by Julian Spivey
In his great song “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” Guy Clark’s narrator says to an older mentor nearing the end: “Come on, Jack, that son of a bitch is coming.” I always thought it a great way to say goodbye and meet death head on. Entering the special post-Super Bowl episode of NBC’s “This Is Us” we all knew Jack Pearson’s (Milo Ventimiglia) fate would be revealed. As The Atlantic’s Megan Garber pointed out recently it is strange for death to be used as a tease. We’ve known since the beginning of season two that his death would be the result of a house fire, but the “how” would be revealed in “Super Bowl Sunday.” And, in true “This Is Us” fashion it wasn’t exactly how we thought it would be.
The episode begins where the previous one “That’ll Be the Day” left off with the Pearson’s home on fire in 1998 on the night of the Super Bowl. Jack is woken suddenly in the night, smells smoke and opens his bedroom door to a burning blaze. Being the hero we’ve come to expect and knowing that his family lives on and he perishes we expect him to save everyone under his roof – his wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore), his teenage son Randall (Niles Fitch) and his teenage daughter Kate (Hannah Zeile). His other teen son Kevin was staying with his girlfriend and wasn’t home. In the first few minutes of the episode Jack has already saved the family, but Kate reminds him that the family dog was sleeping downstairs. Always a hero, Jack runs back inside where we all believe he’s going to meet his end. After all, Kate has always blamed herself for his death. But, the next thing we know the front door of the burning house bursts open and Jack comes walking out with the dog in hand.
What has happened here? Could it be that Jack somehow survived the day, just to die late on?
Well, we find out in the next scene he didn’t survive the day as modern-day Kate (Chrissy Metz), watching a 20-year old tape her father filmed of her singing in her bedroom, reminds Toby it’s the 20th anniversary of his death.
Back in 1998, Rebecca takes Jack to the ER to get his second-degree burned hands looked at. All seems to be well as the two joke around about missing the end of the Super Bowl and how Rebecca is blocking the TV showing the highlights of the game. She goes off to the fending machines to get Jack a snack and check in on Kate and Randall staying with family friend Miguel (Jon Huertas). While she’s on the phone we see in the background that something bad is happening in Jack’s room. Soon a doctor approaches Rebecca with the devastating news that Jack went into severe cardiac arrest due to his lungs being too filled with smoke and he didn’t survive.
In the episode’s best acting performance by Moore, Rebecca instantly goes into shock and doesn’t believe the doctor’s words until she goes to the room and sees her husband’s lifeless body on the bed. We cut to her back at Miguel’s where he meets her outside and she tells him the bad news. He’s about to break down, until Rebecca (with Moore continuing what might be her best performance on the show yet) shuts him down immediately, because she had to go inside and tell her teenage kids what happened to their father.
It’s an all-around devastating episode that gives fans the biggest answer they’ve been looking for since the show premiered in the fall of 2016. It’s not just devastating to see the result of Jack’s life, but also how his family copes with it 20 years late. Kate wallows in the thought that it’s her fault, Kevin (Justin Hartley) remains angry that he wasn’t there that night and the last thing he said to his father was negative, and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) wants to celebrate the day because Super Bowl Sunday was his father’s favorite day of the year. Rebecca spends the day by buying all the ingredients for her husband’s favorite lasagna and eats it while watching the big game alone.
In one of the more unique moments of the episode “This Is Us” sends something new at us by revealing the show’s first flash-forward. Early in the episode we see a young boy waiting to be placed in a foster home and we believe he’s going to be placed with Randall’s family. It isn’t until the very end where we realize Tess, Randall’s eldest daughter, has grown up to be a social worker and she’s in fact the one helping the child find a home. I would venture to guess that flash-forwards are something we might be seeing a bit more of from now on.
Some fans of the show were worried that once Jack’s fate was revealed that might be the end of Ventimiglia’s fantastic performance on the show – and it wouldn’t surprise me if we do see less from Jack in the future – but Ventimiglia puts the fears of fans at ease on Twitter following the episode by saying: “Just so everyone knows it … Jack Pearson lives in all of our hearts. He’s you. He’s me. He’s us. Thank you all for supporting our show. We love you all. And this isn’t the end of Jack. Stay tuned.”
That’s quite good, because I’m not sure “This Is Us” would be the same without Jack Pearson.