This is Us recap: Jack, Randall, Kevin, and Toby struggle to align work and ideals with the realities of fatherhood

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Birthdays and grief were at the gooey center of the season six This is Us premiere. Last week, it was first loves. This time, it's fatherhood, as the Pearson men and in-law Toby (Chris Sullivan) experience parental strife, jeopardizing their (unofficial) bid to be the best dad(s) ever.

For Jack and Toby, the struggle involves balancing work and family — and what goes wrong when they try to make up for lost time. Meanwhile, time with Déjà (Lyric Ross) leads to a discovery that sends Randall (Sterling K. Brown) reeling, and Kevin (Justin Hartley) struggles to reconcile his co-parenting situation with his picture-perfect idea of fatherhood. Of course, it's the mothers who dish out key wisdom, but we'll get to that. For now, let's start with Randall.

Randall (and Beth)

Randall excitedly takes Déjà out for a driving lesson. Things start sweet, with playful bantering between father and daughter, but then the car system relays an incoming text message from Malik (Asante Blackk) about her visit. Turns out, Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) didn't know about it — they thought she'd been with a friend.

Soon, Randall and Beth are rage brainstorming about Déjà's punishment. Randall suggests grounding Déjà, taking her phone, forbidding her from seeing Malik again, and forcing her to return to Zoom school — and even punishing their other daughters to ensure they never pull a similar stunt. Eventually, Randall decides to cool off with a run, while Beth (calmly) confronts Déjà.

However, Randall is no calmer when he returns. But based on her talk with Déjà, Beth doesn't think they can realistically break up Déjà and Malik because Déjà is deeply in love. Beth also informs Randall she's getting birth control for Déjà, and tells him that they must accept Déjà's no longer a child. Randall isn't thrilled, but when he confronts Déjà, he admits to unfairly holding on to the little girl version of her he first met, partly out of sadness that he missed the first 12 years of her life (before she became the Pearsons' adopted fifth family member). He asks Déjà to be patient while he works on accepting the grown-up version of her. She appreciates this, but when Randall says she's nevertheless not allowed to visit Malik again, Déjà coldly dismisses the notion. With that, it seems a major setback is coming for the wholesome bond Déjà and Randall have built. How will hypersensitive Randall handle such a rift? Will it be a tidal wave that takes the whole family down? Here's hoping it won't.

Kevin

Kevin's story begins with a montage of him showing up to Madison's over and over, for the kids. At one point, he sadly wonders aloud to Madison if co-parenting will ever get easier, and later vents to Kate about missing the twins' milestones.

Amid his sorrow, Kevin joins his The Manny co-stars at the bar that evening. As his 25-year-old co-star is hitting on him, Kevin gets a text from Madison showing one of the twins taking their first steps. He bolts out of the bar and over to Madison's. However, the twins are asleep when he arrives. Kevin berates Madison about their arrangement, which is causing him to miss special moments. Madison reminds him he's also missing the messy parts. They share a moment of understanding that things aren't ideal for anyone, but no one offers a solution. Could a custody battle — or readjustment — be coming?

Back at Kate's, Toby tries to comfort Kevin about not having his ideal life of him, Madison, and the twins together at the dinner table. He explains that based on his experience, kids would prefer parents who were happy but apart to parents who were together but miserable. Toby then compares families to shapes, and it's profound, but neither Kevin nor himself think he makes any sense. The conversation gives Kevin a moment of levity, but once in bed, his mood sours again. He then calls a different friend… Cassidy.

He unabashedly admits he's called her to refrain from reaching out to his co-star for a booty call. Cassidy feigns offense, but embraces the task. What a good friend… or should I say… what a good scene setting up Cassidy to become Kevin's final love? (I know not everyone's on board for this, but I'm a stubborn supporter, and my Spidey senses say the writers might agree — don't @ me). Here's to me being proven right or wrong eventually… In the meantime, on to Toby.

Toby (and Kate)

Toby's story also begins with a quasi-montage of the struggles of having to work out of town. During his latest stretch at home, he gives baby Jack a football, and gifts Kate a purse and gift card to get her hair done while he watches the kids. Kate doubts he'll keep the kids on their schedules, but he insists he knows what he's doing.

However, he indeed foregoes Jack's nap to spend more time playing with him. Consequently, Jack is awake too late and cranky. So, instead of joining Kate at her music school recital, Toby decides — in a huff, after they bicker about his error — to stay behind and handle Jack.

After the recital, Kate vents to her boss/co-worker Phillip about her fight with Toby. In response, he notes he and his wife had a constant small fight for years. His lesson: if they're still talking about the small fight, things are fine — it's when they stop talking about it that spells trouble. However, it seems the real lesson in his story is small fights bleed into big problems. Foreshadowing, much?

Later, Kate and Toby discuss the difficulty of their situation, but like Kevin and Madison, they don't brainstorm a solution. Instead, they let the topic fizzle, and soon Toby excitedly tells Kate he wants to buy a fancy smoker, so they can spend the days he's home making memories of family cookouts.

Sure enough, in a flash forward, baby Jack is grown, with his wife and a rockstar mansion, cooking meat in that same smoker. Jack notes the smell takes him back to "that day" — his first memory — a voice (Toby's, it seems) warning him not to "get too close" and a woman (Rebecca?) saying his name, panicked. Jack's wife suggests he stop using the smoker that represents the day his parents' marriage blew up and his face was nearly deformed. Thus, we're one step closer to understanding Kate and Toby's future. What piece of the puzzle will come next?

Jack (and Rebecca)

Jack's fatherhood anecdote begins with him realizing — and lamenting — that he's become a father who barely sees his kids due to work. To make up for it, he plans to take the kids that weekend to their first movie theater experience.

However, that day, things go awry. First, Jack is gutted when Kate asks, while they're in the concession line, if he's going to live at work forever. Then, after Jack falls asleep during the movie, Kevin slips out of the theater into the mall. When Jack awakes, he hurries everyone out to find him. By that point, Kevin's already in a mall office, with Rebecca. He'd gone to the food court looking for free samples, and got lost. He was found crying in front of a store. Mall staff got in touch with Rebecca because she'd written their phone number inside Kevin's shoe. Classic mom move!

Back at home, Jack beats himself up about the fact that Kevin's memory of his first movie in theaters will be traumatic. Rebecca tells Jack about a recent trip she and the kids took to the park. Everything went wrong but the chaos ended with peaceful bonding over a ladybug. Rebecca's message: "until a day is over, there's always a chance you'll remember it for something else." Inspired, Jack sets up a home movie theater experience, and the family has a blast.

Rebecca's lesson of it's never too late to make things better suits Kevin and Toby's situations. They may not be able to make daily memories, but they can make great memories nevertheless. All hail Rebecca's mom wisdom.

Speaking of moms… Jack's day unfortunately sours again, as he learns his mother has died. Cue, I presume, a mom-centric episode next week. It seems we're about to get a look at the woman who made the man that started everything. If so, brace yourselves.

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