Perhaps befitting a pair of episodes heavily focused around Thanksgiving, the past two weeks of "This Is Us" have offered plenty for viewers to digest, from a quadrilogy of uncomfortable Thanksgiving meals to a big family meeting wth quite the ultimatum and a Kevin solo episode that might've finally unlocked his future. So let's dig into the Thanksgiving spectacular and the Kevin-focused hour ("Taboo" and "The Guitar Man," respectively), and talk about the ten big takeaways from this run of episodes ... just as soon as I get the dang Bread song "Guitar Man" out of my head.
1. Never attend a meal with the Pearsons. Ever.
The "This Is Us" vendetta against family meals at the kitchen table continued at a remarkable pace – because why have one terrifyingly awkward Thanksgiving meal when you can have FOUR terrifyingly awkward Thanksgiving meals!? At this rate, the show's going to remake the dinner scene from the original "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" just to put the final stake in the concept. Maybe the creators have stock in those collapsible TV tray tables?
But yes, even with four chances, "Taboo" doesn't feature a single easy-going Thanksgiving meal – starting with a young Rebecca getting an uncomfortable lesson in sexism from her mother, who serves her barely a sliver of the family's classic sugar pie (and declines it entirely herself) because good proper women watch their figure.
Somehow, though, that's the most comfortable of all the Thanksgivings. A little further in time, we also get Rebecca and her mother having a massive blow-up as she and Jack attempt to host their first engaged Thanksgiving together for her parents. Then there's Thanksgiving in the most recent past, featuring not one but two new significant others trying to blend in with the Pearsons as well as Kevin drinking away his cheating sins – and that's just a part of the drama there. And then we have the present day, where Toby and Kate are increasingly at each other's throats, Kevin's providing the world's worst soundtrack on his guitar, Kevin and Miguel are getting snippy about construction and Rebecca has a big dramatic family announcement that will surely only touch on light and fluffy topics.
At least there's one person having a good time ...
2. Beth is a godsend
Susan Kelechi Watson has routinely been the show's supporting character MVP – but she was most valuable in "Taboo" as the desperately needed comic relief amid the Thanksgiving tussles, the one person with the self-awareness and outside perspective to point that this family is BAD. AT. THIS., whether it's inviting all their new dates to Thanksgiving or announcing an Important But Definitely Not Bad News Which Means It's Definitely Bad News family chat that lingers over all of the festivities.
I've spent thousands upon thousands of words recapping this show only for Beth to perfectly sum up the Pearsons in three succinct sentences: "Lovely people. Cried a lot. Dramatic as hell Thanksgivings." If the ballet academy thing doesn't work out, she should consider television recapping – but in the meantime, she does an excellent job amusingly popping the show's occasionally overgrown bubble of melodrama. (See also: interrupting Randall's big pre-recital speech to go to the bathroom a few episodes back.)
3. Weight is weighing on minds
The typical Thanksgiving weight gain isn't just straining waistbands during the Pearsons' holiday gatherings – it's straining relationships as well, starting all the way back with young Rebecca and her mother.
Rebecca sees from a young age the way the sexist expectations for women bound her mother, avoiding eating her signature sugar pie and teaching Rebecca from a young age to do the same – something she loudly rebels against years later when she and Jack host their own Thanksgiving for her parents, snapping from her mother's picky criticisms and pointing out how her mother's toxic attitudes infected those meals. The real issue here, though, turns out to be that Rebecca's mom is moving to Connecticut, causing her to stress and strain over all of her daughter's work in the hopes of showing her that she cares and that she's present. The two eventually come together thanks to Jack, who takes the bullet for them by revealing the move to Rebecca. Briefly being the common enemy, though, is worth bringing mother and daughter together.
Rebecca's weight concerns echo into the present, though, with Kate. At the current-day Thanksgiving gathering, Toby keeps having fits about how much sugar Kate's allowing Jack to have, scraping the marshmallow off the sweet potatoes. That's the final straw for both of them, Kate getting aggravated that he's seemingly shaming their baby (and, indirectly, her) for eating while Toby's annoyed that he feels like he's not allowed a say in their child's raising – in particular about weight, something both parents have struggled with. Then Kevin decides to get involved, and well, that's not going to end well for anyone. The result is a testy fight that gets so heated and awkward (even by Pearson family meal standards) that Toby loses his Pilgrim Rick hat privileges.
Toby and Kate eventually come back together to talk out the disagreement – the latest version of the same fight, he points out, in which she's upset he's not around more, something he's particularly sensitive about considering he's gone for work and support, not play.
