A therapy session with Dr. Leigh provides the stepping-off point for an episode-long rumination — well, ruminations, really — on what Randall’s life would’ve looked like had Jack not died in that housefire. And what these alternate takes say about how the city councilman really fells about his family speak volumes about what’s simmering underneath all those dad jokes.
Read on for the highlights of “After the Fire.”
A DIFFERENT TAKE | In his therapist’s office, Randall admits that he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about the question he posed to Kevin in New York: What would their lives have been like if their father hadn’t died? Then we launch right into Randall’s idealized version of that timeline, in which Jack and Rebecca return from the hospital together, reassuring everyone that Papa Pearson is fine. “The smoke inhalation was minimal,” they report. (Don’t worry: Louie the dog is there, too; apparently, a fireman rescued him.) “We’re all going to be fine. We’re here, together, and that’s all that matters,” Jack says, hugging his kids. “This family is the only thing that matters.”
The fire puts life into perspective for Rebecca, who decides it’s time to tell Jack about meeting Randall’s biological father all those years ago. Then the two of them approach Randall, who doesn’t care that his birth father was an addict at the time. “This whole time, you knew who he was?” he asks angrily. “You just kept it secret from me? All these years?” He announces he’s going to see William on his own, but Jack quietly says he’ll accompany him.
So the men travel to Philadelphia and knock on William’s door. “My name is Randall Pearson. I think I’m your son,” Randall announces, and they’re invited in. William is warm but twitchy, jittery and scratching at his skin; none of it escapes Jack’s attention. Randall, however, is transfixed by stories of his biological mother (“She was a warm drink, straight to your soul”) and how William looks at him when he says, “You were never not wanted.” William also gives his son the book of poetry we’ve seen before.
On the way back to Pittsburgh, Randall excitedly makes plans for another visit. A wary Jack gently warns him to temper his expectations: “He was a very nice man, but I think he might still be using,” Jack says, adding that he’s not comfortable with Randall being around someone in that state. “Dad, you’re an addict, too,” Randall swiftly retorts, and OUCH.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER | But that commonality between Jack and William turns into a bond. They attend 12-step meetings together. Randall eventually decides to attend Carnegie Mellon not because he wants to stick close to his grieving mother, but because he wants to be near his recently discovered biodad. He still meets Beth at freshman orientation and invites her home for a special dinner with his siblings, but this time, Jack is there (and Marc, thank God, is not). Things are good… except between Randall and Rebecca, whom he refuses to forgive for keeping William from him for years. In fact, his behavior is so dickish during the meal that Beth pulls him into the kitchen to set him straight: Her dad is no longer around, but Randall has two awesome ones who are still alive, so maybe he could count his blessings and cut his mom some slack? Randall immediately reverses course and softens toward Rebecca, marking of many times that Beth will metaphorically slap some sense into her husband’s good-looking head.
BEST-CASE SCENARIO | From there, the major events of Randall’s life — his wedding-rehearsal dinner (or is that an engagement party?), Tess’ birth — unfold with all three of his parents involved. And when William notes that his stomach is “a little funny” one Christmas morning, Randall makes some moves to get his dad seen by a doc immediately… which leads to his stomach cancer getting caught in its very early stages. Then we cut to this past Thanksgiving, where Rebecca’s memory problems cause Randall and Jack to share a knowing, worried glance.
Dr. Leigh stops him right there. “I suspect that you and you father are about to band together to save your mother, so I’m just trying to keep track here,” she deadpans, skewering his near-perfect scenario in which he even manages to “cure stomach cancer.” He admits that his version is rose-colored, but Leigh wants to go deeper. “We can either play games or be honest. Your choice,” she says, and that’s the moment I decide I LIKE THIS WOMAN.
So they reframe the question: “Tell me what scares you the most about what could’ve happened if your father survived that night.” And that’s when ish gets real.
ANOTHER INTERPRETATION | We rewind to the fire and Rebecca’s crisis of conscience after it — only this time, Jack is incredibly angry about her admission. “You met our son’s birth father and then you lied to me about it for 17 years,” he says with disgust. “I can’t even look at you right now. The Rebecca I know is incapable of something this cruel.” To make matters worse, Randall overhears their argument, and that’s how he learns about Rebecca and William’s meeting. He’s understandably upset, too, but Jack blocks Rebecca’s efforts to explain, sneering that he’ll take care of the boy.
So he brings Randall to Philly, where an on-edge William answers the door when Randall knocks. “That’s impossible,” he says when Randall announces that he’s William’s son. “I never had children.” Then he shuts the door in their faces. In the car on the way home, Randall cries and tells Jack he wants to leave home early to start summer classes at Howard University.
