We’ve known from very early in the first season of NBC’s This Is Us that main character Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) is dead. While we have gotten to know his three adult children — Kate (Chrissy Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — and wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore) in the present, all of Jack’s scenes are flashbacks from the past. What fans have spent the better part of a year trying to figure out is not only his mysterious cause of death (a fire? a drunk driving accident?), but the exact moment in the show's timeline when it will happen.
Stephen Colbert joked to Ventimiglia during this year's Emmys that fans just want him dead — and it’s kind of true. Lately, it feels like we're getting closer to finding out the truth behind what really killed him. Each week we look for breadcrumbs that lead to the reason behind Jack’s untimely demise. Tuesday’s episode may have offered up a new clue about his death. Or maybe it's another red herring. With this show, it can always be hard to tell.
The midseason finale for Season 2, entitled “Number Three,” was all about Randall. In the present, he is grappling with the return of Deja’s (Lyric Ross) biological mother, who desperately wants to be with her child. Kevin, who has just found out about Kate's miscarriage and has been dealing with a growing addiction to painkillers, gets arrested for a DUI, with Randall's daughter Tess in the backseat of the car. But during the flashback scenes, teenage Randall (Niles Fitch) is preparing to go off to college, and while his dad believes he should be aiming for the Ivy League, he's more interested in Howard University.
One of the ways that This Is Us connects the past and present is by giving deeper meaning to mundane places and things. For example, in this episode we learn that Randall’s biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones) chose not to intrude on the life his son built with Jack and Rebecca after he saw children’s bikes in the front yard. For William, they symbolized the family and stability young Randall had found over the past nine years, and he didn’t want to disrupt that or insert himself where he wasn't wanted.
Along the same vein, Pac-Man appears multiple times in the episode, and it may serve as one of those breadcrumbs. Randall has been playing the video game since he was a teenager, and says the thing that stands out to him about it is that it hasn’t changed much in the 30 years. His children now play it on their iPads. But most importantly, we see that Randall was playing it after he and Jack returned home from a college visit to Howard University. The camera pans over Jack, looking at his family adoringly and rests on the television screen just as Randall’s last available Pac-Man succumbs to one of the ghosts. ‘Game Over’ appears in the middle of the maze.
Any number of meanings can be drawn from this moment, but I don’t think it’s an accident that this was the last scene before a holiday break on the show. It was a sign that the game is over for Jack, who we know from an interview with Brown is going to die within the next eight episodes of the current season. While his death is obviously imminent in the story arc as well — we know from seeing snippets of his funeral that he died when his children were still in high school — this scene seems like an ominous warning that's directly tied to the video game itself. Could the console be responsible for the fire that destroyed the Pearson home? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s further teased when the show returns on January 2.
On the bright side, Jack's death doesn’t have to mean the end of Ventimiglia’s run on the non-linear show. Flashback scenes are what make This Is Us, and I’m sure the Pearsons have an endless stream of memories for us to cry about.