But for both of them, this particular fight goes deeper. Toby notes that they were both fat kids – and as a result, he wants to do whatever he can do to help their child avoid the pain, mental and social, that can bring. Kate retorts with something personal from the past we've been seeing throughout the episode: After gained weight after her dad's death, she would try to avoid eating by singing the '90s hit "Kiss Me" quietly to herself, imagining transforming into "Kate 2.0" just like the nerdy girl from "She's All That" turned beautiful. Somehow pop culture obsessive Toby doesn't get that reference, but that nitpick is besides the point. What's important is that Kate felt this terrible cycle of shame, food serving as the cruel gravitational force at the center circling arouund from dieting to bingeing and back again. She doesn't want her children to fall into the same cycle. She wants her kids to enjoy Thanksgiving, not fear it and withhold themselves from it.
This is typically the part where Toby and Kate make up and move forward – but that doesn't happen in "Taboo." Instead, Kate finishes her argment by saying that, even with wanting her kids to enjoy Thanksgiving, she is always conscious of what she's feeding Jack and his health – and she's amazed that Toby doesn't know or isn't aware of that. Perhaps in Toby's desire to overcompensate for his absense, he's working too hard to assert himself as a parent here – which is maybe what he would've said next, but that's the end of the conversation. No final hugging-it-out, no closure and no confidence that things are moving forward – instead, we end with the sense that Kate and Toby are more disconnected than ever.
All that and we haven't even busted out the trecherous Big Green Egg yet. Oh god, that's right – ANOTHER terrible meal is coming this season.
4. Houston, we have a problem (between Rebecca and Miguel)
Inviting a pair of new significant others at a high-pressure meal with a famously emotionally sensitive family: What could go wrong!? Thankfully, Rebecca and Miguel's Thanksgiving plans didn't go as disastrously poor as possible ... but they didn't go well either, especially by the end.
Last we checked, Rebecca invited her new, well-named beau Matt to Thanksgiving – which invited some snarky (and perhaps jealous) grumbles from Miguel. He apologized to Rebecca in the end ... but with the announcement that he would bring his new girlfriend Marguerite to the meal. So now EVERYONE gets to be petty, with Rebecca side-eyeing Marguerite's running "Houston we have a problem" joke and Miguel smirking at Matt's subpar sommelier skills. (Miguel answering Matt's question about the quality of his pinot noir with a "sure": devastating. For a nice guy, he can also bury a person if he so decides.) In round two, while carving up the turkey, Miguel and Rebecca carve up their respective dates. Miguel backhandedly calls Matt a perfectly boring amount of sweet while Rebecca returns the sneaky jabs by calling Marguerite "refreshingly normal," which is Rebecca-ese for "alarmingly basic."
Their secret awkwardness, however, eventually becomes everyone's awkwardness when the gathering busts out Taboo – and Rebecca and Miguel can practically read each other's minds, forgetting about everyone else in the room and just giving absurdly specific clues to one another. It's so painfully obvious how close these two; hopefully Matt and Marguerite picked up on everything and will decide they should start dating each other instead. Kevin – even half in the bag – certainly picks up the hint, giving a speech to Miguel about how he needs to back off his mom unless he wants the ghost of Jack haunting him.
Turns out Miguel's well ahead of him, though. When Rebecca and Miguel come together at the end of the night, they apologize – but more important, Miguel notes that he feels like his place here isn't necessary anymore. Now that Rebecca's on her feet and has someone new to support her, it's time for him to move on – and to move far away to Houston, the backstory behind Marguerite's favorite inside joke of the night. Spoiler alert for Marguerite, though: We all know you're going to Texas alone. (Though really, Matt does seem nice – and will be newly single as well!)
5. The secret ingredient is ...
Perfect. Throughout all of the Thanksgiving dinners in "Taboo," there is one constant that they all share. OK, two constants – first, a whole lot awkwardness. But mainly, they all share conversation about the famed secret ingredient in Rebecca's family's sugar pie – not written down but instead passed down from generation to generation.
The pie's consistently a source of strife this time of year – from Rebecca snapping at her mom about the dessert for guilting her about being a "proper" weight as a kid and nagging her about her cooking as an adult, to Kate mentally struggling with her weight with the pie at the crux of her self-loathing. At the very end, though, it's a key point of connection as Rebecca finally passes the legendary secret ingredient to Kate. So what's the special stuff? Paprika? Cinnamon? Love?! "This Is Us" gives us the perfect answer: It's none of our business. We don't see what Kate writes down, making the mother-daughter connection forged feel even more intimate – and emphasizing that the ingredient was never that important. It was what it represented: family, trust and a special unbreakable bond.
