Two episodes ago, This Is Us dug into the tense dynamic between Rebecca and Kate, scrutinizing their relationship both in the past and the present day. This week in “Still There,” we’re provided with a potent reminder that Rebecca comes from an even more dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship — and it’s one that we get to watch play out at its ugliest.
This week’s foray into the past is framed around the return of Rebecca’s controlling and — to put it mildly — traditional mother, Janet (Elizabeth Perkins). She visits during a snowstorm, after Rebecca lets her know that both young Kate and Kevin have chicken pox, and that Randall — on doctor’s orders — will soon be next. (They’d rushed to a hospital from a video rental store — nostalgia factor! — where Rebecca revealed herself to be a fan of Broadcast News, Patrick Swayze, and John Travolta.)
Janet’s mere arrival throws Rebecca for a loop, from the way she suggests Jack salt their walkway after almost slipping to her shock at the sight of Randall standing shirtless in “the middle of winter.” “I’m not a masochist, Jack,” Rebecca says after her husband asks whether she invited her mother to stay with them. As Rebecca lists the things Janet does to drive her crazy, it’s fascinating how much it aligns with what adult Kate said to Toby a few weeks ago in “A Manny-Splendored Thing” — only, about Rebecca.
The difference, of course, is that Rebecca has three children, and as we see Janet interact with her grandkids, it’s hard not to side with Rebecca. Janet makes Kevin feel like the only thing that matters in the world are his looks. She gives Kate a dress that’s too small, and when Kate indicates the problem, Janet suggests she keep and look at it as a “goal dress.” Most disturbingly, she treats Randall as an other in as many ways as possible: gifting him basketballs because she thinks he’d be a “natural” even though he doesn’t like it; not taking an interest in his hobbies or activities; consistently referring to “the twins and Randall,” as if he’s some separate component in the family.
Rebecca tries not to let it get to her, but by the time Jack also falls ill along with the three kids, she’s overwhelmed. Janet expresses amazement that Randall is the only Pearson kid to get into private school, at which point Rebecca confronts her head on. “Randall tries so hard to get you to like him, and honestly, I’ve always wondered if the reason you never bonded with him is because he was adopted,” she says. “But you’ve made it alarmingly clear that it’s because he’s black.” They fight, and it doesn’t end well — by the time Rebecca’s finished with her, she’s yelling, “You’re a racist, mom!” with Randall quietly listening in from the doorway, more confused than devastated. (Jack and Rebecca later attempt to explain to him that sometimes racism hides behind a smile.)
In the present day, meanwhile, Kevin is still reeling from last week’s on-set injury. His knee looks completely mangled, and when he’s finally convinced to see a doctor after two weeks of trying to “tough it out,” he’s told that he has “a large tear” in his meniscus and will need arthroscopic surgery to make a quick recovery. As he goes under in the operation, he again has visions of his father — this time, cheering on Kevin at a football game. It’s a clear indication, after last episode’s foreboding final image of Kevin downing pills, that his father still haunts him in more ways than one.
Kate and Toby take in Kevin while he heals, and Kevin tells them that he’s staying off painkillers because they “made him fuzzy” after he first sustained the knee injury. He later tells Toby that he can’t let a knee injury blow things up for again — his dreams of becoming a football player were crushed when he first got hurt two decades ago — but we know that the motivation there runs a little deeper. When he’s finally left alone, Kevin watches old tapes that his father made of Kevin playing football as a teenager. “My son is tough — my son is tough as hell,” Jack exclaims. Kevin eventually pauses the tape, leaving an image of Jack beaming with pride at the camera hovering over him on the TV. He heads back for pills. It’s an evocative visual, the sight of Jack — himself an addict — looking over Kevin in such a vulnerable moment. It’s too soon to know where this leads, but it’s safe to say nowhere good.
Randall and Beth, meanwhile, are still struggling to help Deja acclimate to her new environment. At the breakfast table, Tess and Annie recount their dreams while Randall does their hair; he asks Deja if she has any dreams to share and if she’d like him to do her hair, but in both cases she declines. It comes to light that Deja has not washed her hair in weeks, and that Randall’s trying — and failing — to create a safe space for her to feel comfortable doing so. Beth argues they need to have “a real sit-down talk about this.” But Randall pleads he be allowed to take the lead on this one, even if his method of giving her some breathing room hasn’t worked so far.
