“Pilgrim Rick” finds an easy way to explore This Is Us‘s obsession with the past; by focusing on Thanksgiving, it unpacks the way that shared traditions can mean different things to different people, and how much of our lives can be built on our memories, even if those memories are fractured. Nobody truly knows all of the facets, twists and avenues of their own story, something that Randall (Sterling K. Brown) learns in spectacular fashion; it hits him, and his family, like an explosion. Before we get to the confrontation that serves as the kicker to the episode, we go back to the early ’90s, where the Pearsons are getting ready to embark on the six-hour road trip to Rebecca’s (Mandy Moore) mother’s house.
Rebecca is stressed about making the perfect cranberry sauce, in an attempt to stop her mother’s criticism, and the kids are apprehensive because of how much they hate spending time with their grandparents. Tellingly, they always ask to have photographs with “just the twins”; a clear indicator that there’s more than a little racism rumbling around in the household. Despite the breakthrough that was made in the last episode, it’s easy to see how this kind of treatment built of Randall’s fear of being an outsider in his own home and shook his sense of identity.
Rebecca’s worst fears come to fruition when the kids run into her and the bowl of cranberry sauce gets smashed on the ground; her anguish goes to prove one of the strangest things about adulthood: you’ll always be a child to some people. Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) encourages everybody to calm down and get in the car, a feat that’s easier said than done with three fighting preteens, a nervous wife, and nothing but Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” to keep them quiet.
Meanwhile, in present-day L.A. Kate (Chrissy Metz) tells Toby (Chris Sullivan) that rather than him flying to New York to spend Thanksgiving with her family, she wants to take a break from their relationship. Toby’s decision to quit his diet has put a strain on her, leading her to eat a whole box of doughnuts and cry herself to sleep the night before. As she sits forking through her salad and he enjoys a plate of spaghetti, she realizes what her life might look like with him: constantly denying herself in the face of someone who’s decided to deny himself nothing.
It’s a testament to the quality of the writing that this breakup isn’t based on one problem. In a moving monologue, sensitively delivered by Metz, Kate explains that she grew up thinking that her life would be perfect if she only found a man who loved her. Her idea of a happy ending was being the female protagonist in a Hugh Grant movie. But then, reality hit. She found her version of Hugh Grant and all of her problems weren’t spontaneously fixed. Kate has to do some work on herself before she can be in love; a concept that seems foreign to Toby. As a prototype of a romantic comedy lead, Toby was stellar: charming, quick with big gestures, and comforting. The show, either purposefully or not, is revealing the shallowness of that trope. Sullivan does solid work, revealing how Toby is somewhat of a raw nerve; yet, as the season progresses, Toby’s character is becoming more rather than less obscured.
In New York, Kevin (Justin Hartley) seems to be getting more comfortable with the emotional excesses of his play, which we learn is called, curiously, “Back of the Egg”. In an attempt to get closer to Olivia (Janet Montgomery) under the guise of deepening their on-stage connection, he asks her to join his family for Thanksgiving. At first, she refuses — after all, she does have to maintain her image as a moody, soulless actress — but after very little prodding, she agrees.
Olivia is one of the show’s most irritating characters; not necessarily because she’s badly written, but because her studied aloofness is so obviously a front and that makes her feel inauthentic. This would be fine if what was underneath promised to be compelling, but so far, there isn’t much sign of that. Olivia’s coldness is so at odds with the earnestness around her that it makes her seem almost robotic. It seems clear that Kevin and Olivia aren’t the show’s end goal, and that makes it hard to care about what happens between the two. “Pilgrim Rick” goes a long way to giving her deeper and more interesting character traits, but it still feels like a fruitless exercise. Montgomery hasn’t quite found an angle on Olivia that makes her feel like anything more than a cliché.
Randall, on the other hand, wakes up excited for Thanksgiving, waking everybody else in the house up in the process. He starts cooking, orders people around, and plugs into the Thanksgiving rhythm. Brown is always fun when he’s plugging into Randall’s dorkier side, and his unbridled enthusiasm for the festivities is genuinely infectious. Kevin can’t help with the preparations because he has to pick up Olivia — he is called upon, however, to pick up hotdogs, cheese squares, and chips, a combination that’ll gain resonance as the episode moves on — and William’s (Ron Cephas Jones) illness is continuing to get worse, knocking him out of cooking duties.
