Tuesday, February 6, 2018

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Jack's Memory Hangs Over the Rest of the Pearson Family in 'The Car'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.15 "The Car"

The history of the Pearsons as told through the life of the family car.

I don't want to spend yet another episode of This Is Us talking about the way the show chose to handle Jack's death. It's only been two days since I last talked about the subject. And yet, I must because the show aired another episode tonight that dealt with that - perhaps even more bluntly than the post-Super Bowl episode did. Everyone was in the episode following the Super Bowl. Well, not everyone. William didn't show up. But every character of importance to this season was involved there and needed their own story. That was justified. It was the episode airing after the Super Bowl. Everyone wants to be included in that because it was billed as this momentous television event. It was the hour that finally outlined every specific detail of how Jack died. Yes, it was incredibly morbid and icky. But now, "The Car" spends the entire time in the past. Adult Kevin, Kate and Randall don't appear at all. This hour simply tells the story of Rebecca and the children going to the funeral and trying to cope in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy. Of course, it's hard to see it as such a devastating loss because Jack remains such a huge and crucial character on the show. He died two nights ago. But here, he's offering advice to his children and buying a new car. His life is going pretty well. That's always been this show's way of telling stories. It uses memories of the past in order to inform the story of the present. The present in this case is the aftermath of this tragic event and how all of Jack's past behavior and sayings are more ironic now because of what the audience already knows. It's just a weird pattern that is so plainly manipulative when the stuff at the funeral is actually really effective.

The best moment of "The Car" comes when Gerald McRaney shows up as Dr. K again. That wasn't as surprising as it could have been because the promos and the opening credits spoil his upcoming appearance. But it's still remarkably moving the instant that he arrives. The audience sees just how Rebecca is struggling throughout this day. She's really putting in the effort to be with Jack all of the time. She's beating herself up for not being there in his final moments. They shared so much of their lives together. But in that crucial moment, she was at the vending machine buying a candy bar. She learned he was dead after the fact. That was a tragic realization for her. And now, she's trying to overcompensate by being there for him all of the time while not really explaining her actions to the children. She only truly finds catharsis once Dr. K shows up. And yes, his arrival is played as a cheap cut-to-commercial twist. But it's still very effective. It gets the emotions swelling up long before he actually says something of merit. When he and Rebecca finally sit down, it's for yet another incredible conversation about the hardships of life and the need to remain strong despite the obstacles. He proclaims her to be one of the strongest people who will survive and be okay even though her husband is gone. The present day story confirms that to be true. But this scene also just works so incredibly well in the moment as Rebecca is wallowing in her grief. It's comforting to just see the two of them sitting together.

Of course, the show probably does a bit too much wallowing in the tragedy and irony of the situation throughout this hour. It tries playing things very neatly and uncomplicated. The audience has awareness of what these characters will be like for the next twenty years. We know exactly how this experience will shape them. And so, it's a little disingenuous to feature scenes in which Jack is trying to impart wisdom on his kids in what would eventually be his last few months alive. And so, he once again tells Kevin and Randall that they need to start acting like brothers who care about each other and protect each other. It all fits into his simplistic view of the world that this bond needs to inherently be good and healthy. It was that way for him and his brother even though that's a story that has yet to be told. But the audience is aware that this encouragement and hopeful, feel good ending after the funeral won't last. The specifics are still hazy. But the audience knows that Kevin and Randall don't become friends until the present day. That's a story that has already been told. And so, this plot is falsely playing with our emotions. They fight when Jack is still alive and after he is gone. They can act civilly after Rebecca gives a speech about how good Jack was. But it doesn't fundamentally change anything and the audience should be aware of that despite what the show is trying to say here.

