[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the “This Is Us” Season 4 finale, Episode 18, “Strangers: Part Two.”]
When Season 4 started, “This Is Us” made a promise. By dedicating its first hour to three new characters — Marine-returned-home Cassidy Sharp (Jennifer Morrison), teen father Malik Hodges (Asante Blackk), and a mysterious blind musician named Jack (Blake Stadnik) — Dan Fogelman’s NBC drama committed to making those characters matter by the end of the year.
Most of their arcs were evident before credits rolled on Episode 1. Cassidy was in the veterans group Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne) attacked, which, of course, led her to Kevin (Justin Hartley); Malik fell for Deja (Lyric Ross), which obviously tied him to Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson); and Jack turned out to be Jack Damon, the grown son of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullian). (Points to anyone who remembered Toby’s last name is Damon, by the way.)
So by the time “Strangers: Part Two,” the sequel to the premiere episode “Strangers,” rolls in, there’s not much left to be said about the former newbies. They’ve played their part to fill out another 18-episode season (a gargantuan sum, even if it remains the broadcast standard), and a verdict has been handed down by the fans. Were these strangers worth studying? Did they earn the screen time that would’ve otherwise gone to our core group of six (or seven, if you count Toby, which you should not)? When Rebecca (Mandy Moore) started all this by waxing philosophic about how we don’t already know so many people who will be instrumental to our lives, was the show’s ensuing experiment and ultimate answer satisfying?
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It wasn’t up to the finale to answer these questions, though it did accidentally crystalize how the success of Season 4 blended with the series’ ongoing shortcomings. Be it the O.G. Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) or the throupled-up Jack (that’s what happened in the final hospital scene, right? Jack, Haley, and Lucy are raising their baby together?), no matter what new stranger steals the spotlight for an hour or two, no matter where the story shifts, and no matter what random guest star shows up, there’s only one character on “This Is Us” who remains reliably compelling year after year.
OK, technically there are two characters, because every arc Beth carries has been so-very-strong, too. (More from her dance studio! More from her mom, Phylicia Rashad!) But the end of Season 4 serves to remind viewers what we’ve always known: The Randall Show works great, while the rest of “This Is Us” is just kind of there.
The narrative shift toward Randall over the season’s latter half made this as clear as ever. After a break-in at his house sends Randall’s anxiety into overdrive, he goes through a difficult, indefinable, no-easy-way-out emotional struggle. He obsesses over home security, has a breakdown, and starts going to therapy. The decision to go was difficult for him, as it is for many of us, and Episode 15, “Clouds,” dealt with that hesitancy, embarrassment, and fear head-on. With the help of Dr. Leigh (a season-best guest star in Pamela Adlon), Randall starts to wade through the source of his anxiety, which sends the series diving once again into his father’s death before brushing that aside in favor of Randall’s complicated relationship with his mother.
Some of these choices, like Randall and Rebecca’s issues, are transparent. We know that’s the root cause of his problems, or at least the root cause the show will choose, because Randall’s arc has to connect with Rebecca’s pre-Alzheimer’s plot line. Moore, for her part, has been rock solid, even in that slightly too graceful old age makeup, but Rebecca is merely going through the motions. She forgets things when she needs to forget things, in order for her family to worry about her. She’s a lightning rod for her family’s brewing conflict, and that’s exactly where we end up in the finale.
Randall wants his mom to move to St. Louis for nine months and receive experimental treatment for advanced Alzheimer’s issues. Kevin wants his mom to make the decision on her own, while hoping she’ll choose to spend more time with him, Kate, and the rest of her family, as opposed to moving to the middle of the country with only Miguel. (For more on how instrumental Randall is the show’s success, just look at how much travel he does on a city councilman’s budget: upstate New York for the cabin trip, Manhattan for Kevin’s premiere, back to Philadelphia for work/therapy, and then Los Angeles for his nephew’s birthday.)
When Randall emotionally blackmails Rebecca into going to St. Louis, he and Kevin are destined to throw down… but their fight doesn’t really matter. Yes, they both go above and beyond with their hateful insults, with Randall claiming that their dad died ashamed of Kevin and with Kevin claiming Randall was the worst thing to ever happen to him. We knew this was coming, and, per usual, the actors delivered. (Brown builds conviction from his stance, holds it in his gut, and then drops it like an anvil on his target, while Hartley is getting damn good at alternating between the peeved pretty boy and his hangdog alter ego.)
But Kevin and Randall will be fine. “This Is Us” didn’t even wait to confirm as much, showing both brothers gathered at Rebecca’s bedside in the future, Kevin’s warm hand on Randall’s shoulder. We also know who’s right: Kevin. In case the phrase “emotional blackmail” didn’t tip you off, Beth’s admonishment of her husband’s tactics tell the audience all they need to know. So what really matters about their fight isn’t what’s said or even the aftermath; Kevin has bigger things to worry about, as the writers saddle him with not only an unplanned pregnancy (twins run in the family!), but also a love… square? (Between Kevin, his ex-wife Sophie, his ex-not-girlfriend Cassidy, and his new baby mama Madison, there are too many participants for it to be a love triangle).
What matters is how Randall reacts; how he learns he’s wrong; how the stubborn-yet-fragile father and brother gets past his god complex without losing himself — and his family. Randall is terrified of not doing enough for his parents, of not being able to save them, and that’s not an easy emotion to reign back in. Instinctually, it feels like the right thing to do. Who doesn’t want to take care of their parents? Who doesn’t want to be the best son? Who wouldn’t want to be the best son to his adopted parents?
Jesus, I’m tearing up just writing that. But there are no tears coming from the finale’s other cliffhangers. Kevin is gonna be Kevin, meaning he will undoubtedly be drawn to other women while trying to commit to one; Toby and Kate are adopting because their marriage is fine, don’t worry, it’s totally, totally fine; Miguel and Rebecca are looking for tourist attractions in St. Louis, so I’m calling my shot right now: There will be one Season 5 scene set inside Pappy’s Smokehouse (even though Bogart’s is better). As for the new characters, I wouldn’t worry. They’re just there to prop up the larger story, popping in and out of the Pearson family saga as needed.
The Season 4 finale marked the 72nd episode of “This Is Us” in less than four years. That’s an incredible amount of content to produce, of drama to create, of plots to juggle. Even bouncing between three timelines — the past with Jack and the Big Three, the present, and the future — the core cast might not be enough to sustain believable, ongoing crises. The writers have already tried a lot of different tactics to try to make each arc as engaging as Randall’s, often by shifting a ton of turmoil onto a single person (as they did with Kevin in the finale).
But even though expansion makes sense, it’s still largely extraneous. The audience investment in anyone vs. the Pearsons will never even out. While Asante Blackk and Lyric Ross are tremendous young talents, and “Eighth Grade” dad Josh Hamilton is a welcome addition to literally anything, the former strangers (Malik, Cassidy, Jack) and new strangers (Haley, Dr. Mason, little baby Hope) aren’t why we’re still watching “This Is Us.” They may not be strangers anymore, but they’re also not family.
“This Is Us” is available to stream in its entirety on Hulu.
[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this review stated Beth teaches at a music school, when she really opened a dance studio. IndieWire regrets this error, and nothing said in the comments can make the author feel worse than he already does. This site has nothing but love for Beth Pearson.]