So he does. He gets involved in fraternity life on campus and returns home infrequently, though he is there for the big dinner with Kate, Kevin, Sophie, Rebecca and Jack. This time around, the notable changes are that Beth isn’t there, because they never met, and Jack is drinking a beer. Everyone is on edge and it’s very quiet, though Rebecca gamely tries to make conversation. (Silver lining: At least the Cornish game hen came out well this time!)
When Rebecca tries to draw out a taciturn Randall, Jack says, “Bec, please” in a controlling way we don’t usually hear from him. (Side note: I secretly love watching Milo Ventimiglia play Jerk Jack. Who’s with me?) Randall suddenly gets up and says he’s going back to school right then. There’s a tumult, Jack clearly blames Rebecca for their son’s issues with the family, and we’re left with Rebecca trying to hold back tears at the table.
SIBLINGS IN NAME ONLY | Things haven’t improved much by the time Jack gives his pre-wedding toast (or is it an anniversary party?)… only this time, it’s at an event for Kevin and Sophie. Randall is there with a woman I will refer to as NotBeth, and after last week’s episode, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing at his earring. He’s also got a mustache. NotBeth says he doesn’t talk about his family much, and he assures her that they’re going to leave as soon as he puts in a few minutes of face time.
This Randall is a college professor, and NotBeth is his teaching assistant. As he talks with Kevin, we learn that Kev went into construction and now works with Jack at Big Three Homes. And we know this, because their conversation is so weightless, you could apply it as a rejuvenating mask. It’s clear there’s no real relationship or warmth between the two men, and when Kate — who has two little girls (twins) with a man named Ethan, by the way — suggests going to the cabin for a Fourth of July celebration, things blow up.
Randall says he’ll think about coming, but Kevin calls him out: “You do it all the time. You think about it, and you never show up.” Then Randall retorts that he’s only there because Jack asked him to be. It’s getting ugly when Rebecca steps in to cut the argument short; Randall is curt with her, then leaves.
CHANGE OF HEART | In his office one night, Randall notices a package — it’s William’s things, which a friend has shipped to Randall after the older man died. The book of poetry is in there, along with William’s hat and some newspaper clippings that indicate he kept track of Randall after their first and last meeting. Randall picks through it all, then throws the entire collection in the trash.
Another morning, after a tryst with another NotBeth (who also happens to be his TA), Randall gets a call from Jack: He’s asking him to come home for Thanksgiving, because Rebecca’s memory is starting to go. “It’s been a long time,” Jack says. “You’re going to have to forgive her at some point.” So Randall does just that, enveloping his aged mother in a hug the moment she opens the door to her home.
EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL | In Dr. Leigh’s office, Randall is getting more agitated by the moment. She points out that he can’t control the outcome of everything in life — for instance, even if he had been at the hospital with Jack and Rebecca, the results of Jack’s widowmaker heart attack probably would have been the same — but Randall says that he could have “tried” like he did with William, which would’ve been some comfort over the years. “I don’t need an exercise from an overpriced therapist in cheap shoes” to understand that, he adds nastily… then immediately apologizes. “Oh, please. I live for this stuff,” she says amicably. (Ha!)
As Randall sits across from her and tries not to cry, Dr. Leigh points out that he’s so focused on his fathers, but “If you think about it, your life has really been defined by your mothers: the one that died when he was a baby and “the mother that lied to you for 36 years.” He quickly says he’s forgiven Rebecca for what she did. “Have you?” Dr. Leigh wonders, adding that in both of Randall’s scenarios, the thing that followed Jack’s survival was Randall finding out about William years earlier than he did in real life.
THEN, IT GETS REALLY REAL. The therapist posits that Randall chose her because she’s the same gender and race as his mother, and “I’m probably around the age she was when your father died.” What Randall really wants, she adds, is someone similar to his mom to help process her actions and her illness. And by now, poor Randall is barely hanging on. He croaks out a request for her to put a fine point on what she’s saying. “Observation: Even in the worst version of your life, you still protect your mother, you still redeem her in the end,” she notes. “Question: Have you ever really confronted your mother about what she did to you? About what she kept from you?”
At home, we watch Randall gather up all of the emotion he dredged up at that day’s session and point it at Rebecca — with an agenda. He calls her in California and begs her to change her mind about the experimental clinical trial in St. Louis. “I know you don’t want to, but you have to,” he adds, tears coursing down his face. On the other end of the line, Rebecca is wrecked, too. And before the conversation is done, she’s said that she will enroll in the trial.
Randall’s actions jibe with what he tells Dr. Leigh before leaving her office at the end of his hour: “I’ve already lost three parents. I know that losing my mother would break me. I can’t lose her. I will do anything to keep that from happening. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the episode? Sound off in the comments!