When I made a big It’s us watch the whole series at the start of the pandemic, I couldn’t believe how different the versions of the characters in Season 1 were. While it’s normal for characters in a long-running series to grow and evolve over time, It’s us seemed to be making a particularly big shift after its critically acclaimed but somewhat artistically dispersed first season. And no character has felt this change more than Toby, whose larger-than-life classy clown persona has mellowed into a still awkward but much more conventional type of husband and father.
“The Hill” makes the bold choice to literally bring these two versions of Toby into conversation as Chris Sullivan dons his big season one suit and Hawaiian shirts to represent the “old Toby” Kate sometimes imagines instead of her svelte, career-driven husband. It’s a big swing artistic choice that made me nervous at first. Kate quotes fight club parallels her imaginary Toby and there are times when she feels like she’s slipping into total psychosis as she argues with her husband over Christmas past. But, in the end, “The Hill” uses the device for a surprisingly moving look at what it’s like to become the person you were meant to be, even if it means walking away from the person you love.
As with many of these Big Three trilogies, there’s a slight sense that “The Hill” is filling in for time in its first half, as the show revisits the footage we saw last week (and the episode previous) to restore the three anchored timelines. As present-day Kate travels to San Francisco to visit Toby and get a feel for the city, 20-year-old Kate admits how aimless she feels after the Big Three get trapped in the abandoned pool complex. Little Kate, meanwhile, stubbornly refuses her parents’ suggestion that she put her face in the pool water. Like last week’s Kevin-centric episode, much of this is familiar territory for Kate and her listless passivity. But at the same time “The Man with the Guitar” nothing too revealing for Kevin, “The Hill” delivers a pretty stellar final act that helps make up for the more undercooked stuff that came before.
It culminates in a brutally realistic six-minute argument between Kate and Toby after she learns he turned down a job offer in Los Angeles without telling her. After spending the entire trip swallowing her frustrations to have a good time, Kate reaches her breaking point. And It’s us delivers one of its best fight scenes ever as Kate and Toby finally decipher everything that hasn’t been said in a long time between them.
What’s great about combat is that it allows both characters to have reasonable vantage points. Kate and Toby both want the best for their family, but they have different priorities and views on what that means. Kate focuses on the present and the great success she had in getting Jack to learn about his home environment, as well as the benefit of having cousins around for his children to grow up with. Toby, meanwhile, is obsessed with the future and what it will cost to support a family that includes a child with special needs.
The undercurrent of both of their views is that Kate and Toby really love the lives they’ve carved out for themselves in LA and San Francisco, respectively. Kate feels fulfilled being a working mother with a meaningful job and family nearby. And Toby feels fulfilled living in a cool town with a high profile job that makes him feel valued and important. He’s far more wrong here for lying about the LA job offer and trying to manipulatively push his way through without talking to Kate about it. But it’s more a problem of two people breaking up than a situation where one person is a complete villain.
It’s brutal to hear Toby explain that the old version of himself that Kate loved so much was a coping mechanism for a miserable, insecure, self-loathing person. But what’s great about “The Hill” is that it roots in the positives of that situation as much as the negatives. When Randall and Beth had some martial issues in the third season, the show presented divorce as the worst thing that could happen to them. Here, however, especially because of the flash warnings, there is hope that Kate and Toby will separate and be able to live the life that makes them happiest. The time they spent together allowed them both to grow into better, more empowered people. But that doesn’t mean they should cling to their relationship if it no longer serves them.
Chrissy Metz co-wrote this episode (which was also directed by Mandy Moore), and it leads to some of her best work on the show, especially in the silent reactions where Kate processes her world by spinning on her axis. Whether she’s swallowing her annoyance with a playful “No worries” or putting on a happy face for a real estate agent, Kate spends much of this episode out of step with her emotions. In the end, however, she discovers that her own pace can carry her further than she thought.
Although it’s a pretty simple metaphor, “The Hill” taps into something that feels very truthful about what it’s like to classify yourself as the type of person who can’t do physically difficult things. and what it’s like when you finally push yourself out of your comfort zone and actually do them. Little Kate refuses to put her face in the water. Kate, 20, says she can’t climb a fence. But Kate, in her forties, climbs a hill that Toby had previously deemed too difficult for her.
Kate grew up in an environment where her father and brothers tended to pamper her (just look at how Jack treats little Kate vs. little Kevin at the pool). And she married a man who seemed to put her needs first. In the end, however, it’s when the going gets tough that Kate really finds the strength to stand on her own two feet. There’s a stunning look of triumph on Kate’s face when she calls to apply for a new position at her music school. For perhaps the first time in her life, Kate is a woman who fully believes in herself. And that’s quite the hill to climb, indeed.
- It’s fun to watch Chris Sullivan go back and forth between the clumsy “old Toby” and the more brooding, controlling version of the character as he exists today.
- Have Jack and Rebecca ever looked sexier than they do in their early ’80s pool attire?
- I loved this shot of Kevin casually throwing the lifeline at Randall.
- Interestingly, Kate and Kevin are mirror images of each other. They are both aimless, but he is driven by action while she is driven by inaction.
- I was expecting another Jack/Rebecca scene between when she berates him for almost letting Kevin drown (“He’s just a kid!”) and when she explains to Kevin that his dad was just trying to build his character and that he should listen to him. This is quite the change!
- I guess it’s still there on a sub-textual level, but it’s odd that we haven’t had an explicit follow-up on the abusive relationship/abortion storyline that ostensibly colors so much of Kate’s life, 20 years, at this point.
- Next week: We’ll finally learn what little Randall was doing in that pool while Jack and Rebecca ignored him completely.