Spoilers for This Is Us. Proceed with caution.
I don’t conventionally write about a television series until its season comes to an end, and I certainly never write about a random episode in the middle of the season.
However, when it comes to This Is Us’ Super Bowl Sunday, I have to make an exception, because this episode feels like a finale to everything the series has stood for so far. At least, in one sense.
The funny part about all of this is that Jack Pearson’s present-day state of being (as in, dead) was revealed as early as the second episode of the show, and yet, a whole thirty episodes after that, it manages to still make you care so much about his death.
That, really, is a true testament to the show. Jack Pearson may, admittedly, be painted as unrealistically good at times, but This Is Us manages to do this without the audience turning their backs on Jack. This could partially be because Jack isn’t perfect, and the times when the show highlights this, it often goes all out to do so. The bigger reason, however, is clearly Milo Ventimiglia’s performance. Not many would be able to portray Jack quite like he does, and he makes you fall in love with the character effortlessly.
Jack’s death could have been something thrown out of nowhere (although, given the show’s structure, it would have been impossible or indeed, extremely difficult) and it wouldn’t have been so effective. The key to making Jack’s death so painful to watch, even with the whole world knowing he wasn’t a character that would last, was making Jack seem larger than life.
This isn’t necessarily difficult, because to the Big Three, Jack is larger than life. They often didn’t see their father at his worst, and he was, as Randall puts it in this episode, “the best dad in the world”. Even Kevin, who was always at heads with his father, even the very last time he saw him, knows what kind of a person his dad really was. Kate, of course, is even more attached to his death than everyone else.
Thirty episodes of teasing everyone with how Jack died and making Jack the most lovable character that probably exists in any current drama has its effects.
I realise that I’m going on and on about things that have happened previously on the show, but it just astonishes me that a death everyone knew was coming hit me so hard. It hit me even before I watched the episode. I spent about twelve hours contemplating even watching the episode at all.
Ultimately, I did. At 10PM. Because I enjoy going to sleep with tears in my eyes.
Super Bowl Sunday knows what it’s giving us and it even gives us a fake-out about Jack’s death early on. It knew everyone thought he died in the fire, and it played that card until it was almost unbearable.
And so it makes the actual blow much harder, because even in its revealing episode you’re not sure how Jack dies. When he does, though, of a heart attack caused by excessive smoke inhalation, it’s even more tragic than I ever could have imagined.
One thing you notice is that the episode focuses on Rebecca’s immediate grief when Jack’s death actually happened, and it focuses on the Big Three’s different coping mechanisms twenty years later. Interestingly, they are all different. Rebecca tries, no matter how difficult, to be strong for her children.
She is the only one at the hospital when Jack dies, and in her last conversation with him, Jack is visibly not well, but he doesn’t say it. Even then, he tries to make Rebecca laugh, with the last thing he says to her being ‘you’re in front of the TV’.
Then Rebecca leaves and finds a phone to call Kate and tell her everything is okay. What she doesn’t see, however, is the chaos behind her, and she still thinks Jack is completely fine when she gets off the phone. She gets a candy bar from a vending machine, and the first thing she does when the doctor tells her what happened to Jack is take a bite out of it, because she thinks it’s a joke.
What hits you the hardest is the simplicity of it all. Everyone thought Jack’s death was going to be in a fire, but it wasn’t. We were given his death not by the sight of him, but by the sight of Rebecca. Even though this is Jack’s episode, Mandy Moore is truly the star. There’s something more heartbreaking about her not breaking down immediately, but only realising the doctor isn’t lying by seeing Jack’s body herself. Rebecca had been through so much that day already that she didn’t even care about the Pearson house burning down. It may have been tragic earlier, but Jack helped her see that the house doesn’t matter as long as they have each other.
And then minutes later he was gone.
In the present day, Kate blames herself every year for her father’s death, Randall goes into denial and tries to wash out grief by trying to do something cheerful and Kevin routinely avoids his father around the time of his death.
By the end of the episode, both Kevin and Randall realise that they can’t push their sorrow away forever, and Kate appears to be learning to let go and focus on what she has, instead of what she had.
Now, really, all three of these stories were compelling, but, much like the rest of this season, Kevin’s is simply the most crushing.
Justin Hartley appears to be in his element when he’s talking to nobody but himself, or, someone who isn’t there. ‘Number One’ was one of my favourite episodes of television last year, mostly because of the final few minutes of Kevin just talking to himself and spilling all his regrets.
The moment my tear-ducts could no longer contain themselves during Super Bowl Sunday was when Kevin went to Jack’s tree and just talked to him. There it is again. The beauty of simplicity.
It’s worth noting the difference between Jack’s death and William’s death from last season. William’s death focused mostly on William, because he’d been a character that the show attached us to. Jack’s death focused on everyone else. It’s probably the event that made all of the show’s characters who they are, so, it’s not just about Jack dying. It’s about a part of everyone dying.
Even in this episode, there is a completely unexpected twist. While all of us thought the little boy that was occasionally cut back to was going to be adopted by Randall and Beth, we were all wrong. That was set in the future, and that child’s social worker is actually Randall and Beth’s first daughter Tess. This is interesting because it could be hinting at where the show is going in the future. Also, older Randall has aged really well.
For the present, however, This Is Us left everyone grieving a fictional death that they knew was coming. I may be making a bigger deal of this than it really is, but, it’s incredible how a show can pull that off. I do know, however, that if This Is Us leaned even a little bit away from how down to Earth it is, Jack’s death wouldn’t have been so hard-hitting. This Is Us’ charm is that it is as real as can be (its very tagline is ‘This Is Real’), and as far as I’m concerned, that’s why I’m able to care so much about the show and its characters.
There is another episode this week, which Mandy Moore has said is even more heartbreaking than Super Bowl Sunday. Wonderful.