'This Is Us': Only Three Episodes In, "Kyle" Establishes the Series as a Lovely, Lyrical Delight
"Kyle" continues the series' trend of focusing on the moments that affect one's entire life, small as they may be.
This Is UsAirtime: Tuesdays, 9PM
Cast: Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, Justin Hartley, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 3 - "Kyle"
Air date: 2016-10-11
"Kyle" opens with a genuinely moving, tragic, and substantial montage of William's (played by Jermel Nakia) young life and his love affair with Randall's (Sterling K. Brown) biological mother. They meet on a bus, bond over a shared love of poetry, and get deep into the drug scene before she dies after giving birth. At a loss and destroyed by tragedy, William leaves Randall on the fire station steps. It's such an efficient and affecting way of filling in William's, and therefore Randall's, history; lovely and layered. It's also a great encapsulation of a show that emphasizes the dual ideas that one moment can have ramifications on your entire life, and that good people can do bad things without realizing that those decisions will come to define them.
The incredible Gerald McRaney is back as Dr. K, as Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) get ready to take their three children home. Jack seems excited and invigorated by the prospect of starting a new family, but Rebecca seems significantly less enthused. Moore is stellar in her representation of a woman who's exhausted and trepidatious but trying to match her husband’s energy. Dr. K notices that something is wrong, but doesn't want to intrude on the marital dynamics. Jack runs to get something from the hospital, leaving Rebecca and the babies in the car, when Rebecca sees William standing on the other side of the road. She knows instantly that it's Randall's biological father. "Kyle" is deeply interested in the act of naming, and the significance that names have on a person’s future, so it's important to note that Rebecca and Jack first called Randall Kyle.
In the present day, Rebecca and Miguel (Jon Huertas) are surprised to learn that not only has Randall found William, but has also invited him to stay at the house. To everybody's surprise, Rebecca takes the news well and insists on seeing William, who's hiding in the kid's bedroom. After an awkward introduction, Randall leaves Rebecca and William to talk. At this point, it becomes clear that they've met before in a past that neither of them wants to relive nor fully admit to. This twist feels more authentic and true to the tone of This Is Us than the bombshells that the show dropped in both "Pilot" and "The Big Three". It reveals a chunk of interesting narrative without making the episode feel like it's resorting to cheap tricks to try and shock the audience.
In the '70s, Rebecca and Jack are finding parenthood more difficult than they initially imagined; they're outmatched by three screaming babies and Kyle (Randall) in particular is becoming a cause for concern. He isn't breastfeeding as easily as the other kids and cries whenever he's in Rebecca’s arms. Perhaps it's because he isn't Rebecca's biological child, or maybe she's suffering undiagnosed post-natal depression that's finding its expression in her relationship with Kyle (Randall); either way, Rebecca isn't taking to motherhood seamlessly. Unable to force herself to feel something that she feels she should and still thinking about William, Rebecca goes on out of her way to find the biological father of her son. This is an interesting development, and one that fits neatly with the previous characterization of Rebecca as somebody who struggles to find happiness and who can often see the negatives in a situation.
"Kyle" reaches its emotional peak, as it often does, when it focuses on a tired and confused Jack asking Dr. K to "fix" his broken wife. The cast is uniformly excellent, truly one of the best ensembles on television, but Ventimiglia is a true surprise as Jack, a role that's very different from most of the other roles he's played. Ventimiglia is subtle and powerful, and plays off McRaney excellently. Dr. K explains that nobody has to be fixed, they need to feel their feelings and find a way to reconcile the life they wanted with the life they have. The surgeon encourages Jack to give Rebecca support, space, and time and allows Jack to sleep in the backroom whilst he looks after the triplets.
This Is Us seems to have a better handle on Jack's emotional landscape than Rebecca's, which can make the episode feel a little unbalanced. It's strange to zero on Jack's thoughts and feeling, regardless of how compelling they may be, when it’s Rebecca's emotional journey that makes up the narrative thrust. Rebecca's story is defined by action, whilst Jack's is characterized by emotion.