Randall decides to take Deja and the girls bowling, a plan that goes terribly wrong from the moment of arrival. Randall explains that the girls need to take off their shoes, but Deja refuses; she’s similarly adamant when Randall suggests she bowl in her socks. Then, as they wait in line, a girl cruelly insults Deja’s hair behind her back. Deja shoves her, Randall gets heated with the girl’s father, and just like that, they’ve left the alley, horrified. It’s another example of Randall underestimating how fragile Deja’s emotional state is, and not realizing that simply throwing fun and luxuries at her might not fix anything.
This becomes even clearer after Deja is more responsive in a sit-down with Beth. Deja even allows her new foster mother to braid her hair, and after Beth explains that Deja’s bald spots are alopecia, Deja admits it gets bad in times of stress. Beth is moved by her openness and shares it with Randall, but when Randall tries to find common ground with Deja on the subject of stress — since he’s, you know, had a few nervous breakdowns — she feels betrayed that Beth didn’t keep their conversation private. She chops off her newly-braided hair, leaving Beth aghast. While Beth has seemed better equipped to connect and communicate with Deja so far, the way Deja shrank from Randall in fear last week reminds us that she likely has an abusive history with men — and that even if Randall keeps trying, Deja may never be able to let her guard down around him.
In nearly every story line in this episode, it’s like there’s a ticking clock timed to a pending explosion — the harsh Rebecca-Janet fight, Kevin returning to taking pills, Deja lashing out against Randall and Beth. With Kate, at first, it seems that she’s dangerously overworking herself: Toby notes that she’s committing to her exercise and weight-loss measures to an alarming degree. She’s gearing up for the first big event that she’s been paid to sing at, and appears alternately distant and obsessive. Her ostensible conflict is based around fitting into the dress she’s hoping to wear for her performance: She won’t even eat Toby’s “healthiest poppyseed muffin.”
But Kate is hard to read in the episode: We see her nervously browsing the vitamins section of a pharmacy, and she’s generally more uneasy than usual. There is, of course, the symmetry of her pending dress fitting — she keeps putting it off — and the aforementioned Little Mermaid dress that Janet gifts Kate in the past. Janet suggested it could be young Kate’s “goal dress,” and when adult Kate finally tries on her performing dress and it fits beautifully, Toby says, “You set a goal and you made a goal, so now’s the part where you get excited.” There’s that word again. Kate doesn’t quite look satisfied: She sees herself in the mirror, still, and soaks in Toby’s words. But as This Is Us does so well, you feel the wounds of the past permeating the present.
The cycle of troubled mother-daughter dynamics, from Rebecca and Janet to Rebecca and Kate, comes through both explicitly and implicitly in “Still There.” In the past timeline, Janet makes an effort to apologize to Rebecca after their intense argument. “It’s not because he’s black, or I don’t know if it’s adoption — it’s all of it,” she tries explaining. “It just all feels really foreign to me. I swear, Rebecca, I swear I try.” Rebecca says she shouldn’t have to try, but Janet says there’s no way around it. Still, she tries ending with Randall on good terms and even manages to connect with him a bit over his science fair project. We know Janet’s prejudices run deep, which makes this redemptive ending to her arc feel more than a little tacked on, but it’s still a nice note to end on in the grander scheme of the episode.
No matter her efforts with Randall, we know Janet will never have a great relationship with Rebecca. And we know that with Kate and Rebecca, things are a little better — if still incredibly complex, occasionally dysfunctional, and informed by their inherited pain. Those two realities linger across the episode and make its ending especially moving. We learn why Kate’s been so quiet, and why she’s anxiously browsing pharmacy aisles: She’s six weeks pregnant. As the doctor tells Kate that she and the baby are healthy, she allows herself to smile. It’s a joyful, touching ending — the ticking clock, in this case, is not a warning of a blowup but a sign of hope that maybe things can keep getting a little better.
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