‘This Is Us’: The Pearsons Say Goodbye With a Moving Series Finale
Despite all of its entangled memories and timeline structure, NBC’s “This Is Us” found a rather perfect note to end on. We look back at the past and yet life goes on. One should also reflect on how the passing of showrunner Dan Fogelman’s smash hit can either mark a final hurrah for a particular form of TV, or stand as proof a classic format remains viable. With much of the attention going to the rise of streaming platforms, “This Is Us” was a series that proved audiences can still be devoted to a weekly network serial. Maybe it’s because there’s something reassuring about a show that refuses to be cynical even as it deals with loss, broken hearts and fear.
In a sense, the finale, titled “Us” and appropriately written by Fogelman, has the flow of a tender epilogue. The penultimate episode featured the death of Pearson family mom Rebecca (Mandy Moore), after a battle with Alzheimer’s. Siblings Kate (Chrissy Metz), Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) are now gathering for the funeral. Randall will write the eulogy and is struggling to find the right words. The episode also cuts back to a day in the past when Rebecca and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) awaken to discover they have a free day with the children devoid of major commitments. At first young Randall and Kevin are annoyed with the idea of a family day doing kid’s stuff, until Randall decides to open up to Jack about bullying he’s endured at school over having some first bits of facial hair. It is Jack’s chance to show his sons that essential rite of passage called shaving. Back in the present, the three siblings face the loss of the woman who was the center of their bond, hoping not to drift away.
Until the very final episodes, “This Is Us” stayed true to its spirit. The massive appeal of this show resides in a combination of simplicity and hyper drama. It almost became a point of pop culture to jab at the show’s habit of having everyone deliver grandiose motivational speeches for every key moment, whether it was a breakup or making toast. But genuinely entertaining drama is about heightening the familiar. It could be absorbing to watch these characters deal with life the way we tend to, by not knowing what it will all look like in hindsight a few years down the road. A rather bold narrative twist this season was having Kate and Toby (Chris Sullivan) divorce after having been a hope-inducing couple since season one. Their marriage took the usual poundings life likes to deliver like the loss of a job, Toby being offered a new one that would require him to slightly travel. Personalities shift and partners start missing the glow from the early days. Kate eventually falls for Phillip (Chris Geere), her boss at son Jack’s music school. Life stories really do work out that way sometimes. Yet “This Is Us” never loses its sense of hope and Toby was there to say goodbye to Rebecca and in the finale tells Kate he’s proud of her, and will always love her.
Everyone has found some kind of centered purpose by this finale, even actor Kevin, who had the most romance troubles and finally settled with Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge), whom the writing makes clear he was meant to be with all along. The finale focuses more on Randall as his mind seems to be the conduit to our trip into the past, to that simple yet meaningful idle day. After seasons of fires, Jack facing Rebecca’s parents and other life tremors, there’s a special power to just watching the family play pin the tail on the donkey. A final, wonderful monologue is given to Jack when he teaches Randall and Kevin to shave. He tries to illuminate them with the realization that these are special moments, we’re just not aware of it as we live them. Then, as we grow older, we keep wishing to return to these earlier times. It’s a rather microcosmic way to tug at our hearts, like a network TV version of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” The opening of the episode is quite poetic even, as Rebecca recounts to Jack in bed getting a small scar from her father’s watch while being pushed on swing.
Never did the chance exist that “This Is Us” would end on a sour note. Randall’s inner sense of a void because of Rebecca’s death goes away when Déja (Lyric Ross) announces to her adoptive dad that she’s going to have a boy. On top of that, the Democratic National Committee wants Senator Randall to appear at the Iowa State Fair, which means he might, gasp, run for president! He feels inspired as well by the memory of Rebecca, as do the other siblings. Kate will fully commit to opening schools for the visually impaired and Kevin will focus on his nonprofit. Our final two flashbacks of younger Jack and Rebecca find them buying the pin the donkey game while walking around a store with their infant children. They decide to buy it because on the box are three kids ethnically identical to their mixed family. We return to that moment in bed when Rebecca shares about the scar, with Jack reassuring her she will do great raising a family, even with all the fear and uncertainty that comes with it.
“This Is Us” kept alive on network TV what could amount to an enrapturing version of the American ideal, but tailored for our own changing times. Throughout the years even the pandemic made an appearance, but everyone persevered through the strength of family, hard work and genuine loyalty to each other. “Us” finds powerful resonance in ending such a grand show with an episode that truly captures what made it special. It was always about that yearning to have a circle of loved ones, of not feeling alone and knowing everything will be ok, even when it didn’t feel that way. It was about the sensation of remembering our childhoods and connecting them to who we became. If TV captures some of our biggest fantasies, then “This Is Us” was about how we can dive into our memories where the past can feel like it was all just a dream.
“This Is Us” finaled May 24 on NBC.