Rebecca and Jack face the inevitable.

‘This Is Us’ Steps Into the Past for “The Big Day” Episode

Random circumstances are rarely random for the characters in This is Us.

For the first time in its short history “This Is Us” stays in one timeline in order to explain how the Pearson’s became the family we know and love, and the interconnected ways in which we influence and disrupt other people’s lives. It’s a bold move to mess with such a successful formula, and “The Big Day” suffers a little from shifting the focus from Randall (Sterlin K Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), but ultimately it enriches the audience’s understanding of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and their journey to parenthood.

“The Big Day” is a short, interconnected story, rather than a chapter in the wider narrative of the show; after all, it doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know, but it successfully widens the world in which these characters live and provides a nice amount of shading to Dr. Katowski’s (Gerald McRaney) life away from the protagonists. “The Big Day” is enjoyable but occasionally frustrating, given its non-sequiturs. It’s as if the show has shifted gears — into neutral.

“The Big Day” starts with a funny montage, revealing Rebecca’s growing exasperation with being pregnant. At first, she loves her glowing skin and her increased sex drive, but as she swells with pregnancy and the very real practicalities of having triplets make themselves known, she is conflicted. Mandy Moore does a good job of showing just how desperate she has become — her mood swings are played for laughs, but they’re “real” and grounded. There’s tension between the couple as she struggles to think straight, given her raging hormones, and he struggles to understand where she’s coming from; they’re almost speaking in a different language, only catching snippets of each other’s drift.

During an argument, Rebecca tells Jack that he has to leave and adjust his attitude whilst he is gone, a request that baffles him because he clearly feels like his attitude is adjacent to saintly. Whilst Rebecca stomps around the house shouting about how ill-prepared they are for the upcoming births, Jack takes a phone call from Miguel (Jon Huertas) and we learn that it’s Jack’s birthday — a fact that seems to have slipped his wife’s mind. He agrees to meet Miguel and leaves, but not before Rebecca tells him how mad she is that they had sex and conceived triplets. In a touching and funny scene, Jack sits in the car and prays to God, asking him to expunge the demons that have possessed his wife.

Meanwhile, Dr. Katowski preparing for his grandchildren’s visit. As he goes about his day he talks constantly, narrating events as if he is part of a Greek chorus explaining things for the audience. Through a few well-placed visual clues like medication bottles, it becomes apparent that his wife has recently died and he is talking to her out of routine as well as to stave off his loneliness.

Katowski is always beautifully drawn, largely because Gerald McRaney is so well tuned to the character, and it’s heart-breaking to see him shuffling around a house that is now too big for him alone. He’s a character that is integral to the DNA of the show, after all, he’s the reason that Randall came to the Pearson fold and helped Jack with the death of one of their triplets, but he’s hardly a ‘main character’, so it’s nice that the show periodically checks in on him, both cementing his importance and expanding the scope of the show.

On a mission to get his grandchildren the kind of sugary cereal that he would never eat himself, he bumps into someone he knows — a recent widow who offers to make him dinner if he ever feels lonely. There’s clearly a connection between the two, and she reaffirms that she knows how painful the transition from married to widowed can be, but he pulls away from the interaction. It’s a very sensitive sequence that later pays dividends in an obvious but meaningful way.

In a somewhat bizarre left turn, “The Big Day” introduces us to a new character, Joe (Brian Oblak) who’s taking confession. He admits to the priest that his marriage is falling apart and that he’s lying to his wife about quitting smoking. When he gets home he tells his wife (Virginia Kull) that the priest said he would pray for them but she dismisses the idea, suggesting that their problems are complex and damaging and won’t be solved by a quick prayer. Her characterization is on the nose, but the writers make her character almost cartoonish — the caricature of the nagging, exhausted wife.

“This Is Us” has such a specific tone and rhythm (whoever is in charge of the music deserves an award) that this transition into a whole new character doesn’t give the viewer whiplash, but it does feel like an odd choice. The dynamic between Joe and Samantha isn’t given enough time and space to make an impact, but the show does a good job of painting a picture of a relationship in crisis. This is a relationship model that hasn’t been fully explored by the writers until now, and it’s somewhat jarring to realize that everything is falling apart for these characters because of their own actions, not due to outside forces, but these scenes lay the groundwork for what’s to come. In his role, Brian Oblak is a naturally appealing and vulnerable presence.

