This Is Us' Season 4 Episode 17 Review: Thanks to therapy, will Randall's decision scar the Pearson family?
Spoilers for 'This Is Us' Season 4 Episode 17 'After The Fire'
False hopes are more dangerous than fears. Randall Pearson (Sterling K Brown) is struggling with his mental woes and finally decides to go to his therapist for help. "What would my life be like if my dad hadn't died?" he wonders.
His father, Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), died in the fire but he still thinks how he could have saved him. That's not all, his biological father William Hill's (Ron Cephas Jones) death after battling cancer also deeply affects him. A beautiful culmination of all fears and feelings, Episode 17 makes you realize how trapped one can feel in their own web of an emotional battle.
Maybe, just like Randall, we are all trying to process something deep within, something broken, and the best we can do is to let out our emotions.
Flashback 1: Randall saves Jack, everything is perfect
Everyone is fine. Jack's bruises are healed and the Pearson family thanks him for not going into the house. He thanks the firefighters for being there on time and saving Louis, the dog. Rebecca (Mandy Moore) is scared that they could have died and she spills the bean about Randall's real father, William.
She tells Jack she got scared because he was an addict. Jack goes along with Randall to meet his dad. When William meets Randall, he tells him all about his birth mother and gives him a book he wrote. Later, when Jack tells Randall he would not be comfortable with his son spending time with an addict, Randall responds, "Come on dad, you're an addict too."
To address his son's accusations, both his fathers attend a therapy session. Soon, he stumbles upon a young Beth and later in life, gets married to her. She also helps him be nice to his mom and to "forgive" her. At Randall and Beth's wedding, both his dads raise a toast. Everyone lives happily ever after in this version, but that's not how life is. Real life is messy and convoluted and that's what the therapist addresses.
Flashback 2: Randall's difficult childhood with the Pearsons
Randall's therapist Dr Leigh (Pamela Adlon) says, "This time, tell me what scares you the most if your father survived that night?" In the new version, Rebecca tells Jack she met Randall's real father and hid it for 17 years. Jack is angry. Rebecca apologizes to Jack and Randall overhears their conversation.
Jack and Randall go to meet his real father but William shuns him. "That's impossible. I have never had children." Jack consoles Randall, "That man may not know he has a son but you know you have a father." Randall has a difficult teenage time and walks out of his home.
At his wedding, Jack raises a toast but it is not Beth he gets married to. Moreover, all the Pearson siblings are distant and just have arguments all the time. Randall looks at a box of memories from his birth father. It has a note that reads: "William Hill passed away from stomach cancer. He wanted me to make sure you got this. Best, Lloyd," his father's hat, the book he left for him and a newspaper clipping of him winning an award. He takes the box and drops it into a garbage dump.
Randall gets a call from Jack. Thanksgiving is next week, you should come home. It's been a long time. You have to forgive her at some time. He tells her how her memory is fading.
Therapy: Observations and questions
The therapist tells him that I need you to acknowledge that even if your father had lived, that every moment in your life after that could have gone a million different ways. She asks, "You're aware that you don't control the outcomes of every situation in your life?" and says, "In your fantasy, you were the one who stopped your father from going back into the house. Why are you so sure you could have stopped him?"
Randall has a difficult time admitting he couldn't have done anything. "That's what I do. I fix things," he says, and adds, "I could have spent the last 20 years knowing that I tried. I am aware that I am just a cute little pawn of the giant universe's chessboard."
Dr Leigh tells him, "It's interesting how you see this exercise as part of losing your fathers. Actually this whole exercise began because of the disagreement that you had with your brother over your mother's care. If you think about it, your life has really been defined by your mothers. The mother who gave birth to you and the mother who lied to you for 36 years."
It is Sterling K Brown's performance as a vulnerable and unsure man that hits you hard in the heart. The scene where he flinches while talking about his mother and says, "Yeah she lied to me, but I forgave her for that. And we moved on, I accepted that too," is simply the best from the season. In another scene, he taps his fingers on his knees, showing raw human emotions just the way they should be. Every gesture counts, every expression holds deep meaning and Brown makes you feel what he is feeling within.
Dr Leigh gives her observation, "Even in the worst version of your life, you still protect your mother, you still redeem her in the end," and puts out a question: "Have you ever really confronted your mother about what she did to you? About what she kept from you? " The tears in Brown's eyes are simply breathtaking and will make you feel a hole in your heart.
In the end, Randall's therapy helps him but he makes a decision for Rebecca. He asks her to take the clinical trial with the reason, "I don't want to be in a therapy session 20 years from now playing out scenarios about what I could have done. I have never asked anything but I am asking for this. You are going to St Louis. You are going for this clinical trial."
Rebecca sees Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) laughing in the background and still promises that she will go. Will this decision break the brothers apart for life? Will Rebecca survive? As usual, 'This Is Us' leaves the audience hanging by a thread but it will be interesting to see what unfolds in the coming episodes.
The NBC show airs every Tuesday at 10 pm ET.