Nobody started this season of This Is Us with more promise than Kevin Pearson: He’d just won back his ex-wife and caught the biggest break of his career. But as season 2 has moved forward, no one has fallen quite so hard. Kevin’s gone from the cusp of movie stardom to complete and utter disaster, blowing up relationships left and right and struggling mightily with addiction. The show has been unsparing in its depiction of his descent — and at times, it’s been downright unpleasant to watch.
The challenge of “Number One” is bringing Kevin down to rock bottom without melodramatizing his pain. The episode is the first of a trilogy centered on the Pearson siblings — each episode will take place on the same day in the present and the same in the past, focusing on one member of the Big Three at a time. We begin with Kevin, the firstborn, and open on Rebecca and Jack filming him as a toddler — the first of the triplets to walk. Unfortunately, that adorable stumble is the steadiest Kevin will be in the episode, from toddlerhood to adulthood.
The episode juxtaposes Kevin’s ongoing downward spiral in the present with the agonizing buildup to his high school football knee injury that forever altered the course of his life. While in L.A., adult Kevin is a complete mess: He’s had a “Do Not Disturb” sign outside his room for a full week, keeping himself prisoner in his elegant suite. A housekeeping employee named Martina finally gets past the sign and offers to clean Kevin’s sheets or get him new towels, but all he wants is “a refill on all things alcohol related.”
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Kevin then gets a call from the “homecoming coordinator” of McKinley High: He’s set to be honored as part of his high school’s alumni honors ceremony, and it’s tomorrow. The date snuck up on him, but he agrees to get on a plane and head out to Pittsburgh. “You guys want to honor Kevin Pearson?” he asks, trying to sound upbeat. “Let’s honor him.”
Meanwhile, teenage Kevin is anxiously awaiting the arrival of a coach from the University of Pittsburgh. Kate is moodily listening to music, Randall filling out a Harvard application — details that will no doubt be fleshed out in their respective episodes — but Kevin is the focus, with Jack and Rebecca pulling out all the stops for this potentially life-changing evening. Kevin is in a strange mood: He arrives in the kitchen in Sophie’s crop top, at which point he’s promptly told to put on “a collared shirt and a nice pair of pants” by his mother, and he asks that they get “Dad’s AA stuff” out of sight. (Rebecca says Jack has been going to meetings for six months.) When the coach shows up, Kevin is shockingly rude. The coach gushes, “You will be taking a lot of snaps next year,” to which Kevin responds nastily, “Well, am I gonna start?”
Rebecca and Jack apologize for his rudeness, but it’s no use: Kevin keeps pushing, and the night ends on a sour note. “Get out of my sight,” Jack snaps at Kevin when the coach leaves. “That man — he takes time out of his day, he comes to our home, he sits at our table,” he says, revealing the coach offered Kevin (“a C+ student”) a full ride. Kevin maintains his arrogance, however, and insists, “We can do better.” He boasts, “It’s not luck, it’s talent.” Jack tells him to go to the basement and write an apology letter. When Jack tells his son, “It was embarrassing to watch you behave just like you did,” Kevin gets in a harsh dig in response to his recovering alcoholic father: “I know the feeling well.”
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It’s a sharp contrast to where Kevin is as an adult. In the present day, he flies out to Pittsburgh, where fans snap selfies with him. On the ride to the high school, he asks the driver to take a detour to his childhood home: It’s newly restored and pristine — idyllic. He momentarily flashes back to the sight of it burned down and torched, which we saw back in the season premiere, then flashes back again to playing football with his family in the yard. But he’s jolted back to reality when the home’s new resident emerges and looks at him, skeptically, asking why he’s there. Kevin leaves and goes to his high school.
Outside of McKinley High, Kevin downs more pills. He watches the students outside of the building, joking and laughing in that carefree way — in his drugged-out haze, he thinks one teenage girl is the Sophie of his high school years. She comes closer and it’s the homecoming coordinator again, telling him he’s got a green room with “LaCroix water and WiFi.” (The Manny treatment.) Kevin, completely out of it, instead muses that he’s going to walk the halls. He enters the building, drifting through the homecoming decorations in a slo-mo sequence like he’s in a dream, and flashes back to his teenage years: strutting down the hallways in his football varsity jacket, scoring fist bumps and kudos, Sophie rushing toward him in her cheerleading uniform. He was on top of the world. Not like where he is now. He can only stare at the display case of his former life — his “Number One” football jersey, which the school has retired, and a commemorative photo of him on the field.
Mingling gets underway in advance of the ceremony, and Kevin — after suffering through the many handshakes and waves with excited fans — runs into an old classmate: Charlotte Everly, who’s also being honored as a distinguished alum. She’s a plastic surgeon who works with burn victims and helps kids in need. (He remembers her so little he botches her last name, pronouncing it “Eberly.”) Kevin’s not interested in speaking with her, but she offers him her “terrible” wine, which he drinks happily, and tells him she had a huge crush on him even though he barely spoke to her. She then mentions the news of his and Sophie’s divorce. “But then we managed to get back together!” he exclaims…before adding, “And then I screwed that up too.” Kevin’s also getting calls from Kate and Toby while at the school but is too distracted to answer them. (Recap continues on page 2)
Kevin’s tasked with giving a speech, but first, he has the cruel honor of being introduced by his former football coach, Duffy “The Duff” Collins. His old coach’s words are so kind, so warm, that you can feel them going right through Kevin’s heart. Kevin is trying to repress feelings about his past and his dad, and hearing about it in this way stings. “In my career I never saw a kid with so much natural talent, confidence, charisma,” Collins says to a rapt crowd. “But he caught some tough breaks, suffered some losses, and that’s when he really showed himself to be a star. He fought through the adversity and the heartache.” Suddenly, Kevin sees his father in the coach’s place. He hears Jack praising him, encouraging him, saying he’s “tough as hell,” calling him “a living, breathing example of outer and inner strength.” It’s a harrowing mix of Kevin losing track of reality as he gets deeper into his stupor, and of his subconscious — his deepest pain — bubbling to the surface. Kevin hugs the coach after the speech is done, and hugs him tightly, like he wishes he could with his dad.
