Season 6, Episode 16, “Family Meeting”

Image for article titled This Is Us calls a family meeting

Photo: Ron Batzdorff / NBC

Welp, I take back everything I said about This Is Us pulling its punches when it came to depicting Rebeccca’s Alzheimer’s symptoms. “That’s not our mom, Kev,” is the only way Randall can describe it as Rebecca floats around in a confused stupor in the week following Miguel’s death. It’s quietly devastating to watch the vibrant woman we’ve come to know and love these past six seasons exist in such a different space than she has before. And “Family Meeting” is committed to depicting Rebecca’s decline both honestly and empathetically.

On the surface, this week’s headline family meeting is a battle for control as Kevin, Kate, and especially Randall put forward ideas for how to handle Rebecca’s care now that Miguel is no longer around. Really, however, this is an episode about fear. Randall and Kevin’s power struggle over logistics is a way to convince themselves they’re doing something meaningful even as they’re actually detaching themselves emotionally. It’s only Kate who can push through that fear and see that what Rebecca needs most of all is daily, loving care.

After all, that’s what Rebecca provided for her children for so many years, as this episode details by hopping around in time between the Big Three’s late high school years, their childhood, and their baby days. Rebecca wasn’t a perfect parent — no one is. (And not just because she once accidentally let Baby Kate roll off the bed.) But what she prioritized above all else was treating her kids as individuals. As the rare parent of three kids exactly the same age, Rebecca nevertheless understood that they each needed different things from her: Empowerment for tentative, self-doubting Kate; trust for responsible, anxious Randall; and boundaries for immature, self-centered Kevin.

Indeed, the central tension of the Big Three’s relationship is how wildly different they are, even as they’re bound together as a deeply codependent unit in a way few adult siblings are. “Family Meeting” is something of a spiritual sequel to the second season episode, “The Fifth Wheel,” where Rebecca and the Big Three had a big therapy session at Kevin’s rehab while Beth, Miguel, and Toby went to a bar to discuss being “The Others” to the Pearson family. This time around it’s Sophie and Phillip who join Beth in her cabin hideaway to hash out the burdens and blessings of being part of such an unusual dynamic family. And as in “The Fifth Wheel,” those scenes offer some welcome levity to counterbalance the episode’s heavier elements. (Susan Kelechi Watson’s Sterling K. Brown impression is eerily great.)

Image for article titled This Is Us calls a family meeting

Photo: Ron Batzdorff / NBC

Yet a lot has changed since the show’s second season too. And it takes insider-outsiders like Beth and Toby to help the Big Three confront their tendency to revert back to earlier coping mechanisms in times of stress; to underestimate how much their siblings are capable of in these later years of their life. Even the Big Three’s instinct to batten down the hatches to just the three of them is an unhealthy defense mechanism. And Kate eventually realized they should open up their family meeting to their entire family — spouses, uncles, and co-parents alike. (About time!)

If there’s a weakness to “Family Meeting” it’s that we kind of already know what the ultimate solution to Rebecca’s care is going to be — both because the deathbed flashfowards have implied that Kevin is living in the house alongside Rebecca and because there’s really no other reason for Madison and Elijah to be in this episode if they aren’t going to miraculously support a big move. (I guess they flew across the country for Miguel’s funeral and then just hung out at the family compound for a week?) Still, the relatively low stakes allow “Family Meeting” to emphasize the small observational touches that This Is Us does so well, particularly when it comes to parents and kids.

Image for article titled This Is Us calls a family meeting

Photo: Ron Batzdorff / NBC

For as much as this episode is rooted in the specifics of Rebecca’s Alzheimer’s experience, it also captures a broader role reversal that a lot of people go through as their parents age. The people who cared for us as children often become the people we care for as they age into infirmity. And This Is Us is uniquely suited to explore that idea in a visually poetic way as it leaps from Rebecca tying little Kevin’s shoes to Kevin tying Rebecca’s or grown-up Kate reading her mom to sleep just as Rebecca used to do for her kids with Goodnight Moon.

There’s an enjoyable kaleidoscopic feel to the way this episode emphasizes the cyclical continuities of Pearson family life. Much like last week’s episode detailed the gentle romantic caretaking that defined the second half of Miguel’s life, this episode zeroes in on the maternal instincts that defined so much of Rebecca’s. While Jack was always there with a big speech or grand gesture, Rebecca was the one quietly doing early morning feeds and nighttime routines; painting nails and playing tooth fairy; trying to instill good values ​​in her complicated teenagers.

It’s that kind of quiet caretaking that Randall and Kevin eventually come to realize is just as important as the big decisions they spend so much of this episode arguing about. Easily the most moving scene in “Family Meeting” is the one where Kate encourages her anxious brothers to truly see and love their mom as she is; to brush her hair and put lotion on her hands; to treat her as a human being to be loved, not a burden to be managed. Though Kate may not be the most natural leader of the group, she shares Rebecca’s quiet, selfless, empathetic strength. And that’s a big part of the reason Rebecca put her in charge of her care in the first place.

Image for article titled This Is Us calls a family meeting

Photo: Ron Batzdorff / NBC

Surrounded by the love and affection of the three kids she wasn’t sure she was ever really ready for, Rebecca finds just a little of her old warmth again. She may not be exactly the same Rebecca who raised Randall, Kate, and Kevin, but she’s still their mom. And it’s only once the Big Three let go of the past and embrace this new phase of life that they discover a semblance of hope and peace in Rebecca’s waning years of life. The “To Build A Home” -scored montage that ends this episode feels so much like a lead-in to a finale, that it’s anyone’s guess what This Is Us has in store for its final two episodes. But hopefully they honor the show’s characters as movingly as this one does.


Stray observations

  • Okay, so Beth says she’s been a part of the Pearson family for “over 30 years.” If she met Randall around 1998, that would put this episode in 2028 or later — so at least a few years after Kate and Philip’s wedding. That explains why Madison and Elijah’s baby is now a full-blown kid, although I remain deeply confused by Kevin’s mysteriously un-aging twins.
  • Just in case we hadn’t heard Rebecca’s Thanksgiving monologue enough this season, Kevin repeats it verbatim here too. Thanks Kev.
  • I know the show pre-filmed some footage for the finale over the years, but I’m so bummed this season decided not to feature the middle school Big Three (Lonnie Chavis, Mackenzie Hancsicsak, and Parker Bates). Maybe the creators thought they’d aged out of their roles, but I think it could’ve been cool to see them play the Big Three’s early high school years.
  • It’s really nice to see Kate and Toby’s supportive post-divorce friendship in action.
  • I still can’t believe Randall is a US Senator…
  • Rebecca calling Dr. K is a sweet callback to a formative This Is Us supporting player. Also Baby Kate is so cute !!!

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