The same is also true of what is going on with Kate. Her scenes with Jack aren't as ironic and laced with foreshadowing as the other scenes he appears in. They are just able to have a conversation about their differing tastes in music. It all connects back to the fact that Jack bought tickets to go see Bruce Springsteen for the entire family the weekend after the Super Bowl. Those are tickets that the family decides to use as well. They use them as a way to potentially find closure while honoring Jack's legacy. But Kate's story is important because it highlights the beginning of her feeling guilty for Jack's death. She blames herself because he went back into the house to rescue the dog. The dog survived and Jack didn't. Now, Kate can no longer bear to see the animal. She wants to find a new owner as soon as possible. It just serves as a reminder of what she lost. She blames herself. And no matter how much compassion she receives from the rest of the family, that doesn't change. It's all building to that moment at the tree where Rebecca has yet another impassioned plea to assuage Kate of this guilt. But it doesn't really work because the audience is all too aware of just how internalized these feelings have been for Kate across the past twenty years. She's still struggling with them. Her life is destroyed by this moment and this story doesn't really seem to reflect that at all.

Finally, there are the scenes that offer the origin stories for two important things to the Pearson family. The first is the car that drives them around all of the time. It's the less important of the two but it is made into such a big deal throughout this episode. It is entitled "The Car" after all. It promises the story of the life of this car. It shows how Jack managed to negotiate the price down for it by once again delivering a monologue about his family. It's a speech that only the audience is privy to. It delivers his underlying hope that his family will turn out okay no matter what. That's the message this story ends on tonight. It's the idea that the family is okay. To a certain extent, that is true. But there also needs to be drama and uncertainty in order to keep the episodes entertaining and emotional. So, it's ultimately not all that effective. It's much more unsettling when the show unexpectedly tells the origin story for the tree the family spread Jack's ashes at. It's told through Rebecca briefly having a cancer scare. That's new information. At first, it seems like the show may be offering up some new twist that will inherently make the family's lives complicated. Cancer could really make the stories dramatic. But it's ultimately just a scare. Jack brings Rebecca to this tree claiming it to be his favorite because he needs to distract her during this time. It's not special to him. But this experience makes it special. Yes, it's a sequence dripping with irony because Jack tells Rebecca what he wants after he dies and she doesn't want to talk about it. But it's still sweet and sentimental when the family walks up to this tree. The audience already knows exactly what happens. They spread some of the ashes with the rest eventually moving out to California with Kate. But it's still moving while perhaps bringing closure to this story. Of course, that seems unlikely. The show is primed to still open up the can of worms that is Jack Pearson's life. That will be annoying and frustrating. This is a definitive ending that the show should use to springboard into whatever story comes next instead of lingering even longer in the past.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Car" was written by Isaac Aptaker & Elizabeth Berger and directed by Ken Olin.
  • It's confirmed that the rest of the family is aware that Jack had a brother who died in the Vietnam war. It's just something that none of them really talk about. That leaves me to suspect that some big twist is about to be revealed in that story. Perhaps he didn't die but was just missing in action. Jack just always believed him to be dead. That's just speculation but the show sure does love a game-changing twist to throw at its audience.
  • It's also just nice to see that Dr. K did ultimately have a happy life despite him wallowing in his own misery after losing his wife. It's great that he's still alive to be here for Rebecca when she really needed it. He's a great character the show has been wise not to overuse. That's what makes every single appearance from him so special. It wouldn't be surprising if his death is eventually seen at some point though.
  • So, Jack knew the instant he walked into the car dealership which vehicle he would be buying because of his kids' reactions. And yet, he went through the motions with Rebecca and the salesman that he was interested in and going to buy the used vehicle. So, it's basically another instance where his need to surprise his family and be a hero is actually kinda manipulative. But again, it mostly works because of Milo Ventimiglia's performance.
  • The episode description teased the story of the life of this car. That would suggest a story featuring the moment the Pearson family bought it and the moment when it finally died for them. That seemed like the direction it was going in. But that's not what actually occurs. It's still sturdy and reliable for them even after Jack is gone. It will apparently stay that way for awhile too if anyone is actually interested in that.
  • As frustrated as I have been with the way the show handled Jack's death, I do have to note that Mandy Moore has been pretty remarkable across these last two episodes. She was always delivering one of the more solid performances of the show despite having to wear some really unfortunate makeup in some scenes. But now, I could reasonably understand a solid Emmy campaign for her this year.