In case you hadn't noticed from the massacred flower display at your local grocery store, it's Valentine's Day in America, and you better believe tear-jerker This Is Us wasn't going to let the biggest emo holiday on the calendar go by without tears.
Naturally, this beautifully flawed family wasn't going to go all teddy bears, heart-shaped candy boxes and roses. Ha! In fact, if we saw any at all they're hard to even remember. Instead, This Is Us dove head first into the difficult parts of love, and the ways the Pearsons' hearts either open wide or shrink for the people they love when put to the test.
We'll start with Kevin (Justin Hartley), who (finally) became the unexpected hero. It's abundantly clear now that Kevin's greatest challenge is his uphill battle in loving himself — to overcome the self-doubt and insecurity he's displayed all season. Just before his big play with Sloane (Milana Vayntrub), Kevin dreams (again) about being dissed by Katie Couric. Kevin struggles mightily with defeating self-talk, as William (Ron Cephas Jones) pointed out previously, and in a flashback, we learn he'd been having sex with his future ex-wife Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) as a teenager.
It's just when he's getting a stern lecture from Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) about condoms and respecting women that Randall (Sterling K. Brown) comes in, having one of his soon-to-be recurring anxiety attacks over a test, and Jack hustles to calm him down. By doing so, Jack unknowingly abandons Kevin (yet again in Kevin's mind), reinforcing his feelings of inadequacy that cause him to seek validation in women and Hollywood excess.
In the present, Kevin's dilemma is to overcome his fear of being on stage — the most vulnerable place a performer can be — and he gets an unexpected pep talk from his step-dad Miguel, who finally addresses their disconnect. Miguel, who real-life Milo tells us will be much more likeable going forward, mans up and tells Kevin he's always been dismayed Kevin didn't like him, because Kevin reminds him so much of his best friend, Kevin's father Jack. "You are Jack Pearson's son," Miguel says, "you have him inside you," giving Kevin a boost of confidence he'd use later to make an impressive, risky choice.
Speaking of risks, aren't we relieved to know Kate (Chrissy Metz) didn't risk throwing away all she had with Toby by creeping into Duke's cottage for some nookie. Whew. We just knew she was gonna say, "Screw it" and they'd open a secret stash of delicious cakes and make crunchy, verboten love on a pile of chips but THANK GOD, she did the right thing. After her sanctimonious sermon to him, she got kicked out, landing back into the arms of Toby. Also good on her, she came clean with him, not pretending to be there on her own volition but because she got sassy with the wrong guy and got sent home.
Her honesty about being mean to Toby (although I agree Toby shouldn't have been there; super inconsiderate) beget his honesty: they don't really know each other. Like, basic stuff: favorite color and pets and deets you should've established on date three or four. But then, she hasn't been on many dates, and both of them longed for somebody, which pushed them into a relationship way soon. For a while, they seemed on the verge of implosion — especially when sensitive topics including his suicidal thoughts and her feelings about her dad came up. But they got through it, although the fact that they're just now learning Who Is My Boo 101 raises concerns for their future.
Clearly though, the couple we're most concerned about now after this episode is Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore). Sure, Rebecca is becoming quite problematic but Jack is showing some flaws too. He buried his dissatisfaction with Rebecca going off on tour, only opening up when prompted by Miguel (Jon Huertas) to be honest that no, he wasn't jazzed about his wife leaving him and the kids for an extended stretch. It's the kind of buried resentment that eventually explodes, and boy, did it ever.
Jack found out that his wife kept another secret (that bandmate Ben used to be her boyfriend way back in the day), which made her start to look really sneaky. I get that she didn't want to make a big deal of it, but that's precisely why she should've been up front about it, and let her informed husband make a decision. But she didn't do that. Perhaps even worse, Ben casually drops the other bomb: that Rebecca was never super into the whole family thing — which isn't the first time we've heard that. Coupled with the fact that she wants to run off with her band for a while, she's starting to look not like the occasional emotional klutz but someone who stumbled into family life out of fear of losing a great guy and duty to her children. That ain't good. Neither, of course, is Jack's drinking again.
All that begins to raise a lot of questions, beginning with, Is Jack really a great partner or just really good at keeping a kinda-requited love smitten with him? In the final scene, Jack goes to have some ceremonial V-Day burger and onion rings, and it sure looks like he's alone. Does Rebecca show? Did she go on tour against his wishes? What a crappy Valentine's Day. But then, the Pearsons aren't good at holidays.
One man who might actually relish being alone for a while is poor Randall. Randall has had it. Randall needs some meditation techniques, some good meds and some time off. But no. He keeps trucking, through one crisis after another that only gets more intense. His dad is dying before his eyes; his kids are being kids; Beth's mom broke a hip and work is unpredictable, demanding and increasingly competitive. He's shaking from the stress, and in flashbacks we know it's been this way since adolescence. Perhaps fueled by his sense of compounded otherness — an adopted black man in a white family — Randall works harder than everyone else and he overcompensates.
It's caught up to him though, in fantastic scenes where he's dissolved into tears in a meeting and then clearly having a nervous breakdown late at night, in the office alone. So he calls his brother Kevin — with whom the bonds of love are just now becoming fully realized after years of alienation — to say he can't make Kevin's performance. Kevin, with his friends and family gathered and his fight-or-flight mechanism telling him to run, recognizes his brother's deep anguish; he's ignored it before, as we saw in a flashback. So Kevin has to make a choice: stay, confront his fear and do the play; or help his brother, all but certainly ruining what's left of his career and screwing over his co-star/playwright ex once again in the process.
Kevin did what Jack would do: be with his family. But did he do it out of love? Hmm. It was really good of him to go be with his brother. On the other hand, it was a really good excuse to shuck responsibility and he carelessly left everyone hanging without explanation. Love, or cowardice? Sometimes it's hard to tell.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on NBC.