Reviews

'This Is Us' "The Trip" Explores the Past to Cast Light on the Present

Jay Bamber
Randall (Sterling K. Brown) deals with the fallout from the Thanksgiving revelations.

A cabin in the woods becomes a place for revelation, recriminations, and reconfiguration in "The Trip".


This Is Us

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9PM
Cast: Sterling K. Brown, Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, Justin Hartley
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 9 - "The Trip"
Network: NBC
Air date: 2016-11-29
Amazon

In its last episode, This Is Us put its foot on the gas, introducing a level of drama and passion that sometimes felt incongruous with the slightly dog-eared pace that’s come to characterise the show up until that point. "The Trip" puts things back on track, re-establishing the rhythms and beats of the Pearson family whilst refocusing and reconfiguring the central conflict that threw the show into warp speed in the first place.

Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is still alternately mad, heartbroken, shocked, and frantic after the revelation that Rebecca (Mandy Moore) knew his birth father William (Ron Cephas Jones) and kept his identity secret. It's an important plot point, and one that the show has to explore in order to untangle the threads between each character, but so far it's one of the few storylines that the writers seem to have a looser hold on. At various stages, the show's been in danger of making Rebecca look like a villain, which does a disservice to the character and Moore's performance, but "The Trip" avoids this trap by bringing a lot of shading to her plight and letting Randall express his feelings in a way that feels more authentic and truthful than last week's outburst.

When "The Trip" begins, Randall is pacing his bedroom floor, making a list of the ways in which Rebecca's lie has affected him. This is a smart call-back to several other episodes that showed Randall's obsessive need to document everything and generate elaborate lists. He insists that he's mad at William and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) because they also knew about the lie, but he's reserving the bulk of his rage for his mother. With each step, Randall thinks of another part of his adolescence that's been destroyed by the recent revelation.

This idea folds in neatly with Rebecca's announcement that she's selling the family cabin, which propels the Pearson siblings to take one last trip to their family holiday home. It's interesting that many of the accouterments of childhood are being taken away from Randall; the trust he had in his mother, the vitality of his biological father, the bond with his siblings, and his family holiday home. When Randall asks if Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) knew about Rebecca and William's relationship, he's clearly terrified that everything he's built his life on has been dismantled. Jack didn't know, a fact that provides Randall with only a little bit of peace.

At the cabin, Kate (Chrissy Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley), and Randall reminisce about the past, sharing stories about their childhood and their parents. Everyone in the cast does a stellar job of showing how these memories have accumulated a kind of retrospective sadness; despite all of the wonderful things they've experienced, those experiences are now shrouded by the fact that Randall was constantly, and purposefully, being denied one of his most desired relationships. This Is Us almost always does a good job of showing how our lives are stories that can be changed and transformed by pieces of missing information; it toes the line between introspection and retrospection better than any show on television.

This is especially clear in "The Trip", which offers the idea that a painful past doesn't necessarily equal a hopeless past; a realisation integral to deepening both Randall and Rebecca. Whilst this may mean that Kate and Kevin’s storylines are sacrificed in small and big ways, it also means that the show can move on. Lesser shows would present this conflict as the defining one of the season, but the writers seem to understand that people are made up of many different narratives, which may not be new but still feels refreshing.

In the past, Jack and Rebecca have lost adolescent Randall (Lonnie Chavis) in the supermarket. They eventually find him talking to an African American man, asking him whether he can roll his tongue. This is a neat way to demonstrate Randall’s curiosity about his genetic lineage; he's working out which parts of his personality are a result of his upbringing, and which can be attributed to genetics. When Jack and Rebecca pick him up from Yvette's (Ryan Michelle Bathe) house, where Randall goes to play with other African American children, they ask her advice on how to navigate this difficult terrain.

It's hokey that they'd see Yvette as the sole arbiter of some kind of black knowledge, which the show does a solid job of criticising, but it does fill in some gaps for the audience. Yvette has been confused because Randall has told her that his biological father is a basketball player, a mailman, and a driver; all jobs that he's seen African American men perform. Randall doesn't have a strong perspective because he's never been able to see men of his race in all of their complexity; he's only been able to piece together snippets from the largely white world around him. Yvette encourages them to take him to a place where he can see role models; in this case, a largely black Karate class.

