Television

"The Best Washing Machine" Comes Equipped With Sibling Rivalry, Hard Choices, and Big Secrets

Jay Bamber
Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) sort things out in "The Best Washing Machine in the World"

With "The Best Washing Machine in the World", This Is Us reaffirms its understanding of the tone and rhythm of its narrative and its protagonists.


This Is Us

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9 PM
Cast: Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, Chrissy Metz, Sterling K. Brown, Justin Hartley
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 7 - "The Best Washing Machine in the World
Network: NBC
Air date: 2016-11-15
Amazon

"The Best Washing Machine in the World" zooms in on a dynamic that This Is Us has been skirting around: the competition between Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown). We know that their relationship is strained and that their behaviour toward each other the result of familial in-fighting; this episode really shades this in, in ways that are moving, slightly obvious, and true to the characters we've come to know.

In the past, teenage Kevin (Logan Shroyer) and Randall (Niles Fitch) are in the middle of a fight. Randall has to stay up late in order to finish his school workload, which has become more extreme since he started his new school and joined the football team, and Kevin needs to sleep so he can get to practice. They share the same room, so Kevin leaves in anger and demands that he gets his own room in the basement. This theme is cleverly pulled out in a throw-away conversation between Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) as they discuss what colours they should wear at the kids' big game; they'd usually wear Kevin's team colours, but now that they have two football players in the house, the lines have been blurred.

This is a neat bit of symbolism, encapsulating how siblings grow to become enemies in the war for their parent's approval. It also demonstrates how Rebecca and Jack may be accused of singling Randall out for praise and attention in an attempt to rectify the realities of being an African American in an otherwise all-white family. It's an attention that Randall doesn't want, but one that the family around him feels the need to supply.

In the present day, Randall and Kevin agree to meet with Rebecca for dinner, but when she has to bow out, they're forced to eat together. Hartley and Brown are excellent at navigating the space between two characters unquestionably connected but miles apart, sharing a history but seeing it differently. It's one of the great mysteries of life: how you can feel so linked to, and separate from, another person. What are you supposed to do with those warring emotions? Many dramas have explored this, and have done so successfully, but This Is Us feels like it's stumbled upon something special.

In most series, Kevin would be the star of the show, by virtue of the fact that he'd normally be the star of his life and therefore his family's lives. Hartley looks like a star, and Kevin is athletic and a successful actor in the middle of a personal/professional crisis and of a fairly conventional romantic sub-plot. For the vast majority of television shows, he'd be the the character onto whom the audience is expected to pin its emotions and interest. By destabilising this, the show finds fresh ways to both explore the genre and give context and resonance to Kevin's character, which can be frustratingly opaque. He's everything that would be traditionally rewarded in the society he exists in, but the circumstances around him mean that he has to be a part of the collective, even, at times, the least-noticed part of the collective. It makes sense then that he'd become an actor, desperate for the attention that he may feel is his birthright.

The dinner goes badly when Randall admits that he’s never seen an episode of The Manny; Kevin is shocked and horrified (although tellingly, he doesn't seem to know exactly what Randall's career is himself). In the past, we learn that Randall scuppered Kevin's chances of being scouted by a football coach by tackling him on the field. Randall is both academic and athletic, but he can't forge any communication with his brother unless it's through physical confrontation. It's only when they fight that they feel like they belong to each other; leading to a very public bout on the school sports field.

That Rebecca and Jack seemed shocked by this is in its own way shocking, perhaps revealing how much is going unnoticed underneath their roof. This fight has consequences in the future when Randall tries to apologise for not watching The Manny and ends up, once again, engaging in fisticuffs in the middle of the street, where everyone can see them. Tellingly, this fight is inspired by an advertisement showing that Kevin’s been replaced on The Manny by an African-American actor. They may have grown taller, but they haven't grown wiser; they still need to clash to get to common ground.

Meanwhile, a particularly punishing round of chemotherapy has William (Ron Cephas Jones) struggling to eat or drink, something that concerns Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) because she saw the same thing happen to her father when he was dying of lung cancer. She tells William that the only thing that helped him through the treatment was marijuana and, if it wouldn't trigger his addiction issues, William should try it.

Susan is suspiciously eager to get in on the fun and rushes the kids to bed so that she can bake up some brownies. They have the desired effect, easing William's pain and helping Beth let loose and process all the changes to her house and extended family. They take all of the furniture outside so that they can look at the stars in a gentle and funny sequence that establishes yet another compelling dynamic. Beth's history with cancer means that she can see William's condition with a clearer eye and talk to him like a human rather than a diagnosis. The performances are on-point and the tone feels like it taps into exactly what audiences want from this show.


