This Is Us celebrates siblinghood in a sweet but scattered episode – The A.V. Club

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

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“Unhinged” is an interesting conundrum of an episode. I liked, if not outright loved, nearly every one of its scenes. Yet it’s lacking a narrative or thematic center to hold them together. It’s an episode that feels scattered and unwieldy, even as it’s also sweet and well observed. In trying to give a substantial storyline to nearly every one of its central characters, “Unhinged” highlights both the best and worst of what This Is Us can do. It’s teeming with fascinating parallels, but it delivers them in the form of a messy tapestry rather than a carefully constructed hour of television.

Middle school Randall is heading off to his first day of seventh grade just as adult Randall is heading into a high-profile day as city councilman following the publication of an article about his open door policy with his constituents. Yet the flashback storyline winds up functioning more as a parallel for Randall’s daughters, who are also heading off to high pressure first days at their new Philadelphia schools. In both cases, however, This Is Us locks into really lovely stories about siblinghood.

When a minor bit of discipline sends middle school Randall into his first full-blown panic attack (oof, did I relate to that scene), his brother is the one who comes to his rescue. Kevin forges their mom’s signature so that Randall doesn’t have to deal with telling her what happened. In the end, the whole experience winds up bringing the Big Three closer together. They’re starting to have their own lives as a trio, separate from their parents. Kate doesn’t tell her mom about her first kiss with Stewart, but she does tell her brothers. And Jack recognizes there’s a deeper meaning to Kevin’s request that the whole family watch The Arsenio Hall Show together, even if he may not know exactly what’s going on.

That’s echoed in the absolutely lovely scene where Deja shows up in Tess’ room, first to ask for support and then to offer it. Deja is reeling from the news that her crush has a baby, while Tess is struggling with the reality that being out at her new school is harder than she thought it would be. This Is Us hasn’t spent a ton of time exploring Deja’s sisterhood with Tess and Annie, but “Unhinged” proves that it absolutely should because Lyric Ross and Eris Baker are fantastic together.

It’s too bad we don’t actually get to see Tess and Deja’s first days at school, as that might’ve made the episode feel more cohesive and balanced. Instead, adult Randall’s stressful day as a councilman is juxtaposed with one of Jack’s most stressful days at work. Both are sweet stories of male friendship, with a subtle commentary on how society has evolved in terms of letting men talk openly about their feelings. When Jack calls to thank Miguel for saving his job following a $20,000 mistake, they have to at least somewhat talk around their love for one another (or turn it into a joke, in Miguel’s case). In the present, however, Jae-Won happily returns Randall’s “I love you,” and barely bats an eye when he realizes it was aimed at Randall’s kids and not him.

Both storylines are charming, but both suffer from feeling like they come a little bit out of nowhere. Though Jae-Won was a phenomenally winning presence last season, his best friendship with Randall is a new status quo that’s largely happened offscreen. So it’s hard to feel too invested in the story of Randall smacking down the meddling of old school aide Bernice in order to protect Jae-Won’s honor and their mutual idealism. And though Miguel and Jack’s friendship is a much bigger cornerstone of This Is Us, the Jack storyline feel unmoored from the rest of the episode, even if it’s lovely to see Miguel get his own unabashedly heroic moment.

Kate’s story feels similarly unmoored. After the past two seasons largely steered away from storylines about her weight, “Unhinged” returns to that territory once again. It’s delicate subject matter, although it helps that, unlike in the first season, Kate is no longer a character who’s defined first and foremost by her relationship to her body. In fact, this episode demonstrates just how much Kate has emotionally evolved since the first season. She’s shocked by the reveal of Toby’s new svelte CrossFit body and (understandably) frustrated that he hid a major aspect of his life from her. But she’s also much more equipped than she once was to process her emotions and explain how she’s feeling, rather than lashing out or pulling away. Still, even though it tracks, Kate’s story just never quite sings in the way the best moments of the episode do.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

The most cohesive throughline in “Unhinged” belongs to Kevin, who continues his unexpected run as the best member of the Big Three. In both the past and the present, Kevin’s storyline explores his caretaker impulse, which has always been as crucial to his character as his sense of vanity and ego. (Think of little Kevin trading away his Halloween candy to earn a favor for Kate or adult Kevin missing his opening night to rush to Randall’s side during a panic attack.) Yet even though caretaking comes naturally to Kevin, it’s not something he thinks of as a defining element of his personality. As a kid, Kevin writes off his caretaking as an act of boredom, not brotherly affection. In the present, meanwhile, there’s a slightly self-destructive edge to Kevin’s behavior. His desire to help his uncle takes him right back to the place that triggered his relapse.

That self-destructive edge is something Nicky can relate to as well. The episode’s opening montage fills us in on what he’s been up to since he parted ways with the Pearsons back in “Songbird Road (Part 2).” Nicky followed through on his promise to attend therapy at the Veterans Affairs Center and even made phenomenal progress with his therapist. But when she was transferred to another VA in Arizona, Nicky relapsed and slipped right back into his petulant attitude—which is how he wound up throwing that chair through the window of Cassidy’s meeting.

“Unhinged” is an episode about how crucial it is to have a support system when things get tough, and though Cassidy has a kind of anti-meet-cute with Kevin, it’s clear that the series is setting up Kevin, Nicky, and Cassidy as a core trio. It’s the present day storyline I’m most excited to follow this season. Kevin’s spent the past three seasons feeling adrift in one way or another. It’ll be fascinating to see what, if anything, will finally give him a sense of groundedness.


Stray Observations

  • Kate tentatively befriends her curmudgeonly neighbor Gregory, who’s recovering from a massive stroke that forced him to relearn basically all motor functions. He’s played by Psych’s Timothy Omundson, who suffered a stroke in real life and is making his return to TV on this series.
  • Two things I’m really looking forward to seeing the rest of the season explore: Nicky’s experience with Veterans Treatment Court, which is a really interesting element of the legal system. And middle school Randall’s complicated relationship with his new teacher, Mr. Lawrence, who seems to be one of the only black teachers at Randall’s school.
  • I’ll admit that I don’t know much about how City Councils actually operate, but Randall’s job seems way swankier and much more high-profile than I would’ve imagined.
  • Cassidy, Nicky, and Kevin breaking down in hysterics during their AA meeting didn’t feel particularly authentic, but I loved the scene of Kevin playing Mario Kart with Cassidy’s son. Justin Hartley is always phenomenal when paired with kid actors.
  • In last week’s review, I jokingly asked if Toby’s secret CrossFit training was because he was Batman. This week, Randall and nickname themselves Batman and Robin. Coincidence?!?!
  • I loved the reveal that Jae-Won’s “proposal” is a marriage proposal, not a political one. Also, it’s a true testament to Jae-Won’s appeal that I instinctively felt a surge of disappointment at learning he’s off the market before remembering that he’s a fictional character.

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