Early in the This Is Us finale, all-time great emoter Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown) effectively sums up my mood about writing this farewell to the NBC drama: “I’m okay. I’m appropriately sad, and I’m appropriately anxious about this eulogy.”
Last week, the extended Pearson clan said goodbye to matriarch Rebecca (Mandy Moore) in an episode that made me cry so much it gave me a headache. This sounds like a terrible experience, and at times, Dan Fogelman’s series has leaned into the misery—think dragging out the mystery of Jack’s death, for example. Headache aside, “The Train” is a beautiful penultimate outing that spotlights Moore’s terrific performance and Fogelman’s ability to weave an unexpected narrative into the familiar Pearson tapestry.
“Us” is far more understated in comparison, combining two elements the series excels at portraying: the mundane and the meaningful. In the final “previously on,” the inclusion of Rebecca telling Miguel (Jon Huertas) that she’s not ready to let go of memories from days “when nothing big really happens” is a neon sign pointing to the Pearson family’s “completely free Saturday” that intercuts with the day of Rebecca’s funeral.
Choosing to pair a familiar weekend set-up with a solemn ritual softens the overall tone, and the latter is (thankfully) less focused on the funeral itself and more about what comes next. It isn’t lost on me that Rebecca’s demise in her twilight years was drawn out over a decade, which is in sharp contrast to the sudden nature of Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) death when the Big Three were teens. It doesn’t matter that Jack has been dead for 30ish years, as his legacy lives on in his kids, grandchildren, and his younger brother Nicky (Griffin Dunne). (Sorry, Jack, I am still not over you abandoning Nicky after the Vietnam War.)
In the case of Randall’s eulogy, we never get to hear his oratory skills, as Fogelman keeps these words a mystery. The short montage in the church is purposefully disorienting, and later on, Randall tells his three now-adult children, “I can’t remember a single thing I said.” His grief has also taken on an uncharacteristically nihilistic tone. “It all feels so pointless,” he intones before Déjà (La Trice Harper) pulls him (and us) back from the brink of despair.
No one is better at crying on screen or serving up a single tear than Brown, and his reaction to finding out he is going to have a grandson after being surrounded by women his entire adult life breaks the mood. Jack and Rebecca aren’t the only two parental figures memorialized by this family. Déjà tells Randall about wanting to call the baby William, which set my tear ducts off. “Your grandson is going to be named after a man I never met, but I know him because I know you. It’s not pointless.”
Déjà’s“very good news on a very sad day” points to the cyclical nature of life (struggling not to sing Elton John’s Lion King anthem) that This Is Us has dished out from day one. The pilot episode combines tragedy with hope, and this pattern repeats through all six seasons.
Instead of opting for another abstract timeline, such as last week’s depiction of the accident that occurred the same day as the Pearson house fire, this narrative is strictly Pearsons only. Tricks are not required for the series finale that, on a scale of How I Met Your Mother to Six Feet Under, lands closer to Alan Ball’s farewell to the Fisher family. (Although nothing has hit the effectiveness of that final sequence set to Sia’s “Breathe Me.”)
The future isn’t completely mapped out, but we have seen a glimpse of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby’s (Chris Sullivan) son’s rock star career. Adult Jack (Blake Stadnik) is not too out of touch to take his child to the park to play on the swings, as the montage at the start of “Us” depicts. If there is one thing that a multi-generations story tells us, it’s that swings are good, no matter the era.
A swing is why Rebecca has a scar on her eye, but this is a permanent reminder of the time she spent with her father. “I really wish that I had spent more time appreciating it when it was all happening, instead of just worrying about when it would end,” she says in the opening scene of “Us.” We don’t need Moore to break the fourth wall to understand that this line is a knowing wink about the characters we are watching and our own lives.
We don’t know if Randall will become president or if Kate’s music school for the blind will turn into a global empire. Their mother told them to “live fearlessly,” and the Big Three have grand ambitions to honor her wishes—and their dreams.
Perhaps the most poignant part of this final conversation between siblings is when they do the “Big Three” chant that made its first appearance in the second-ever episode. A cutesy invention of Jack’s ties the three kids together and one we see the origin of on that regular Saturday at home. Younger Kate wants to watch home movies, and Jack pulls out the debut performance, much to the annoyance of Kevin because he’s seen it “like a million times.”
Timelines stack on top of timelines, and the scene cuts to Jack filming this original recital. Now, this is where This Is Us might be considered too corny, but it’s the final episode, and I welcome the additional cheesy callback.
In the present, Kate admits her nightmare is that busy lives will inevitably lead to the Big Three drifting apart. The non-linear storytelling device has revealed the many ups and downs, including monumental falling-outs between Kevin and Randall, most notably regarding Rebecca’s healthcare. Differences are eventually put aside, and hurtful words are forgotten. The chant isn’t the glue that keeps them together, but it is a tangible link to their father. If only they had all inherited their mother’s musical talents. They could’ve taken this show on the road.
Flashes of the Pearson family’s past run parallel to what is now the near-future. (One mystery the series doesn’t answer is what year it actually is, but I put it around 2032.) The paradox of always looking forward (when we are young) or back (as we get older) is fundamental to why This Is Us strikes a chord. Jack’s “try to appreciate the moments” sentiments sound like something you can find stitched on a cushion or an affirmation to hang in your kitchen, but it also rings true. Clichés are clichés for a reason.
Covering large swaths of time in a family setup means that most viewers will find something or someone who resonates. For my friends who had a baby during the pandemic, the Kevin and Madison story struck a chord, and there are plenty of details that fit their new parents’ worldview.
For me, there is so much about Nicky that reminds me of my father, who passed away the year This Is Us debuted. Seeing this representation of his struggles with alcohol and the warmth Nicky exudes when he is sober has felt like seeing my dad again. Hence, I find it impossible to forgive Jack.
Whenever I mention there is a new episode of This Is Us to watch, my Catholic husband (with his tongue firmly pressed into his cheek) refers to it as “going to church.” The reason? “You don’t necessarily always want to go, but you always get something out of it.”
I have lost count of how many times through teary eyes I have uttered the phrase “fuck this show” because of how close it hits to the bone. None of this sounds like terms of endearment, but I can assure you that it is, and I have spent six years laughing, yelling (often at Kevin), and talking about this series—even when sending multiple cry-face emojis spoke louder than words.
The finale mixes levity and heartbreak with low-key MVP Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) shining in one last game of Worst Case Scenario to loosen up husband Randall. Of the Big Three, Randall deservedly gets the lion’s share of “Us.” This includes a poignant flashback to a conversation with William (Ron Cephas Jones) about the role of being a grandparent that explores the notion of unconditional love and the power of smell as memory.
Wrapping up a 100-plus episode run is no easy task, particularly in an era in which network shows like This Is Us are becoming a thing of the past. Fogelman and the extended ensemble (shout-out to the casting team) can rest easy as they have stuck the landing. And thankfully, it didn’t give me a headache this time.