Well folks, we finally got that big, juicy This Is Us twist we’ve been waiting for.
Kate and Toby are having a boy!
I kid, of course. The baby’s gender may indeed have been revealed, but in its last 10 minutes, the NBC drama also packed in what could safely qualify as its biggest surprise of the season up to this point, moving backward and forward in time to shatter what was considered settled in this ever-unpredictable universe. Seriously guys: If Randall and Beth’s marriage isn’t safe, what is?
The fact remains, though, that “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning” caps what’s felt like a letdown of a season so far in, for the most part, fittingly mediocre fashion. There’s too much going on, storylines that aren’t working particularly well continue to be dragged out, and — increasingly — the show seems unable to live with a new dynamic or plot turn for more than an episode or two. But one thing’s for sure: This show knows how to reel you back in.
Let’s start with the bulk of the episode — all the stuff that came before what made this rollercoaster of an hour worthwhile. That’s not to say it was bad — indeed, amid the plot overload, this episode features a pair of deeply poignant scenes. The first is between Kevin and the son of a Viet Cong fighter, who agrees to a meeting in the village where Jack was stationed. Kevin finally makes his way there, walking its roads, looking out at the dock where we’ve seen Jack and his men bond and fish and drink; the episode beautifully mirrors images of father and son, occupying the same, haunted space. But Kevin is still seeking answers above all else. He shows the man the photo of Jack with the mystery woman and asks if he recognizes either of them. The man responds in Vietnamese — with Kevin and Zoe’s tour guide from the hotel interpreting — that he does not.
Instead, the man tells his own story. He says his father was an actor of sorts — comparing him to Kevin “The Manny” Pearson — because he’d hide his fighting in the war from his family, sneaking in to see them and regaling with them (fictional) stories of the adventures he’d have on the other side. “Our fathers were enemies, but they were not so different — they hid their war stories, they pretended to be okay for their children,” the man tells Kevin. “It may not be the answer you’re looking for, but maybe it’s the answer to something bigger.” It’s a tenderly played moment, and an important one for This Is Us, illuminating a Vietnamese wartime experience with respect and nuance.
The other big scene comes courtesy of Tess. I wasn’t sure whether her moment with Kate, in which she alluded to questioning her sexuality, would be followed-up on so quickly, but she gets a big moment here — arguably the episode’s best. As “The Beginning” opens, she’s moody and surly, moping around the house without interacting. On the way to Randall’s debate opposite Brown — more on that shortly — Rebecca tries getting her to open up, admitting that Kate told her about her conversation with Tess. But Tess lashes out in response, saying she doesn’t want to talk about it. Rebecca respects her wishes but connects to her later. “I have this theory that I used to keep all of my emotions so bottled-up that it started to affect my body — I lost a child, and I buried that real deep,” she says. “Eventually, I started to ache all the way into my bones, and I don’t want that for you.” She tells Tess to talk to her parents when she feels ready.
And so Tess does — joining her parents late at night in the kitchen. “I think I might like girls, not boys,” she admits through heavy tears. “I didn’t want to tell you guys because I didn’t want it to become a thing.” All props to Susan Kelechi-Watson for her emotionally full acting in response. Beth says, “We love you no matter what. Look at me. You see me? Look at your dad. You see him? Do you see anything other than two people who love you more than they could love anything in the entire world?” The whole scene is lovely. It’s one of the best coming-out scenes I’ve seen on network TV, with Eris Baker so perfectly playing Tess’ fear, and then relief, and the whole pain and anxiety of her experience coming through vividly.
The rest of the episode (again, less the climax) doesn’t inspire as much excitement and isn’t worth going quite as in-depth on. First, there’s Kate and Toby — who seem at this point to be facing and overcoming an obstacle a week. (That Toby’s crippling depression fits into this template feels offensively unfortunate.) This episode it’s Kate’s job. The doctor informs her that while their baby is healthy, driving around so much to play her “Adele-a-grams” at various venues isn’t the healthiest thing for her. So she gives the gig up. But Kate explains she needs something other than the baby to focus on. Madison sets her up for an interview as a choir teacher at a local high school, but when it’s revealed Kate doesn’t have a college degree, the principal regretfully reveals he can’t hire her. Kate feels desperate to work, to have something that’s her own. But Toby comes up with a better idea — she can finish her degree at the community college before entering into the full-time job of motherhood. Kate likes the idea. And that’s about it! (Aside from, yes, the gender-reveal, which comes after some back-and-forth between them about wanting and fearing to know. Needless to say, they’re thrilled with the result.) (Recap continues on page 2)