You’ve gotta hand it to This Is Us: The show plays with time — and the audience’s perception of it — over and over, and we continue to fall for it!
Perhaps I should just speak for myself: I had zero idea that the bare-bottomed young blind man we meet in Tuesday’s Season 4 premiere was actually Kate and Toby’s grown-up son, Jack. And when I realized Dan Fogelman & Co. had fooled me AGAIN, I felt dumb. In a good way! But still, dumb! (If you knew from the get-go that one storyline in Tuesday’s Season 4 premiere was set in the future, I want you to hit the comments section below and let us know exactly how and when you figured that out. )
There’s a lot more to the episode, though, so let’s review the highlights of “Strangers.”
END OF THE ROAD(TRIP) | Let’s start where the episode does: in the past. Jack and Rebecca’s road trip ends in front of her house, where they are so smitten with each other that she can barely tear herself away to get out of the car. “So, great third date,” she says, marveling about how “a complete stranger can become such a big part of your story.” (Side note: This exchange is intercut with glimpses of other new characters we’ll meet later in the hour. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll fill you in on them when we get to them.)
Rebecca continues that Jack isn’t really her type. “It’s usually the bad-boy musicians I like when it comes to life-changing strangers,” she says, adding that she’s going to play it cool when it comes to their relationship. He says the same — they’re teasing each other — and when they kiss goodbye, it is HOT.
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The next thing we know, Jack is calling Rebecca at home and owning it: “I called you first.” He wants to see her the next day and she instantly agrees, but then remembers that she’s promised her parents she’ll have dinner with them and some of their friends at the country club. She invites Jack and he quickly accepts, not even letting on a little how much he’s freaking about not having the jacket required for the main dining room. Or, for that matter, a job to pay for new clothes.
At a men’s clothing store, I secretly hope Jack is eyeing the plaid pants on a mannequin in the window. But alas, he just wants a suit — and his salesman is Miguel! Miguel suggests a navy sports coat instead, but Jack tells him he’s just back from Vietnam, unemployed and unable to afford the snazzy new threads. Miguel responds that his draft number didn’t get called, then kindly instructs Jack to borrow the coat, tuck the tag into the sleeve while wearing it, and return it afterward.
AFTER-DINNER INDIGESTION | Jack arrives at dinner and leans in to kiss Rebecca, who greets him in the lobby. She pulls back, not because she doesn’t want some sweet Pearson lovin’, but because her WASPy parents are watching from the table. She informs Jack that her mom is a pill but her dad (hi, Hart of Dixie‘s Tim Matheson!) is alright, and that she’s asked everyone not to mention Vietnam… so of course, that’s the first thing her dad talks about when everyone is seated.
The meal doesn’t progress well for Jack, who bristles when one of Rebecca’s parents’ friends refers to Vietnam as “not even a real war.” Then Rebecca’s mom asks some prying questions about what Jack’s parents do for a living. And THEN Jack spills cocktail sauce on the lapel of his not-actually-his coat and needs a minute in the men’s room to rinse it out and remind himself to breathe. But when he comes back to the group, he knows exactly what he wants to say.
“Mostly what my folks do is fight,” he says calmly. “He hits, she cries. That’s what they do.” (Side note: I love how Rebecca’s WASPy folks are completely gobsmacked by the presence of unfettered truth-telling at the dinner table.) He goes on to tell a story about how as a child, Nicky was afraid of a monster that lived in his closet, and how Jack would sit on the floor and tell it stories until Nicky was sure the monster had fallen asleep. The monster wasn’t real, of course, but “My brother’s experience was real,” Jack says, looking pointedly at Jack’s parents and their friends. “I lost my brother in Vietnam. People died, people that I loved. So, all due respect, it may not seem like a real war back here. But I promise you: That war was very real to those of us who were there.”
Then he makes it clear to them that they’ll get to know him better, because “I’m not going anywhere.” Rebecca is beaming and Jack seems a little relaxed after having spoken his mind; as he takes a drink, Rebecca’s dad subtly indicates that the salestag is falling out of his sleeve, and Jack fixes it without anyone else noticing. Aw, Mr. Malone is a good guy, right?
Eh, maybe not. After dinner, Rebecca’s dad gets Jack alone for a minute to say that he can see he’s a good man, but “I can also see a man that is carrying things with him, and I can see a man that is far more haunted than he wants to let on.” What’s more, “I want more for her than you can offer. I will do everything I can to stop this,” her dad promises. “And make no mistake about this, son: I’m a lot harder to beat than an imaginary monster in a closet.” DAMN.
Rebecca doesn’t know any of this happened, though, and she’s giddy with how well the evening went. Except she apparently didn’t eat much, because she asks Jack to take her for burgers. They wind up at a bar where she used to sing, and the bartender and Jack encourage her to take the stage again during open-mic night. As she performs, Jack stands in the back, watching with hearts in his eyes (but likely her dad’s warning on his mind).
MEET CASSIDY | In the present-day, we see a blonde woman (hi, Once Upon a Time‘s Jennifer Morrison!) in her room on what seems like a military base abroad. She makes a video call home via laptop; when her husband (hi, Revenge‘s Nick Wechsler!) picks up, things are a little stilted and a lot fraught between the two of them. We learn her name is Cassidy (and we’ll later learn her last name is Sharp), and she and her husband have a son named Matty. She hasn’t checked in with them in a while, and she’s crying not long after the call begins. “Even when we’re not talking, I think about you both all the time. Every minute, every day,” she says. But then she’s called into action, and has to hang up.
