Tuesday, November 28, 2017

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Randall and Beth Have to Decide What's Best for Deja in 'Number Three'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.10 "Number Three"

Randall and Beth are faced with a hard choice. Jack takes Randall on a college tour.

Early on in "Number Three," Beth notes that she was expecting last year's Thanksgiving to be the most memorable and uncomfortable one for the Pearson family. It was so emotionally devastating because it included Randall finding out that Rebecca knew about William his entire life and kept it from him. And now, it truly does seem like the show is trying to go bigger, better and more complicated in its second season. Not only is Randall's life in turmoil with a family twist like the previous one with Rebecca and William. But now, Kevin and Kate's lives are just as traumatic and devastating. The show isn't just committing one episode to unravel these family dynamics. It's using three episodes to tell the story of how this particular week happens to be one of the most awkward and destructive for the entire family. Of course, it was always easy to suspect that the Randall spotlight episode would be more successful than the Kevin and Kate ones simply because he's a much more interesting and nuanced character. And yes, that is certainly the case as well. And yet, "Number Three" isn't a slam dunk of an episode either. It's still beholden to the structure that was established in the previous two episodes. It has the feeling of being a conclusion to all of these stories. And so, it needs to have a beginning, middle and end for Randall's story while providing new updates on Kevin and Kate as well. So, that makes it seem a little more condensed and problematic. The emotional beats still work for most of what happens here. But there are some really annoying tendencies in the hour as well.

And so, Randall and Beth opened their home to a new foster daughter in Deja. And now, she is being taken away from them because her mother has been released from prison. It feels like the audience should have a closer connection and investment in Deja's relationship with the Pearson family by now. This should be such a destructive action that destroys this family. And yet, it feels like there is some distance to it as well. All the progress that was made mostly happened offscreen. Yes, Deja has been a part of Randall and Beth's lives for awhile now. She was introduced early in this season. But the narrative has also had a lot more going on this year. So, it never really got to focus solely on this relationship until this very episode. And now, it's the end for all of it. Deja is being taken away from Randall and Beth. They need to find peace with that. Before, Randall was painted as a bad guy because of his failure to understand the life that Deja's mom had been living. He was quick to judge her. He was willing to fight for Deja because he could see what a good influence he was on here. And yes, this story shines especially in the moments that highlight just how much progress Randall has made with her. But it also feels like a story where it's hitting the required plot beats in order to present an argument for why this should be such a big deal for the family.

Randall and Beth are willing to fight this decision. Deja's mom just randomly shows up at their house demanding to see her daughter. They have no idea what's going on. There is just a screaming lady on their doorstep making a scene. It's up to Deja to be the sensible adult to keep her mother from doing something that will compromise their reunion. She understands that things need to be done the right way. That shows a strong level of maturity within Deja. She has been through all of this before. There's the inevitability that it will all happen again. That's why Randall and Beth want to fight. They believe they have a case for why they should be able to keep Deja. They welcomed her into their lives not knowing what to expect. It proved to be much more difficult than they could ever imagine. It was still ultimately rewarding for them as well. But the pain and fear of this moment is driving their actions. They believe it to be a bad judgment call to allow Deja to return to her mother's apartment. It's Randall once again being a little too cruel to Linda. Again, it's easy to accept because the emotions are running high. But Randall has that reaction to her and then the narrative never really seems interested in making sure that they have a moment afterwards that shows how apologetic he is. He needs to come to this decision on his own. It's a decision that he has to make with Beth. He's ultimately the only driving force in this story though - which is a little too weird.

