In its fourth episode, aptly titled “The Pool”, This Is Us offers up the simplest, least convoluted premise in its short history and spins it into a moving meditation on race, individuality, collective judgment, and the specific interpersonal relationships within the Pearson family. By parsing down the twists and reveals that have come to characterise the show, and zooming in on a very specific family story that has continuing and punishing significance in the contemporary world the show provides itself a format for all future episodes.
The structure that “The Pool” establishes is a solid one; an inciting incident in the past gains both contemporary relevance and retrospective meaning by current events, meaning that the audience gets two stories and two sets of performance that expand on a theme. In this example, something as seemingly mundane as a family’s trip to a community swimming pool reveals racial tensions, body image issues, and sibling rivalries.
Trapped in a house with faulty air conditioning on a hot summer day, Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) rounds his three children up, along with his reluctant wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore), and takes them to the pool for a day of what he assumes will be fun and relaxation. It’s revealing of Jack’s character that he doesn’t really notice his family’s reticence about the whole endeavour; he’s always been characterised as significantly more optimistic — perhaps to the point of delusion — than his wife, and more willing to paper over cracks in the family than examine them.
Jack’s undoubtedly endearing, but we’ve already seen that his lack of introspection leads to addictive and erratic behaviour, and by ignoring his children’s anxieties, he’s presented as charming but disengaged. Rebecca’s concerns take the form of fatigue and fear that wrangling three kids in a busy place will result in more stress, but Moore does layered work, suggesting that there’s something deeper and more complex to her protests. Moore and Ventimiglia have significant chemistry, but there’s a strained quality to their interactions that expands upon the tensions we’ve already witnessed in their marriage.
William (Ron Cephas Jones) confirms that he’s one of the most interesting characters in This Is Us by constantly switching the audience’s expectations and challenging their prejudices in the process. In the present day, whilst having getting his granddaughters ready for school, he’s asked about a scar on his arm. His long-lost biological son Randall (Sterling K. Brown) looks at his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) worriedly, clearly preparing himself to interrupt William. The obvious assumption is that it’s a scar from William’s long and destructive history with drugs, but instead he tells his newly acquired family that he was a civil rights activist. His scars are a result of police brutality, a constant reminder of the social inequality that has blighted so much of his life.
This revelation shows how little Randall and Beth know about William’s history, and serves as context to one of the inciting dramatic events of the episode. When Randall goes on one of his walks around Randall’s gated community, he’s stopped by the security team, who’ve been called by some upper class neighbours. Randall implores William to be quiet and maintain the status quo, but William refuses to, saying that he’s spent most of his life being seen as suspicious and untrustworthy simply because of his race.
The implication is that Randall will never understand because of his position as a wealthy, upper-middle class black man who grew up in a white family and had all the opportunities that America affords. A lesser show would’ve doubled down on this generational difference, drawing a line between their experiences and positioning them as oppositional for dramatic affect. This Is Us takes a more difficult and more satisfying path. Randall takes his father to a store to buy new clothes, some of which are more expensive than William is comfortable owning, and they’re forced to face the differences in their experiences as black men in America.
Brown is powerful and subtle when he delivers a beautifully modulated monologue about how he’s always been caught in the middle of two worlds, neither completely accepted by the white community, nor immersed in the black one. It’s a beautiful moment of understanding, division, and acceptance wherein Randall and William acknowledge the things they’ve shared and the things that separate them. Later that evening at the girl’s school play, where Randall’s daughter plays an African American Snow White, William finally apologises for being an absent father. When he says “I did everything wrong and you are doing everything right” it’s a gut-punch, delivered so gorgeously and so understated by Jones.
In the past, Rebecca runs around the pool looking for young Randall (Lonnie Chavis), who’s separated from his family, despite multiple warnings from her and Jack. It isn’t the first time he’s gone missing, but it’s the longest time that they haven’t been able to find him. Eventually, after some sleuthing and the kind of momentum that blind-panic inspires, Rebecca finds Randall with the only other black family at the pool playing with other African American kids. At first, Rebecca is rude to the family, all but accusing them of taking her child away, a worried response that Moore doesn’t completely sell, or give the kind of depth that would’ve made Rebecca seem anything but rude and childish. It’s one of the only faults in the script; it seems like a misstep in her character development that, as a grown woman, her first response would be combative rather than one of relief that Randall is okay or understanding that her son wants to see African-American role models.