Cassidy dons her fatigues, grabs her gun and helmet and joins other Marines outside; it looks like they’re stationed somewhere in the Middle East. Cassidy’s unit rides armored vehicles into a nearby town, where she and a translator try to get a female informant to hand over a photo of a known bomb-maker. It seems like the woman promised the information in exchange for an expedited United States visa, but now has gotten skittish. Her child is crying, Cassidy is being tough, dogs are barking and the unit gets warning that a group of militants is headed for their location: Suffice to say, the scene is tense. Eventually, though, the nervous woman shows Cassidy the picture and gets a promise that the village will get fresh water, and then everyone gets out of there before things get ugly.
Back at the base some time later, Cassidy learns that the bomb maker has been killed by a drone strike that also took out eight civilians and injured a bunch more. The informant and her baby are OK, though. “I promised her water for the village,” Cassidy tells another Marine. “There’s no more village, Sharp,” he answers.
ROUGH RE-ENTRY | Cassidy is discharged a while later, and comes home to a hero’s welcome. But she’s suffering. She doesn’t have a job. She’s drinking too much, driving drunk and fighting with her husband. And when a discussion over a broken hot water heater causes her to flash back to being away, she accidentally hits Matty in the face when she yanks her hand out of his grip too hard.
Eventually, she winds up at a Veterans’ Affairs office, where the intake questionnaire query about having suicidal thoughts gives her pause. She winds up in a group there, and that’s how we hear her talk about being separated from her husband and how the cost of a water heater — $1200 — is equal to the payments the U.S. government gives families who lose a member due to collateral damage. “I can’t feel anything. I can’t feel sadness. I certainly can’t feel joy,” she says. She’s still talking when all of a sudden there’s a loud crash behind her: Someone outside has thrown a chair through the window. When the ruckus calms down, we see that a belligerent and booze-swigging Nicky was the culprit.
In California, Kevin gets a call: Nicky needs bail money.
BREAKFAST OF FATE | In other People We Haven’t Met Yet news, we spend a morning with the aforementioned pants-less dude, who wakes up naked, gets dressed, makes some breakfast and then asks his dog if he wants some bacon. But when the guy goes to share, he accidentally drops the plate, breaking it to pieces. As he cleans up the mess, it becomes clear that he’s blind.
Later, he goes to a diner, where a young waitress named Lucy seats him and acquiesces when he asks her to join him for a minute. They hit it off quickly and wind up holding hands, which seems to signal to him that she is The One. He tells her he’s a struggling musician who’s wondering if he should just give it all up. Important to note: We do not learn his name until much later.
At home, inspiration hits, and the guy starts writing a song about his recent experience. In a few short scenes, we’re taken through his relationship with Lucy, from first nookie to marriage proposal to her telling him that she’s pregnant. She’s worried: She’s just opened a restaurant, and she always thought her career would be well underway before kids came into the picture. But her husband is overjoyed and promises her everything will be fine.
IN WEST PHILADELPHIA, BORN AND RAISED | Elsewhere, we meet Malik (hi, When They See Us‘ Asante Blackk!), a teen enjoying the last few days of summer before school starts. He lives with his mom (hi, When They See Us‘ Marsha Stephanie Blake!) and dad (hi, House‘s Omar Epps!) and his infant daughter, for whom he is worried about providing. They live in Philadelphia; we can tell from the Pearson campaign sticker on a car’s bumper.
One day while helping out at his dad’s auto shop, Malik approaches one of his dad’s old acquaintances about selling drugs (or doing something else illegal, it’s not entirely clear) in order to make the cash he needs to pay for preschool and such. The friend tells him no, and later, Malik’s dad lets him know that being responsible for Malik as a child made him into a better man. “Don’t even think about it, alright?” his dad says quietly, and Malik knows full well what he’s talking about. The kid quietly says yes, and then Dad (whose name is Darnell) volunteers to babysit his granddaughter so Malik can attend a friend’s barbecue that night.
While Malik is working the grill at the party, his friend Skye — aka Chichi’s daughter — comes over and introduces him to Deja. They are cute with each other, and Malik gets a little tongue-tied as he promises to “give it everything I got” as he makes her burger.
Back at home, Randall and Beth can’t believe how smiley their oldest daughter is, though she won’t say why. Then the family pauses unpacking their new place in order to celebrate Randall’s 39th birthday.
WAIT A MINUTE… | In California, Rebecca, Miguel and Kevin wait for Kate, Toby and Baby Jack to get back so they can celebrate, too. At the doctor’s office, though, little Jack’s parents are getting some bad news: He’s not responding to visual clues, which means his eyesight isn’t going to return. As they return home, we return to the flash-forward that shows Lucy and her husband walking down a long, dark hallway. (My notes, verbatim: IT’S A FLASH FORWARD WHEN WILL I LEARN?!)
Yep, Lucy’s husband is the grown-up version of Kate and Toby’s son, Jack. The hallway they’re in leads to the stage of a giant arena, which he has apparently sold out. “Ladies and gentlemen, Jack Damon!” an announcer booms as Jack takes the stage. Then he sings, the crowd loves it, and I still. can’t. believe. they. got. me. again.
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the premiere? Grade it via the poll below, then hit the comments with your thoughts!