SPOILER ALERT. ALL THE SPOILER ALERTS.
If you’ve been watching This Is Us over the past two seasons, you know what the important question has always been: How exactly did Jack Pearson—world’s greatest father and most-of-the-time great husband—die? We found out early in season 2 that his death happened because of a house fire and that Kate has always blamed herself.
Last night, on an episode that aired after the Super Bowl—and managed to creatively cut last night’s Super Bowl into the finished product—we find out just what happened and why Kate blames herself. I’d like to say that opinions are divided on whether or not she should actually take the blame, but apparently I know some super anti-Kate folks whose responses have ranged from “KATE MURDERED JACK!” to “Yeah, Kate definitely killed her daddy for a dog.” Even the doctor treating Jack questioned his heroics.
The streets can be so cruel, yo.
Before we get into actual factuals, I’d like to point something out: This season has been relatively low on the involuntary-emotional-expression scale. I have only truly been moved to tears maybe once or twice. I think most of us came to look for This Is Us to be our weekly emotional cleanse because the first season was, whether we liked it or not.
I can’t stress enough how the “Memphis” episode might as well have been a tablespoon of wasabi for the soul. Or how the following episode was a teaspoon of horseradish. But this season? I’ve been a spectator looking for tears. I don’t know if it’s been intentional or if they were setting us all up for last night’s episode. Perhaps they decided to dial back the tears and focus on narrative to make sure people were noticing the writing and whatnot. I wanted my tears, though.
Well, last night I got some. Not necessarily for conventional reasons. This is about to get heavy, so you’ll just have to bear with me. Jack dies after he takes in too much smoke from the house fire trying to get everybody and Kate’s dog out. And some pictures and necklaces and other shit that I’m sure the rest of us would let burn. To be fair, this happened 20 years ago—in 1998, when everybody didn’t have pictures on cellphones—so physical family pictures were more valuable, since it’s likely that nobody had them digitally.
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Anyway, at the hospital, after they think all is well, Jack dies of a heart attack called a widow-maker, triggered from the smoke inhalation. For the record, Mandy Moore put her ENTIRE foot into those scenes as Rebecca, from the detached denial when the doctor tells her that Jack died, to the way she has to check Miguel right quick and tell the kids, to her losing it in the car when she drives back to the house.
The reason Kate blames herself is that the dog was hers, and Jack went back to get the dog because Kate was hysterical about it. Rebecca wanted him to stay out of the house, but he went back because of Kate. He made it out, though. I don’t use the term “trigger” very often, but that scene triggered me.
On Jan. 13, 2011, I lost my best friend—my brother—in a house fire. A space heater caught fire in a home that was occupied by my brother, his girlfriend, her two children and another friend of ours. Everybody managed to get out of the house except for one of the little girls. My brother went back in; he and the little girl died inside the house. It’s been seven years now and I still struggle with having lost him.
Watching that scene—and specifically, watching Jack go back in the house—put me so hard in my feelings that I literally had to pause the show because it actually hurt to watch. Writing about this right now is tough. While I’ve accepted it and moved on, whenever I’m in Huntsville, Ala., I always drive by the house where it happened. I just ... I just have to. I don’t even know why or what I’m looking for, but I have to.
Needless to say, that scene got me. Hard. When Jack emerged from the house, I only very briefly sighed in relief as I kind of figured that the smoke was going to end up killing him. Even though I knew what was coming, I got sad all over.
The episode focused on Kevin visiting his father’s tree (where the ashes were spread) and Kate worrying about losing the VHS tape her father made of her singing. Both are worthy of note, but as usual, Randall’s family takes the cake in terms of moving the needle.
Typically on Super Bowl Sunday (Jack died on Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 25, 1998), Kevin avoids, Kate wallows and Randall celebrates. This year is no different as he invites folks over to celebrate the Super Bowl in his typical doing-too-much-for-all-the-right-reasons fashion. I’ll skip to the part that got emo.
It turns out that Tess, the oldest daughter, has been taking the phone off the hook—the reason is that the social services folks only call the landline. Randall and Beth are foster parents waiting to find out if they’ll get a new foster child. She’s worried about her father who keeps “looking” for things (e.g., a foster child, a new job, his father), and it seems to her like he wants a new life. He explains to her that she means everything to him.
I have a daughter. There have been a lot of changes in her life in the past few years. She went from being the only child of two single people to being one of five children with one stepparent and a soon-to-be second stepparent. She’s handled those changes as well as any child can, but there are moments.
I’ve had to have a conversation or two with her about how changes don’t change my feelings for her or where she is in my life, and about how she taught me to be a parent and showed me I’d be an OK father. And about how she’s shown me how big my heart could be and about how her existence has helped me with her little brothers. That conversation between Randall and Tess was so right and so important, and it put me square in my feelings because I know that look his daughter gave him. And I know that feeling of having to show your child that you love them.
And because This Is Us wanted to make sure we would be talking about this episode, we cut to a grown-up Tess who is now a social worker placing a young black boy with a family as an older Randall comes to visit his daughter for lunch. And ... while they’re holding onto my heart, Deja, the foster child they had who went back to her mother, shows up at their door. And one of the FEW times I cried this season was when Deja left and Randall made a speech to her about caring about her. Heart squeezed.
Dear This Is Us, welcome back.
Now, cut that shit out. Just kidding. Don’t you dare.
I missed my emotions.