11:48am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Time for 'This Is Us' to Move on After Super Bowl Episode Answers
[This article contains spoilers for the Sunday, Feb. 4, episode of NBC's This Is Us.]
Pretty much since the This Is Us pilot, I've been irked by the treatment of Jack's (Milo Ventimiglia) death, a formative event that isn't mysterious to anybody on the show (other than Toby [Chris Sullivan], whose preferences are irrelevant to me), but has been treated as a breadcrumbs-scattering puzzlement to the audience with a glee that has felt like a manipulative stunt (even as it has effectively jerked tears).
Had This Is Us always been a show that celebrated life and family and the ties that bind as aggressively as it has been a show approaching death as a mechanical, plot-driven fetish, Sunday night's Very Special Episode would have been devastatingly powerful.
All through the installment, I couldn't help but keep wondering how, if the build-up had been different, "Super Bowl Sunday" would have left me talking about how absolutely superb Mandy Moore was, how Sterling K. Brown continues to prove every single week that he's a treasure, how reliably grounded Chrissy Metz has been and how surprisingly sturdy Justin Hartley has been. What if the dog and Kevin's (Hartley) cast hadn't been treated as guessing-game pieces of a genre show's mythology? What if the sparking crockpot hadn't been used to set up a cliffhanger fire last week? What if this week's episode didn't start with "Ha! You thought THAT was how we were gonna kill him? Nah, we're gonna twist the knife!" giddy ghoulishness? What if the episode weren't written, directed and scheduled to air in a time period that found more than a few viewers already beaten into emotional submission by a roller-coaster championship football game?
As I have in the past, I freely acknowledge to some large degree, this is all a "me" problem, not a This Is Us problem.
Sunday's episode was very much doing what it wanted to do.
The mistakes that the show has made have been mistakes relating to my appreciation of the show, not a failure by creator Dan Fogelman and directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra to make the show they want to make. I don't doubt the sincerity of the show's intent, only how the execution makes that sincerity play out. This Is Us is not a tentative show. It's a confident show.
The confidence in Moore has been well-placed. In Sunday's Super Death Bowl episode, the actress was completely heartbreaking in the scene in which we finally learned that Jack died not in the fire itself, but of subsequent complications at the hospital, which would have been a sucker punch if we hadn't known Jack's death was coming, so it just played as a punch to the face. We watched Moore's Rebecca going about optimistic gestures of hospital existence — purchasing a disappointing vending machine candy bar, attempting to do basic life coordination — as we saw in the background that doctors were rushing in inaudible panic to the direction of Jack's room. With a different narrative approach, we might have realized the gentle frivolity of Rebecca's actions in retrospect, an "Oh, wow, that was what she was doing as The Most Perfect Man in the World was in his final moments," but This Is Us doesn't go for after-the-fact detonations of meaning. Moore's painstaking journey of understanding after the doctor told her what happened with Jack was subtlety on a show that has a button-pushing Cat Stevens song for every occasion.
In a vacuum, the show's depiction of how a family still grieves in different ways 20 years after a tragedy was sensitively handled. The contrast between Rebecca's compulsive cooking and looking for moments of laughter, Kate's (Metz) compulsive need for the catharsis delivered by her old audition video cassette, Kevin's compulsive need to avoid and evade and Randall's (Brown) compulsive need to turn the anniversary of his father's death into a cathedral of organized TV viewing and sandwich stadiums was honest and accurate. I also completely bought how this year's anniversary brought with it powerful variations including Kevin's conversation at Jack's tree, Randall's heart-to-heart with Tess (Eris Baker) after the death of their lizard and Deja's (Lyric Ross) departure and Kate's potential VCR disaster. These things all would still probably have executed a desired impact without both This Is Us and NBC treating Sunday's episode as the bombshell culmination of two seasons of narrative trickery. The show could have told me in the second episode that Jack died on Super Bowl Sunday from a heart attack brought on by an inferno at the family home and that Kate felt bad about it and Sunday's episode still could have been powerful.
I'm hugely relieved that Sunday's episode didn't end with a tease about a new mystery relating to Jack's death or with a fresh new piece of heart-tugging blackmail to carry over the next two seasons. On Twitter, I'd predicted we might get a flash-forward to 2032 with everybody standing at a cemetery culminating in Kevin's declaration, "Man, I never expected that would be what would kill Toby." It turned out that we did get a flash-forward, one relating to Tess someday fostering a little boy of her own (or working as a social worker), inspired by Randall's example. I'm sure there were plenty of details we were supposed to internalize about what we saw from that flash-forward. The only thing I took away from it is that This Is Us thinks more of its ability to put actors in old-age makeup than I do, because why would you want to saddle Brown with the latex clumsiness that has made Moore look like a wax replica of Diane Keaton and Jon Huertas look like the 14-year-old in a high school play whose character name is simply "Old Man"? I definitely saw nothing in the flash-forward that would require me to return to that timeline again, an opinion I assume Fogelman and company do not share.
Sunday's This Is Us didn't give me the emotional catharsis Metz's Kate spent the episode trying to find, but at least it offered me the narrative relief of seemingly resolving every detail of Jack's death to a degree that it can start being treated as a sad-but-crucial character beat and not as a plot twist, a cliffhanger, a red herring, a fake-out or any of the other cheap ways it has been used for 33 episodes. The show's characters don't need to move past Jack's death. I wouldn't expect them to. It's not like Ventimiglia is going anywhere. The show, however, needs to move on, even though I don't honestly know what This Is Us has as a narrative engine without Jack's death or William's (Ron Cephas Jones) death or Mr. McGiggles' death.
Sunday's episode was an ending. There's so much to love about This Is Us, so many facets to cherish. I'm looking forward to a new beginning.