Warning: this post contains spoilers for Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us, “Number One.”
If you’ve had a hard time feeling sorry for the character that is Kevin Pearson on This Is Us (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., CTV), you’re not alone. While I do love the character and the actor who plays him (oh hi there, Justin Hartley), we’re often asked to feel bad for a dude that, on the surface, really does have it all: looks, talent, money and the girl. Oh, and a supportive family that loves him.
When you willingly throw that all away, it can be hard to sympathize.
That’s why Tuesday night’s episode, “Number One,” was probably the most important episode of This Is Us to date. Because, on a series where we often kind of brush a Kevin storyline aside, this week was all about the oldest Pearson child, and to be honest it broke my heart in a new and unexpected way. And it probably broke yours too.
Heck, even Mandy Moore broke down when she screened the episode.
But let’s backtrack a bit, shall we?
Anyone who has been following Kevin’s storyline for the past few weeks knew that a meltdown was imminent. Between the pressure of doing the Ron Howard film, the knee injury, Kate’s pregnancy and Kev’s newfound Vicodin addiction, Kevin has been falling deeper and deeper into that proverbial hole, while pushing anyone and everyone trying to help him aside. So it was probably a good thing that his former high school wanted to honour him with an award, because it finally gave the guy an excuse to leave his musty hotel room and reenter the public sphere. Otherwise, the tale of Kevin could have very well ended with him dying alone from an accidental overdose in that gorgeous suite.
Now how’s that for a clichéd actor storyline?
At any rate, the episode departed from all the others we’ve seen so far, by focusing exclusively on Kevin’s journey back to Pittsburgh, while coupling it with Kevin’s flashback story of him as a teen trying to get a scholarship. It was pretty genius to pair his homecoming award with his glorious high school days, where he could have very well peaked as the most popular boy, football QB and all-around nice guy. But as we all know by now, that was just the beginning of this Manny’s story.
Being the Golden Child sure sounds great, but as Hartley’s performance proved, that “Number One” moniker only added to the incredible pressure he’s faced from day one. His problems have always been the lowest on the Pearson family totem pole, from the time he was a kid at the swimming pool, nearly drowning while his parents were occupied with the others, to the present day when a devastating knee-injury brought back all of those repressed feelings from when he suffered a “catastrophic” injury that ended his dreams of pro-football. By the end of the episode, when Kevin was at his lowest and finally ready to reach out for help, it was only to realize that his sister had lost the baby, and that someone else’s needs were once again going to come before his own.
All of that was beautifully captured in the football field scene in which Kevin “replayed” his greatest life stumbles: His injury. Jack’s sudden death. Cheating on Sophie and then ruining his second chance with her. Quitting The Manny and reinjuring his knee on the Ron Howard film, launching this Vicodin addiction. The entire sequence wasn’t just tear-inducing; it reinforced the old statement that you really do have to walk a mile in someone else’s (cleated) shoes to understand their perspective.
Of course there were other small heartbreaking moments along the way that further ensconced Kevin in our hearts. When he lost the Buddhist symbol of purpose his father gifted him and Charlotte, the plastic surgeon refused to give it back, for example. Or when he tried to tell these unassuming high school students he wasn’t a hero, but they heralded him anyway. And then there was that moment he witnessed his dad—six months sober—calling his sponsor and then getting to his knees to pray when all he really wanted was a drink. Now that’s the fall of a hero for a teenaged boy if we ever saw one, and something that no boy should ever have to see his father go through. No wonder teenaged Kevin was so angst-filled; it’s a hard lesson in life when you realize your parents aren’t heroes, but that they’re regular old people like everyone else.
When you see everything Kevin has been through in life stacked up like that, suddenly his pill addiction no longer seems like a clichéd storyline. Instead, it becomes a deeper part of the character’s makeup, and you can’t help but root for him to make it through to the other side, while finally addressing all of these unresolved issues he has about his father.
Unfortunately, we know that’s going to take a while. This episode marked the first of three special installments taking us to the end of this half of the season. Next week we’ll dig a little deeper into “Number Two” with Kate, and then the following week we’ve got “Number Three” on tap with a deep Randall dive. If this week is any indication, we’ll all need giant boxes of Kleenex to be sure. But on a whole other level, it’s safe to say that This Is Us is upping the ante for when it returns for the second half of the season in the New Year, proving there’s just nothing else like this on TV.