Tuesday, March 13, 2018

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - The Pearsons Look to the Past and Future During Kate and Toby's Wedding in 'The Wedding'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.18 "The Wedding"

The Pearsons come together to celebrate Kate and Toby's wedding.

This Is Us has always been a show very mindful of its past. All of Kevin, Kate and Randall's actions across two seasons now have always been told through the prism of how their perfect father's death informs who they are. That was such a traumatic event. And yet, the audience didn't know the full story for a very long time. It was often just a lot of empty teasing. It felt like the show was stuck in a pattern where it felt the need to explain that a certain action is emotional for one of the Big Three because of some new information pertaining to Jack and his death. This season has really seen those three central characters grow by confronting the trauma head on. They've dealt with so much grief and hardships. They've hit some real lows this season. And now, it really does seem like the show is at a place where Kevin, Kate and Randall can stop holding onto the past. Yes, they can still love Jack and imagine what their lives would have been like if he hadn't died. But it would be so much more interesting if they could all just forge ahead and figure out what their lives are like when they are the ones defining their stories. Whenever the show has looked to the future and not reflect on the past, it has produced a strong story. Kevin and Kate have especially been wallowing for a long time. But here, there are several moments of catharsis where it seems like everyone has completely processed all of these complicated emotions. It's just odd that a pivotal event like Kate and Toby's wedding is still fundamentally centered around Jack and the legacy he left on this family. The show recognizes that it's crippling to the characters. But it's still overwhelming to the series as well.

The show is definitely aware that television frequently plays with the trope of runaway brides and grooms. Even if two characters are engaged, there isn't certainty that they will get married. Now, I've never enjoyed Kate and Toby as a couple. They've never seemed like each other's soulmates the way that Jack & Rebecca and Randall & Beth have been. And yet, the show clearly sees them as such. And so, that's the way the audience has to view this story as it's being told here. There is still the speculation that this wedding is on the verge of falling apart. Kate gets Toby a meaningful gift at the top of the hour and is rewarded with the realization that he failed to pack her father's shirt that means something to her. That basically sends Kate off on a plot where everyone is running around worrying that she really is calling the wedding off even though no one can find her. And yes, the emotions of that moment are still real and genuine. She's looking to Jack as the "something old" she needs for her wedding. She wants to hold onto these memories of the past that she cherished. But she is instead faced with a world that has moved away from the idyllic life in the 1980s. She has to retreat to the woods to find a place that hasn't been touched by time. It's a really moving scene as well. She's having a conversation with Jack where she is admitting she has to let him go in order to welcome Toby fully into her life. It's where her story has been building for two seasons now. It's a fantastic monologue from Chrissy Metz as well.

All of this is fueled by the dream sequence that opens the finale. "The Wedding" opens on a wedding but it isn't Kate and Toby's wedding where it'll inevitably be teased that something is about to  go wrong. Instead, it is Jack and Rebecca's 40th wedding anniversary. It's Milo Ventimiglia's first time wearing old man makeup - which works about as well as it does for Mandy Moore and Jon Huertas. It's a manipulative way to open the finale as well because it teases the audience into believing that Jack is still somehow alive. The show has always been very clear that he is dead. They showed us his death. And yet, there are probably some still in the audience who didn't buy that moment because he died offscreen and there wasn't a closeup of the body. It's halfway through this finale until the show itself confirms that this is nothing more than the dream Kate has been having for the last few weeks leading up to her wedding. Her mind is so obsessed with Jack that he is creeping into her every thought. That's not healthy. As such, it's important for her to confront these feelings. It too starts off as a tease that the wedding is about to be called off because Toby is no where to be seen in these dreams. She wonders what that means. Rebecca kicks herself for putting out that destructive thought. But in the end, Kate is completely certain of her relationship with Toby. She knows that it is special and that she has found someone to love just as much as Jack. That's all good for the themes of the show and the personal arc of the character. It just works a little less in practice because the relationship between Kate and Toby doesn't seem all that great.

