By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jan 26, 2022 at 6:01 PM

Last week, I made a big huff about being nervous about the next episode looking like a Jack-centric flashback – an odd choice considering how much ground "This Is Us" still has to cover this final season. As it turns out, the only thing I should've been nervous about was whether I had enough Kleenex on hand Tuesday night for all the tears. 

Did "Don't Let Me Keep You" deliver any big reveals or twists? No. Did it forward any of the show's ever-increasing plot threads? Also no. Was it an immediate inductee into the "This Is Us" episode hall of fame, telling a story with beautifully profound universality and specificity that earned every snotty sob it wrung out of audiences last night? Absolutely. Last week I asked if this was the best use of the show's shrinking amount of time. I forgot that an excellently told story is always a good use of a show's time. 

Anyways, here's the five big takeaways from the latest chapter of "This Is Us" – besides wondering what's the best way to prepare crow for dinner?

1. A solo Jack flashback episode was actually a great idea

I cannot emphasize this enough: I was so wrong – and, not only was I wrong, but I doubted one of my key principles of "This Is Us"-ing: Solo episodes, where the focus can really dive into nuance and earning emotion as opposed to quantity over quality, are always the best. And "Don't Let Me Keep You" tearfully proved that point one more time – and then some. It's like I've learned nothing over the past several seasons. 

Most of the episode follows Jack as he heads to smalltown Ohio to help plan his mother Marilyn's funeral. Considering he was a key factor in getting his mother out of an abusive home and far away somewhere safe, you might be expecting a hero's welcome when he arrives – but instead, things are as chilly as the snow-covered flashbacks to Little Jack preparing to sled down a hill of assumed doom. Seeing Camryn Manheim on screen once again might be a welcome sight, but her Cousin Debbie character is not in a welcoming mood – not just because of the sad news but because she's clearly got some hostility toward Jack, coldly informing him that the funeral's pretty much already planned, answering questions about Marilyn's life in Ohio as tersely as possible and laying on the ultimate guilt trip.

As we discover through interspersed flashbacks, while Jack may have kept in contact with his mother regularly over the years, they weren't what you would call close. Sure, they had phone calls every Sunday night, but while Marilyn eagerly looked forward to them each week, Jack saw them more as an obligation, filled with short answers and groaning empty "yeses" and "sures." It wasn't anything malicious on Jack's part. Life, as it does, just filled up with new people and new responsibilities (triplets will do that!) and it's just all too easy to take family – particularly parents – for granted, to think that they'll always be there because they always have been. 

As we see throughout the episode, though, typical parent-child impatience wasn't the only thing keeping Marilyn and Jack at a distance – a nuance a focused episode like this really dives into. Though Stanley, the abusive father and husband, may be out of the picture, his traumatic shadow of cruelty still darkens their relationship and interactions, reminding them of some of their worst memories.

When Marilyn finally returns to Pennsylvania and visits the triplets, for instance, she spends much of the time trying to keep herself busy and focus on anything other than the past, whether it's nervously knitting or cooking a hot dog and tomato soup snack no one really needs. Meanwhile, Jack has a aversion to visiting Ohio and the frozen ice skating pond Marilyn wants to show the kids – not only because of the triplets and work, but because he can't stand the rush of ugly traumas that will inevitably come to mind in one another's presence. They may have physically escaped Stanley, but his actions still haunt them. 

And now, decades later, Jack's preparing a eulogy for a mother he realizes he barely knew, who became a different person with new friends and a new personality he never took the opportunity to know. And now, to his deep regret and guilt, may never will. How do you talk about a life you barely knew – and, what you did know, carried so much hurt? For the first time in perhaps this show's history, a character can't come up with a speech for that.

But, of course, this is "This Is Us," so of course we get a great speech – though it didn't look good for a while. Not even sitting at Marilyn's favorite cafe table could inspire Jack. And in case the speech itself wasn't a big enough stressor, after a night at the bar, he called his dad to sharply tell him that Marilyn died and that he's not invited. Stanley, being the jagoff he is, replies that he can't stop him – so there's THAT hanging over everything too. 

Still, Jack eventually takes the podium – thankfully without an interruption from Stanley. There is still an unexpected arrival, however, courtesy of Rebecca and the triplets, who sneak into the back row as Jack mumbles through some very hollow thoughts on how his mom did her best. Their arrival awakens Jack and his eulogy, speaking about how the house they lived in wasn't great but they thankfully found new homes with better lives – even if, in those homes, they shrunk anything that reminded them of their pasts as small as possible. In Jack's case, that regretfully included his mother. But he turns his guilt into gratefulness that the people in Marilyn's new home brought out the best in her and brought out her most joyful self, in a similar way to how Rebecca and the kids brought out the best in him in his new home. 

It's a beautiful, honest and gracious sentiment that hits hard – and resulted in my first tears of the final season. The scene was so good that, when the show cut to the commercial break, I have never been more angry at an ad for breaking the spell and taking me out of a moment. (Though I appreciated the Kleenex de-snotting break.) 

The sobbing wasn't done, though, as the episode tops things off with – of course – Jack finally taking Rebecca and the Big Three to Marilyn's frozen pond, joined by some of the people his mother left behind, their two new homes becoming one. And sure, because my tear ducts haven't gotten enough exercise yet, let's toss in Jack making his mom's signature comfort dish – hot dogs and tomato soup – for the Big Three, montaged with the memory of his mother making the food for him back as a child after a sledding accident. Despite all the terrible memories and experiences that kept them apart, there were still good ones that kept them together – even after her passing.

