Change is always scary — especially if you’ve been through what the This Is Us ensemble has been through. Indeed this week’s decidedly mixed outing — which came down, rather unfortunately, to a rehashing of several old conflicts — is all about how trauma and grief has and continues to prevent our heroes from moving on.
Most successfully, “The Graduates” offers Mandy Moore her biggest showcase of the season, and she completely runs away with the episode. I’ve written in the past about how Rebecca-centric episodes tend to do well because she’s perhaps the show’s most complex character, and at least for her portion of the episode, that remains true here. “The Graduates” opens home-movie-like, on footage of Jack filming Rebecca in a RadioShack as they mull buying a new camera to capture Pearson memories. The Big Three, at this moment in time, are but babies. Jack is in his element — “RadioShack Jack,” he calls himself — helping Rebecca choose the right new camera for the family. Elegantly and harrowingly, the episode then cuts to the period following Jack’s death, with Rebecca back in the store, alone. It’s high school graduation time, and she’s at a loss. A man approaches offering help — she knew him back when the kids were in middle school — and he provides just that. But then, as she leaves, he asks her out on a casual date. The suggestion is so jarring it leaves Rebecca frozen. The very notion of moving on in that way is heartbreaking.
In this past timeline, the Pearsons remain stuck in uncertainty and grief. Kate doesn’t want to go to her graduation, furious at Kevin for his plan to follow Sophie to New York and try to become an actor; Rebecca is trying to make the best of the milestone, suppressing her sheer anguish over the fact that Jack isn’t there to share it. She also has two graduations to go to, with Randall finishing up — as valedictorian, no less — at a separate school. This fact also highlights the unique bond Kate and Kevin share, which takes center-stage in the present day.
The main event of “The Graduates” is actually adult Kate’s graduation from college. I found this development a little frustrating; several episodes ago, the show made a big, episode-capping point of Kate completing her degree, but completely glossed over her process of actually doing so, to the point where us reaching her graduation here feels too abrupt. Big gesture man that he is, Toby decides to go all-out for the occasion, throwing a sort of ceremony for Kate and the few others set to graduate from Encino Community College. Kate is initially reluctant about the gesture, but when she sees that her mother has flown across the country for it, and sees her genuine pride in her, skepticism evolves into joy.
But that can only last so long. The second Kevin shows up — very late — to the ceremony, Kate senses something is off. Correctly, I might add. Last we saw him, there was the devastating reveal that he’d started drinking again, just before making peace with Nicky. And as we check in on him here, his hotel room littered with vodka and whiskey bottles, it’s clear things have only gotten worse. He’s lying about taking meetings with Steven Soderbergh. He’s lying about going to the spa with Kate. And as much as he tries to play up the normal act, Kate recognizes he’s trying too hard — and that he’s lying when he leaves the ceremony, randomly, to take another big Hollywood meeting. (Zoe, also in town, appears blindly happy for him; it’s hard to believe she herself wasn’t suspicious of Kevin’s behavior this week.)
Kate follows him back to his hotel room, pounding on his door until he finally answers, trying to pretend like everything’s fine; she pushes past him to enter and sees the evidence all around. Kate says he has to tell Zoe; Kevin begs her not to do it. “If she finds out I was lying to her, she’s going to leave,” he says, before promising to get a sponsor and “do the whole thing right.” She finds an appointment for a meeting in Hollywood, and agrees to drive him — she’ll explain to Toby later.
What emerges here is a need for support — the realization that Kevin cannot do this alone, that he needs the sister he’s always been there for to push through another dark period. This mirrors Rebecca’s journey in “The Graduates.” Flashback takes her to Randall’s graduation where she runs out as it’s getting started, too spooked and raw to sit through it. Miguel races after her and, as she loses control — more than perhaps we’ve ever seen her do — tells her it may be worth going to a meeting herself. “I don’t want grief counseling, Miguel,” she says. I want to rewind the clock. I just want to rewind the clock.” She lets it all out and walks with him back inside. (Recap continues on Page 2)