Photo Courtesy of NBC
The second and third episodes of the current season of This Is Us might have stood out to viewers who are a little more familiar with adoption and infertility than the average television audience. There were a few short, seemingly simple moments which had substance and complexity behind them—but complexity only some of us viewers could recognize. Read on to hear our commentary on the episodes, but beware: spoilers are ahead.
Never before a subject on the hit-drama, the topic of infertility seemed to dominate the plot line of the season three premiere. It continued into the second episode, "A Philadelphia Story," as Kate begins treatment and Toby begins to struggle with coming off antidepressants (to assist their chances of pregnancy). It's not until the moment where Kate confesses part of the reason for her desire to pursue biological children, despite the risks, when This Is Us touches on the emotional, rather than physical, complexities of infertility:
Midway through the episode and shortly before Kevin's movie premiere, Kate and Rebecca (in the presence of Toby, Miguel and Kevin) argue about Kate's pursuit of IVF.
Rebecca: "Why would you take that risk when there are so many other options out there?"
Kate: "Because I want to. Because I want to look that baby in his face and I want to see Toby. I want to see myself. I want to see Dad. And I'm the only one in the family who's going to carry on a piece of Dad."
As much as it shocked those in attendance, especially Kevin, Kate's declaration reminds viewers that wanting biological children is more than just the desire to have a biological family with the one you love. It's also about heredity, and tying memories of loved ones to genetics. Kate, fortunately, has never had to question what ties her (and eventually her biological child) to her beloved father.
It makes sense to hear her say this, and despite the obvious insensitivity and ignorance of Kevin's feelings, it helps to understand her thoughts a little better. But, the audience never considers the implications of this statement, other than reaching an understanding that part of Kate's pursuit of a pregnancy is rooted in the grief and love for her dad. Once the the exchange is recounted to Randall, however, the audience can begin to dwell on the harmful assumptions that lie beneath Kate's confession.
As Randall takes his seat for Kevin's movie premiere, Kevin fills him on everything he missed earlier that evening:
Kevin: "You missed quite a bit actually. Um, Kate and Toby are doing IVF."
Randall: "Good for them."
Kevin: "I think so. Mom kind of flipped out a little bit, though. You know, which upset Kate. She was like, 'Well, I'm the only one that's going to be able to pass on a piece of Dad,' right? Which made me upset, and even though, to be honest with you, it really wasn't about that for me, you know what I mean? Let me ask you a question. Do you think serious people take me seriously?"
Randall: [is silent and thinking]
Kevin: "What? Hey?"
Randall: "No, I … She said she was the only one who could pass on a piece of Dad?"
The lights go down, the movie begins, and in the background the 20th Century Fox theme song begins to play. The episode closes on a shot of Randall looking extremely hurt and upset.
Yet again, This Is Us helps us understand how to a person without genetic ties to their family views the world. Throughout the series (and his lifetime), Randall has struggled with his identity, his connection to his late father, finding a community in which he belongs and so many other complex issues that come with both being transracially adopted and having siblings who are biologically related to one's adoptive parents. Randall arrived at the premiere after being told he does not have a place in his birth father's community, so hearing that his ties to Jack are different than Kate's made him feel even worse.
The questions proposed to viewers and meant to be reflected on until the next episode is: What does it mean to "carry on" a piece of our families? How do we simultaneously desire a biological family and also honor adoption as the beautiful and important thing it is?
Episode three, "Katie Girls" does not dwell long on these questions. It begins with a brief, emotional exchange between Randall and Kate:
Kate: "Yeah, we're doing it. The hormone shots, the works. And the egg retrieval is next week. It's a long shot, for sure, but I feel like we have to at least try."
Randall: "What, because you think that having a biological child is the only way to pass on a piece of dad?"
Kate: "N- Okay, I don't- those were not the words I used."
Randall: "Right. So I do or I don't have a piece of Dad in me?"
Kate: "Randall, obviously you do. And of course Toby and I would consider adoption if it came to that."
Randall: "'If it came to that'? Nice."
Kate: "I think you're overreacting."
Randall: "Am I? Because you're telling me you'd rather pay tens of thousands of dollars for a dangerous invasive surgery than adopt one of the millions of children out there who needs a home?"
Kate: "You had two biological children before you adopted, Randall."
Randall: "That's a completely different situation."
Kate: "Why? Why? Because it was easy for Beth to get pregnant? Good for her. It hasn't been for me. It's been very, very hard."
Randall: "I know that, Kate."
Kate: "No you don't. You don't know what it's like to want this as badly as I do, and you don't know what it's like to lose a baby either."
Randall: "Kate, stop."
Kate: "No. How dare you throw adoption in my face right now? How dare you make me defend wanting this?"
Randall: "Hey, Kate.. Come on, I-"
This leads to some distance between brother and sister for a good part of the episode. However, Randall unsurprisingly makes a big gesture and the two reconcile by the end of the episode. The argument and the deeper questions it uncovers are never resolved.
This means, we hope, that This is Us will find some way to balance both Randall's and Kate's perspective in the coming episodes. Neither has worked to see things the way their sibling does. It won't be easy to resolve: Desiring and pregnancy and honoring adoption for what it is (not a second-choice) are difficult concepts to exist side-by-side. We are excited and hopeful for the way NBC will choose to address this emotional paradox.