Jack Pearson may not technically be going anywhere, his ashes finding their final fitting resting place while a chapter on his Vietnam days waits to be read, but the season two finale of "This Is Us" felt like a fond farewell to the big shadowy storyline that haunted most of the sophomore season of NBC's hit show.
Sure, technically #JackDeathWatch was called off a month ago during the Super Bowl episode, when we finally learned that it was a CrockPot, some forgotten batteries and a lot of smoke behind the crime against America's tear ducts. Then we had the funeral and everything. But "The Wedding" feels like Kate, and "This Is Us" as a whole, truly letting go of Jack's death, finding some true closure to the main storyline that – for better or worse – defined most of its otherwise solid second season.
And what better way to send off the show's big mystery than by introducing a whole new one to keep viewers vexed until the fall?
The finale, however, started with a different mystery: Why am I seeing Old Man Ghost Jack? "The Wedding" opened with a ceremony – not Kate's wedding, though she and The Big Three are there, but instead Rebecca and Jack renewing their vows for a 40th anniversary that we all know never happened.
Thankfully, we're not mixing in alternate timelines now too; it's all revealed to be a lovely reoccurring dream of Kate's – though really, it never feels anymore than some nice audience wish fulfillment to see Old Jack interacting with our adult stars and a melodramatic stunt to tease in the ads. The scenes are mostly pointless beyond manipulating some bonus tears to hit its weekly Kleenex quota, but after most of a season darkly waiting for his character to die, it's admittedly nice to end things indulging in the happier version of events.
So the answer to why are we seeing Old Man Ghost Jack? Eh, no real reason other than it'd sure be nice, wouldn't it?
It's pleasant escapism for the audience – and for Kate, who's having a mild breakdown before her big day at the old Pearson cabin. The wedding prep starts fine enough; Toby is concerned for her, but she's doing great – even giving her soon-to-be husband Leslie Nielsen's bowtie from "The Naked Gun 33 1/3." Plus she's got the wedding planner team of Randall and an adorably over-efficient Kevin on the job.
But then disaster strikes: The T-shirt she was going to bring down the aisle as her "something old," Jack's Daytona shirt, has gone missing, forgotten amongst the packing hubbub. (Admittedly I spent most of the episode wondering why nobody just drove over to the apartment and picking up the shirt before I started actually mapping out the geography in my head – oh yeah, we're in Pennsylvania while Kate lives in L.A.) Kevin and Randall try to gather up some meaningful relics from the cabin for her to replace the shirt, but unfortunately a dusty baseball bat and a rusty screwdriver just don't do the trick. So Kate attempts to find her own replacement, jetting around on her wedding day to the old neighborhood ice cream shop she went with her father ... only to discover it's been replaced by some fancy new place with vegan options. VEGANNNNNS! (*shakes fist*)
Meanwhile, everybody back at the cabin is having their own dramas. The other half of Ka-Toby is having just as little fun in the pre-wedding preparations, picking up his bickering parents from the airport. Unfortunately, there's one thing they agree on: Toby should reconsider marrying Kate. They're concerned, from what they've heard about Kate and from what he experienced in his first marriage, that he could fall into a depressive state from all her supposed instability. Way to bring this us THE DAY OF, guys! And Toby? Depressed? Are we talking about the same guy who Flashdanced in a coffee shop and whose every line is workshopping stand-up material?
While he's swatting away their nagging, Kevin is swatting away a very thirsty Madison – and also trying to happily arrange a wedding missing one key piece: the bride. So he and Randall hit the road to find their sister. To calm their nerves, they play one of Randall's favorite games: trading off the worst case scenarios they can imagine, usually involving death. More fun than it sounds, I swear! This version, however, quickly devolves into a confessional about how the two failed Kate as they grew up, not being there as she never healed from her father's death or, in Kevin's case, letting her spend time taking care of him while losing sight of her own issues.
