'This Is Us': New Life, New Opportunities, and Loss are All Part of "The Game Plan"
You could try to resist This Is Us's particular brand of drama and schmaltz, but it's a pretty irresistible mix.
This Is UsAirtime: Sundays, 9PM
Cast: Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, Justin Hartley, Chrissy Metz, Sterling K. Brown
Subtitle: Season, Episode 5 - "The Game Plan"
Air date: 2016-10-25
At the very end of the last episode of This Is Us Kevin (Justin Hartley) moved in with Randall (Sterling K. Brown) as a mostly unwanted and annoying visitor, a sibling running from his life and looking to the brother he's always bullied to give him a sense of family. I say mostly because William (Ron Cephas Jones), perhaps the shows wisest and coolest character, is excited to share a house with the star of The Manny, the clichéd sitcom that made Kevin wealthy and threw him into an existential crisis.
It's interesting that the only person who's truly happy to see Kevin is the only person who doesn’t know him as anything other than a comedy writer's construct. In some ways, this is a both a meta-commentary and a dramatic opportunity; at this juncture in the show Kevin's the most ill-defined character with the shallowest motivations and problems. Partly, this is simply because he doesn't have an immediate hook like his siblings, and benefits the least from the flashback structure; he's a handsome, white, wealthy star whose greatest childhood trauma is that his siblings gained more attention than him because their lives were harder. "The Game Plan" does what it needs to, and what the show needed, in order to make Kevin a layered and compelling character, it infuses Kevin with heart and answers one of the show's lingering questions with a heart-breaking, if not completely unexpected, conclusion.
Much like Kevin, Rebecca (Mandy Moore) has been somewhat of an opaque character, despite being at the centre of most of the episodes. We know that she's struggled with motherhood, that she loves her husband, and that she has a tendency to see the negatives in situations, but she's been more thinly drawn than Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and her other children.
"The Game Plan" helps fill in some of the details of Rebecca's life, and also provides more shading to her reticence to plunge into motherhood. In a flashback, we see a young Rebecca watching her mother bring her completely disinterested father beers and food whilst he ignores her and watches the football game. This begins to gain relevance and resonance in the '70s (pre-Kevin, Randall, and Kate) when 20-something Rebecca and Jack are watching the big game at the bar. As they listen to their friend Miguel (Jon Huertas) talk about the trials and tribulations of parenthood, and how this night is the first one he's had outside of the house since becoming a father, Rebecca says, perhaps accidentally, "promise me we will never have kids". This doesn’t go down well with Jack, so in an attempt to engage him Rebecca asks him to teach her about football, sparking her interest and passion for the Steelers.
Meanwhile, in modern-day New York. the relationship between Kevin, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), and Randall continues to be strained and a little confusing; it's unclear how often they see each other or how interconnected their lives are, despite being family. Beth asks Kevin how long he'll be staying, revealing how tense the situation has become. Watson is a very strong and confident presence in the show; her chemistry with Brown is believable, and she does a lot of good work with limited material. Kevin reveals that living in a big hotel room was making him crazy and lonely and the themes of the play he's performing in makes him feel like he needs to be around family.
All that Randall really hears, however, is that there's an unused hotel room in the city that's up for grabs and he immediately jumps at the chance to spend a romantic night with his wife away from the children. Brown does enthusiastic well, and Randall manages to convince Beth to let Kevin and William look after their kids whilst they be young and child-free in the city. It's interesting that Kevin doesn't feel comfortable looking after his nieces, revealing his immaturity as well as lack of connection with his family.
In Los Angeles, Kate (Chrissy Metz) reveals to Tobey (Chris Sullivan) that she can’t go on a date because she's watching the Steelers and so she won't be seeing him. She's adamant that she has to spend the day alone, much to his consternation and confusion. Metz is typically lovely in the episode and is asked to do some serious emotion heavy-lifting as her narrative unfolds; she has the least screen time of the siblings, but her storyline is the most important to the overall arc of the season. Tobey pushes the issue, seeing her behaviour as yet another way for her to avoid having an intimate relationship or admit her feelings towards him, and asks her to come to his house when the Steelers are on. He basically begs, which brings the character worryingly close to being slightly emotionally abusive rather than charming, making her feel obliged to do something that she doesn't want to.
Their relationship has always been characterised by a push-and-pull dynamic, with her dancing around her issues, and him trying to help her into the waters of adult love, but this episode feels like the balance is off with Tobey's incessant pushing. This doesn't come across as too creepy because Sullivan has a strong hold on the material and doesn't lose sight of the traits that made Tobey so appealing in the first place. Kate goes to Tobey's house and his friend is there, meaning that she can't focus on the game and she leaves in a hurry, rushing home to watch the game alone.
