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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A cathartic This Is Us finale teases another big mystery

Illustration for article titled A cathartic This Is Us finale teases another big mystery
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

If you had given me 50 chances to guess what might happen in tonight’s This Is Us season finale, I never would’ve landed on this episode’s final tease: A flash-forward to five years in the future, where Kate is set to marry her uptight British boss Philip (Chris Geere)—a character I assumed wouldn’t even rival Jae-Won in terms of levels of relevance to this show. I’ve watched the final few minutes of this episode about half a dozen times to make sure I’m not being duped. But as far as I can tell, there’s no room for ambiguity. Kate’s in a wedding dress, Kevin is rehearsing a toast, and Philip gives him permission to make jokes at his expense by noting, “If you can’t take the piss out of your future brother-in-law, who can you take the piss out of?” Unless next season is going to reveal there’s a secret fourth Pearson sibling Philip is marrying instead, it seems like we’re in for some seismic changes in This Is Ussixth and final season.

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It’s an effective twist because This Is Us has trained us to expect flash-forwards to either Rebecca’s deathbed or Baby Jack’s future in its finales. Plus “The Adirondacks” makes a point of selling the wholesome, supportive nature of Kate and Toby’s marriage, as they briefly try to “Gift Of The Magi” each other over his new job in San Francisco. In fact, one of my big complaints about this episode was going to be that it resolved Kate and Toby’s marital issues way too easily after a season of deep communication issues. But, as is frequently the case, it turns out This Is Us has a longer, more unexpected endgame in mind. Sometime in the next few years, Kate and Toby’s present day happiness gives way to a whole new relationship for her. Suddenly it makes a lot more sense why Toby seems so lonely in the Rebecca’s deathbed timeline.

Then again, a wedding doesn’t always mean a marriage, as this episode drills home. The present-day portion of “The Adirondacks” pulls off the somewhat less surprising reveal that Kevin and Madison don’t actually go through with their wedding. It’s not a huge twist, given the doubt we saw in Madison’s eyes last week. But this episode effectively builds to the split. Kevin’s panic over wedding logistics belies a man panicked about his future, while brief flashbacks economically flesh out the low self-worth that has defined Madison’s life so far. (And led her to that weight loss group way back in the show’s pilot.) The scene where she finally calls off the wedding is brutal, but incredibly well-done. Though Kevin desperately fights to save his dream of a perfect nuclear family, he can’t even bring himself to say he loves the woman he’s about to marry. Deep down, they both know it’s better to cut their losses rather than go through with something they’ll regret.

Illustration for article titled A cathartic This Is Us finale teases another big mystery
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

It’s bittersweet, rather than tragic. There’s strength and hope in Madison’s decision to call off the wedding rather than settle for an approximation of love. And that’s the general tone this episode strikes across the board. This Is Us tends to save its most dramatic cliffhangers for its midseason finales, rather than its season-enders. And a lot of “The Adirondacks” is a fairly light, almost madcap comedy punctuated by moments of reconciliation. Beth and Tess break through their communication issues and share a lovely mother/daughter bonding moment as Beth helps Tess modify her wedding attire to fit her newfound style. And Rebecca begins the process of making amends to Randall for hiding William from him and never giving him space to discuss his feelings about his birth parents.

The Randall/Rebecca scenes, in particular, are really moving—even if it feels like we sort of have to write our own ideas about where her newfound openness comes from. “The Adirondacks” zeroes in on a lot of Pearson family defense mechanisms, like the way Kevin defuses tension with humor or Randall carefully steers difficult conversations towards small talk pleasantries. Rebecca’s defense mechanism has always been avoidance, and I’m not entirely sure what makes her shake things up here, other than a general sense that the pandemic and her Alzheimer’s diagnosis have made her realize she needs to make the most of the time she’s got left. And maybe that’s reason enough.

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Illustration for article titled A cathartic This Is Us finale teases another big mystery
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Watching this heartfelt but also scattered finale, it’s hard not to think about what this season of This Is Us might have been if the show hadn’t decided to make the pandemic part of its storytelling. If it had followed through on Rebecca attending the clinical trial in St. Louis and the dark turn Randall took in coercing her to sign up for it. Hell, I’m even just curious what this existing season would’ve looked like if it hadn’t been shortened by two episodes. But, like Kevin and Madison, we have to deal with the reality of what’s in front of us, not the dream of what we wish things could be. And, on the whole, I think “The Adirondacks” does a fairly effective job putting a capper on this uneven season.

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Looking back, season five managed to cover an impressive amount of storytelling ground. It introduced a trio of new babies, wove Uncle Nicky firmly into the family fold, and delivered a bunch of reckonings around Randall’s identity. At the very least, season five will forever be a time capsule of this incredibly strange year and a half—with one truly great pandemic-related episode to show for it. But right now I’m more interested in looking forward to This Is Us’ future than I am on reflecting back on what we just watched.

Illustration for article titled A cathartic This Is Us finale teases another big mystery
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC
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With the amount of dangling threads this finale opens up, I have no idea what This Is Us final season is going to look like. We’ve now got three major flash-forward timelines to work towards, including a lot of teases in that five-year jump. In addition to Kate’s wedding, we learn Kevin has fulfilled his dad’s dream of launching Big Three Homes, Nicky has a wife, and Randall has been dubbed a “rising star” by a swanky New Yorker profile. I’m assuming next season will largely focus on those threads, and I’m wondering if it might be set across a longer period of time than the show’s usual year-in-the-life mode.

As This Is Us builds towards whatever its ultimate endgame might be, I hope it doesn’t forget about the small-scale character work that really makes this show shine. Moments like Randall explaining that he remembers a childhood event more from the pictures than from actually being there. Or Miguel asking if his hug-zombie character is creepy or cute. Or Deja’s tossed-off little daydream about one day marrying Malik. Those are the sorts of things that This Is Us does better than just about any other show on TV. And I hope the final season prioritizes that lived-in humanism as much as its tantalizing mysteries.

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Stray observations

  • Just to clarify all the various flash-forward timelines: We’ve now got the far future, where Baby Jack is a grown man with a baby of his own. The medium future, where Rebecca is on her deathbed, Deja is a pregnant med student, and Kevin’s twins look like they’re about 12 or so. And the near future, where Kate is getting married and the Big Three are 45 years old. 
  • The fact that Kevin and Madison are so chummy in the five-year time jump could mean they eventually wind up getting back together. (She references having told him something “12 times this morning.”) Or it could just mean they’re good friends and co-parents. The fact that Future Kevin is quoting The Princess Bride in his wedding toast definitely calls to mind his connection with Sophie too.
  • It would’ve been nice if we’d gotten more follow-up on that really moving conversation about race and white fragility that Kate and Randall had in the season premiere.
  • I suspect that most of Deja and Malik’s storyline got lost in the shortened episode order. But I did cry proud tears at the reveal that he got into Harvard.
  • I found Jack and Rebecca fighting over Dynasty to be far more interesting than their schmaltzy at-home vow renewal.
  • The whole sequence of Nicky and Miguel trying to rebuild the altar while Toby works on flowers and Randall covers Kevin with an umbrella was hilarious. And Beth popping in to casually ask about altering Tess’ dress was the perfect icing on the cake.
  • Thanks so much for following along with this season of reviews! This Is Us will back in early 2022 with a “largely uninterrupted run” of its sixth and final season. If you want to chat in the off-season, you can find me over on Twitter.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.