<em>This Is Us</em> recap: A special Thanksgiving episode reaches for big themes

This Is Us again experimented with form this week in “Six Thanksgivings,” offering a collection of short-stories before tying them together — inevitably, effectively — in a big, emotional montage. Yet as with a few other episodes this week, the ingenuity of the idea somewhat outweighs the execution. Some of these “Thanksgiving” tales resonate more than others, certainly, and there’s the sense that some of them were slotted in to push plot along, while others could better standalone.

Let’s go through the Thanksgivings.

The Pearsons

The episode opens on the rather foreboding image of Rebecca, head bowed, with a tear streaming down her face. It feels like we’re in the post-Jack death timeline, but a slow reveal proves otherwise — we’re in the moment just before, the last Thanksgiving Rebecca and the kids would ever spend with the Pearson patriarch.

Miguel comes over for Thanksgiving, with his ex-wife Shelley icing him out of his own family’s gathering, but quickly finds himself overwhelmed amid the chaos and warmth of a Pearson holiday. He excuses himself and Jack finds him another room, helping him through a painful moment. This is Miguel’s first Thanksgiving since his divorce — and on his own, he feels like his kids are being turned against them. Jack gives an ever-inspiring speech about fighting for his family. “You are still their father,” Jack reminds. Miguel appears moved.

That’s the emotional crux of the tale, though secondary is a lighter story about Randall struggling to answer a question on his college application: “What person has most impacted your life?” His siblings are amused since the answer should be so obvious — the firefighter who found him, which led to his being adopted by Jack and Rebecca — but he finds it more complicated. This part of the story gets wrapped up at the episode’s end — so more on that in a minute.

Randall and Beth

After a quick reminder of what makes their relationship so dynamic (complete with a shirtless Sterling K. Brown), we’re once again stuck in a political plotline that just doesn’t have much going for it. Indeed, where the better half of this episode meditates on notions of family and Thanksgiving, this segment feels like mere catch-up on how their new arrangement is going.

As to the new arrangement: Beth is now working as Randall’s campaign field director, with Jae-Won — the young Korean-American man Randall encountered while trying to win votes a few episodes back — finding it difficult to work with her, being campaign manager. Beth and Randall leave the house, with Kate and Toby taking over Thanksgiving duties over there (we’ll get to that soon), in order to make an important campaign stop: serving Thanksgiving to the community. But it’s at a smaller event than what Jae-Won wanted, on Beth’s suggestion, and when the opportunity for a photo-op presents itself, organized by Jae-Won, Beth shoots it down, believing it’s demeaning to the community members to look like they’re getting a handout.

Jae-Won expresses his frustration and Randall snaps at him: “I don’t care if it’s a mistake; she’s my wife.” Beth overhears and is deeply hurt; he’d promised her he hired her for the job because she was qualified, not because he was doing her a favor. It’s clear this isn’t the case. She presses Randall to admit he’s been humoring her ideas far too often, and he silently concedes the point. But abruptly, Beth gets a call — they need to go home. Why? Stay tuned.

Jack

We’re back in Vietnam on Thanksgiving, with Jack and his new recruit — oh, and brother — Nicky tenuously interacting with one another. But Jack is more compelled by the woman with the necklace. In this episode, we realize it’s rooted in empathy. Her son cut his foot badly on a wire and is in need of some help. Nicky’s too moody — broken, perhaps — to notice anything or anyone but himself in this moment, but Jack tries snapping him out of it.

The squad gathers for a Thanksgiving meal, with Nicky sitting off to the side. All agree that Nicky does not appear fine. But Jack excuses himself early for a different reason, to help the mystery woman. He’s scared off by another man, but soon, Jack shows up at her door with food — and a mission to treat the boy. He enters and sees him ill, and when the bandage on his foot is unwrapped, notices how bad the cut appears.

He tries enlisting Nicky’s help — nay, orders it — but his brother, a medic in the war, steadfastly resists. And so Jack does the deed himself — works to heal the cut, guiding the boy through the pain. It’s a moving scene, one that directly informs how Jack receives the famed necklace: as a gift from the woman for helping her in a time of need. Yet this short, affecting tale leaves a more bittersweet feeling. After all, there’s still the matter of Nicky, and for the first time he really opens up about what he’s experienced in Vietnam thus far. He tells a harrowing story of what happened to his first training officer, “Bones,” after describing how he looked out for Nicky. “You can be nice all you want, Jack. But they’re not just women and children.”

Recap continues on Page 2

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