And yet, it's still not all happy endings as Jack steps aside and, finally taking a moment to realize what's happened, breaks down to Rebecca with a simple but devastatingly child-like realization: "I don't have a mom anymore." Because as much as the speech and the trip provided some catharsis for Jack, he still lost his mother – and still will never get that time lost back. Cue one more hefty cry break as the episode wraps up a moving tribute to the bond between parent and child, and how much it means to savor it while one can.  

Full disclosure: Just thinking and recounting these moments has led me to even more tears (and in public, so thanks, "This Is Us"; thank god for masks hiding my mess of a face). So yeah, I'm gonna say this tangent back to the past was worth the show's while. 

2. I would like more Debbie, Mike and Cat Benatar please

Listen, I know the timelines probably don't work, but this better not be the last time we see Cousin Debbie, Marilyn's new boyfriend Mike and Cat Benatar on "This Is Us." I don't care what plothole demonry we have to conjure – maybe even a literal "Pet Sematary" situation with Cat Benatar – but make it happen, show. 

As played by Camryn Manheim, her Cousin Debbie has such genuine layers, starting with her early grounded resentment toward Jack that you can feel her years of accumulated disappointment in their short conversations. Eventually, it evolves into something more empathetic, Manheim ideally playing Debbie's nervousness at the funeral itself, finally softening with the pressure on (she too has a speaking part, her poem perfectly imperfect in its bluntness) and the more delicate emotions cracking through the wall of bitterness. By the time she's cracking jokes with Jack and Rebecca and ice skating with the kids at the end, she's a part of the family – one I wouldn't mind seeing at least one more visit from.

And if Debbie's coming back, hopefully she brings Mike back too. Marilyn's new boyfriend (and father to their adorable cat with the perfect pun name) gets a terrific introduction, opening the door to reveal a burly-bearded David Crosby lookalike in a "Hotel California" t-shirt. Even better, he has a big heart to match his big beard, trying with adorable anxious enthusiasm to connect with Jack over wrestling on television only to calm down and sit down with some photos to share. And unlike Cousin Debbie, he tries to comfort Jack by thanking him for getting Marilyn out of their abusive house, even calling him a hero – a word that sticks in Jack's craw, still processing his complicated emotions.

After the funeral and his big speech, though, just like Cousin Debbie, Jack embraces Mike as a part of the family, even letting the wrestling enthusiast teach the Big Three some moves and join them ice skating. It's adorable, he's adorable and I demand more of him. Can he take Mr. Grumblytrousers McBritish's screen time? Just a thought before I start crying again. 

3. Jessica Yu: Take a bow

"This Is Us" has never been particularly appreciated as a directorial or visual showcase. With all of its twistiness, tonal balance and timeline juggling, the NBC drama is mostly seen as a writing or acting achievement – which, even during this era of Peak TV and big-budget television, is typical of the medium. So let's take a moment to shoutout "Don't Let Me Keep You" director Jessica Yu's really beautiful work on Tuesday night. 

A TV veteran with an impressive resume (from "The West Wing" to "Grey's Anatomy," "Billions" to a chapter of "Fosse/Verdon"), Yu managed that key "This Is Us" balance – sentimental without becoming saccharine, sweet and snappy, giant emotions while maintaining its personal scale – while also quietly assembling a perfect tense little setpiece at the end. Jack's big eulogy at the end obviously gets all the attention because it's a gorgeous, heart-tugging speech – but don't forget Yu's bubbling tension of whether or not his abusive father will come through the church doors, masterfully crafted to end in Rebecca and the family coming through the entrance. That moment and ensuing speech doesn't have the same emotional exhale-like effect without her smart direction during the scene and throughout the episode, building to that moment. 

Plus, in a show that's mostly warmly functional on a visual level, Yu found some really lovely visual momens – such as the opening birds eye shot of little Jack cutting through the screen in the snow and especially the revolving shot around the dive bar table, Jack replaced by his mother as Debbie, Mike and friends chat before returning to Jack, the spirit of the past and present distant yet intertwined. Plus, anyone that can make boiled hot dogs and condensed tomato soup look that craveable, loving and delicious deserves a nod. 

After two previous trips at the "This Is Us" helm, Yu received a gold mine of a showcase episode here, one honed in a single character without plot theatrics to steal focus. She not only refused to let it go to waste but even raised its value. 

4. This isn't entirely a random tangential one-off

None of the other plotlines or characters technically made an appearance in "Don't Let Me Keep You" – but the present and future state of the Pearson clan were definitely still present, as Rebecca's fate quietly and ominously lingered over the events of Tuesday's episode.

Yes, it may have been a one-off hour exclusively taking place in the past, but considering the "This Is Us" story approach and how no moments are wasted on this show, I expect Jack's processing of his mother's death – and especially his final tearful breakdown, taking a moment to grasp the reality of no longer having a mother –  to echo throughout several episodes to come, offscreen inside audiences remembering this hour but probably onscreen as well. I mean, come on: The odds of one of the Big Three – particular Kevin, who's always had such a particular bond with Jack – repeating Jack's "I don't have a mom anymore" line before eating hot dogs with tomato soup? Pretty good. The odds of my tearducts surviving that scene? Significantly less good.

5. But really, call your mom

But seriously, make sure your phone is all charged up before you watch this episode because you will immediately want to call up your mother afterward and have a big ol' heartfelt catch-up session. You won't even mind when she gets around to nagging you about finally moving your old stuff out of their house or how you should eat better. That's the power this episode has. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.