After being gone for a month, This Is Us has returned not by easing us back into its rhythms, but instead by putting us through the wringer once again: The midseason finale foreshadowed a kind of family reckoning, and “The Fifth Wheel” provides just that.
The show jumps ahead a month in the present-day timeline, to Kevin recovering in rehab after his drunken bender and his two siblings reeling from their respective experiences of loss: Randall losing foster child Deja to her birth mother and Kate having a miscarriage. Kate and Randall are gearing up to see Kevin for the first time since he was arrested for a DUI with Tess unexpectedly tagging along in the back seat of his car.
Kate feels anxious about having not spoken to Kevin in so long, along with a twinge of guilt for not realizing how poorly Kevin was doing. (“I let Kevin get sent to rehab,” she says.) Toby also learns, thanks to a torn garbage bag, that she’s been sneaking junk food. Randall, meanwhile, is trying to stay positive and not resent his brother for the danger he put Tess in. Beth isn’t even trying: She refers to Kevin as Randall’s “jackass brother” and doesn’t mince words about not wanting to support him in rehab. “I know how you feel — I feel it too,” Randall tells her. “But when I was at my lowest, Kevin was there for me.”
The family — Randall and Beth, Kate and Toby, Rebecca and Miguel — gathers at a swanky rehab facility, and all are greeted by a very healthy-looking Kevin. Even Kevin’s smile grates on Beth, who quips, “Of course! He’s Mr. Rehab.” (In moments like this, Beth is all of us.) As he greets each of his family members warmly, there’s an undercurrent of tension, hard to place but clearly evident. He introduces them to his therapist Barbara — played by Scandal‘s Sally Langston herself, Kate Burton — who, we learn, will run the “family session.” She indicates things might get a little combative when she suggests Beth, Toby, and Miguel sit this first one out (which Beth is all too happy to hear). The “Others,” as Barbara refers to them, head over to a bar instead. (We get a few scenes of this new “Big Three” talking about what it means to be with a Pearson. It’s mostly light fare, but here’s the space to shout out Susan Kelechi Watson, whose work throughout the episode as Beth is hilariously and necessarily over it. Her sighs in the rehab facility alone merit an Emmy nomination.)
The family reunion, of sorts, is juxtaposed with the action in the earlier timeline, where Jack announces he’s taking the family on an impromptu vacation to a colleague’s cabin in the Poconos. Young Kevin has to meet the rest there a few days late, as he’s at football camp (where he won “two trophies”), and quickly feels left out by the drama occurring around him — an experience we’ve seen him go through in prior episodes. Rebecca is hyperconscious about Kate’s weight, which leads Jack to be even more defensive of his daughter than usual; Randall just got glasses, and Rebecca’s protective instincts kick in, warning Kevin not to mock him for the new look.
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Rebecca confronts Jack about Kate’s eating habits. “She’s obsessed with food,” Rebecca laments, to which Jack pushes back, saying that like his grandmother, she’s only “big boned.” Rebecca stands her ground: “No more daily trips to that ice cream place.” Jack agrees and also tries to get his daughter more involved in physical fitness — but his flag football game with Kate and Kevin turns into a contentious affair, in which Kate and Jack spar after he tells her she needs to exercise, and Kevin, again, feels left out. Rebecca and Randall are off to the side, reading, at which point Kevin misbehaves: He throws the football at Randall, calling him “four-eyes.” Things only get worse from there, as when Randall’s glasses go missing, Rebecca accuses Kevin of deliberately hiding them. “I hate you!” Kevin shouts at his mother in response. “This family sucks. You suck.”
Young Kevin’s experience helps inform where we find him now, as an adult. In the therapy session, initially, Kevin very genuinely and solemnly apologizes to his sister, brother, and mother, admitting he hit a “low point.” But Barbara pushes him to discuss the work he’s done in therapy, about where his addictions might stem from — and what that says about the family. Kate’s initially enthusiastic about the idea, naively believing the issue at hand to be Kevin’s inability to deal with his father’s death, but as we soon learn, the pain that Kevin’s carrying goes much deeper.
