Season 6, Episode 11, “Saturday in the Park”

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photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

We should have known the Big Green Egg was just a red herring. The only This is us likes more than a joke about the future, is a twist in the present. While viewers went into tonight’s episode assuming we were going to see cute little Jack somehow burn himself on his dad’s new smoker, the story behind his forehead scar is a little different. In a chaotic moment during Rebecca and Miguel’s anniversary party, Jack sneaks out of the house, makes his way to the park, falls, and bangs his head badly, requiring multiple stitches.

It’s two terrifying parental rites of passage all wrapped up in one: the first time your child is lost and if your child has a serious medical emergency for the first time. And while this experience may bring some parents closer together, here’s a game changer for Kate and Toby. All the resentment simmering just below the surface spills out in a turf fight that rivals Kevin and Randall’s big blowout from season four. (Is Toby and Kate’s front yard cursed or something?) And the beginning of the end of Toby and Kate’s marriage really seems to be here.

When you break it down, “Saturday In The Park” is ultimately a fairly simple episode, anchored around that tense afternoon in the present, and a runner about Jack and Rebecca’s silly 1986 anniversary. But that simplicity is an advantage, because they allow the show to focus on the real-time terror that ensues when a toddler goes missing. While I usually commend the flashbacks for having an understated realism that today’s storylines lack, here it’s actually the opposite. Screenwriter KJ Steinberg has a genuine ear for the realistically mundane snipers and passive-aggressive barbs of a chaotic day shared by two troubled people.

What’s great about Kate and Toby’s arc this season is that it allows the show to recontextualize its own story in a new light. I have complained in the past This is us repeating themselves with Kate and Toby’s storylines; inserting random tension just to swing around and reaffirm what a great couple they are. However, it is now clear that the tension was never accidental. The struggles over Toby’s secret weight loss or Lady Kryptonite or their different approaches to Jack’s blindness weren’t aberrations – the moments of reconciliation were. What it looked like This is us inelegant Standing up for Kate and Toby as a great couple was actually the show that pointedly argued why they should never last.

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photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

In fact, you could say their relationship is like a leaky water pipe that’s been improperly patched. (Another intelligent callback to an act by last season.) And while I still think this is more of a case of two people growing apart than one person simply being a villain, it’s reassuring that the show seems to agree that Toby is more at fault here. It’s immensely gratifying to see Kate challenge his tendency to withdraw and shut people out when the going gets tough. And it’s equally gratifying to see her actively articulate her parenting philosophy when he questions her: “Dignity. Independence. Trust. Self-esteem. We have to teach him that now, Toby… So he can get it in his soul, in his cells. So he knows he’s not broken.”

Again, it’s an idea that’s been lying beneath the surface for some time, but one the show has never been so bluntly articulated before. It’s a parenting philosophy specific to Jack’s blindness. But it’s bigger than that, too. Kate is trying to instill in her kids the confidence she’s lacked for so many years – mirroring Jack and Rebecca’s positive parenting style, but also reinforcing it. She wants her children to feel strong enough to withstand anything the outside world might throw at them.

And she’s not the only Pearson to have a big revelation this week. With Randall for moral support, Kevin manages to stay out of trouble when he finds out Elijah is about to propose to Madison. Instead of making a “rash romantic decision” that will “resonate for decades,” he comes to terms with the fact that it’s time to really let Madison go, not just half-heartedly. And this final “emergency contact” conversation between Kevin and Madison strikes a really nice balance when it comes to acknowledging that they can still be important to each other, even if they’re not a couple. (This season, Kevin is basically just learning that he can be friends with women.)

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photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

In a roundabout way, it all ties to Rebecca, who will be this week’s big hero when she finds out that little Jack has gone to the park and rushes to save him. But her greater accomplishment is a bittersweet one: She’s raised children who can survive without her because they can lean on each other. She realizes that on her anniversary in 1986, when the Big Three team up against a less than cordial babysitter. And that’s exactly what she’s experiencing in the present as she watches Randall and Kevin be there for Kate as their marriage falls apart.

In a way, “Saturday In The Park” is one of the most tense episodes This is us ever delivered. Despite knowing little Jack would be fine, his solo foray into the park is terrifying to watch. And the hint of cruelty in Toby and Kate’s fights is chilling too. In the end, however, the show sticks to its sweet spot: the emotional catharsis that comes on the other side of a tough, tough day.

Crazy observations

  • I’m intrigued that Rebecca is confiding in Kevin despite not remembering Jack’s medical records. Is it because he most likely knows Jack’s information as well? Or does she think he’ll panic less than Randall or Miguel?
  • I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a toddler carry a TV episode like Jonathan Kincaid is doing in this one. Kudos to him and the whole team for making it happen.
  • Beth and Toby on how upset it is that Kevin crashes at their house was a great throwback to season one. I also appreciated that Toby acknowledges that Beth sacrificed a lot when she agreed to move to Philadelphia to pursue Randall’s political dreams without ruining their marriage.
  • Have we ever seen anyone other than Jack call Kate “Katie Girl”? I was so touched when Randall did that.
  • So Nicky didn’t come to Rebecca and Miguel’s anniversary party?
  • Mandy Moore is hilarious as the drunken Rebecca, but Milo Ventimiglia is just as great as the straight man who lets her jokes land.

https://www.avclub.com/an-intense-this-is-us-sends-a-family-into-crisis-1848747263 Season 6, Episode 11, “Saturday in the Park”

Andrew Schnitker

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