Oh, remember Deja? From last week? Like, the whole episode? She's not doing great either, sulking after her biological mother terminated her parental rights offscreen after last week's drama. Unfortunately there's only so much time – always the problem with juggling so many characters in a single episode – so this storyline draws the short end of the stick, spending a lot of time playing catch up and introducing new essential characters on the spot. Like, say, Beth's bright photographer cousin Zoe, who comes to the rescue to chat with Deja about how she too was abandoned by her mother as a child and took it out on the family that took her in – complete with another D'Angelo reference. That's two in two weeks! Somebody in the writers room just revisited "Brown Sugar."
As dire as things look, however, in classic "This Is Us" form, the unexpected happens – which, in this case, means everything turns out fine. Even after Rebecca calls Kate and notes that it's strange that everyone is in her dream ... except Toby, Kate takes this not as a cue for cold feet but as a final sign that she has to let her father go, finally spilling her urn of ashes at a special tree stump from her childhood. Zoe's speech works, with Deja eventually putting on her dress and getting into the celebratory spirit. The wedding – complete with Toby's parents still happily walking alongside him down the aisle – is beautiful. I think Kevin even avoided dripping his ice cream in Randall's nice car. CRISES AVERTED!
But, also in classic "This Is Us" tradition, the show finds new paths – both light and dark – just to the left of whatever you thought was coming. So after Deja seems like she's coming to terms with her new life, Toby's mother mentions that she looks like her dad, setting her off and sending her to take some batting practice against Randall's car. And Kevin worked so hard not to drip in it! Thanks a lot, Nina Van Horn.
That's not all. After getting a brief glimpse a few episodes ago, "The Wedding" ends with a much larger look at what the future, near and far, holds for the Pearsons. Kevin is cuddling Zoe (sorry, Madison), taking her on a flight to Vietnam on what looks like a trip to reconnect with his father's soldier past, while Kate is tending to a bedridden Toby, who, like his parents tragically predicted, appears to have fallen back into his depression. I already regret taking Jolly All-Jokes Toby for granted. Of all the things this season's accomplished, one the low-key best is quietly evolving Toby into a more rounded character, with some really nice human notes underneath all the references and one-liners. So building this character to this point, seeing him in such a detached and immobile state, was actually pretty devastating – and sadly real.
But the real bomb dropped at the end of the episode was Randall's future, much further ahead than everyone else's. Visiting adult Tess, a grayed and grim Randall tells her, "It's time to see her," with Tess ominously responding that she's not ready.
And welcome to the new "This Is Us" mystery.
So who is the "her"? Is it Beth? The show sure does linger a lot on her happily dancing at the wedding, blissfully unaware of the potential fate awaiting her – plus Randall facing the same pain of an early spousal loss as Rebecca would tie in with the show's themes of common connections, echoes and experiences across time. But that almost seems too obvious, and the show always zags when you expect a zig. Is it Deja? Is she in a jail, or mental ward? Or, worse yet, dead? She certainly ends the episode on a down note. Or maybe it's Annie. She's the one person who isn't focused upon in those final moments, making her the perfect unexpected sidestep of a gut punch.
Knowing "This Is Us" and how it handled Jack's death, we probably won't find out the answer for a long time – probably overly long, to the point of diminished returns and cruel dramatic manipulation. So it's best to focus on the speeches during those final moments of season two – a slightly rocky season that struggled a bit to find a rhythm (with no thanks to the Super Bowl and the Olympics) and to get its characters to where they needed to be (any chance we ever hear about Randall and Beth's housing project ever again?), but also found its way through its biggest dramatic crutch in the past to find an intriguing future, with some exceptionally beautiful grace notes along the way.
Lost amongst the big reveals of the final montage, Kevin speaks about, well, himself (very Kevin of you, Kevin) but also about exhaling, about letting go – the overarching idea of this second Jack-haunted season. Even the worst case scenario game is about venting your fears in order to move forward in the present. You have to enjoy the people and moments of the now. Because as Randall then forebodes, there's no guessing what twists the future holds – especially on "This Is Us."
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.