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'This Is Us' Turns In an Emotional Horror Show

By Dustin Rowles | TV | March 18, 2020 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | March 18, 2020 |


Most of us watch This Is Us for a reprieve from the real world — in fact, its early success came basically in response to the toxicity of the Trump Administration. Here is a show America can tune into every Tuesday night and gently cry over (mostly) white-people problems while the rest of the world burns around us. It’s a soothing balm. In last night’s episode of This Is Us, however, the series stuck up its middle finger at us during a time in which we needed a hug the most. But hugs? Go f**k yourself. You don’t get hugs while social distancing!

Most of the episode sees Randall running a single scenario with his therapist (Pamela Adlon): “What would your life look like if your father survived?” The first scenario Randall envisions sees Jack surviving the fire, after which Rebecca immediately tells him about Randall’s birth father, William. After expressing some slight annoyance with Rebecca, Jack immediately takes Randall to meet William. Everyone hits it off immediately. Jack and William end up going to rehab together, and both are huge parts of Randall’s life. They are both at Randall’s wedding, Randall catches William’s stomach cancer early, and Jack is around to help Randall detect Rebecca’s memory loss in the present.

This is when the therapist steps in and she’s like, “Yeah. That’s not what would happen. Get real, Randall. Tell me the actual version of what would happen if your father survived?”

And that’s where the horror show comes in, because according to Randall’s worst-case scenario modeling, Rebecca would have once again told Jack about William after his brush with death, but this time, Jack would have been furious with Rebecca. William, still addicted to drugs at the time, would have rejected Randall, and Randall would have blamed that on his mom, whom he would resent for decades and through numerous casual relationship with his teaching assistants (Randall would have become a professor). He would have remained estranged from his mother — and the rest of his family — up and until he finds out about his mother’s memory problems, at which point he finally makes up with his mother, but not before losing 25 years of opportunities to spend time together.

Real comforting, This Is Us. Seeing Jack and Rebecca — one of the most loving marriages on TV — unravel over the course of two decades of passive-aggressive recriminations is a real balm. Thanks a lot!

Ultimately, however, the point of both scenarios is not to illustrate what would’ve happened if Jack survived but to pinpoint Randall’s real overriding concern. In both scenarios, that clearly appears to be the resentment he has with his mother over how long it took her to tell him about William. I am not sure how Randall got from panic attacks over a burglar in his house to beating a purse snatcher to … information Rebecca withheld, but that appears to be the root of Randall’s mental health issues.

In the end, however, Randall does something I’m not sure his therapist would approve of, which is to basically emotionally manipulate Rebecca into the clinical trial in St. Louis by using Rebecca’s failure to inform Randall of William as leverage. Randall is like, “You f**ked up big time, but I don’t want to talk about that. I am a good son. I have always been a good son. I have never asked for anything. You owe me.”

It works. Rebecca agrees to enter the clinical trial. Ultimately, I don’t blame Randall for emotionally manipulating his mother, either. He is like, “I’ve lost two parents already. I’m not going to lose another. Don’t do it for you. Do it for me.”

And then Randall put on a Phil Collins record, pulled out an ax, and went Patrick Bateman on his therapist.*

Here’s a glimpse of next week’s season finale, featuring the return of Gerald McRaney, who is better than anyone on this show at eliciting tears.

* I made that part up, but I could totally see it happening.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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