Kate letting go of her father's ashes appears to be the moment where the show can pivot away from Jack and just focus on this happy moment and what the future will entail. And yet, his presence still lingers. It's not any of the characters holding onto his legacy either. In this case, it is the show forcing him into this event so that the audience can still have an emotional attachment to Jack and this wedding. That's weird. So much has been said about this wedding being a perfect way to honor Jack even though he is no longer alive. But to the audience, he still is. Instead of hearing Toby and Kate's vows to each other during the ceremony, the show thinks it's a better idea to listen in on a speech that Jack gives Kate when she was 8 years old about finding the perfect guy who will be everything she wants him to be. It continues to equate Toby to Jack which is always so odd. Jack is a much easier character to enjoy and understand. Toby has always been problematic. Even here, his story is mostly reminding the audience that he was married before and suffers from depression just in time for those glimpses into the future. Or perhaps the show recognizes that it would much rather hear a speech from Jack in this moment than more from Toby and Kate. It's such a weird stylistic choice that doesn't ultimately add a whole lot to the show. It mostly proves that Jack will remain a prominent character on the show even though he's dead. He's been dead for a long time and the show has always found a way to keep him in. But is it completely necessary anymore? Probably not.

And then, the final moments of the finale occur that lay out certain paths for the Big Three moving forward. It's in those moments where it is clear that the show is committed to forging a new path forward and not wallowing in the past with these characters. It's all told effectively though Kevin and Randall's respective toasts. Kevin kicks things off with a speech saying that this family needs to let out their collective breath of holding onto the past and Jack. It's played as a powerful visual. The direction visits each member of the family to show the inhaling and exhaling. It's a cathartic moment because it is filled with promise. Kevin doesn't know if he is making any sense during this toast. He is because he's asked to offer the summation of what the show has been up to this point. And then, Randall comes in with a speech that offers hints and clues as to what's coming next for this family. He talks about learning that he cannot control his life. He has no idea what's going to happen. He doesn't know when the next major struggle will occur. But the show does. It provides the audience with teases of what's coming next for the Big Three. For Randall, it is still in the future with an adult Tess. In that moment, Randall is asking her if she's ready to go see Deja again. At least, it's alluded to that they are talking about Deja who may be in jail because she decides to take a bat to Randall's car during the toasts. That's a destructive moment that proves that family drama is far from over. Meanwhile, Kate's story seems to be happening very soon with the idea that Toby will fall into a depression once more. That's fascinating even though it only seems to have a broad idea of what someone suffering from depression is like. And then, Kevin's story sees him traveling to Vietnam with his new girlfriend - Beth's cousin! - in order to connect with Jack's experience there. It ensures that Jack will remain a huge part of the show next season even if the show will be doing more flash-forwards and less flashbacks. His time as a soldier is still a story that needs to be told. It should be interesting to see how quickly the new season rushes into these respective stories or if it will feel the confidence to wait patiently and allow them to happen naturally despite the audience knowing they're coming.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Wedding" was written by Isaac Aptaker & Elizabeth Berger and directed by Ken Olin.
  • Dan Lauria and Wendie Malick show up as Toby's parents. At first, they appear just like he said they would - with his father pestering his mother about getting married to her new boyfriend so he can stop paying alimony to her. And yet, they are united when they come to Toby saying that they have concerns about Kate and how much specific attention she needs. It's enough to make this whole family seem problematic as characters. But it will also be notable when they appear next year to help Kate take care of Toby.
  • For two seasons, I've been looking forward to the show introducing additional members of Beth's family. So many of these characters want to be in the Pearson family. They idolize it even though they have their own families as well. So, it's nice to see Beth's cousin here knowing that she'll continue to appear. But it also seems like a simple solution to address Deja's new behavior problems as well.
  • I like how the action that sets Deja off to her destructive moment with Randall's car is so simple. It's nothing more than Toby's mom walking up to her thinking that she is Randall and Beth's biological daughter who looks just like Randall. It's enough to stir up her feelings of her parents not wanting her. So just as easily as Beth's cousin worked a miracle, Toby's mother ruined it - though completely unintentionally.
  • The past still dictates Randall and Kevin's actions as they look for Kate even though it's not specifically thoughts about Jack. Instead, they fear that their selfishness ultimately hurt her for too many years. Randall thought he was too distant and Kevin thought he was too needy. And yet, there's no need for either of them to worry like that. Kate is perfectly fine when she is found. She just needed to work these personal feelings out herself.
  • It's appreciated that Rebecca takes Kate's words to heart about her actions always coming across as passive aggressive. It's what Rebecca is thinking about throughout the wedding. She fears that saying the wrong thing will ruin this weekend. And yet, it's also so nice when Kate tells her that she aspires to be her because she was a great wife and mom.
  • That's it for This Is Us this season. It was a much bumpier and problematic season than the first. It featured the show doubling down on creative decisions that didn't always work. The actors are still tremendous though. The show will return in the fall for another 18-episode season. Knowing that in advance gave the show the confidence to produce this finale. So, it should be interesting to see what story they believe needs to be told.