Randall finds inspiration in his decision about Deja's future from a conversation he had with William following Thanksgiving last year. It continues to be so fascinating to see how the show still incorporates William this season. Yes, it's forced. It's built on the premise that the audience didn't see every meaningful conversation that he had with Randall, Beth, Tess and Annie. There's always more to his story to unpack as well - even when that means a younger actor playing the role. And so, William tells Randall the story of that fateful day where Rebecca reached out to him for the second time. She did so because Randall was growing more and more curious. She really struggled with that decision because she was worried that William would want him back. The show told this story from her perspective last season. She was ultimately vindicated in her actions because Jack said it would all be fine even though he had no idea what was ultimately going on. Now, things are seen from William's perspective. It turns out that he always knew where Randall was growing up. He followed Rebecca home. He was praying he had the money to pursue her. He was very fortunate that way. He only stops from walking up to the door because he sees the bikes laying on the driveway and fears interrupting an already healthy life his son is living. He can imagine the life that could have been if he did knock. The show avoids playing into the symmetry of Randall doing the same in his current situation with Deja. He accepts that she had a life before him and Beth. They were good influences for her. But her mother is much more important and she needs the chance to be with her for good once more. There's the hope that Deja will be better because of Randall and Beth. There's the hope that they'll continue being a part of her life. But that's all just speculation. The show doesn't depict a potential future between them. They just need to hope that all of this was worth it in some way.

It's an emotional ending but it's one that Randall and Beth find peace with as well. They need to be fine with Deja getting into that car and driving away from their lives for good. This is the job that they signed up to do. Sometimes, this is the outcome that is awaiting them. They just have to decide if this is something that they want to keep doing. They both agree that it is. Randall suggests that maybe the next one will be a boy. Beth says that it may be some time before they can go through this again but that she's open to it. And then, the show just randomly cuts away to a boy abandoned in the system looking for a home. It's a twist that shows that there is still potential for happiness in this system for Randall and Beth. It's just a little too contrived and melodramatic - especially when paired with the episode-ending twist. So things catch up with the conclusions of "Number One" and "Number Two" before the final act of this episode. That's strange. It proves that there will be more of a continuation to "Number Three." It won't just end in the same place that Kevin and Kate's stories did. It just means that the siblings all have focus once more. Randall calls Kate and is there for her during this difficult time. He can see that Kevin isn't doing well at all. But Kevin is still foolishly refusing to let anyone in on his struggles. Instead, he chooses to drive away once more. He does that not knowing that Tess has snuck into the car. She wants to run away because of how horrible it is that Deja had to leave them. It's a twist that feels like it could end in so many tragic ways. The option the show goes for is Kevin being arrested for a DUI. That's tragic. But again, it's less effective because the show builds these two teases revolving around two kids that will likely connect back to Randall and Beth in a matter of minutes. Because they both occur, they become a pattern that is really unfortunate and less effective. If only one of them occurred, then it would be more unique. Sure, the Kevin-Tess twist is more annoying and problematic. But it's also the one of the two that probably needed to occur since the show committed to it.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Number Three" was written by Shukree Tilghman and directed by Ken Olin.
  • Does the family know that Jack has a brother who fought and died in the Vietnam War? The answer still seems to be no. Here, Jack even takes Randall to the Vietnam Memorial and talks vaguely about the time he spent there. But it's still a whole lot of cryptic details. He never opens up to Randall about what happened there. So, it still seems like the reveal about Jack's brother will inevitably be a huge twist for even the family later on.
  • Much like Kate's story last week, Randall's story in the past is just fine. It again incorporates a bunch of the scenes from the previous episodes. It too focuses on the three siblings all going through life events at the same time. Here, it's just Randall going on a college tour of Howard University. It's a simple story but it doesn't connect to the present as genuinely as William's story does.
  • Of course, it's so fascinating to see how Randall acts while he is touring a historically black university. That's a completely different environment for him. He loves his family. He's embarrassed by his father because he's old not because he's white. But it's still a bit of a learning experience for him in this place that then fosters an interesting conversation with Jack about wanting to fit in the world.
  • Again, it's problematic that it took Kevin endangering the life of a child for the rest of the family to actually do something about his problems and tragic spiral lately. Of course, that's only depicted here through Randall and Beth's rage at him for putting Tess in danger. But it's horrible that everyone could see how terrible he looks and just write it off based on his various excuses. It's been annoying for a long time. This better be the thing that gets him to change.
  • There is no big Thanksgiving this year either. Last year set up the various traditions in this family. But now, it's more important to see them off in their own worlds struggling with their own problems. They won't all meet at Randall's house for family bonding. Rebecca, Kate and Toby are out in Los Angeles. Kevin is being arrested. And Deja has moved back home with her mom.