When I fretted in my review of the first season of This Is Us that the show would run out of things to do or say once it revealed the answer to its biggest mystery — how did Jack Pearson, paterfamilias of the Pearson clan, die? — I didn’t actually expect the show to agree with me.
But that’s the only conclusion one can draw from “Moonshadow,” a sometimes lovely, mostly tortured season one finale that feels more like a brief pause in the middle of a sentence than it does a period at the end of said sentence. (Predictably, creator Dan Fogelman has been making the interview rounds to say this was always the plan.)
Its primary idea is: “Guess what! There’s more to this story than you thought! And there are even more Mandy Moore/Milo Ventimiglia timelines to ponder!” And, sure, I guess. But the episode’s big cliffhanger, which involves Jack and Rebecca separating in the past, doesn’t have much punch to it, because, well, it’s in the past, and the show’s track record for filling in the gaps of its epic family saga is ... spotty at best.
So here’s what you need to know about the This Is Us finale, helpfully broken down in bullet point form, because honestly you probably shouldn’t even read past the subheads.
Okay, and I think I know how Jack died, but I’m going to bury that all the way at the bottom of this article, so you have to at least scroll through it.
1) Jack’s drinking and jealousy drive him to Rebecca’s show in Cleveland — then drive the couple apart
As we saw in the season’s penultimate episode, Jack, drunk, hopped in his car and drove to Cleveland to see Rebecca perform with her band on the first stop of her tour. This is all happening in the mid-’90s; Kate, who blames herself for her father’s death as an adult, persuaded Jack to make the drive via a phone call when she was a teenager, which is why this elaborate misdirect seemed to portend a drunk-driving accident.
Half wanting to see her and half convinced that her bandmate (and ex) Ben was just trying to contrive a chance to hook up with Rebecca, Jack wasn’t exactly in the best of places to surprise his wife. But nobody on This Is Us ever met a grand romantic gesture they couldn’t pass up, so here we go.
Jack lands a few punches on Ben after Ben alludes to trying to kiss Rebecca (she rejected his advance), at which point Rebecca quits her band and her entire music career (at least for the moment) because her husband’s too drunk to drive himself home. The two head back to Pittsburgh and launch into the biggest fight they’ve had on the show.
Now, I don’t want to undersell this fight, which is one of the season’s better scenes. Fogelman and his writers have believably seeded the season with growing, unexpressed resentments between Jack and Rebecca, which are only barely understood by their children, and he lets them all spill out here in a torrent of bile.
And yet I can’t help but feel like this is all too little, too late. Jack and Rebecca haven’t just been sold to the audience as a good love story. They’ve been sold to us as one of the greatest, most tragic love stories of all time. It’s kind of hard to dial back from that to “Well, I guess they actually had some problems” as abruptly as this season has done. On the other hand...
2) This is actually an okay setup for season two
It depends on what the show does with it, of course, but as Jack and Rebecca separate at the end of “Moonshadow,” I find myself hoping that season two will dig into all the ways their love story wasn’t a great one. That way, regardless of whether Fogelman decides to split them up forever or reunite them, it will feel earned.
This Is Us perpetually struggles to avoid floating away on a river of tooth-rotting sweetness, and a nice, hard dose of reality is something it desperately needs. And there were moments throughout Jack and Rebecca’s fight when I was legitimately impressed by how the show had woven various elements of their anger into the season that preceded it.
Especially nice: Rebecca, terrified of becoming her mother, had become her mother. That’s predictable, to be sure, but Moore played the hell out of it, and the show neatly suggested how such a resolution might sneak up on Rebecca, until she found herself dumbfounded at how much of her life had simply slipped away from her. (I also liked Jack’s snide dismissal of Rebecca’s dreams, which, in one moment, made him seem more real and human than he had for much of the rest of the season.)
3) The show has added something like its 15th timeline to keep track of
By and large, the show has avoided the space between Jack’s death (the date of which we still don’t know — more on this in a moment) and where it picked up in its series premiere, on the Big Three’s 36th birthday in late summer 2016.
But it’s been scrupulous about pillaging everything from the Big Three’s childhood, their adolescence, their time as fetuses, and the time before them when Jack and Rebecca were newlyweds.
It’s even dropped in on Jack’s ancestor, as he immigrates to the US in the early 20th century. (We only saw him for a brief moment in an early episode, but one assumes Fogelman has a whole story about that dude he’s going to tell.)
