‘This Is Us’: Randall Asks the ‘What If’ Question in ‘After the Fire’ (RECAP)

This Is Us Jack Randall
Spoiler Alert
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Season 4, Episode 17 of This Is Us, “After the Fire.”]

This Is Us took a new approach in this week’s episode, exploring an exercise in “what ifs” through Randall’s (Sterling K. Brown) therapy sessions with Dr. Lee (Pamela Adlon). Below, we’re breaking down the pivotal episode, but beware of major spoilers ahead.

The therapist wants Randall to imagine what life would have been like if Jack had lived, thus kicking off a different version of the past beginning with Randall (Niles Fitch) and Kate (Hannah Zeile) telling Kevin (Logan Shroyer) that their house burned down as they are taken care of by Miguel (Jon Huertas). That’s when Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) reassure the kids that Jack’s fine and only incurred some minor burns — even the family dog managed to survive the blaze, even though Jack didn’t go back to save the pet.

Afterwards, Rebecca, wracked by emotions of nearly dying, reveals that she knows who Randall’s birth father is to Jack. When he forces her to tell Randall, the boy is understandably upset, and he asks for a name to which Rebecca reveals William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones). Anxious to meet him, Jack requests that he accompany his son and together they knock on William’s door at the address Rebecca gave them.

Greeting them at the door, William is hesitant at first before inviting them in and Jack notes the man’s shaking affect — a sign of his drug addiction. After William gives Randall the book of poems he wrote for him long ago, Randall wants nothing more than to spend time with his biological father. When Randall expresses a desire to spend time with William, Jack worries aloud that he’s an addict, to which Randall points out that so is he.

This Is Us William Jack Randall

(Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

So, in an effort to better himself and the other man, Jack attends AA meetings with William so they can get clean together. After meeting William, Randall decides he wants to attend school at the nearby Carnegie Mellon as opposed to his previous first choice, Howard University. This allows him to still meet Beth (Rachel Hilson), who attends the family dinner we first saw him introduce her at in the real timeline.

It’s during this dinner that Randall’s coldness towards Rebecca for keeping William a secret is at an all time high, and after Beth drags out her hot sauce — a nod to her deceased father — he shuts down Rebecca from commenting further on the matter. Beth asks Randall to show her the bathroom, and at first he doesn’t know why, but she outright tells him, “Quit being such a dick to your mom.” She tells him he needs to forgive Rebecca because there’s bigger things in life than that.

Time moves forward and Randall proposes to Beth, Jack gives a speech at their rehearsal dinner, and the birth of Tess is celebrated. Moving even further into this imaginary timeline, William mentions a bad stomach, leading Randall to take him to the doctor where his cancer is detected early. Meanwhile, Jack and Randall notice Rebecca’s deteriorating memory at Thanksgiving — a mirror of the Pearson’s most recent — and Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne) is noticeably absent.

This is the point where the therapist interrupts Randall’s imagination and points out that it’s too perfect of a timeline, that he’s delusional to think that he would have still ended up with the same wife, relationship with William and more. She points out some of the games in her office and tells Randall they could play with them or he could be honest. She re-frames the “what if” question to be what would have been the scariest version of his life if Jack had lived.

This Is Us Randall

(Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Now, we start at the beginning of the second version where Jack survives, beginning with Rebecca’s reveal about William, which Jack takes extremely hard and gets in a fight with her over. Interceding on her, Jack goes to comfort Randall and accompanies him to meet William who, when he opens the door, claims he doesn’t have a son and shuts it in their faces.

Despite Jack reassuring Randall he’s loved, he claims he wants to start school early at Howard with summer classes. In this scenario, it means Randall never meets Beth as he partakes in fraternity activities and returns home to a very different family dinner. Jack’s drinking, Rebecca appears mentally feeble and Randall doesn’t feel the same about his family anymore. As he goes to leave early, it appears to cause issues between Jack and Rebecca, who are tense already.

Fast-forwarding some more into the future, the whole family is attending Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Sophie’s (Alexandra Breckenridge) rehearsal dinner. Randall sits distanced from them with an interesting date by his side, who he later reveals is his teaching assistant at Howard where he became a professor. He tells Kevin that the relationship isn’t serious to which Kevin says, it never is with you.

Meanwhile, Kevin remarks that Big 3 Homes is doing well, which he runs with Jack, and this is when Kate (Chrissy Metz) comes out to chat with them and we learn she is married with two young daughters. She mentions a fourth of July get together at the family cabin, but Randall doesn’t give a definite answer. When Kevin calls him out for his lack of participation, Rebecca intercepts the conversation, and Randall departs before it turns too aggressive.

This Is Us Randall

(Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

When we see him enter an office, which appears to be his place at Howard, Randall finds a box on his desk with a note in it, revealing that William wanted him to have the contents which included newspaper clippings of his accomplishments, the book of poems and his hat. Randall throws the whole box in the garbage. Back at his apartment with a new teacher’s assistant, Randall gets a call from Jack asking him to visit for Thanksgiving because Rebecca’s not doing well. We then see him arrive home at the Pearson door where he wraps her up in a big and forgiving hug.

Back to reality, Randall wonders what the point of the exercise is and the therapist asks if he knows that he can’t control the outcomes of the situations in his life. He disagrees and claims he could have fixed things and saved Jack if he was at the hospital that night he died. She argues that he coped with William’s death because he knew he’d tried to help him, but Randall just states “I think I lost two fathers.”

The script is flipped though when she says that his life hasn’t been defined by his fathers but rather his mothers — the one who died when he was little and the one he’s trying to save now. She tells him he redeems Rebecca in both imaginary scenarios, and there’s a reason he’s going to a therapist that resembles his mother in age, sex and race at the time he was affected by Jack’s death. Dumbfounded, he listens to her ask if he’s ever confronted Rebecca about the William lie, and at first he’s a bit defensive, but it’s clear he didn’t do it in the way he should have.

So, when Randall gets home to Beth who was watching Watchmen in their bedroom, he tells her what the therapist uncovered. It’s clear Beth is pleased that his frustrations have been unlocked, but we then see Randall call Rebecca who is playing Pictionary with Kate, Toby (Chris Sullivan), Kevin and Miguel. She takes the phone to the kitchen where he tells her he’s been a good son, and he needs her to do the experimental trial that she previously refused. Crying, he tells her he’s never asked for anything and begs her to do it, which she eventually caves and agrees to.

How will this go over with the rest of the Big 3? We’ll take a guess and say, not good. Either way, the next episode is sure to include some big reveals and cliffhangers as This Is Us signs off for Season 4.

This Is Us, Tuesdays, 9/8c, NBC