It took me a long time to get on board with This is Us. It wasn't the shamelessly in-your-face schmaltz that alienated me early on, nor the diminishing returns of the show's reliance on manipulative twists. My discomfort with the show boiled down to a single, critical scene in the opening moments of the pilot, in which Kate (Chrissy Metz) struggles to resist eating cake, steps onto a scale to weigh herself, and then falls off it.
For comparison's sake, let's take a look at the opening scenes for each of Kate's brothers. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is working at a standing desk in a high-rise Manhattan office when he receives an email that says, "Good news-found him." So he's a high-powered workaholic, deeply invested in his health and wellbeing, and searching for someone important to him, who turns out to be his birth father. Kevin (Justin Hartley) is having a joyless tryst with two models who are big fans of his lame TV show, The Manny, which he's thinking of leaving. So he's a famous actor disillusioned by the celebrity he once craved, and a womanizer who no longer finds much pleasure in hookups.
Kate? She's overweight, unhappy about it, and, apparently, clumsy.
The writing for Kate didn't improve much in this regard as the season went on-her weight, and her desire to lose it, were all-encompassing character traits. Other than weight loss, it's never clear what Kate wants out of life: While her brothers get to redefine their careers, reconnect with estranged loved ones, and confront long-simmering demons, Kate is stuck considering gastric bypass surgery, attending fat camp, and worrying that her boyfriend Toby (Chris Sullivan) will lose interest in her because his ex-girlfriend is slim. The one time we see Kate with an actual job- she's been a personal assistant for Kevin in the past-it turns out that she was hired mostly to bond with her boss's overweight teenage daughter. Even the flashbacks to Kate's childhood tended to focus on her being bullied and ostracized for her weight.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with depicting an overweight woman as being preoccupied with losing weight, and feeling paralyzed in other aspects of her life by her inability to do so. That story is rarely represented on television, and it matters. But Kate's weight has too often been spotlighted to the exclusion of everything else about her. Metz is incredibly charismatic and compelling to watch, but she can only do so much to compensate for the fact that Kate is a character whose goals, desires, and neuroses are exclusively tied to her body.
But last night's episode "What Now?" marked an important change. It's been hinted for some time that Kate is deeply traumatized by her father's death, above and beyond straightforward grief (if such a thing exists): One of her few really memorable emotional moments to date was a breakthrough at weight loss camp, when she flashed back to Jack's funeral. In "What Now?" we find Kate obsessing over getting exactly the right number of rainbow-colored balloons at a funeral for Randall's birth father, William. Having a character fixate on seemingly trivial details to avoid dealing with grief is not an unfamiliar trope (shout out to Buffy's peerless "The Body"), but as with many clichés, it's familiar because it's truthful, and Metz plays it beautifully.
Later in the episode, Kate breaks down in front of Randall, in what's arguably her best scene to date. She tells him, "I'm so sorry you had to go through this twice," while admitting that William's death is bringing up all her unresolved issues about Jack. Finally, she comes clean about why she struggles to talk about Jack's death. "I'm the reason that he's dead," she tells a nonplussed Toby.
It's not clear yet precisely why Kate blames herself, and it will probably remain mysterious well into next season. But given the way the episode ended, many fans are speculating that Jack got into an accident either on the way to, or on the way back from, making things right with Rebecca-a trip that Kate had persuaded him to take. But more important than the plot specifics is the fact that Kate finally has a psychologically rich storyline that's wholly separate from her weight, and that Metz finally has the chance to go deeper.
What's more, Kate's deeper pain and unresolved guilt over Jack bring a new dimension to her weight struggles. As with any on-screen addiction, Kate's issues with food will be more interesting simply by virtue of knowing where they might come from. The revelation about her past can only bode for a more emotionally complex and satisfying season two.
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