Never before have I been so annoyed that a person did not die. What has This Is Us done to me? Done to us?
In an otherwise bold and expertly crafted finale of a twist-filled season, there was one last surprise: we were not, as we had expected, shown how Milo Ventimiglia’s Jack Pearson died. And audiences are not happy about it.
Sure, there’s a certain perversion in our months-long bloodsport to know how a charming father dies, just so we can get the cry we're demanding, dammit. Still, we call this a feel-good show.
Seriously. That's how we explain away the success of This Is Us. It makes us feel good when we most need it.
Thus far, a baby has died at birth, an estranged father succumbed to a devastating battle with cancer, and, in Tuesday night’s finale, an adorable married couple might have split up. A man has had a heart attack. Several woman have been cheated on. A son was betrayed by his adoptive mother.
We have wept, sobbed, and created a nationwide shortage of Kleenex and white wine through all those moments. Given the amount of build-up to Thursday night’s finale, we expected volcanic eruptions from our tear ducts. And yet, no tears.
There was a fantastically acted, refreshingly frank argument between Ventimiglia’s Jack and Mandy Moore’s Rebecca that was brutal and upsettingly real. A look back at how the couple met, in a clever bookend to what would become, possibly, the dissolution of their marriage. And a “this is why I love you” speech from Jack so gorgeous and swoon-worthy it makes any Hugh Grant rom-com suitor look a schmuck in comparison.
But none of that made us cry, at least not the way we wanted to. The way were promised. (Mandy Moore, for one, teased that the episode would “destroy America.”) After enduring 12 episodes of cry porn, we were expecting this finale to be the ultimate climax. Instead we were emotionally blue-balled.
Hell hath no fury like This Is Us fans who didn’t get their weekly cry.
That’s not to say it was a bad episode. On the contrary, we found it to be the most restrained and least manipulative hour of the season.
Half the episode revisited the circumstances in Jack and Rebecca’s respective lives in the week leading up to the first time they meet. The other half dealt with the aftermath of Jack’s drunken brawl with Rebecca’s singing partner, leading her to abandon her performance career and return to her unsatisfying life as a mom to three teenagers.
And so rather than answer questions about Jack’s fate—specifically how he died, something we crassly hoped to witness and cry through—more questions were raised. Will Jack and Rebecca permanently separate? And were they together when Jack died?
More, the episode took a risk in focusing entirely on Jack and Rebecca, with the rest of the show’s supporting cast not appearing until the episode’s final moments.
Typically, a “bottle episode” like this one that pauses the narrative to focus on fewer characters takes place during the season. It’s a ballsy move to air one as a finale—one that some fans didn’t exactly think paid off.
The groundwork is laid for a season two, with each of the “Big Three” characters making life-altering decisions launched from their now-completed season-long journeys.
Chrissy Metz’s Kate, finally coming to a point in her life where she can properly deal with her own emotional issues, decides to become a singer. Justin Hartley’s Kevin, finally being taken seriously as an actor and stopping his womanizing ways by reconnecting with his ex-wife, leaves to audition for a Ron Howard film, jeopardizing his future with said ex-wife. And Sterling K. Brown’s Randall, having spent the season searching for a fulfilling purpose and lost the one he found with his father’s death, decides he wants to adopt a child.
The sequence very well could have just been introduced by a “next season on This Is Us…” voiceover.
Still, This Is Us has always been about “moments,” so much so that NBC garishly pastes instructions onscreen to share buzzy scenes as they unfold in real-time. To that regard, the finale did give us one, a great one. One that, while it didn’t give us the full-scale ugly cry of, say, A DEATH, did leave us a little misty.
The speech Jack gives Rebecca, listing the reasons he loves her and assuring her that their love isn’t merely a habit after years of marriage, was beautiful, tailor-made for those “Get You a Man...” memes. None of us should be satisfied until we Get Us a Man Who Talks About Us the Way Jack Talks About Rebecca.
Ventimiglia’s performance in that scene was exquisite, making something that could have been nauseatingly schmaltzy into a message of love that was desperate, generous, and seemingly of-this-world.
That’s been This Is Us’s strength all season, creating emotionally huge moments that should be manipulative and off-puttingly earnest, yet pinpointing their universality, no matter how ugly or devastating, and playing them in ways that we relate to in our lives. It’s why we can’t help but cry along.
Somehow, through all those terrible things that we listed earlier in this article, the show’s writers and especially its actors manage to surface the joy in these moments, rather than just assault us with sadness. It keeps everything from being sappy, which is why Jack’s speech, with dialogue seemingly ripped from a Hallmark card, worked so well. Here at this horrible moment—his wife asked him to leave the house—he refuses to not share the things about her he still loves.
It was wonderful.
But we still would have rather watched him die.