America, you just watched the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots in one of the most entertaining Super Bowls in recent memory; what are you going to do next? I'm going to Disney World! I'm going to watch a loving father die in a horrible house fire, scarring his wife and children for decades to come!
Even before Sunday night's special episode of "This Is Us," there was something uncomfortably morbid in the air about NBC's promos, hoping to entice families and audiences watching the Super Bowl into sticking around to watch a good man die (after, just like you, watching the Super Bowl), the commercials' narration eagerly anticipating "making history" by murdering one of its leads.
The hype reminded me less of the smart, sensitive show that "This Is Us" can often be and instead reminded me of the infamously exploitative Negan cliffhanger from "Walking Dead," dragging out its cruel game of Russian roulette until you didn't feel shock or sadness but exhausted relief that the heartless teasing and taunting was finally over. And even that had more juice dramatically since the victims were a mystery. There was nothing new to learn here, since we already knew the deceased, knew the aftermath it had on his loved ones and even vaguely had an idea of the specifics. We were just there to make it official and watch someone die. How grim.
The resulting episode was not the show I've grown to quite like but instead the show I used to fear prior to watching: immensely manipulative misery porn that views its characters less as real people and more as tools to ruthlessly coerce you into tears, no matter the cost – in this case, a prime post-Super Bowl chance to puts one's best foot forward rather than its worst.
So yes, the death you've been waiting for finally happened on "This Is Us": Mr. McGiggles the lizard is no longer with us.
But seriously, Jack, after almost two seasons of dragged-out hints and drama, is no longer with us. The Pearson patriarch wakes up in the night to discover a wild inferno raging from the first floor thanks to last weeks' killer CrockPot. Jack, however, springs quickly into action, getting Rebecca up before quickly shuttling across the flame-flickering hall to get Randall and eventually Kate (Kevin's off with Sophie, remember) over to their still-intact bedroom – complete with a front door awning they get escape onto and drop off of with the help of a makeshift bedsheet rope.
As far as supposedly lethal house fires go, this one's going fairly well – until a dog's desperate bark echoes from the house just as it's Jack's turn to drop his way to safety. Kate screams for him to save the house pet – and god dammit, he listens, venturing back into the burning house to save a dog. I get why Kate was so angry with herself after her father's death. I'd be upset at her too – and the writers for a hacky way to send someone off to die.
But surprise, Jack makes it out – with both the dog and a bag of family photo albums and tapes. For any sharp "This Is Us" viewer, however, the only surprise is that he didn't also emerge with his beloved Terrible Towel. The show's never been one to take the obvious path – or leave any emotionally manipulative twist unturned – and the lead-up was so all-in on him dying in the fire with something involving a dog that it couldn't be something that simple.
But what seems like an act from a merciful god to the Pearsons, however, is really a cruel trick from the show's writers. While we watch the family sigh relief, we know that the sword is still to fall. We don't feel relief or joy or sadness with the family – or even tension, since we know how this must end – but instead an ugly sense of dread that we know the show is toying with them, that they'll be ruined soon. And we're just waiting for its dragged-out execution to happen.
Eventually, it finally does. At the hospital, Jack seems fine, but after inhaling so much smoke going back into the house, he suffers a fatal heart attack. The audience doesn't see it happen; instead, while doctors ominously run around in the background, Rebecca makes the relieved calls and casual vending machine purchase before the news breaks. Again, it just all plays so cruel, underlining that we the audience know her life is about to be wrecked and she has no idea.
If "This Is Us" wanted to put the viewer in Rebecca's shoes, to give it the impact it really had, we'd only find out until the doctor broke the news and receive the gut punch at the same time. But this is the same show that's been milking Jack's death for over a year now, with less and less dramatic or emotional reasoning to do so.
As a result, after all this time and all this lead-up and all these twists and diversions, the show's saddest moment left me startlingly dry-eyed and instead just relieved this exploitative, long-winded "mystery" was finally over (no fault of Mandy Moore, who acts the big moment perfectly). No more talking around it, resulting in the modern day scenes feeling like one year after Jack's death rather than 20 years. No more ominous sense of dread in otherwise pleasant family scenes. No more dragging out a thread that had already basically unspooled. "This Is Us" can finally move forward (well, after next week's funeral episode ... sigh).
But what is forward? For a show that promised to answer all your questions, there's a big question hanging over a post-Jack "This Is Us": Where are the storylines right now? Interestingly enough, for the big Super Bowl episode hoping to wrangle in new fans, I'm not sure what newcomers are supposed to be hooked by.
For them, this is a show exclusively about a family wrecked by their father's death – and that sounds like it was wrapped up tonight. Kevin and Kate's segments were all about grieving and at least partially moving on – whether it was visiting Jack's tree in the former's case or attempting to rewatch an old VHS tape in the latter's storyline.
That's fine, but where are there stories going next? The show's been so obsessed with Jack's death that they forgot these characters have lives 20 years later. Is Kate's singing career going to take center stage for her? Or are we returning to the weight loss subplot of season one? And while Justin Hartley's never been more comfortable in his character ("I'm not sure I'm at the right tree" was a perfect dose of levity in a heavy episode), what's his storyline now? Back to Hollywood? Re-re-re-romancing Sophie? Jack's death means moving forward, but the show's given little clue as to what forward means – and Sunday night's episode was more of a recapper than anything, telling us what we already knew or wallowing in it with maudlin speches.
Except Randall. Go figure that Randall's storyline would save the day.
While the rest of the Pearsons are grieving, Randall (with an appearance from Third Person Randall) is throwing a Super Bowl party for his daughters and 20 of their friends. However, the festivities are interrupted when Mr. McGiggles the family lizard escapes. He's quickly found ... under Beth's shoe, so the football game turns into a funeral for the dearly departed critter (but of course Randall's speech is more about grieving Jack than Mr. McGiggles, in some of the episode's more contrived writing).
That isn't the good stuff, though. The future comes into play when Randall goes to chat with a harrumphing Tess. He assumes she's upset about their attempts at fostering – she is, after all, taking the landline off the set so their calls won't come through – but she's upset on a deeper level. She's worried that Randall's constantly looking to fill this hole in his life – with his biological father, with a foster child, with a new apartment complex – that apparently she and her sister can't fill. It's a nice scene, beautifully performed (even a bad "This Is Us" has top-notch acting), but it's what happens next that saved the episode.
In an actually solid combination of twists, Deja not only returns to the Pearson residence – but the foster child we've flashed to during the episode who we assume to be Randall and Beth's new ward is actually headed to a different family ... with grown-up Tess working in the foster care system and greyed-up aged Randall coming to visit her at work.
That's right: We lost Jack but we gained a new future timeline.
After a few weeks of stumbling around and spinning its wheels, Randall's plot line once again has momentum and purpose – something nothing else in "This Is Us" has right now. Plus, it's opened up a whole new story venue for Randall and hopefully the rest of the cast. That gives me hope for the future – as long as we leave the dragged-out mysteries finally in the past.
This Is Sadness Rankings:
I'll admit: I watched this entire episode dry-eyed, with only Kevin's speech about finding peace talking to Jack at the tree making my face faucets threaten to drip. But I'll also admit that I'm almost assuredly in the minority, so by default, I'll give this a Woman Crying A Frankly Unnerving Amount Of Water.
So like a 10 out of 10.
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.