In “Moonshadow,” though, events don’t bounce between 2017 and the Pearson separation in the mid-’90s (Rebecca has to miss ER to go on tour — fortunately, it’s a rerun!). They bounce between the Pearson separation and the first time Jack and Rebecca meet in the early ’70s, when Jack shows up at a bar he plans to rob and Rebecca is singing at an open mic night after ditching a very boring blind date with another guy. (Anytime I try to recap the events of this show, it feels like the TV Tropes page for “melodrama” has exploded.)
Anyway, I’m sure we’ll return to this timeline next season, especially as Jack and Rebecca struggle to heal the massive wounds their fight opened up in their marriage, which will be all the better for tragic resonances.
4) We barely saw the Pearson kids at all
Indeed, “Moonshadow” drops in on them for about five hot seconds in a montage, which would be an impressive move for the show if I thought that anybody cared about a Pearson kid not named Randall.
Let’s recap their adventures in literal bullet point form!
- Randall tells Beth he wants to adopt a baby, because he wants to help another kid the way his parents helped him.
- Kevin is driving to Los Angeles to meet with Ron Howard (lol) about a role in his new movie (also lol). Sophie says goodbye and tells him that she loves him as he drives off. The race to sign Alexandra Breckenridge as a series regular begins now...
- Kate remembers that episode from early in the season when she wanted to be a singer, because she sees a photo of her mom singing. Seriously. That’s it.
5) I think I know how Jack Pearson is going to die
In the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
I’m serious about this. I really wish I weren’t. But there are just enough clues in the show thus far to make me think it might try to go there. (I’m not the only person to have had the idea. A bunch of die-hard This Is Us fans got there weeks ago, and have thought about it more than me. It’s probably worth reading their theorizing before mine, but I promise you all of the thoughts below are thoughts I had in the immediate wake of watching “Moonshadow.”)
The one tiny piece of information we definitively know about how Jack died — Kate blames herself for it — could seem to contradict this, but Kate blaming herself for a long stretch of events that led to Jack being present for the 9/11 attacks is exactly the sort of bizarre, self-centered thing one of the characters on this show might do, and I think I can explain how such a development might play out.
Here are some pieces of evidence:
- The show has been very careful to not even reveal the year of Jack’s death. I suspect that’s because if we heard he died in 2001, our minds would start heading toward the big, obvious event from that year.
- We know that much of the Pearson family moves to New York at some point, for what seems like literally no reason. (They used to live in Pittsburgh.) We also know that Miguel refers to Rebecca as an “artist,” which sure sounds like more than “has fun hanging out with her band on weekends.” My guess is that Jack moves the family to New York so Rebecca can pursue her musical dreams in a place where a woman in her 40s might have a shot at becoming a cabaret singer, if said woman in her 40s lived in a Dan Fogelman show.
- Sterling K. Brown told Entertainment Weekly that Jack died as he lived. We know that the Pearson kids think of Jack as a larger-than-life, heroic figure — which would track with someone who somehow died trying to save lives on 9/11.
- The cast members and writers spent a lot of a recent Variety profile of the show talking about how it is going to “destroy America,” which is a really weird way to talk about a family melodrama that makes people cry. Granted, this phrasing is super flimsy as evidence, but I’m choosing to believe it’s a telling word choice.
- The one major contradiction to Jack being dead in 2001 in the show — Kate saying he watched the Super Bowl with her in 2006 — is immediately explained away by the fact that Kate watches all Steelers games with her father’s urn. Presumably she could have done the same with the Super Bowl in 2006. And when we briefly see Jack’s funeral, the Big Three look like they’re in their teens or early 20s — which tracks with 2001 — and not in their later 20s, which would track with post-2006.
Again, to be clear: The main reason the show probably won’t do this is that it would be incredibly hard to do well, without being offensive or cloying or manipulative. At its very worst, a storyline like the above would be tasteless.
And yet doesn’t it sound exactly like something this show would do? Like exactly the sort of bold, dramatic moment this series would go in for? The Pearsons weren’t just depressed about the death of Jack. They were utterly and totally ripped apart. And with every episode that passes where this death is a mystery hanging over everything else, the bigger the “answer” has to be to satisfy.
It’s clear Fogelman thinks of the saga of the Pearsons as some sort of fundamental, deeply rooted American myth — a family melodrama that stands in for all family melodramas. And if that’s the case, incorporating a major American tragedy would make some degree of sense.