This Is Us pulled off a rare feat: It pissed people off by not killing off a character. No, Jack didn’t die, and instead of getting an end, we got the promise of a beginning. Instead of death, we got rebirth. I wasn’t a fan of this finale for a couple of reasons, but the most important one is that the episode hinged on dashing our expectations, a trick this show has played so many times before, except this time it didn’t land nearly as well as it has in the past. The writers of This Is Us wanted us to believe so badly that we would learn the cause of Jack’s demise that they started the set up episodes before, perhaps even as far back as Kate’s reveal that she keeps her dad’s ashes for hang out purposes. Marketing was in on it too, teasing the tear-jerking moments, the heartbreaking reveal, etc. But it was all for naught. This Is Us has at least two more seasons to string us along when it comes to Jack’s death and they better make the most of them.
Look, I didn’t think that we were going to find out how Jack died. I would have been more surprised if we did. Yet, a sense of dread consistently pervaded ”Moonshadow.” A specter hung over the episode and I don’t think that final monologue was enough to reconcile the “Moonshadow’s” overall tone. Good episodes of This Is Us and bad ones can be separated by how well they pull off their emotional manipulation. “Moonshadow” fell into the latter category, invoking feelings without actually creating a genuine atmosphere for those emotions. Look at Ben’s attempt to kiss Rebecca. It’s supposed to make us angry, like it makes Jack angry, and give Rebecca a reason to go home without seeming like she’s giving up at on her dreams. But it feels disingenuous because a similar scenario — coworker makes a pass at a married Pearson — already happened. Last week. (Jack’s coworker put her hand on his knee and he hulked out at her.) These married Pearsons must have some sort of pheromone that they give off, attracting all manner of colleague their way. That anger is a retread, we’ve done this one already, and claiming that it’s a reflection of experience doesn’t make sense to me either. Time to find another heartstring to tug. We’ve done this one before.
“Moonshadow” tried in a way to replicate the success of “Memphis,” the series best episode by far. Instead of focusing on the ensemble, “Moonshadow” zeroed most of its energy on Jack. (And this was really about Jack. We’ve gotten to know Rebecca in the time hops back and forth, and Rebecca wasn’t given all that much to work with outside of the blows she lands her in centerpiece fight with Jack.) Randall’s storyline worked as a standalone because it was the most fully formed of anything going on in the series. His issues as not just an adoptee, but a black adoptee in white family, could form its own series. There’s a reason that Kate or Kevin episode would never work, and it’s same reason that “Moonshadow” didn’t either. Kate and Kevin’s stories are buoyed by the rest of the ensemble. Stripping out the rest of the characters exposes how thin the Pearsons can be. We put up with the play or Kate’s constant, character-defining weight struggles because we ultimately don’t have to spend too much time with them. We spent too much time with Jack.
Jack has never been a fully-formed character, and part of that is on purpose. He’s supposed to be this saintly cypher to his children, who continue to put him on a pedestal years after his death. It’s only recently that his myth has been called in to question, and here we find out about the real guy behind that myth. But his story is ridiculous, I’m not entirely sure I wanted to know about the clandestine poker game, his mugging at the hands off the pissed off poker boss or the inane stick up attempt. Jack is supposedly so desperate for escape that he’ll do anything to get out from under his uber-villainous father’s roof, but the poker game was more laughable than stakes-raising.
That fight, though. It wasn’t the content of the fight that I paid the most attention to even though that was important too. Rebecca thinks Jack has started drinking again to take away the one thing in her life that is her’s, while Jack think he’s been more than supportive of a dead-end hobby that Rebecca mistakes for a career. But it was the way that Moore and Milo Ventimiglia fought that I thought was the most interesting. To be a believable married couple, they have to have the sweetness and light down, but they also need to have the anger down as well. Jack’s episode-ending monologue was mostly like where Ventimiglia was looking for his Emmy reel, but I think he was the best in that fight. He and Moore felt like they had done this before, their beats were perfect and they were in sync with each other, and there were some brutal jabs thrown as well. “The next time you tell me that you love me, make sure you’re not just doing it out of habit” particularly hurt. I also appreciated how that fight ended. They don’t want to hurt each other, but said things cannot be unsaid if they want to move forward and grow.
The whole point of Jack’s storyline was to reinforce his monologue to Rebecca at the end. He’s packing up to go to Miguel’s after that devastating fight and launches into one of the show’s classic soliloquies. “You weren’t just my great love story, you were my big break,” he tells her. This is the life he was supposed to be living all along, and Rebecca is the reason he got to live it. She gave him a new beginning when he left his buddy high and dry on the pay phone and didn’t commit a felony. This is all juxtaposed with their marriage break, which is supposed to be a new beginning as well. The Big Three reflect that as well as they show where the next season will go: Kate wants to sing, Kevin’s going to star in a Ron Howard movie (and ruin his relationship), and Randall and Beth will adopt a child. Jack had a new beginning — fatherhood — at their age, and now they’ll each experience one of their own.
While I’ve viewed This Is Us cynically throughout its first season — and I think that was very much warranted — I will miss it over its hiatus. When This Is Us could pull off its emotional manipulation and it was artful. I tuned in because I wanted to feel, and I didn’t want ambiguity of those feelings. I wanted a simple emotional outlet, and This Is Us provided that fabulously. This first season wasn’t great TV, but I don’t think I want This Is Us to be great TV. Here are my heartstrings. Tug away. This Is Us fulfills its purpose in that way, and to me that’s what matters. On the plane that it operated throughout it’s first season, it set out what it accomplished to do: create a family of affable, interesting humans who we wanted to follow and feel for. And I’ll look forward to following them next season as well.
- Girl, I would also rather be watching ER most of the time.
- I happened to watch Friends’ “The One with George Stephanopoulos,” in which Rachel’s old Long Island friends visit Central Perk and implore her to come home, believing her new independent streak is a fad. Rebecca’s friends were essentially the same characters, just transported back to the ‘70s.
- All props to Moore, who has brought pathos to a character that doesn’t always have them written into her, but not even Meryl Streep could pull off the line, “This guy better show up, I could be at an open mic tonight.”