But yeah, the secret ingredient was probably love.
6. Rebecca has an announcement ...
The Pearson cabin may have smelled wonderful with turkey and sugar pie – but the air was mostly filled with tension as soon as Rebecca announced that she had to have a private chat with the Big Three and Miguel. And considering her health and considering the serious tone of her announcement, there's no way it's fun news like we're getting a bouncy house.
Indeed, it's not a bouncy house – nor is it a will and final testament, but it's dang close to the latter. At the talk, Rebecca explains that while she's OK now, the illness could begin taking ahold at any moment and they need to prepare for that. For starters, Miguel is the captain of the ship in the case that Rebecca can no longer make decisions. (Oh, by the way: Kevin, when Miguel was asking about a bonus living space for the new cabin, he wasn't looking for a crashpad for his buddies but for a place for a permanent healthcare provider to stay when the time comes. Oops, Kev! Maybe trust the construction guy a little more?) And in case Miguel is in some way incapacitated, the family member in charge of decisions ... is Kate.
I'm sure there will be much to debate and discuss with that point – especially coming from Randall, who's now seeing his siblings take major roles late in his mother's life with him on the outside. But the main takeaway from Rebecca's speech – beyond that Mandy Moore is a great actress who really does tremendous, dignified work in this scene – is that she demands that her children will live their lives no matter what happens to her. In fact, she makes them promise that they're not going to make their lives smaller as a result of her; they need to keep taking risks and following their dreams and building their own paths.
Considering that I believe the next three episodes are a patented "This Is Us" solo-episode trilogy, we'll see what "not making their lives smaller" translates to each of the Big Three – starting with Kevin, who I'm not sure needs another excuse to make irrational big swings and dramatic reaches in his life. (*nervous gulp, pulls at collar*)
7. What's wrong with Malik – and what does Randall have to do with it?
In a rare change of pace, Randall didn't have much to do over these past two weeks. "The Guitar Man" was a solo Kevin episode, and he was the least of the drama at all of the Thanksgivings in "Taboo," spending most of the hour behind his phone taking video of everything like the world's most overeager documentarian. But there's definitely hints of drama in the distance – mainly revealed on the family's car ride to the cabin.
First, he gets a call from Jae-won (remember him!?) letting him know that the senator was impressed by his recent magazine profile – which is code for "the senator recognizes you're an up-and-coming political figure and wants to start helping you." The senator will have to wait, though, because Randall's in Thanksgiving mode and disconnecting – but expect some follow-up on that surely in his solo episode. (Though honestly, considering Randall's political career has never been the show's best story arc, feel free to not, "This Is Us"!)
The more concerning drama, though, is taking place in the backseat where Deja notes that disconnecting for the day won't be a problem because Malik weirdly hasn't texted him all morning long. Cue some awkward glances between Randall and Beth, looking a little pleased but also a little concerned. Considering the conversation that Randall and Malik left on – with Randall nudging the boyfriend into cutting things off with his daughter – I have a sense they'll be feeling more of the latter than the former as time goes along and when the truth comes out about why Malik's currently in radio silence.
That's not all, though – because while Randall may have handled Rebecca's Thanksgiving announcement well, particularly the reveal that Kate is the family decision-maker as her mind fades, he talks several times throughout the episode about how he feels increasingly distant from his mom during this critical time. That's why he's pushing his daughters to put their phones away during the holiday and why he's going all Martin Scorsese during the family gathering, filming everything. He's feeling far from Rebecca with increasingly little time left to fix that sense – and I can't imagine he's thrilled about Kate taking over the family steward role that he assumed he's had over the years.
So while Randall was the calm one during all of the stormy Thanksgivings, the forecast isn't looking particularly sunny for him.
8. Kevin finally finds someone who appreciates his guitar-playing
Listen, we know all too well that Kevin could have worse habits and addictions ... but must we with the guitar? Where is Bluto from "Animal House" when you need him ...
Kate and particularly Toby have pretty much had it with the plinking and plunking – as if they need another thing to be boiling about these days – and even in his short time at Thanksgiving, his musical stylings win over no fans. However, it appears in "The Guitar Man" that he's finally found a purpose for his strumming beyond stressing out relationships: He starts teaching Cassidy's son Matty, arriving in tow when she comes to town to manage the construction on the new Pearson cabin compound. Neither of them are great – Edie prefers the jackhammering – but after bungling so much these past two weeks, it's nice to see Kevin get a win in adorable parent mode, going so far as to give the guitar to Matty to keep up his lessons.