Jack meets Miguel at the golf-course but instantly wants to leave. Miguel explains that Jack should get used to the place because it will become a home away from home, a sanctuary away from a nagging Rebecca and needy triplets. Miguel is a difficult character to pin down; his weariness with his life is established, and his future marriage to Rebecca is obviously intriguing, but breaking his character open would do a lot to deepen the show. At the moment he comes across as prickly and serves as a sounding board for Jack’s problems, a sort-of non-character who exists to raise questions and to reinforce Jack’s convictions.

Miguel introduces Jack to his golf buddies, who are also trying to escape their wives and offspring. Jack announces that he would rather be hanging out with his wife, even if she is at her very worst at the moment, in one of his patented heart-warming monologues. Milo Ventimiglia is excellent at earnest, powerful displays of emotion and this is one of the reasons that the show works. It would be easy for Jack to feel like a one-note heart-throb, but Ventimiglia imbues him with so much authenticity and charisma that he forms the beating heart of whatever storyline he is in. Jack’s love for Rebecca is reinforced and multi-faceted.

Rebecca realizes that it’s Jack’s birthday and is horrified. In an attempt to rectify the situation, she grabs her bag and walks to the nearest store, which turns out to be a liquor store. Her dreams of cooking a fancy chocolate and almond cake are dashed when she learns that the only things that the cashier can offer are a pre-packaged banana muffin and the insides of a Twinkie to use as icing. She instead buys him the Steelers terrible towel that we saw in the pilot.

Back home she apologizes to Jack, who eases her anxiety and reminds her of his birthday tradition; she must dance sexily for him, even if she is eight months pregnant. Anybody who has been watching the show will know that these are the moments just before the pilot began, before we even knew how Kate, Randall, Kevin, Rebecca and Jack were connected. Now, we’re seeing what led to the story that we have been exploring for 12 episodes, but the rest of their storyline is made up of scenes we have already seen, making some of the final moments redundant. However, the flashbacks to the first episode reinforce just how confident and graceful the show is.

Dr. Katowski’s son and daughter-in-law come around to visit and not very subtly suggest that he should begin to move on from his wife’s death. It turns out that she has been dead for longer than it first appeared, and his unwillingness to try new things or build a new life has everybody concerned. Things are tense as Katowski is forced to confront some things about himself; he has allowed himself to fall into a kind of non-life, a suspended emotional animation. At the hospital he covers for an OBGYN who has suddenly been taken ill, meaning that he is in charge of delivering Jack and Rebecca’s triplets. One of the most moving aspects of the pilot was the interaction between Jack and Katowski after the revelation that one of the babies didn’t make it. Katowski’s call to arms to turn “the sourest lemons into something resembling lemonade” has become somewhat of a mantra for the show, but also had far-reaching consequences. It was an effort to overcome hardship that made Jack adopt Randall, which in turn gave Katowski the courage and positivity to go on a date with the widow from the store.

Speaking of Randall, Joe is the firefighter who found baby Randall at the fire station steps. We have seen him before in the first episode, which is a neat little revelation that the show handles well. His instinct is to take Randall home with him, to use the baby as a way of repairing his damaged marriage. Samantha, sensibly, rejects the idea of becoming a makeshift family, but appreciates Joe’s desire to fix what looks unfixable. He may be going about it the wrong way, but his earnestness and passion for their ailing marriage reminds her of why she fell in love with him in the first place. She imploresJoe to take Randall to the hospital, where of course Jack sees him, but commits to being a couple again as they used to be rather than as they’ve become. She even reintroduces herself to her husband as a starting point to begin their relationship anew.

The episode ends with Rebecca talking to her babies bump, promising her unborn children that she will always do what she can to protect them. It’s a lovely, intimate scene that brings to a close a meaningful episode which functions to reinforce some of the show’s key themes; that Jack and Rebecca struggled with the idea of having triplets, that Randall affected everybody’s lives in amazing ways, and that random circumstances are rarely random.

RATING 7 / 10
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