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William and Beth's discussion also serves a few other narrative purposes. William admits that, since meeting his son and grandchildren, he is, for the first time, afraid to die. Out of nowhere, William was offered something that he didn’t know he couldn't live without, and soon, he won't be living any longer. It's a sad sentiment delivered with such fragile subtlety that it may be the most moving thing yet from a show that specialises in such moments. Also, in telling William the story of how Randall got his name, Randall lets slip that it was his book of Dudley Randall poetry that inspired Rebecca. Now Beth is burdened with the secret that's looming over the family, threatening to tear it apart. Rebecca's lie about meeting William is becoming more and more of a plot point as the show speeds to its mid-season finale, so a big confrontation looks to be in the near future.

Back in LA, in a smart and sad narrative turn, Kate fails to lose any weight despite the fact that she's been pursuing a healthier lifestyle. The show has garnered a lot of attention with regards to its handling of weight (both on and off screen) but it does feel nicely nuanced that Kate's weight loss isn't a linear plot thread. Some episodes she wins the battle, some she loses; so far, she hasn't lost sight that she's still in the war.

Kate's disappointment is compounded by the fact that Tobey (Chris Sullivan), who doesn't seem to be taking his weight as seriously, has reached his weight loss goal for the month. Whilst Tobey is celebrating, something that Kate encourages him to do, she leaves abruptly and hours later leaves multiple messages on his phone to apologise. When she doesn't get a response she drives to his house, and despite his reluctance to let her in, discovers that he’s been binge-eating junk food. Kate tries to comfort him, only to learn that it was a decision he made rather than a lapse in self-control. Tobey no longer wants to go to Overeaters Anonymous and doesn't want to be on a diet.

Tobey can be one of the show's most appealing characters, but also one of its most extreme; his pursuit of Kate was relentless to the point of being uncomfortable, and this complete 180 on his diet feels equally impulsive. Part of Kate's willingness to date him was predicated on his willingness to lose weight along with her; it was the thing that first connected them, and a way of life that they shared. Tobey explains that dieting makes him deeply unhappy; Kate explains that his change of heart jeopardises her own journey. It's a definite shift in their dynamic and one that the show does a stellar job of exploring, it doesn't position either character as "right" and manages to criticise both of their arguments in a way that makes them feel like real, flawed humans.

They decide to stay together; he'll eat the way she does when they are together, and then eat what he wants when he's alone. Clearly, this isn't a viable trade-off; who wants to keep their relationship with something as fundamental as food from their partner? At a restaurant, he eats dessert and she doesn't, setting up an unpleasant pattern that leads her to buy a doughnut at a gas station and eat it in her car.

Kevin and Randall's fight is stopped by, weirdly, Seth Meyers. Kevin explains that he always felt second best to Randall when it came to Rebecca's affections. Randall agrees with him, in an admission that seems both cathartic and painful for him. This makes the narrative do a time jump to the aftermath of the confrontation of the football field. Rebecca, who's re-establishing her singing career, and Jack look at each other as if the thought Kevin and Randall don't get along never occurred to them. The car is silent, just like the one adult Randall and Kevin use to get back home in the present day. Here's the kicker, the moment that the whole episode has been working towards: Kevin never called Randall his brother until this latest fight. Not in school, during arguments, or with friends. It took more than 30 years for Randall to hear that word; at some point, he'd begun to assume that he never would.

Once, again the writers demonstrate how deeply they understand these characters, how deftly they can pull out small revelations that ring so true to the little personality quirks that have come before. Not being called "brother" would upset Randall in a way that would never cross Kevin's mind. Randall's obsession with ownership would surely extend from his parents to his siblings. He refers to it as being claimed, a word that'd only be used by somebody who felt abandoned.

This show makes an art out of illuminating and reconfiguring things that are already in plain sight. The brothers’ have a heart to heart and, in a neat subversion of earlier, Beth, whilst high, moved Kevin's stuff to the basement. Together, the brothers watch The Manny; sharing something so stupid, yet so intimate. With "The Best Washing Machine in the World", This Is Us reaffirms itself as a show that completely understands the tone and rhythm of both its narrative and its protagonists. It's sharply attuned to the beat of its own heart, which makes it a particularly gooey pleasure from week to week.

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