I will say this for the This Is Us writers: they certainly know how to keep viewers on their toes. Writing a series about family, love, tragedy and all of life’s little moments in between is no small feat, yet creator Dan Fogelman and co. are able to deliver Kleenex-worthy episodes nearly every week while still defying expectations with unforeseen twists.
Let’s take Sunday’s anticipated (if not anxiety inducing) post-Super Bowl episode, aptly titled “Super Bowl Sunday,” shall we? Everyone knew heading into the episode that this was the one where we’d learn how the head of the Pearson household, Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), died. His death hasn’t exactly been a secret: it was confirmed back in the fifth episode of the first season, and the writers have been hinting at how he died ever since. The biggest clue came in the episode before the Super Bowl, when a faulty Crock Pot set the Pearson home ablaze and the battery-free smoke detector was unable to warn the sleeping clan.
It was the perfect setup for a tragic tear-fest, and the writers wasted no time getting down to it. The episode opened with Jack waking up for a sip of water next to a sleeping Rebecca, only to realize that the house he fixed up with his own two hands was burning down before him. And that’s when things really got tense.
The Pearson clan has often referred to Jack as a superhero, but on Sunday night he was a bonafide superhero deserving of a sparkly cape. Not only did he wake up Rebecca, rush into Randall’s room to save him and create a makeshift shield with Kate’s mattress in order to get her to the rest of the family, but he also lassoed everyone to safety from the roof with a bedsheet rope.
Had things ended there Jack probably would have been okay, and he could have walked away with only second-degree burns on his hands. In fact, Rebecca insisted that he come back down and leave things be. Instead he went back in after the family dog (who didn’t see that one coming?) and a few of the family’s loved items, like Kate’s audition tape, a photo album and Rebecca’s moon necklace.
Never go back into the fire, guys. Never.
Thankfully, by the time the opening credits rolled Jack had made it out alive with all of those things intact, delivering the first twist of the night (he didn’t burn alive people! He didn’t burn alive!) and a scene more intense than the close football game that aired before it. And that’s the magic of this show: even when you know something is coming and you think you know how it will potentially unfold, the writing twists it up in a way that makes you anxious to watch but also thrown when you learn what’s really happening.
Obviously the relief over seeing Jack live through the blaze was to be short-lived, but somehow it made the death slightly less awful. The show then got into the nitty gritty of the present-day Super Bowl, 20 years to the day after the fire. Randall, Rebecca, Kevin and Kate confirmed that this was still the day Jack died as they attempted to deal with their grief in their own ways. Rebecca made lasagna and looked for her annual sign from her late hubby while Miguel gave her space. Kate wallowed in old videos and freaked out when the VCR ate her favourite one. Kevin decided to make peace with his pops at his favourite tree (the same one Randall took William to back in the first-season “Memphis” episode) and realized that he needed to do better with his life. And Randall honoured his adoptive father’s memory by making a hoagie stadium and throwing a Super Bowl party for 20 little girls.
Then, as the episode unfolded, Randall lost his cool while giving a eulogy for the family lizard they had gotten the day before, reminding us that the sudden loss of a loved one is one of the most brutal and painful life events a person can experience. It’s something Fogelman certainly understands; he lost his own mother in a car accident 10 years ago.
My mom died 10 years ago, unexpectedly. It’s the hinge upon which my life swings. Jack’s death is the Pearson hinge. We look back. We move forward. That’s our collective journey. Sad? Yes. But when you look through a wide enough lens – it’s also outrageously beautiful. #ThisIsUs
— Dan Fogelman (@Dan_Fogelman) February 5, 2018
That’s probably why he and his team were still able to deliver an emotionally charged death scene at the hospital following the fire, when it looked as though everything was going to be okay. As Rebecca went out to make hotel arrangements and grab her husband a snack, her back was turned to the hospital personnel rushing into Jack’s room. The entire death “scene,” a widow-maker heart attack caused by smoke inhalation, took place off-camera, which made an even bigger impact than seeing Jack’s lifeless body would have. It was also over so quickly that we as an audience barely had time to process, let alone a candy-eating Rebecca who had been expecting to take her husband home soon.
In fact, it was so much to handle that the stuff happening in the present day storyline kind of took a backseat. So naturally, that’s how these writers set us up again. While we were wallowing over Jack’s death, Randall was giving his own daughter Tess a pep-talk about how much he wanted to become half the father his dad was. He told her that the day he had her his world changed, and no foster kid, new job or anything else would change that, which seemed appropriate because from all indications, a little boy was about to enter Randall and Beth’s home. The social worker promised him that they had finally found him a family, after all.
But as it turns out, those scenes were actually flash-forwards, and the social worker in question was a much-older Tess — inspired enough by her own parents’ fostering to make it her career, we can assume. That much was confirmed when an aged Randall visited his daughter at work, cueing up the tears again. Oh, and as for the call in the present-day that Beth fielded and we all assumed was a social worker? Nope, that was Deja, who later showed up at her former foster home for reasons unknown.
Talk about a one-two-three punch of twists. First Jack’s death, then the flash-forward and then the return of Deja. This show is so damned good at blowing up the little moments, reminding us all that life is a continuous circle of ups, downs and family. And that even when you’re at your worst, all you can do is try to pick yourself back up and work towards being the person it is you want to be.
A thought on tonight:
Our show was never just about what happened to Jack. But these next 2 episodes are. It was a defining moment for this family and we will experience and feel this with them. The performances are extraordinary. Our cast is insane. #ThisIsUs
— Dan Fogelman (@Dan_Fogelman) February 4, 2018
Super Bowl Shcmuper Bowl. You got us again, This Is Us. You got us again.