When the mother of one of Randall’s new friends tells Rebecca that she needs to find a barber who’s used to black hair because their current one is nicking his skin, Rebecca realises that, as much as she loves her son and as much as she understands him, there’s room in his life to honour and expand upon his African-American heritage. It must be a hard thing for her to negotiate, that there’s simply a dimension to her child’s life that she doesn’t comprehend, but the show does a good job at coming to a conclusion. Randall, like all children, has needs that she can’t necessarily fill, but she can find ways of establishing diverse and powerful role models in her son’s life.
Meanwhile, in modern day LA Kate (Chrissy Metz) is out having dinner with Tobey (Chris Sullivan) — they seem to be a genuine couple now after the romantic comedy drama of last episode — when she sees him hugging a thin and beautiful woman on the way back from the bathroom. Immediately, perhaps unrealistically, flustered, Kate tries to withdraw from Tobey’s affection; this is a recurring theme and one that speaks to Kate’s fear of both intimacy and rejection: much of their relationship has been him pursuing her whilst she gives me reasons why he shouldn’t or at least shouldn’t want to.
It’s a testament to Metz’s performance that this dynamic never feels tired or repetitive; Kate’s fears are rooted in authentic past traumas and anxieties about the future. After some prodding, Tobey admits that the woman was his ex-wife and they were talking because they hadn’t seen each other since what seems like an acrimonious divorce. Understandably, Kate sees herself in contrast to Tobey’s ex; she’s less traditionally beautiful and, after a lot of social media stalking, learns that she’s less financially stable and professionally accomplished.
Unable to help herself, Kate goes to the small boutique store that the ex-wife owns. It’s very chic, and successful enough to be looking for extra staff. In a strange turn of events, Kate acts as if she’s applying for the sales assistant job and gets it because she’s so prepared thanks to her extensive and obsessive interest in the store and its owner. This sequence reinforces Kate’s insecurities and her inability to fit into a comfortable romantic dynamic without questioning it or looking for ways in which it might go sour, but it also has a comedic edge that doesn’t really work in the context.
Kate’s forced to admit to Tobey that she’s accepted the job; with that, Sullivan is given his chance to shine. Tobey explains that his divorce ruined him financially and emotionally, she cheated on him, lied to him, and took half of his life savings. She leveraged his future into the store with which Kate is so enamoured. Up until this point, Tobey can be seen as somewhat of a one-note character, the unfailingly loyal and kind-hearted potential boyfriend — a characterisation that the script comments on — but here he’s a fully fledged human. He’s hurt that Kate would go behind his back, that his messages of love and support don’t resonate with her, and that he’s forced to revisit his post-divorce suicidal ideation. This Is Us is so successful at adding layers to its characters; this is yet another stellar example of how the show is interested in exploring all its dynamics with grace and car.
Back in the past, young Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicsak) proudly presents her Care Bear bikini, excitedly showing it to her family before she gets to display it at the pool. Rebecca is instantly nervous about her daughter showing so much of her body, knowing that she is significantly bigger than the other girls her age. Jack, once again, brushes off her apprehension in an attempt to make everybody excited for an afternoon at the pool. Rebecca’s concerns, unfortunately, are proven right when a group of young girls pass Kate a note that says they don’t want to play with her anymore, made even more hurtful by a picture of an oversized pig that the bullies have drawn.
Whilst not a surprising narrative turn, it’s a heart-breaking one that’s made no less painful by its predictability. Rebecca takes the blame for it because she didn’t force her daughter to wear a t-shirt. The dynamic between Rebecca and Kate is so interesting and so era-specific; a show set in the modern day wouldn’t be able to pull this off without Rebecca coming across as cruel and clueless. Her attitude to Kate’s weight is absolutely damaging, but it’s also understandable; far from fat-shaming, but also fat-shaming. Moore is at her best when she’s caught between blaming herself for Kate’s struggles, trying to shield her daughter from the world, and trying to make her husband understand what life for an obese woman may be like.
This storyline culminates in one of the very best moments that This Is Us has ever pulled off. Jack, desperate to make his daughter feel better, tells her the story of his special t-shirt, the one he was wearing when he met Rebecca and therefore found a purpose in his life. Kate agrees to wear it and then gets renewed confidence and runs around with her brothers. This maybe doesn’t sound like much, but it is pitched perfectly. It’s sweet, without offering easy answers. Ventimiglia is at his best in a show that’s constantly shown him knocking it out of the park, and it establishes Kate as both capable of deep pain and immense joy. As an encapsulation of what’s great about the show, this denouement is representative of all the complex, challenging, smart, and lovely things that This Is Us has to offer.