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This Is Usseason finale leaves you asking, “Her?”

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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There’s only one moment in the This Is Us third season finale that genuinely surprised me. It’s the moment in the flashforward where a pre-teen kid wanders through the room and the dialogue casually reveals that he’s Kevin’s son. It’s a routine interaction for the characters, but a shocking reveal for us, which is what makes it so effective. Elsewhere, however, this episode is too precious when it comes to doling out reveals and red herrings, all while grappling with the “her” mystery it’s been teasing since the second season finale. We already knew that “her” was Rebecca, but this episode confirms what many probably already suspected—that she’s infirm and seemingly plagued by memory loss in her old age. It’s meant to be shocking or heartwrenching. Instead, it feels predictable and cheaply manipulative.

That’s the case for a lot of the mysteries that are ostensibly driving this episode. Never for a second did I think that This Is Us would actually permanently split up Beth and Randall or have Baby Jack not survive. Despite its status as a tearjerker, This Is Us is a fundamentally nice, fairly toothless show. So even when it teases an “anything can happen!” storyline, it never really feels like the show is actually going to follow through on it, unless it does so in the gentlest way possible with tons of foreshadowing. And that’s fine. This Is Us doesn’t need to offer surprises to be a successful show. But if the endpoint is predictable, the journey to getting there at least needs to be interesting. And that’s where this episode (and good chunks of this season) dropped the ball.

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Admittedly, if “Her” had been a random mid-season episode, I’d probably feel much more kindly towards it. As always, it’s lushly directed, impeccably acted (Justin Hartley, Mandy Moore, Lyric Ross, and Eris Baker were my standouts, but everyone’s great), and full of really moving sequences about family members bringing out the best in each other. But as a season finale, it feels like a bit of a deflated balloon. It wraps up the storylines that have come to dominate this final run of episodes, but it doesn’t really feel like a particularly effective capper to this season as a whole.

That’s most obvious in Kevin’s storyline, which ends with him and Zoe breaking up over the question of whether or not to have kids—a conflict that wasn’t even introduced until two episodes ago. This season started with a really compelling arc about Kevin learning about his dad’s time in Vietnam, which led to the reveal that Nicky is alive, which led to Kevin’s relapse, which was then promptly dropped in favor of this out-of-nowhere kids storyline. I thought This Is Us was at least setting up an arc about Kevin’s manipulative relationship tendencies. Instead, it turns out it was just a way to leave Kevin single and on the West Coast for the fourth season. Kevin and Zoe’s breakup is a mature relationship decision for them, but a boring dramatic choice for This Is Us.

Kate’s storyline also feels like it rushes way too quickly into a new status quo. The experience of Rebecca having to tap Baby Jack’s foot to get him to start breathing again is really harrowing, and a powerful insight into what having a baby in the NICU is like. It’s exactly the sort of long-term experience a serialized TV show would be uniquely well-suited to capture. Instead, this episode ends by rushing through what would likely be a months-long NICU stay to get Baby Jack home as soon as possible. (The flashfoward reveals Jack is definitely alive in the future, so no more need to worry on that front.)

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Kate’s storyline also ties into the rather odd way this episode uses Rebecca, but more on that in a minute. First, we must grapple with Randall and Beth, the problem children of This Is Us’ third season. Their decision to downsize and move to Philadelphia actually makes a whole lot of sense, and I was surprised I hadn’t thought of it earlier. (On the other hand, Beth’s decision to open her own dance studio rather than just getting a dance instructor job in Philly is, frankly, insane.) But it’s another example of This Is Us pulling its emotional punches to offer cheap sentimentality. “R & B” set up a genuine roadblock for Randall and Beth, one that held Randall accountable for pretty much the first time in the show’s history. “Her” solves that by finding a magical, fan service-y solution in which neither of them has to give up anything, and Beth’s decades-long resentment towards Randall’s selfishness is just entirely dropped. I guess Randall at least offers to resign, but that barely registers. He hasn’t meaningfully grappled with his fundamental personality flaw, so much as just won the cosmic lottery yet again.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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“Her” also made me realize that Randall and Beth have been pretty shitty parents this season. Deja is the one who has to give her dad a big speech about getting his life in order. (It’s a really sweet scene, but a troublesome relationship dynamic.) Tess, meanwhile, is so hypersensitive to her parents’ career and marital woes that she feels she can’t even talk to them about the fairly major identity crisis she’s experiencing now that she’s started the process of coming out. (Again, it leads to a sweet scene between Tess and Kevin, but reflects a troublesome dynamic overall.) Even more egregiously, Randall and Beth make the decision to move to Philly without even raising the question of how it would affect their daughters. The final packing montage features brief shots of Annie and Tess looking vaguely forlorn, which could imply that’s a thread the show will pick up next season, but who even knows at this point. Regardless, this episode proves that Deja and Tess are really compelling characters played by incredibly talented young performers, and I hope next season takes better advantage of that.

