This Is Us – Season 6 Episode 1 “The Challenger” Recap & Review

The Challenger

We’re back! A new year rolls round and that means a new season of This Is Us too. It’s the final one too, if you can believe it, so you know there’s going to be a good mix of tears, laughter and heart-wrenching moments.

The show self-consciously recognizes this too, with a beautiful montage of key moments from the first season, showing just how far these characters have grown over time.

It’s the Big Three’s birthday (their 41st to be precise!) and each of our characters have changed a lot. Nowhere else is that more evident than with Kevin. He’s grown from a disinterested ladies man to all-hands-on-deck father. He’s actually living in Madison’s garage too and he and Maddy both do their best for the twins, even calling themselves a “finely tuned co-parenting instrument.”

With Madison hosting a Book Club that night, she decides against heading over to Kate’s for her big party. On the way, Kevin is called into Casey’s office. The studio want to reboot The Manny, with Kevin playing the dad and being a supporting star to a younger, brighter prospect. “Over my dead body,” Kevin says through gritted teeth. After his very public meltdown, there’s no love lost between him and Casey, who sighs and exclaims, “Thank god!”

Things for Kevin grow even worse when he heads home. There, he finds a guy called Elijah from Madison’s Book Club, growing closer with his ex.

Toby is obviously stuck with work and he does his best to make Kate’s day special, including a child-free afternoon and a booked massage. Of course, it’s not the same without him there – especially given his history of grand gestures in the past.

Meanwhile, Randall takes Beth aside and confirms that the man who stole their jewelry – and wedding photo – has been arrested. Randall being Randall wants to go down and confront the man about what he’s done. Beth though, is not so sure that’s a good idea.

Randall eventually arrives in court and confronts the man, whom we later learn is called David. Randall points out how horrifying the whole ordeal was for him. David is broken though, with fractured memories and clear mental issues. He believed the picture was from a good part of his life but obviously not.

Randall’s soft spot sees him bail David out, setting him up at the shelter. When Beth finds out, she’s initially concerned. Given the guy is an addict, Randall feels a moral obligation to try and do right, especially given what he’s been through with William and his mother. It’s incredibly selfless and Beth sees that light shine.

During our past timeline, an old relic is wheeled into class. No it’s not Kevin’s teacher but actually a box TV on wheels. Anyone else remember those? Anyway, the kids all settle down to watch the launch of space shuttle Challenger. Unfortunately it blows up, which all the kids actually see. This inevitably sends them on a downward depressing spiral.

Speaking of spirals, another character here who has had a pretty compelling arc is Rebecca. With her memory starting to fade, she talks to Miguel and Nicky about a past incident involving her father. She used to head up to the office with him every Sunday, walking the carriages on the train before they left.

This motif of trains is made all the more powerful as Rebecca happens to be riding on a miniature train while telling this story. During crucial parts of this tale she freezes, forgetting exactly what happened at the end.

This plays on her mind throughout the day, eventually blowing up at Kate’s party. There, she reveals the results of the PET scan are back and unfortunately it’s positive. There are plaques building in her brain. It’s still early but we know where this road ends up.

Kevin, still reeling that Madison and Elijah are getting together, decides to crash at Kate’s place instead. With Rebecca sick and Madison slipping away, Kevin swallows his pride and decides to take the Manny reboot, intending to be there for his kids.

Rebecca, realizing that life is way too short, calls out Nicky for his constant chatter about Sally. They’re going to drive there the following day. As she sits down that night, staring at the ominous charts for her brain, she remembers the word she’s been trying to find all day – Caboose.

David predictably doesn’t show up to the shelter. Randall eventually heads home and breaks the news to Beth, who doesn’t even flinch from the sofa. Despite handing over brand new cufflinks for him, the look on her face says it all. She’s not happy, and Randall’s selflessness seems to be getting in the way of their family.

Randall doesn’t see this though and tells Beth he needs to do more for the city, causing her to turn slightly, hold out her hand and utter a solemn, “I know.”

As the episode closes, Kate receives a big surprise. Toby shows up in person to wish her a Happy Birthday; her proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

The Episode Review

This Is Us returns for its final season and it looks like it’s going to be quite the emotional rollercoaster. Unlike last year’s forced COVID storylines that completely disrupted the flow of the series, This Is Us returns with a much more emotionally-centered episode.

This time we focus on grief and, specifically, on loss. Whether literally (the Challenger space shuttle being destroyed) or metaphorically (Kevin’s prospects of being with Madison) this show has always excelled when it comes to the big emotional moments and tying its larger story in with episodic motifs.

Rebecca’s arc this year looks to be a big one and we know how this ends up, given the flash-forwards several seasons ago. Seeing her finally utter the word “Caboose” is a breakthrough, but ultimately a futile one.

Still, the show continues to deliver compelling drama and this season promises to bow out on a high.

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