house.

It's illuminating to see their reaction to the news about their triplets; the show has already suggested that Rebecca wasn't necessarily on board with parenthood at all, so having three dependents at once is clearly overwhelming. Moore can veer towards shrill when she's playing Rebecca, a character the writers sometimes struggle to make three-dimensional but she does good work when shading in this aspect of the character. There's a vulnerability to the performance that feels real and relatable, particularly when Rebecca is grappling with her ideas surrounding motherhood. This is emphasised after a dinner date between Rebecca and her mother Janet (Elizabeth Perkins), an interaction that preys on all of Rebecca's anxieties; Janet reminds her daughter about the harsh financial realities of raising three children and questions Jack's ability to support such a large family.

The last episode ended with a cliffhanger -- a device that the show had put aside for a while -- as Toby (Chris Sullivan) tumbled to the ground, clutching his chest. "The Right Thing To Do" doesn't waste much time in revealing its hand; Toby isn't dead, but he's had a serious heart incident. The surgeon strongly recommends surgery, but Toby is resistant, a resistance that annoys Kate (Chrissy Metz) so much she threatens to leave. To her, the decision is a no-brainer; surgery could all but eradicate Toby's chances of having another serious heart problem, whilst medication would simply push back the inevitable. We also learn that he doesn't want to have the operation, and face all the risks that entails, before telling Kate that he loves her. This is a somewhat surprising narrative turn because it feels as if they've already told each other that they were in love.

Considering the revelations and recriminations that have characterised Toby and Kate's relationship, it seems odd that the word "love" would only now be uttered. Toby crossed the country on Christmas Eve -- he's the king of the outlandish romantic gesture -- so it feels as if he would've declared his love on their first date. Toby and Kate are both irresistibly charming and unendingly frustrating; their rom-com chemistry is so easy to lean into because both of the actors are good at the banter and their dynamic is endearing, but they have serious problems.

Kate's desire to be single whilst she works on herself hasn’t gone away, and Toby's relentless, almost maniacal, pursuit of her can sometimes feel unhinged from reality. I can't help but feel that the show hasn't quite worked out what it wants to do with these two. Toby agrees to have the surgery after dropping the love bomb, but Kate doesn't reciprocate the sentiment before he's wheeled off to the operating room.

On the other hand, things are looking up for Kevin (Justin Hartley) as his relationship with Sloane (Milana Vayntrub) seems to be working out; their Broadway play is objectively good, and he has a real chance at professional legitimacy. Hartley doesn't get enough credit for how adroit he is at comedy; an early scene, in which Kevin and Sloane try to sneak out of the house but are confronted by the family, is genuinely funny and charming. He imbues Kevin with a lot of humour and charisma, which has made the character more palatable than he should've been at the beginning of the show. Hartley is a reliable comedian with a lightness of touch that brings an interesting texture to his scenes; he mixes a childish earnestness with a cocky sarcasm that's unlike the other performers around him.

Unfortunately, just as Kevin's life has begun to even out, Olivia (Janet Montgomery) comes back with a new blonde bob and a new spiritual outlook. During her time away, she's reinvented herself and is ready to be a good professional and personal partner to Kevin. This Is Us, however, is clearly overestimating how compelling Olivia is; her intrusion in the narrative takes time and weight away from Kevin and Sloane’s genuinely appealing relationship. Montgomery isn't bad in the role, but she isn't able to smash through Olivia’s iciness in a way that would endear her to the audience, and the fact that she so clearly isn't Kevin’s romantic endgame makes her feel redundant.

In the past, Rebecca announces that she wants to move in with her mother, despite their historically testy dynamic. Jack's taken by surprise, and isn't fully convinced about the arrangement, despite Rebecca's logical arguments: they'd save money and get support and companionship. She asks him to leave to buy her some ice cream, clearly wanting to be along, and he departs, only to come back two minutes later having forgotten his wallet. He overhears her crying in the kitchen, obviously distraught about the prospect of living with her parents; as much as she's been trying to put a brave face on it, it's the worst best option available. Jack slips out of their apartment, not letting Rebecca know that he hears her sobbing.

There's something very intimate about this scene, something revealing about Rebecca's desire to experience her pain privately. We're used to seeing Jack making sacrifices for his family, and the show privileges his journey in a lot of ways -- Rebecca letting go of her singing career hasn't been fully explored -- so it's nice to see that Rebecca is equally invested in their family. Jack drives past the ice cream store to his father's house, where he asks for the money to put a deposit down on a house. In a painful, well-acted sequence, Stanley tells him that he knew his son would grow up to be a mess and wouldn't amount to anything. Jack doesn't want his father to know about the triplets, so he goes along with this narrative, getting the money they need by embodying all the things that he promised his mother he wouldn't become.

Back in the present, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is still trying to come to terms with the idea that William (Ron Cephas Jones) had a long-term boyfriend before father and son were reunited, and that the boyfriend is back in their lives. Randall worries that he might be homophobic, a fear that Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) assuages by explaining that he's simply upset that William's limited time will be spread among more people. Brown does a good job of showing Randall's confusion at his perhaps childish reaction to his biological father’s relationship. Eventually, Randall confronts William about his feelings and learns that William's been using his boyfriend as a kind of sounding board, someone to talk to about the things with which he feels he can't burden Randall.

It turns out that William's condition is worsening and the chemotherapy is draining his energy. He wants to stop the treatment and live out the rest of his life feeling more like himself. At this point, any review of the show could simply be the word "moving" over and over again, but the relationship between William and Randall (and Jones and Brown) is at another level: always nuanced and sensitively rendered. Randall is caught between doing what he wants -- forcing his father to live for as long as possible -- and the humane thing: letting William have some kind of quality of life. It's a stressful situation for everybody involved and a conversation that they've both, in their own ways, been avoiding. Faced with the extent of William's physical pain and emotional anguish, Randall agrees not to prevent him from ceasing treatment.

As for Toby, he comes out of surgery a little worse for wear but generally okay, a revelation that finally allows Kate to admit her love for him. Even the hardest hearts must soften when Toby says that he'd marry her, that he'd have married her the moment they met. She agrees and tells him that she loves him too. It's the stuff that romantic comedy dreams are made of and, even if the sentiments feel a little shallow, it makes for undeniable wish fulfillment. For Kevin and Sloane, however, it's less simple: Kevin talks through his decision to date Sloane over Olivia (a no-brainer for the audience) saying it's the right thing to do. Sloane overhears this and rightfully feels that their love is a negotiation in which she's the poorer party; she leaves.

The episode ends with Jack taking Rebecca to the home that they'll occupy throughout their children's adolescence. In the immortal words of Carrie Bradshaw, by using the money from his father to build their new life, Jack's taken his painful past and turned it into Rebecca's hopeful future. They now have a base, a place to call home, an area in which they can experience all of the ups and downs the world will throw at them. This Is Us understands that a house is a home, that tomorrow can be better than today, and that three is better than one. Once again, the show proves itself to be smart, insightful, and well-placed to tug at the audience's tear ducts.

8

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