When the doorbell rings, it’s Rebecca at the door with her new husband, and Jack’s former best friend, Miguel (Jon Huertas). Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) takes Rebecca to one side and implores her to tell Randall that she’s known William, at least peripherally, for three decades. Instead, Rebecca rushes to the kitchen to help out with the dinner. Moore’s older version of Rebecca can feel a little hokey — it largely centres around her being significantly breathier — but she confidently portrays Rebecca’s genuine anguish in this situation. During the bustle some things are established: there’s a VHS that the family watch every Thanksgiving, there’s a ceremonial hat, and there’s a 3.8-mile hike that everybody must go on. The fact that these things will become relevant isn’t exactly subtle, but it isn’t egregiousm either.
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Back in the past, the Pearson’s car blows a tire and they end up crashing into a fence, wrecking their vehicle. In the middle of nowhere and without the ability to contact Rebecca’s parents, the family starts walking towards a motel that they’ve seen signposted. The motel is exactly 3.8 miles away. As they are walking, Kevin (Parker Bates) and Randall (Lonnie Chavis) start fighting, and Kate (Mackenzie Hancicsak) gets scared by a sound in the forest, so Rebecca invents a game in which they all describe their perfect Thanksgiving. Kevin talks about being a successful football player, playing in front of a roaring crowd and then going home and eating a whole pie.
In contrast, Randall says he’s looking forward to not having to celebrate, because adults “don’t have to do things they hate”. Jack and Rebecca are quick to defend her grandparents, but Randall explains that it isn’t just them that he hates; apparently Rebecca’s demeanour changes when she’s around then, making her awkward and shrill. Jack quickly changes the subject, just as they arrive at a small cabin motel, with a creepy receptionist: the titular Pilgrim Rick (Ric Sarabia).
On the family hike, adult Randall asks William about his Thanksgiving traditions. For years, lacking any family, he spent each year with his sober friends, playing music and riffing. As he got older and sicker, he began to record these sessions so he could listen to them when he was unable to leave the house. As they walk along, Olivia explains how her mother would make multiple pies for Thanksgiving, only for them to be left uneaten when her father went off to his mistress and her mother got steadily drunk.
Back home, Miguel asks if he can take a bigger role in the family’s traditions, perhaps wearing the hat that’s shared between the Pearson men. Kevin is adamant that this can’t happen, and is rude to the point of harshness. There’s clearly some kind of history there that’s nicely underplayed. Randall tells everybody to get the VHS and tells Beth about the William’s tapes, deciding in that moment to drive into the city and collect them. Rebecca offers to go with him, obviously in an attempt to tell him about her history with William, but Randall refuses, saying that she should sit down and watch Police Academy 3, as per tradition.
Once again in the past, the lodge that they’re staying in is too hot, and they have no food. In an act of bravery, Rebecca telephones her mother and informs her that they’ll not be spending Thanksgiving together, this year or any other, whilst Jack attempt to find something to eat. When there’s a knock at the door, Rebecca is wary, knowing that Jack has a key, and clearly understanding that the night has quickly devolved into the premise of a low-budget horror movie.
When she asks who it is, Pilgrim Rick answers, saying he’s going to fix the boiler. Rebecca refuses to open the door, but it flies open anyway, and Jack is standing there, wearing the hat Pilgrim Rick was wearing, doing an accent and acting like a clown. He tells everybody that they’ll be watching Police Academy 3 (the only other option was 9 ½ Weeks) and making a Thanksgiving meal of hotdogs wrapped in cheese and rolled in crushed chips. That night, Randall whispers to Rebecca that he takes what he said before back; he wants every Thanksgiving to be like this one.
Whilst in William’s apartment, Randall discovers a letter from Rebecca, dated the year of his birth, proving that they’ve known each other his whole life. At dinner, after a couple of moments of joviality, Randall announces that he knows, throwing off the whole dynamic and the night into complete chaos. It’s in this fraught environment that Olivia kisses Kevin with some kind of passion — after he gives her the pie she never got to eat in her childhood — and into which Kate runs in, late because of a plane delay, and announces that she’ll be getting a gastric bypass.
“Pilgrim Rick” certainly turns the temperature up to boiling point, letting the disparate narratives hurtle towards their natural conclusions. To get there, the episode takes smart, meaningful throughroads into who these people are, and what they have to offer contemporary television. As an examination of the meanings and metaphors of personal tradition, and how they transformed within minutes, it’s illuminating and moving. If the show, which does low-key better than almost anything else on television at the moment, can handle a sudden surge in narrative agency is anyone’s guess. It’ll be interesting finding out.