For those stressing out over tomorrow’s Thanksgiving festivities, “Pilgrim Rick” is a cautionary tale. It’s so easy to get lost in the preparation—the fixation on everything running smoothly, every dish being perfect and every family member being on their best behavior—that we tend to forget what’s really important. The holidays tend to be steeped in a dangerous mix of nostalgia and anticipation; we all frantically try to recapture the joys of our childhood and family traditions, and when we’re unable to relive these past moments with the same favor, we feel we’ve failed as a host or an entire family unit. Traditions become a part of us and make us feel at home, no matter where in the world we are, but we often allow them to dictate our holidays to the point that they become a source of unnecessary stress and tension. If the pie isn’t just so and the music isn’t from the Thanksgiving mix-tape your grandpa recorded thirty years ago, well, that’s it, the day is ruined. The truth is, none of that should matter. Catch the beautiful moments around you while you can. Don’t waste time trying to manipulate these moments to meet your expectations.
For Rebecca, Thanksgiving is one of the most dreaded holidays of the year. Knowing she’ll have to spend her day being belittled by her parents while her kids are forced to keep up the perfect-grandchildren charade in their uncomfortable party clothes and grandma’s hand-knit wool sweaters, she’s not excited about the day ahead. She puts herself under immense pressure, going out of her way to cook up the perfect cranberry sauce even though she knows she’ll be scrutinized by her mother the minute she walks into their house—nothing she does will ever be as good as her sister’s sweet potato pie.
As is usually the case in these scenarios, everything that could possibly go wrong, does. The kids knock over the cranberry sauce she slaved over, spilling it all down their dress-shirts and chinos; after several hours searching for store-bought cranberry sauce that can pass as homemade, they get stuck in traffic; to top it all off, their tire ruptures and they crash into a fence. As they walk 3.4 miles to the nearest roadside motel to call for help, Rebecca and Jack ask the kids how they plan on spending their own Thanksgiving when they’re grown-ups. To their surprise, the kids are delighted to know they have the option to skip it altogether. Apparently they hate Thanksgiving, not just because of their uptight grandparents, but because of how “mean” Rebecca and her “weird high voice” get whenever she’s around them. This revelation hits Rebecca hard.
In the present, Randall is in his element. He’s up at the crack of dawn prepping, putting together a special breakfast and getting the whole family in the spirit. Beth and William are trying their hardest to keep up a happy face, but are both dealing with their own struggles. For one, they’re sitting on a secret with the power to inflame tensions in the Pearson family even further—particularly between Rebecca, William and Randall. Secondly, William’s health is rapidly declining; he’s feeling particularly weak that morning, but insists on joining them on their 3.4 mile hike.
It’s hard not to sympathise with poor Miguel, Rebecca’s husband and Jack’s former best friend. He’s been accepted by most of the Pearson children as their stepfather, and yet he always remains in the background, happy to let the family keep up their usual routines without forcing his own on them. But Kevin, immature as ever, is incapable of letting the man into his life and is sure to let Miguel feel it. It’s understandable that Kevin would feel he is betraying his father by embracing Miguel as his stepdad, but after so many years and all he’s done for the family, the guy deserves some love.
Kate, who was supposed to bring Toby to meet the family, makes a tough decision. She insists on taking a break from their relationship even though he’s the man she always dreamed of. Though she partially blames her choice on the fact she no longer feels supported by him on her quest to lose weight, she finally admits that the problem is much bigger than that. She’s simply not happy, and she won’t be able to find contentment with someone else until she’s found it within herself. After a frightening experience on the plane to New York, she reaches a conclusion: She’s going to have gastric bypass surgery. Whether a change in her physical appearance will transform her emotional landscape remains to be seen, but it seems to me that in doing so, she’s basically contradicting her reasons for leaving Toby. If she can’t find peace within herself now, in the present moment, what makes her think she will after the surgery?
In the past, what starts out as a disastrous day for Rebecca, Jack and the kids ends being one of their best Thanksgivings ever. As soon as Rebecca decides to break free from her family’s routine guilt-trips and stresses, she allows herself to relax into the spontaneity of their day. Their menu – consisting of roasted hot-dogs in a blanket of melted cheese and graham crackers – may not be elaborate and their digs not quite what they had in mind, but as soon as they throw all of their expectations out of the window, their perfect evening comes together in the most natural manner: Jack impersonates the motel owner, “Pilgrim Rick” (Ric Sarabia), putting on a bit complete with Rick’s hat and a demented look in his eyes, and they unravel grandma’s itchy woollen sweater—a symbol of their family’s independence. They end the night snuggled up watching Police Academy 3.
Although everyone tries their best to recapture the harmony of their childhood Thanksgivings at Randall’s house—with Kevin allowing Miguel the honor of taking on the role of Pilgrim Rick for the first time ever—the warm, familiar feeling of the past cannot be translated into the present. Randall has accidentally discovered Rebecca and William’s secret, and after years of insecurity and alienation, this truth will be a tough one to recover from. “Pilgrim Rick” does not end on a joyous note, but manages to pack in all the staples of a classic holiday episode: heart-warming nostalgia, bittersweet moments and just the right dose of drama.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.