It's interesting that Jack is so willing to help young Randall find his biological father, and that it's Rebecca who forms the stumbling block. When Jack approaches her with the idea, she stops it immediately, citing her fear that Randall will be taken away, and that it'll confuse him. Ventimiglia and Moore are genuinely fantastic together; they've so quickly and so easily formed a viable romantic dynamic that it's easy to forget that the show is only nine episodes old.

Moore has the more complex role is many ways, largely because her actions are the easiest to criticize, and because she's holding a secret that means she has insight that nobody else does, but she positions herself beautifully here. We learn that she saw '70s-era William (Jermel Nakia) one last time during Randall's childhood. He was newly sober and working in a record store, and she brings with her a photo of Randall. William shows an eagerness to be a part of Randall's life, to occupy some role in his upbringing. His enthusiasm frightens Rebecca and she runs away before they can discuss the issue any further, essentially cutting off communication and closing the door on any potential relationship between William and Randall.

Back in the present day, Kevin invites Olivia (Janet Montgomery) to the cabin, along with one of her exes and Sloane (Milana Vayntrub), the playwright responsible for the Broadway show in which Kevin and Olivia are starring. This upsets Kate, who's revelation that she's planning on having gastric bypass surgery has been put on the back burner in the face of Randall's emotional upheaval and Kevin’s romantic tribulations. It's revealed that Olivia's ex has brought hallucinogenic tea for the group to share, which Randall, bizarrely and unknowingly, drinks.

Whether or not the Randall that the audience knows would be likely to drink a strange drink without asking what's in it is an interesting question; it seems incongruous with his characterisation, but may reveal the extent to which he's lost connection to who he truly is and how he would want to behave. He begins to trip, becoming obsessed with a hammering noise that only he can hear. In a beautifully played and surprisingly moving turn, when he begins to investigate, he sees Jack working on the house, fixing the guttering. We never get to see Jack interact with his grown children for obvious reasons, and it has an enormous power, and Brown and Ventimiglia's interaction has a lived-in dynamic.


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Away from Kevin, Kate corners Olivia and confronts her. Things get tense when Kate explains that she thinks Olivia is taking advantage of her brother, using his sweet nature to explore her darkness in a way that disregards his feelings. It's a genuine criticism, and one that makes Olivia a frustrating and impenetrable character. When the narrative shifts to her, the show often feels like it's spinning its wheels; she’s neither compelling nor completely shallow.

In response to Kate's concerns, Olivia takes the defensive stance, arguing that Kate is jealous and positing that Kate's surgery won't change anything. Kate will still be the same person -- thinner or fatter, in other words -- wherever she goes, there she’ll be. This is a fascinating and complex issue; Kate's decision to have surgery seems to have come out of nowhere, and it's smart for the show to interrogate the ways in which the external body influences and challenges the internal personality. This Is Us is at its very best when it’s exploring multiple angles of an issue, and Kate is perhaps most in need of that; her character is too often be filtered solely through her weight issues.

Randall, still high, talks to his father; shouting at him, making up with him, offering criticisms, projecting love, leaning into sadness, and wrestling with his feelings about Rebecca. Eventually, Jack takes the reigns of the conversation and asks Randall to see his mother as a human being rather than a symbol. Jack encourages Randall to look inside the cabin, where Rebecca is running around, constantly closing doors in a metaphorical attempt to keep threats away from her family.

The colour pallet switches to deep blues and greys, showing how tumultuous Rebecca's internal landscape was when the children were growing up. It's a little heavy-handed, slightly too obvious, but it makes for a powerful image. The next day, Olivia leaves angrily, Kevin sleeps with Sloane, and Randall drives to see his mother. He explains that he hasn't forgiven her, and that he won't be able to for a long time, but that he acknowledges how scared she must have been and how multifaceted her decision to keep William away was. It's a moment of empathy that suggests that the ground between them isn't completely scorched.

In the closing moments, we see Jack taking young Randall to the karate class. The leader speaks to Randall, informing him that he's now part of a community, a community that the world doesn’t necessarily treat with respect and compassion. This is, unfortunately, a timely and relevant reminder that dialogue about division has an impact on individuals, a dialogue that young Randall is both subject to and separated from. Jack is asked to come in front of the class and get into a push-up position and Randall is told to get on his back. This is a sweet, elegant way of demonstrating that Jack will always form a bedrock from which Randall can explore his cultural, biological, and personal identity. "The Trip" is, once again, a sensitive, compassionate, even-keeled episode of television.

8


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