TV Reviews

What "This Is Us" Got Right: The Brutality of Family

No one can traumatize you like family.

Season four of This Is Us managed to provide what few series accomplish: a satisfying finale.

Show creator Dan Fogelman has built a great American mythology surrounding the Pearsons, using a formula of unexpected time jumps and parallel storylines that's kept the series fortunately more creative than its title. Somehow, the show avoids (for the most part) the melodramatic pitfalls of many family dramas. With a team of 10 writers (at least three of which are of color), This Is Us has tried to have "a bigger voice in [race-related] stories" by exploring Randall's (Sterling K. Brown) adoption as a black man into a white family, as well as body image and eating issues through Kate's (Chrissy Metz) struggles, and addiction issues through Kevin's (Justin Hartley) alcohol and substance abuse. With a roster of such heavy themes, it's a good thing the writers are funny. Sterling K. Brown can switch from emotional monologues to self-aware apologies for quoting Oprah ("sorry, I was raised by white people"). Meanwhile, Mandy Moore has proven that she is an ageless creature from another realm, as she's delivered immersive performances while age-sliding from a young twenty-something year old to a seventy-something-year-old.

And so, the most impressive part of the season four finale, by far, was watching two of these beloved characters absolutely decimate each other in a family fight that make this video of baby sharks eating other in the womb seem like a fun screensaver.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The team of This Is Us writers managed to tease out several suspenseful questions throughout the season. At last, the finale's bombshell reveals included the mother of Kevin's child (confirming one popular fan theory), the fate of Toby and Kate's family, and, of course, the reason why Randall and Kevin stop speaking by their 40th birthday (although, one under-appreciated detail is the fact that Uncle Nicki, the detached loner and Vietnam vet with PTSD, ends up married, judging by the wedding ring on his finger in a scene that jumps to the future–Congrats, Uncle Nicki!).

Kevin confronts Randall about emotionally manipulating their mother into changing her mind about entering a clinical trial for Alzheimer's instead of spending her remaining time with family. Their fight–which takes place on the front lawn, where all the best family fights take place–spirals into attacks about their family's deepest traumas and unspoken issues. From Randall's interracial adoption after the death of the Pearsons' third biological triplet to Kevin trying so desperately (sometimes eerily) to follow in his father's footsteps as a real-life prince charming, the most glaring flaws in these two characters are weaponized against each other.


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Kevin releases years of suppressed anger at his brother for not saving their father from the house fire that took his life when they were teenagers. He yells, "If I had been there, I would have walked through literal fire, and I would've pulled that man out!"

To which, Randall (using Sterling K. Brown's eyebrow-raise of absolute DEATH), says coolly: "Well, Kev, I guess we'll never know, because you weren't there. And he died ashamed of you."

But because everyone knows that an effective attack on someone's personal traumas and demeaning their yearning for purpose never involves pauses long enough for the target to pick their dignity off the floor, Randall continues: "I think that's the part that really gets you, isn't it? The shame that he felt for you and the pride that he felt for me. I mean you're not even chasing dad's shadow, Kevin, you're chasing mine."

Then Kevin parries the perfect response, short and brutal, to cut Randall to the quick: "I used to think the worst day of my life was when dad died... But hand to god, Randall, the worst day of my life was when they brought you home."

Everyone knows that the most brutal verbal attacks are delivered with a pitying, sotto voice, right? Well, if you didn't know before, Kevin Pearson sure showed you.

For an NBC family show, the brutality was refreshing. What captures the typical American family better than Randall and Kevin spitting verbal fire at each other, as forty years of tension culminate in the two brothers speaking SATAN'S WORDS to each other–cutting each other's soul in the way only close family members have the power to do? This Is Us gains an audience by playing with the traditional formula of a family soap opera: soft, emotive declarations of love and unity; quirky characters who always pull together in times of strife; the will-they-or-won't-they as beloved characters fall in love with soon-to-be series regulars.

But it's 2020. The American Dream is dead. Capitalism rules the world (and our government leaders). And the only fairy tale love stories we can believe in are self-aware ones that can address issues of racism and substance abuse. The world is brutal; our art should be, too.

On the bright side? The cast still loves each other:

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