What follows is one of the most devastating, effective scenes This Is Us has done to date. The series is at its best when it realistically and poignantly shows how people with good intentions can still hurt, disappoint, and neglect others. The therapy scene gets at that idea beautifully. Kevin kicks things off. “My entire childhood I always felt like I came in second to you two with Mom and Dad,” he says to Kate and Randall, “like I was the fifth wheel of the family.” They all deflect: Kate is confused, Randall offended, Rebecca devastated. But Kevin keeps on. He explains that he tried to replace his sense of inadequacy with things — acting, football — and that “it was only a matter of time” before he turned to something worse. He argues that it’s because addiction runs in their family: Jack was an alcoholic, Jack’s father was an alcoholic, and Kate, Kevin argues, has a food addiction. (Recap continues on page 2)
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It’s fascinating to watch each of the other Pearsons build up their walls of self-defense — especially because the raw pain is so visible even when they try to appear strong. Rebecca tries defending her choice not to sit the kids down and consider the impact of Jack’s alcoholism by explaining that because he wasn’t able to be there for the big moments — specifically citing Kate’s impending wedding and Randall having his children — she didn’t want to taint their image of him. Barbara smartly notes Rebecca only gives examples centered on Randall and Kate — not Kevin. “It’s typical,” Kevin sighs. He presses his mother, and Randall comes to her defense, saying he’d “held his tongue” but that he doesn’t believe Kevin is an addict; he was there for Kevin’s childhood. Randall scolds, “Don’t you dare try to pull that same lame-ass wool over my eyes.” They share more insults, Randall’s profound protectiveness of his mother shining through until he leaves in a huff.
It’s an emotionally draining moment, and just when it appears that Rebecca’s about to follow him out the door, we get another gut-wrencher. Kevin demands that his mother admit that Randall was her favorite — and she refuses, crying through the intensity of the moment and hoping for things to subside. Finally, she erupts, unable to contain her true feelings as to the difference between her relationship with Kevin and her relationship with Randall. “He was easier, and he didn’t recoil when I touched him,” she says to Kevin through tears. “And he didn’t abandon me and move away after his father died.”
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Rebecca continues to emerge as one of this show’s richest characters; her flaws and challenges as a parent reveal themselves as deeply human and yet sadly consequential. In the past, Jack tells her that he took Kate to get ice cream again anyway, unable to disappoint her. Rebecca is irked by the fact that she has to look like “the bad guy.” As she puts it, while Jack is the one who announces sudden vacations, “I’m the one that Kevin says that he hates.”
She visits outside with Young Kevin at the cabin, saying she made him dinner, but he’s unforgiving. Later, in the middle of the night, Kevin wakes up afraid of a storm but notices his siblings aren’t in the room with him. He spots Randall’s glasses under the bed — meaning he didn’t hide them — and rushes to his mother to return them. But what he finds is every Pearson but him sleeping in the same bed: Randall and Kate snuggled with his parents. He goes to sleep beside them on the floor, alone.
Yet while “The Fifth Wheel” unsparingly unpacks the resentments and wounds these siblings share, it also reminds us that they remain, well, siblings — and that there’s a lot of love between them. Kate heads outside to sit with Kevin back at rehab, where he admits that she’s right about the effect their father’s death had on him, and Kate later acknowledges that her issue with food is also tied in with those memories she has of her father, eating ice cream with him in the parlor. (She also admits to Toby, when they reunite, that she’s started bad eating habits again, sparing him the task of bringing it up.) Randall eventually sits beside them, too, acknowledging that they each had a different perspective on how their childhoods went. “I think everyone sees their childhood with different lenses, different perspectives,” Randall says. “And I didn’t come here today to crap all over your perspective, Kevin.” They apologize to each other. And then they laugh like siblings do.
Things are not so easy for Kevin and his mother, however. Rebecca waits for him inside, unwilling to leave him in rehab on such bad terms. They’re finally able to communicate, at least, with Rebecca saying she didn’t think she had to worry about Kevin as a kid and Kevin admitting he didn’t have an “unhappy” childhood. You can still feel the distance between them. But Rebecca tells him they do share a unique connection. “I know we had moments — you and me, Kevin, I know we did,” she says. “I feel it in my bones.” To close out the episode, we then cut back to the past — Rebecca waking up in the middle of the night, seeing Kevin sleeping on the floor beside her bed. She gets up, lies on the floor beside him, and falls asleep with him in her arms.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays (9 p.m. ET) on NBC.