What do you do when the co-worker you've started making out with at work suddenly shows up at your door to have dinner with your family?
Don't worry, he just knows that you're dreading it, so he looked through your job application to find your address and decided to show up uninvited. You're also a teenager, he's in his twenties, and he's also your boss. What do you do? Slam the f*cking door.
Unfortunately, it's truly not that simple when a charming individual starts pushing personal boundaries—especially if you're a young woman ages 18 to 24, especially when it's your first relationship, and especially when it's not long after your father just died (from a janky crock-pot, no less). That's what we know about Kate Pearson's teen years so far on season 4 of This Is Us. Among the most tear-jerking moments from last week's episode were Randall's realization that he's passed his anxiety on to his daughter and Uncle Nicky's bonding moment with Kevin. But then Kate and Rebecca shared an ominous moment while reminiscing on Kate's first boyfriend, Marc. After Kate discovers an old Polaroid of herself and Marc, her mother reflects solemnly, "I was trying so hard to hold it together that year after your father died, and I wanted to believe so badly that you kids were happy, I didn't see what was happening." Kate responded, "I didn't see it either."
Based on executive producers' and young Kate actress' (Hannah Zeile) thinly veiled hints and the show's typically dramatic build-up, signs point to Kate's first love turning into an abusive relationship. The twenty-something-year old has recently hired the teenager to work at the record store, and we see Kate and Marc spending most of her shift kissing in the back room. While Kate introduces Marc as her "friend from work," he ignores that to introduce himself as her boyfriend. While Marc seems charming and affable (not to mention his 90s grunge, laid back vibe), his charisma is paired with a slightly possessive hold on Kate's arm throughout his visit.
Co-showrunner Isaac Aptaker hasn't been coy about the show's exploration of this dark time in young Kate's life. He's confirmed that fans "should have a healthy amount of concern" over what occurred in Kate's first relationship. "I mean, there's something ominous looming there, the way that Rebecca and Kate are speaking about that relationship in present day," he explained. "And although he seems like a sweet guy now, it certainly seems like that did not end well for Kate." Fellow showrunner Elizabeth Berger has been more to the point, highlighting red flags in Marc's brief appearance on the show. He arrives, uninvited, at the Pearson home for a tense family dinner, passing it off as a seemingly charming gesture so Kate wouldn't have to "deal with this alone." But Berger notes that the act is particularly "telling" about his character. "That will definitely prove to be symbolic of Mark's larger personality," she revealed. "He's obviously somebody that goes for what he wants and feels entitled to show up to a place even when he's not invited."
Dan Fogelman's NBC family drama has managed to address a litany of delicate issues without exploiting trauma for higher ratings. From addiction and miscarriages to mental illness and HIV/AIDS, what's jokingly referred to as the show that makes America cry is a well-crafted tableau of a flawed family that doesn't always handle its demons well. As Aptaker notes about Kate's teen years, "I think Kate's at an incredibly sensitive, potentially vulnerable time in her life, a little bit aimless, searching for meaning and searching for a plan in the wake of her father's death." Compounded with the fact that the highest rates of partner violence occur among females ages 18 to 24, Kate's long-standing struggles with body image, self-confidence, and food could easily be influenced by an early abusive relationship.
It's also sadly reflective of society, as nearly 1 in 3 (35.6%) of women in the U.S. "have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime," according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Nearly half of all women (48.4%) have experienced "psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime." And while there are many forms of partner abuse (all varied, but all valid), whether emotional, physical, verbal, sexual, or even economic, anyone can fall into an abusive relationship if preyed upon during a vulnerable time. Furthermore, teens who experience abuse become alarmingly more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and harmful behaviors like substance abuse. After working with One Love Foundation's #ThatsNotLove campaign, 20-year-old Mattis Collier reflected, "It's not just bruises that are giveaways for an abusive relationship… It's how someone talks to you. It's how someone treats you. It's how someone talks about you to others."