This Is Us has existed in a bizarre form of paranoid stasis since its second-ever episode, “The Big Three,” when it was revealed Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore) is no longer married to Pearson patriarch and the supposed love of her life, Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), in the present day. A speculation cloud of divorce hung over the drama until, three episodes later, it’s confirmed Rebecca didn’t leave her first husband — he tragically died. From that point on, each moment of the NBC tearjerker was haunted by one question: Is this how Jack dies?
Every car ride, conversation, and argument the father of three had was weighed down by the possibility it could lead to television’s most morbid, ever-looming twist. Then, finally, mercifully, and 27 episodes after viewers first learned of The Death, the This Is Us gods confirmed with “Super Bowl Sunday” Jack died of cardiac arrest following a massive house fire. That meant Tuesday night’s "The Car" was the essentially the first-ever Us episode where Jack’s bleak fate wasn’t a mystery. It was a fully fleshed out resolution.
Now, of course, some of that tendency is necessary as “The Car” is built around Jack’s funeral. We need to see how the beloved family man’s death actually affects said family. It’s not like we should pretend such a shocking loss isn’t going to shake Jack’s loved ones to their core. That’s why some of the best sections of the episode deal with how each Pearson teen is struck by their unexpected grief.
Teen Kevin (Logan Shroyer) takes out his anger at Teen Randall (Niles Fitch), building on tensions that were already there and pointing toward their cold war in the present day. Teen Randall simply wants to carry a little piece of his dad everywhere in the form of Jack’s watch, reminding us he usually deals with pain quietly until it erupts. And, Teen Kate (Hannah Zeile) steals the show, drowning in guilt over the fact Jack possibly died because he saved her dog. It’s the greatest illustration of how and why Kate took to punishing herself with overeating in the years since. When you look at just how shattered Zelle plays the young woman, everything becomes crystal clear.
These ruminations on Jack’s heartbreaking end seem necessary. Unfortunately other plot points seem like the same-old, same-old Jack Death Baiting days of yore. The kinds of days that should now be long gone. The most egregious example of Us’ willful, continued habit is when Jack and Rebecca have to deal with her cancer scare. Jack is sure his wife will be fine, but she’s not.
When Jack is proven correct, the subsequent conversation feels untethered from reality in a way only This Is Us would try. Jack tells his wife, “You’re going to live forever. That means I’m going to go first … just don’t put me in the ground. Okay? Let me be outside.” This is not how people talk. Instead, it’s a device to connect the past to the reasons why Rebecca spreads some of her late husband’s ashes at the tree from “Super Bowl Sunday.” But that isn’t even necessary, since the tree already holds meaning as the place Rebecca learned she was going to be “okay” and is therefore cemented as Jack’s favorite tree. There’s no need for Jack to unsettlingly also announce he’s going to die before his wife like some kind of goth seer.
In that same vein, every detail about the episode’s titular car, a 1980s Wagoneer, comes off as another nod to Jack’s eventual death. On the day the family bought the car, by way of a classic rousing Jack Pearson speech, he explains to the dealer his only concern is making sure his family is “okay.” That car will ensure such a future, and the Pearsons get to go home with the humongous vehicle. Then, at least a decade later, Rebecca, sobs in front of Jack’s tree grave, saying, “We’re gonna be okay, baby,” and promptly hops in the car. In the cold open, an '80s Rebecca is terrified to even open her eyes while Jack drives over some terrible dilapidated bridge. By the end of the installment, now a widow in 1997, she steadfastly drives over it with clear eyes.
Even Jack’s dressing down of a Teen Randall and Kevin — whose arguing almost causes a fatal car accident in the Wagoneer — is about how their dad is going to die one day.
While it’s possible the obsession with Jack’s demise rippling through the ages ended with his funeral, it seems like Us is now heading into a new death mystery quandary. The series has been dropping hints about Jack’s brother Nicky all season, and it was finally confirmed in “Car” the mystery character died in Vietnam. In classic This Is Us fashion, the fatality was mentioned, but in no way explained. Now, previews for the drama’s post-Olympic return proves we’re about to learn what really happened during the war. You know, like maybe how Nicky Pearson died.
If that question is the next rabbit hole Us falls through, let’s hope it doesn’t take 30 episodes to give us answers.
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