Meanwhile, in modern-day Los Angeles, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) are coming to terms with the idea that their sibling relationship may be destructive and codependent. After all, Kate is her brother's assistant, housemaid, and emotional crutch, which is having the cumulative effect of making her a secondary character in her own life.
The episode sensitively suggests that this dynamic may be a product of Kevin's childishness, but also a result of Kate's desire to escape and hide. She even admits that the leap of faith she'd take if she wasn't afraid of anything would be the simple act of singing in front of a crowd. It's to the show's credit that it doesn't lay blame on anyone's door, and understands that there are multiple angles from which to view every relationship.
Toby (Chris Sullivan), frustrated by Kate's unwillingness to step into the spotlight, devises a day where she’s treated as a star. He hires a limo, pretends to be a member of the paparazzi, and finally forces her to sing at an old people’s home. This storyline hits all of the familiar romantic comedy beats, which might sound like a criticism, but absolutely isn't. The rom-com often gets critically bashed, but at its best, it's a genre that offers up witty and contemporary avenues by which to explore relationships of all kinds.
By the time Kate finds the courage to sing "Time After Time" in public it feels like a genuine emotional crescendo and catharsis; for a woman who has spent her whole life trying not to be seen, she's suddenly achingly and meaningfully visible. It’s romantic without being insubstantial, satisfying without being shallow, and the simple act of handing over the rom-com conventions to two people who wouldn’t normally be the focus of the genre is subversive without undercutting the inherent pleasure of it.
Back in the '70s, Rebecca looks all over the city for William, whom the locals call Shakespeare because he's always sitting on the bus reading or writing. With a little snooping and, perhaps improbable, investigative work, Rebecca is able to track William down in the apartment where Randall found him in the modern timeframe. Rebecca asks about Randall's biological mother, and William is candid about the desperate twists and turns that have characterized his life up until that point.
Their interaction is lyrical and admirably sidesteps some obvious stereotypes; Rebecca isn't especially shrill, and William is honest about his history with drugs without seeming stupid or unworthy. Often, what makes the show so compelling and so successful and winning is the fact that it always feels compassionate. In expressing her grief at not bonding with her adopted son, she’s able to get some advice from William, who's able to empathize with her plight. William encourages Rebecca to give the baby his own name, one that honors his uniqueness and the specialness of his journey to the Pearson's home. William gives Rebecca a book of Dudley Randall poetry, a collection of poems that he recited to Randall's birth mother to woo her, and with that Kyle becomes Randall.
Later that evening, the newly named baby begins breastfeeding, suggesting a literal and symbolic connection between mother and child. Sure, this is an easy way out of a complex plot thread and it feels a little too simple, but it also feels like a genuine victory.
In differentiating Randall from the twins and imbuing him with a character of his own, Rebecca is finally able to admit that she’s still mourning the death of the child that they lost. It's hardly an earth-shattering revelation for the audience -- Rebecca's frantic search for William was clearly spurred on by more than curiosity -- but she's stopped running away from herself and her feelings. This is yet another example of how this show successfully adds multiple layers of emotion to each thread without making them feel stuffy or skating over resonance.
Kevin, who’s still the least well-drawn character by a wide margin, jumps on a late night flight out of Los Angeles. Instead of staging a big farewell to his sister, and therefore giving her an opportunity to convince him to stay, he simply leaves her a voicemail. When the airplane lands with a bump, Kate can feel the turbulence -- no amount of distance will ever truly keep them apart -- but distance is the thing they both need in order to reinvent their lives. As Kevin arrives at Randall’s, the episode ends much more mutedly than the ones that preceded it.
This muted ending is further proof that This Is Us is remarkably sure-footed for a freshman show; it really seems to understand its protagonists and has a warm, lived-in feel that takes some shows years to perfect. In just three episodes, it's firmly established a world that's complicated, elegant, and reverberating with authentic emotion. In staying true to its low-key vibe, This Is Us has become appointment viewing.