'This Is Us' Season 5 premiere recap: How the Pearsons deal with 2020 (and that huge twist)

Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY
·6 min read

Spoiler alert! The following contains details from "Forty," the two-part Season 5 premiere of NBC's "This Is Us."

Leave it to "This Is Us" to offer a two-hour season premiere that includes the COVID-19 pandemic, serious discussions about racism and Black Lives Matter, an Alzheimer's episode, an adoption match and a miscarriage scare, and then outdo it all with a last-minute twist.

Randall's mom is alive. Well, Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes) was alive in 1980 when young William (Jermel Nakia) ran away from paramedics who declared her dead and said they were calling the police and child services to investigate him. After William left with baby Randall, Laurel unexpectedly wakes up. Where she goes from there, and where she's been for the past 40 years, will (I imagine) be the subject of future "This Is Us" episodes.

Eris Baker as Tess, Faithe Herman as Annie, Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth and Sterling K. Brown as Randall on "This Is Us."
Eris Baker as Tess, Faithe Herman as Annie, Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth and Sterling K. Brown as Randall on "This Is Us."

If the writers were planning for Laurel to be alive this whole time, they certainly weren't planning for much else in the two-part premiere, which focused on how the Pearsons dealt with the last seven months of 2020 (Season 4 concluded in March in an episode filmed before the pandemic hit). It was a lot, not only seeing a condensed history of American life in an awful year, but also watching the Pearsons – particularly Randall (Sterling K. Brown) – go through the trauma not only of the pandemic, but also the national reckoning about race and police brutality after the killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd in May.

More: 'This Is Us' Season 4 finale reveals pregnancy and marriage shockers

While Kate (Chrissy Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) all got their moments in the episodes, "Forty" was all about Randall, and to their credit the writers were able to weave in the Black Lives Matter movement into Randall's character development without seeming crass or opportunistic. The whole country talking about race spurred Randall to question his relationship to his white family members.

As well done as Randall's scenes were in the episode, watching two hours of fictional characters live through the reality viewers are stuck with in real life was exhausting. "Forty" tried to end on a positive note (even before the whole Laurel twist), as Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) assures Randall that nothing is forever and the pandemic and police brutality will one day end. "We fight on," she says, and while it's a rousing cry for Randall, it's hard to take solace from Beth. "Us" is a time-hopping series that likes to offer its viewers the benefit of foresight, but unfortunately its writers can't tell us when COVID-19 will end, or when society will change.

Hanks has the corona

The first episode kicks off where Season 4 concluded, with Madison (Caitlin Thompson) telling Kevin that she's pregnant with twins. Quickly, the Pearsons go through the first few months of the pandemic, with milestones and thoughts we're all familiar with. Rebecca and Miguel (Jon Huertas) head to the family cabin to "ride it out," which they think will be a short trip. (After being a major plot point last season, the Alzheimer's clinical trial in St. Louis has been postponed due to COVID). Beth and Randall are shaken when Tom Hanks announces he has COVID. Kevin and Madison decide to quarantine together. Masks are worn, hand sanitizer is pumped.

As Randall and Kevin chat in emotionless texts, still estranged after their devastating fight in the Season 4 finale, Randall receives a breaking news alert about the death of Floyd. We see him watch the video of Floyd's death, and how he, Beth and their three daughters handle the fallout. They watch the protests against police brutality in stoic silence while Kate texts Randall pictures of her toddler son's "first protest" and asks to which Black organizations she should donate, much to her brother's annoyance.

Randall is clearly affected by what's happening in the country, but he's not talking about it, not to Beth or the girls and not to his therapist (Pamela Adlon). It's only when Deja's (Lyric Ross) boyfriend Malik (Asante Blackk) visits on Randall's 40th birthday that he really opens up about his feelings.

Mandy Moore as Rebecca on "This Is Us."
Mandy Moore as Rebecca on "This Is Us."

Babies and antihistamines

The rest of the Pearsons have gathered for the Big Three's birthdays at the cabin (with varying degrees of COVID precautions, as they constantly mention). Kevin and Madison have started a real relationship in quarantine, and when she has a miscarriage scare he rushes her to urgent care. The babies are OK (of course they are), but Kevin is emotionally affected enough by the experience to propose. After they learn there's no danger to the babies, Madison says he can take it back, but Kevin really wants to marry her.

Rebecca, meanwhile, has been feeling great ever since retreating to the cabin, good enough that she almost thinks the great outdoors are healing her Alzheimer's. Almost. After an antihistamine she takes for poison ivy interacts poorly with her other meds, she gets lost walking to a bakery before the police bring her home.

Her momentary disappearance is enough to bring Randall to the cabin that he's been avoiding. He solves the mystery of what caused her episode and tries to leave, but Kate stops him to ask if their relationship is OK and apologizes for the state of the world. Randall tells her it's not enough – that he felt alone in their family growing up when the police killed other Black people and that he never talked about it for fear of upsetting everyone – and it's a harsh reality for Kate to face. She doesn't have much time to "sit with her feelings," as she says, before Toby tells her they've been matched with a potential baby through their adoption agency.

Kevin and Randall exchange some (less angry) words about Kevin's twins (a boy and a girl), before Randall leaves. He calls his therapist from the car to essentially break up with her, saying he realizes there was a deeper meaning to him seeking a white female therapist, but he needs to speak to a Black person who he won't clam up around.

Chrissy Metz as Kate, Justin Hartley as Kevin on "This Is Us."
Chrissy Metz as Kate, Justin Hartley as Kevin on "This Is Us."

Blast from the past

In the episode's flashbacks, we return to the day William left Randall at the fire station and Rebecca went into labor. We see the bigger arc of William and Laurel's relationship in flashbacks-within-flashbacks, how optimistic she was when she first got pregnant, and how bad luck and hard times depressed her. William feels intense guilt for getting drugs for Laurel after Randall was born, but she was in pain and was afraid to go to a clinic with her history of drug use.

He and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) briefly cross paths at the hospital when William visits, seemingly second-guessing his decision to give up Randall. Both men end up in the chapel: William prays that his new son will have a good family and Jack prays that Rebecca and the triplets will survive the complications of her delivery. Jack leaves the chapel and calls his estranged father to ask him why he used to pray. Stanley Pearson (Peter Onorati) says he wished his sons would grow up to be better men than him.

And then, in the final moments of the episode, Laurel is revealed to have survived. At least in future flashbacks that explain her role in the story, we won't have to think about coronavirus.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'This Is Us' Season 5 premiere recap: COVID-19 and a huge twist