This is Us is made up of so many story lines going in so many directions that as we headed into tonight’s season finale, it was easy to forget exactly how much had happened since we first met the Pearson family and learned to engage with all of their messy drama. But no matter how many twists and turns those plotlines deploy, there's really only one central question to the show: How did Jack Pearson die?
We have known since early on in the season that Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) is dead. We know because Kate keeps his ashes with her. We know because Rebecca is now married to Jack’s former best friend Miguel. But for the first half of the season, it also felt like we knew Jack wasn’t real because he was always so damn perfect all the time. He was a brilliant father, a perfect husband, a good friend. He was the kind of man who gave speeches about life's greater truths and invented terrible traditions to keep his family entertained: a storybook version of a father.
Last week, it seemed as if This is Us was finally going to give us the story line that builds the most momentum in the show, that it was going to finally reveal how Jack Pearson died. In the last episode, we saw Jack get into a car very drunk, still carrying a beer, and head out on a two-hour drive to the venue where Rebecca (Mandy Moore) was playing her first show with her band. We heard Kate (Chrissy Metz) admit to her fiancé that her father’s death was “her fault,” and if you’re anything like me, it seemed pretty obvious that Jack had died in a drunk driving accident and that this week’s season finale would deal with the fallout from that.
It didn’t. The first season of This is Us is now over, and we still don’t know how Jack died. Instead, this episode dealt with a different kind of fallout. Similar to “Memphis,” this episode centers on a single relationship instead of trying to patch the story lines of every single character together around a central theme. This week, front and center, is the love story between Jack and Rebecca, and the moment when the love that tied them together became the most threadbare.
The episode oscillates between the present and the past (like every episode this season). In the present, Jack and Rebecca are in their 40s, parents to the teenage triplets. In the past, they are young single people.
In the past, we are supposed to be getting a flashback that will tell us how Jack and Rebecca end up together. Jack is a young man, recently back from Vietnam, who is living with his parents, trying to save money, and on a bit of a downward slope. After winning a poker game with a bunch of men he doesn’t know, he gets beat up in an ally, loses the money, and gets a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. “It’s hard. It’s just too damn hard,” he tells his friend. But he’s also making it harder for himself, by gambling, and dealing with shady people, beginning to drink like his father and, by the end of the episode, blowing off a blind date to rob Ray’s bar.
The blind date is the fixture of this flashback. In the first scene, Jack agrees to go on a blind date. Rebecca, too, after being chastised by her friends about not having a wedding date, agrees to go on a blind date as well. The whole story line is heading toward this date, but in a completely unnecessary twist, Rebecca’s date is with a boring man named Ethan whom she ditches to attend the open mic night at Ray’s bar, of course. A love story as great as Rebecca and Jack’s couldn’t begin at a stuffy sit-down dinner, could it? It’s much more dramatic for love-at-first-site to foil Jack’s potentially disastrous plan to rob a bar.
But painted right on top of this rose-colored flashback is the mess that’s happening in the present. Where the flashback really succeeds is in the seeds of resentment it plants. At lunch with a few girlfriends, Rebecca is forced to defend her decision to pursue a career, only to be met with the criticism all artists receive — that her odds are low and she should try to “diversify” her interests.
This all sets up the fight that Jack and Rebecca have been repressing for months. Jack has accused and blamed Rebecca constantly for her bandmate having a crush on her, and this episode strangely gives credence to his theory. The ex-boyfriend makes a move, and Rebecca calls Jack from the phone in the theater. The twist is that Jack is already there. He somehow survived his drunken road trip and is at the bar drinking Buds with bourbon backs, and getting generally hammered.
“You know what the bad guys never see coming?” young Jack jokes in the past, “The good guys.” But it is becoming increasingly unclear how good of a guy Jack really is, and how much of his perfection is actually a projection of what he wants from other people. Drunk Jack is not the great husband, perfect father, stereotype of a perfect person. He’s actually incredibly terrible. He storms backstage, beats up Rebecca’s bandmate, and has to be pulled off by a bouncer. Rebecca has to leave her set, the potential beginning of her dream, to drive him home and take care of him.
Rebecca gets home, after driving two hours apparently in heels, and plays her own message to Jack. She doesn’t say a word to him, just puts a pack of frozen peas on the table and gets him a glass of water. The silence is awful, and the fight brewing between them has so much pressure you can almost feel it through the screen. When the seal breaks, the fight isn’t gentle or peaceful or a conversation. (It does briefly hint, though, that getting behind the wheel may be deadly when Rebecca says: “You drive the kids around drunk, Jack? That would be some way to leave us.”)
The fight is a thing of beauty. Both Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia do an excellent job appearing both furious and wounded at almost exactly the same time. This is one of the most real peepholes the show has given us into Jack and Rebecca’s marriage, though it seems a little absurd to believe that they wouldn’t have dealt with some of these issues about self-worth and satisfaction at some other point in their 20-year union. These two aim their critiques with the precision of seasoned shooters.
Rebecca accuses Jack of becoming his father. And of using his alcoholism as an excuse for ruining the career she really wants. Jack is given the sympathy lines in this fight, but it’s Rebecca that has the true complaints. “I have no life,” she outbursts. “I am a housewife, to three children who do not need me anymore... I am a ghost.” The fight culminates in a moment as tense as they come.
Jack tries to resolve a fight that obviously needs to be fought by telling Rebecca that they love each other, that theirs is a perfect love story. She finally pokes a hole in that fantasy, and calls him on that default. “What do you love about me?” she says. “The me that I am right now. Not the me that you’ve conjured up over the years... Make sure you’re not doing it just out of habit.”
In the morning, she asks him to leave to stay with Miguel for a few days, and he does. The show wraps up with Jack giving a monologue about everything he loves about her and how the kids will be fine. This gives the showrunners an opportunity to update us. Kate decides she wants to sing. Kevin decides to take the meeting with Ron Howard. Randall goes and tells Beth that he wants to adopt a baby.
This is Us has already been picked up for a second season and it still has it’s most important story in its back pocket. “I promise you; it’s just getting started,” Jack says on his way out the door, and the show may be promising the same thing.