A review of the This Is Us season finale coming up just as soon as ER‘s a repeat tonight…
It’s funny: This Is Us made a splash back in the fall with the big twist at the end of the pilot, and for a while it seemed like all the stories were being done in service of the latest big surprise: Rebecca knew about William all along! Jack’s dead in the present! Rebecca and Miguel are now married! After a while, though, the show mostly moved on from that — though there would still be twists from time to time, like the revelation that Kevin had really gone to New York to reunite with Sophie (and that he had been married to Kate’s former best friend) — as the ratings seemed to give Dan Fogelman and company confidence in the idea that the audience simply liked these characters, surprises or no.
Yet hanging out there, all along, like a big matzoh ball, was the nature and timing of Jack’s death. Perhaps it makes me a bad This Is Us viewer that I didn’t really care about when or how he died, but the show leaned on the question so much, both within the narrative (Kate won’t tell Toby about it) and without (the many interviews Fogelman did teasing the question of when, or if, it would be revealed this season). So when last week’s episode ended with an inebriated Nineties Jack driving off to talk to Rebecca, it sure seemed that the finale would involve him going out in some kind of drunk-driving PSA (and Kate can blame herself because she was the one who told him to go tell Rebecca how he felt).
Instead, the big twist of “Moonshadow” was that it wasn’t about Jack’s death at all, but about the rift in the Pearson marriage that came about as a result of a blotto Jack punching out Ben after Ben had confirmed his worst fears about the motives behind this whole tour, and as a result of the nasty verbal fight between husband and wife that came when they got home. And, at the same time, it was the story of how Jack and Rebecca met eight years before the kids were born, which itself featured a twist or two by making it seem like they had been set up on a blind date with one another, when in fact they were supposed to be on blind dates with two other people(*).
(*) We got to meet Rebecca’s nice but boring date, but not his. Yet Rebecca’s question about Jack’s date has me wondering if this will now be some weird parallel plot in season two: maybe an alternate timeline episode where we not only meet the real date, but see what would have happened if Jack had gone through with it?
And there was some good material there, particularly in that very blunt and caustic argument back at the house, as Rebecca screamed that she has no life — and called out Jack for having made all the decisions in their married life, often without consulting her first (and Jack had no retort, because he doesn’t know that she’s been hiding William from him and Randall) — while Jack played martyr and accused her of not appreciating him and the kids enough. There was some bad material, too, like the random digression into Sopranos country for an unintentionally comical “bad guy” card game with acquaintances of Jack’s best friend from the early ’70s, but on the whole the hour did a pretty good job of contrasting who Jack and Rebecca were immediately before they met with who they were when she ordered him out of the house. It wasn’t a four-hankie hour like some of the show’s best episodes — in part because Randall (like his siblings) only appeared briefly, but it had its emotional moments.
The problem was that the show and its PR team had so relentlessly pushed the “What if Jack, but dead?” narrative so much in recent weeks — and particularly at the climax of the penultimate episode — that it was hard not to think about it potentially happening in any scene throughout “Moonshadow,” which made it hard to focus on what was actually happening. Even the ’70s scenes carried that distracting weight: Is the gangster going to track down Jack 25 years later to kill him? Will his alcoholic dad turn up and somehow cause his son’s death? It reminded me, oddly, of watching the classic “One Minute” episode of Breaking Bad, where the audience had been primed to expect the Cousins to attempt to kill Hank at any moment, only a version where the assassination attempt never materialized.
And this is the trap you fall into when you overemphasize mysteries and puzzles and surprises: that focus comes at the expense of the characterization and story arcs that should be the heart of the show. When you keep teasing Jack’s death, and then make the episode be about everything but, you draw focus away from what’s actually happening, and/or make it seem like a disappointment when it doesn’t come. (And, again, I don’t care how Jack died! But This Is Us really wants me to!)
In the end, it was an uneven but at times very effective finale to an uneven but at times very effective season. The version of This Is Us that’s primarily about Randall in the present and past is wonderful (and also a bit less twist-dependent than the other corners of the series). Kevin and Kate are both monotonous and far less compelling than their sibling, and while the Jack and Rebecca flashbacks can be incredibly heartwarming, they also tend to be the most subordinate to the show’s periodic gotcha moments.
In the case of “Moonshadow,” the surprise was that there wasn’t a surprise, at least not about the thing that seemed to be coming. Maybe if the show hadn’t emphasized that question so much of late, the finale would have played better, or maybe the card game, the marginalization of Randall and Beth, and other choices would have made it a middling capper to the season no matter what.
But if my number one hope for This Is Us season two is that Fogelman either gets a much better handle on Kevin and Kate or simply sends them off to live with the missing Winslow daughter from Family Matters, my number two is that the show learns to permanently relax, accept that it’s a big honking hit, and that the narrative trickeration is not only no longer necessary, but can be a hindrance to what the show is best at.
What did everybody else think? Are you worried about Jack and Rebecca’s marriage? Still invested in how Jack dies? Did any of the glimpses of what the siblings are doing in the present (Kate trying to sing, Kevin going to meet with Ron Howard, Randall wanting to pay it forward by adopting a baby) excite you for season two? And do you want to get a lot more of this new timeline with a clean-shaven Jack and slightly younger Rebecca?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org