A dearly departed loved one returns, whether through a dream sequence, drug usage, or with no explanation at all — to mysteriously guide a troubled soul through a troubled time. And, in fact, it’s a trope we’ve seen as recently as this season on Fogelman’s other primetime drama, Pitch. (Ginny Baker’s father cheering from the bleachers? Totally dead!) It’s a narrative device I particularly dislike when used in an otherwise grounded drama. Why am I being forced to suspend my disbelief to this degree?!
Also, Randall, who’s still wrestling with the knowledge his mother has lied to him for the past 36 years about the whereabouts of his biological father. He’s writing a list of 22 reasons about why he’s mad at Rebecca. Meanwhile, Kevin is grilling Kate about her own life-changing realization: namely, that she wants to have gastric bypass surgery.
But Kate isn’t relenting. Kevin tries to steer the conversation back to himself and his own woes, including the fact their mom is selling the cabin. That catches Kate’s attention straightaway, and she convinces the rest of the Big Three that they need to go see their childhood home-away-from-home one last time. Randall declares he’s just clearing out his stuff and then he’s out.
Before any real brother-sister-brother bonding can begin, Olivia unexpectedly arrives up with playwright Sloane and ex Asher, who brought refreshments, including a mushroom-laced smoothie. And that, friends, is how Randall enters an altered state in which 1980s-era Jack is doing chores around the cabin while his 2016-era grown-up children hang out. Randall tells Ghost Dad all about the secret his mother had been keeping from him, but Jack just can’t believe it.
“For her to keep a secret like that would destroy her,” he says.
Through flashbacks, we see just how difficult the subterfuge was. As it turns out, 9-year-old Randall’s tally marks weren’t the only genetic sleuthing he was conducting. In grocery stores, he’d corner black shoppers to see if they could roll their tongues like him — a genetic trait. Coming to grips with his growing need for identity and belonging, his parents enrolled him in martial-arts classes taught by a black sensei with all black students. And the initiation is heart-wrenching: In a show of solidarity, all the fathers gather round as Jack hoists Randall onto his back and begins to perform push-up after push-up, with Randall’s weight literally on his shoulders.
“We are your community,” the sensei says. “When things get hard, we will be the ones to hold you up.”
At home, Jack and Rebecca argue over the merits of hiring a private investigator to find Randall’s parents. But, of course, Rebecca does not need a PI to tell her who Randall’s biological father is, so she pays him a visit after nine long years. He doesn’t recognize her when she shows up on his doorstep, and he’s a changed man himself. He’s been clean for five years and works at a store selling musical instruments.
“I spent the last nine years wondering if I did the right thing,” William tells Rebecca. “It seems like it was right, though. For him.”
Rebecca finally admits why she’s there: Randall has been wondering about his father’s identity. William lights up knowing his boy has been asking after him. “Maybe you can bring him by the store some time!” he says.
But his growing enthusiasm worries Rebecca, and she rushes out before William can retrieve some papers for his son.
At home, Rebecca finally voices her concerns to Jack: “What if they’re great?” she asks rhetorically. “What if they regret abandoning him? What if they want him back?” Rebecca will not lose her son.
Grown-up Randall is now struggling to understand both what his mother did and his place in the family. He tells Ghost Dad they never actually wanted him — he was just a replacement for their dead baby, and he’s always strived for perfection so he wouldn’t feel unwanted.
“The moment I saw you I knew you were my boy,” Jack tells him. “You weren’t a choice, Randall, you are a fact. You were never a replacement.”
But Randall insists that if he had known his biological dad was out there and wanted a relationship with him, it would have made all the difference. As that can’t be changed, Jack asks what Randall wants to do now.
“I want her to hurt as much as I do,” he says of Rebecca.
It takes a while, but Olivia’s insensitivity toward Kate and her canoodling with Asher ruffle Kevin enough to realize that “the best kiss of his life” might not have been with the best girl for him.
Meanwhile, Randall’s final dream concludes with reading his 22-item list to 1980s-era Rebecca, who’s playing games with her husband and kids in the cabin. But she can’t hear him. Ghost Dad then summons up a much different vision of Rebecca, one in which she’s frantically running around the cabin locking doors and checking windows, to illustrate Rebecca’s own heavy burden, and how she did the best she knew how to do for Randall.
When his mushroom fog finally clears the next day, Randall pays his (present-day) mom a visit.
“You kept a secret for 36 years,” he says. “It must have been incredibly lonely.” As she tears up and reaches for him, he evades her touch.
“Not yet,” he cautions. “See you at Christmas.”