Knowing "This Is Us," maybe this isn't just a nice little detail either. Perhaps Matty turns out to be a member of Jack Jr.'s future band. Or maybe he's been the one playing the show's tenderly plinky score this entire time! Threads are very rarely left stranded on this show ...
But that's a stretch – and nowhere near the most important development for Kevin these past two weeks because ...
9. Kevin might've finally figured it out
I was nervous how Kevin would interpret Rebecca's dramatic Thanksgiving speech. The man's been all about irrational big gestures and playing dramatic roles – both literally on screen but in his life as well – and now his mom's given him the green light to keep going with that behavior rather than figuring out what he actually wants. But as it turns out, he may have actually done that in "The Guitar Man." The man's been desperately reaching for what grand romance or role he should play, and he may finally realized that what he's supposed to do with his life: just live.
While sitting in a hospital waiting room, Kevin comes to a key realization: He's always acting like he's playing a role, trying to grab on to a purpose. We've seen that throughout the show – from trying to be what his dad wanted, to trying to be Madison's love, and even as recently as glomming on to Cassidy as his big perfect romance. He's desperately searching to be at his end goal – something we see even as a little kid this episode, as he sees the grownup kids going off the pool diving board and wanting to do the same, only to get sulky and sad when he can't swim and immediately get that achievement. In classic Kevin fashion, when he does finally get to touch the drain – that goal he wanted so bad – he's a sadly drunken college teen unsatisfied by his supposed dream, surrounded by wreckage (both literally in a closed pool and emotionally with Sophie heartbroken from his cheating).
Decades later, Kevin still wants to be the finished product and wants to know exactly who he is and what he's doing – now. Take his parenting approach, hopping on a plane with the twins and assuming he'll be fine, only to annoy literally every single human being in the atmosphere with his crying duo (and very bad humblebrag attempts to deflate the situation).
He gets the ultimate wake-up call, though, from Cassidy, who's in town with Uncle Nicky overseeing the cabin construction – and currently managing a mistake that's set them back much to Kevin's grumpy displeasure. But they have a nice enough time ... until Cassidy disappears one night, quickly revealing that she's at the hospital after running her car into a pole. The result is a lot of bruises and some broken bones, but not as bad as it could've been – but Nicky sees past the diagnosis. While Kevin's glib about the situation and how it could've been worse, Nicky reminds him that vets don't suddenly forget what they may be haunted by, that "getting better" isn't a final and finished step – something Cassidy tearfully confirms later when she talks about how she goes through happy and sad phases, with the happy ones somehow always worse because she knows eventually they'll end.
Kevin isn't sure he should stay with Cassidy, that he's the guy to be there – but Uncle Nicky gives him some critical advice: Stop thinking so hard. Stop thinking it's a role. Just ... be. And so, after annoying a fellow hospital visitor with a speech, Kevin starts just ... being, just accepting the journey rather than hunting for the finish line immediately or trying desperately to find some idea of what he's supposed to be. Instead of forcing his way through life, he starts to let life come to him.
On the plane ride back, the babies are calmer – so much so a flight attendant tells him he's good. "I'm getting there," Kevin responds – a small, seemingly slight sentiment but one that speaks to hopefully the lesson Kevin's taken to heart: He might finally be accepting the journey.
10. The origin of Big Three Homes
It took a bit, but one of the big questions from last year's big wedding day finale has basically revealed itelf: How'd Kevin's construction company Big Three Homes come about?
One did not have to be Hercule Poirot to conclude that its origin would likely involve the new Pearson cabin – and indeed that's the foundation (quite literally), though its backstory even better than that. Though he starts off sulky and persnickety by errors in the early going, Kevin is eventually impressed by the work put in by the folks Cassidy contracted for the cabin work – all vets who learned the trade by building schools and homes overseas in warzones. Between seeing the quality work and witnessing vets' need for good work – as well as somewhere positive and productive to put their minds – Kevin pitches Cassidy and Uncle Nicky on hiring more of them, not for the cabin but for more homes. He even sketched out a logo for this potential new vet-focused construction company: Big Three Homes. And lo, Kevin's present turns into his future.
One little potential grace note I like here: When the company logo was revealed in the finale, the assumption was Big Three Homes referenced the classic Pearson Big Three: Kate, Randall and Kevin. But at the end of "The Guitar Man," it seems like it's actually a nod to Kevin, Cassidy and Uncle Nicky – a new Big Three. Because as "This Is Us" has preached throughout the years, the past is always present, echoing and changing throughout time, never leaving but never staying the same either.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.