Back in the '70s, it's revealed that Rebecca sings at a bar and holds aspirations for a singing career, something she has managed to support herself doing since she was young. Once she finishes singing and the Superbowl starts up, her argument with Jack reignites. He’s always wanted children and she hasn't, frightened by watching her mother's unhappiness, and comfortable in the life she shares with Jack as newlyweds. As their discussion grows louder, Miguel and his wife grow more uncomfortable and another patron of the bar shouts at them, telling Rebecca to shut up and watch the game. Jack, showing none of the level-headedness that he's shown as a father, punches the man in the face and causes a small riot in the bar. She flees, and he's left to think about what his life might look like if he never has children, forced to reconsider the parameters of his adulthood happiness and perhaps reimagine his life.
After they've cooled down, Jack leaves the bar to find Rebecca outside in the snow, sitting by herself and staring down the barrel of her life as a mother, a wife, and a homemaker. It's important that this aspect of the narrative is set in the '70s when women's parental options were limited; the pressure to become a mother is a very real spectre looming over Rebecca's life, even though she’s still relatively young. This also dovetails with the idea that Rebecca’s career prospects will automatically be put aside when she becomes a mother; there's no discussion about her continuing to work or of Jack taking paternity leave to help make the transition smoother.
In the present day, once they get to the hotel room Randall lists his plans for their adult-only evening, which seems to consist mainly of sex and the Meryl Streep movie Florence Foster Jenkins, but his proposal is scuppered when Beth announces that she might be pregnant. As with real life, this declaration is met with joy, fear, and trepidation; neither of them know whether a new baby is what they want at the moment, or how their lives will change if she’s pregnant. In contrast to Rebecca, Beth stands ups for herself and expresses her concerns about being a mother again, arguing that she only recently opened up an office and got back into the swing of working full time. The contemporary world means that she's had to make fewer sacrifices in the pursuit of motherhood -- she's maintained a career and taken pleasure in her marriage because of broader gender roles.
This Is Us always does a great job of showing how the past contrasts with and contributes to the present, and Rebecca is one of the easiest points of comparison, enriching the audience's understanding of both the flashbacks and the current day action. Instead of a fun night, they scour a local pharmacy to get a pregnancy test. As they wait for the results, they ponder all of the adjustments they would have to make if they conceived. Much to their mutual relief, Beth isn't pregnant and they celebrate, presumably with sex and Florence Foster Jenkins.
Not really knowing how to look after children, and wound up about the highbrow play that he’ll be acting in, Kevin enlists William and Randall's daughters to help him rehearse. This Is Us doesn't often lean on comedy, but there’s something inherently funny in this setup, especially when it's revealed that the play is in no way suitable for the children. Hartley has always put in the work to make Kevin's concerns relatable and interesting, but this is the first time that his vulnerability and anxiety has ever really made an impact. Kevin is reading and re-reading the play so often because he doubts his abilities; we've learned throughout flashbacks that as a child he was uniquely attuned to how other people perceived him and desired of positive reinforcement.
Now, his source of adulation has been taken from him, there's no more live studio to cheer him on when he does a pratfall, and he's being forced to question his talent. He upsets the girls by telling them that everybody dies, even their father, and rather than talk them through their anguish, he ushers them off to bed. Jones plays William with incredible sensitivity but also humour, and plays the character’s enjoyment of The Manny for laughs. William tells Kevin how much he loved the show and how well he felt Kevin played his role, encouraging him to embrace his new role, safe in the knowledge that he has the acting chops to pull it off and the ability to be a better uncle to his nieces.
Tobey interrupts Kate's solo viewing party, demanding to know why she left his apartment in order to be by herself. It's here that the show reveals its hand, answering a question that's been circling every episode since the "The Big Three" with subtlety and moving brevity. Kate watches the game every year with her father, whose ashes are in an urn on the fireplace. Rather than treat this revelation as something shocking, or hamming it up with a swell of strings, it's weaved seamlessly into Kate and Tobey's romantic journey. This Is Us can sometimes feel slightly manipulative in its attempts to pull at the audience’s heartstrings, but this moment shows how gracefully it can hand out its twists and emotions. Jack died, we don’t know how, but we know that it's left a meaningful and continuing impression on Kate's life.
In New York, Kevin shows his nieces a painting that he made, explaining that he likes to throw paint at a canvas when he feels scared or confused. In a lovely monologue that sounds like something neither Kevin nor any person would be able to improvise without hours of writing classes, he explains how people are like the interconnected and disparate colours on the paper. They're connected by all the things they share, and all the things that make them different; that nobody really dies because they're encapsulated in the painting that is life.
This is as cheesy as it sounds, but it works like gangbusters, and as Kevin talks the show flashes back to Jack and Rebecca on the night they conceived Kate and Kevin, then to Randall and Beth celebrating the fact they haven’t conceived and then, finally, Kate honouring her life-long tradition of watching the Steelers with her dad -- only this time she's with Tobey too. You could try to resist This Is Us’s particular brand of drama and schmaltz, but it's a pretty irresistible mix.