When he finally gets to the microphone, Kevin’s in no condition to provide inspirational commentary. After the rousing audience introduction, he mutters, “Thank you,” and says that Collins was “wrong.” “I’m not strong at all,” he tries explaining, before the crowd chants, “We love you, Kevin!” He tries his damnedest to give a grim speech that reflects his anguish. “Don’t do that, don’t love me,” he says, trying to put the attention on the other honorees and going so far as to say he doesn’t deserve the award. It’s hardly the best speech you’ll hear. Adding to his turmoil, the audience doesn’t really care — they’re so in awe of his celebrity presence that they still enthusiastically cheer at its conclusion, patting him on the back for a job well done.
That reverence is something Kevin has experienced all his life. As a high school student, it was as a popular football player. Back in time at the Pearson home, Jack apologizes to Kevin for yelling at him, and Kevin eavesdrops on Jack’s call with his sponsor, on the verge of tears as he watches his father pray, trying like hell to do right by his family and not succumb to temptation.
The next day, Randall and Jack are headed off to a college tour in D.C. Randall apologizes for not being there at Kevin’s big football game. Kevin responds, smarmy, “I’ve got enough fans in the stands cheering me on.” It’s interwoven with people in the present-day commending Kevin’s “amazing” speech. Charlotte spots him drinking yet another cup of bad wine and takes him outside for a walk. They chat for a bit, Kevin noting he was branded “first” at birth — as the firstborn, first to walk, first to kiss a girl — before he wanders away, shaking and shivering, onto the football field. Alone.
What we get next is a stirring sequence of Kevin narrating his many traumas and improbable comebacks like a sportscaster. He sees himself playing as a teenager, basking in the roar of the crowd, laying out what his future was supposed to be: “Notre Dame, first-round draft pick…Super Bowl champion.” He imagines his dad saying, “That’s my son,” proudly. But then he recounts what actually happened, reliving the moment when he was injured on the field. “His knee is wrecked — he’s not getting back from this one, folks,” he narrates. He talks about how he blows every chance he gets: jetting off to Hollywood with Sophie, only to cheat on her; taking The Manny to “punish her”; getting the Ron Howard movie only to injure himself once again. “Even when he tries to tell people how pathetic he is, they don’t hear it,” he says in the third person. “They just cheer.”
He’s then approached on the field by the homecoming coordinator, who asks if he wants to party. Next thing we know, he’s in bed, naked, next to Charlotte, at her house. “That was like 20 years of fantasy energy going pow pow pow pow,” she says. She tells him he was nice to her when they were students together and says he was “a good guy.” Kevin tears up before racing, sweaty, to the bathroom and looking through her medicine cabinets. Nothing. He asks Charlotte to “whip us up a snack” to distract her while he keeps looking. Finally, he finds her prescription pad and steals it. He’s gone before she even comes out with the food.
While waiting in line at the pharmacy, though — after a brief moment of paranoia when cops enter — Kevin suddenly runs out. Is it a wake-up call? Clarity of conscience? Not exactly. Instead, we flashback to the aftermath of his injury, as he gets an MRI and Jack and Randall reunite with Rebecca and Kate in the hospital. Jack visits Kevin at his hospital bed and informs him his football career is effectively over. Kevin apologizes for his behavior: “I’ve been awful to you, and I can do better.” Jack wants to lift his son up after such a crushing blow, so he gives him his necklace — the “Buddhist symbol of purpose” he was given when he was in Vietnam, at a time when he was “feeling very lost.” In a monologue that likely had even the driest eyes tearing up, he then tells Kevin about the day the boy was born (first), and how, the moment his son emerged, Jack knew his purpose in life. “I swear to you, son,” Jack continues: “You will find yours.”
That moment is key to understanding why Kevin, in the present, runs out of the pharmacy. He’s lost his necklace. He returns to Charlotte’s, banging on her door and begging for her to let him look for it. Upstairs, she opens a window and yells to him from above, aghast he’d come back after the way he left without so much as a goodbye. On her lawn, he breaks down: “That necklace — it’s the only thing I have in my life left of my dad.” He sobs for her to understand, but she says she doesn’t have it and asks him to leave her alone. He then practically collapses on her lawn, repeating, “I just need somebody to help me.” It’s heavy, heavy stuff.
But if you thought we were past the most intense material, hoo boy, does This Is Us have more gut-wrenching twists up its sleeve. Kevin shows up at Randall’s, who takes him in after they apparently spoke on the phone. Kevin tells his brother that he needs to tell him something. Randall interrupts him: “It’s okay, I already know.” And what is it he knows? “Kate lost the baby.” It’s a devastating revelation to end on. The show knows exactly what it’s teasing: “Number One” ends by going back to the way it opened, to that video of the Pearson triplets as toddlers on the verge of walking. The camera pans to Kate. It’s her turn.