And then there’s Rebecca. It’s no secret that Rebecca is my favorite character on This Is Us, so this episode seems uniquely designed to hit me right in the heart. Instead, I found it to be a frustratingly shallow portrait of a character who’s anything but shallow. To increase the tragedy of her future infirmity, this episode goes out of its way to portray Rebecca as the saintly glue holding the Pearsons together. But the thing is, Rebecca isn’t the saintly glue holding the Pearsons together, and that’s what makes her such an interesting character. She’s a deeply flawed woman whose life has been defined by compromise and tragedy. “Her” digs into Rebecca’s complicated nature a little bit in the scenes in the NICU in which she somewhat annoyingly inserts herself into Baby Jack’s care, only to wind up being the calm head in a crisis. But even that is mostly just set up for a scene in which Kate monologues about how Rebecca was the perfect, flawless mom.

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The flashback storyline about Rebecca spending the night in the hospital after a car crash is a complete throwaway, one that doesn’t offer any real insights into Rebecca or her family. Given Jack’s complete inability to take care of his kids for a night, I guess it’s interesting to think about what would’ve happened if she’d been the one to die young and leave Jack as a single parent. But I spent most of the episode wishing we could see Rebecca’s experience in the hospital instead of following her family. Was she actually just putting on a brave face while secretly upset to spend the night away from them? Or is that just a projection on Jack’s part? Rebecca’s always had a loving but complicated relationship to motherhood, and “Her” erases that to offer maximum emotional manipulation instead.

So what to make of season three as a whole? I’m hoping that with a little bit of distance, I’ll remember this season’s highs more than its lows. “Sometimes” is my all-time favorite episode of the series and “Vietnam” is up there too. The entire Vietnam War storyline was really fantastic, and both Michael Angarano and Griffin Dunne are welcome additions to the This Is Us cast. Yet this has also been a season full of false starts, frustrations, and wasted potential. More so than anything, season three proved that This Is Us is strongest when it digs into its characters’ flaws, rather than sentimentally glossing over them. Hopefully that’s a lesson future seasons will keep in mind.

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Stray observations

  • I can’t believe it took me this long to realize that the This Is Us series finale is absolutely going to end Titanic-style, with Rebecca dying and reuniting with Jack in heaven.
  • Lingering questions about the Pearson family’s future: What exactly is wrong with Rebecca (presumably Alzheimer’s or dementia?) and at what age did it start effecting her? How did Nicky get clean and rejoin the Pearsons? Who did Kevin have a kid with? Where’s Miguel? Are Toby and Kate still together? Does Zoe remain a part of the Pearson crew after her breakup with Kevin? Where are Deja and Annie? And maybe the biggest question of all: What happened with Kevin’s Ron Howard movie?!?
  • As is often the case with TV shows, the opening credits spoiled the fact that Nicky would be appearing in this episode. That’s too bad, but I’m really glad This Is Us is keeping him around as a character.
  • Rebecca’s old(er) age makeup is, uh, really something. Also I’m confused by the fact that Nicky barely seems to have aged at all in the flashforward?
  • Okay, let’s end this on a positive note: I really laughed at Jack serving corn sandwiches for dinner and his confused reaction to middle school Kevin’s flirting.
  • Thank you for following along with these reviews on this rollercoaster ride of a season! If you want to chat about the Pearsons in the off-season and/or theorize about how Kevin’s Ron Howard movie did (are we thinking In The Heart Of The Sea numbers?), you can find me on Twitter.
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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.