(Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Given the dramatic way it was advertised and the fact that the lyric referenced in its title—“That’ll Be The Day”—ends with the line “that I die,” I was fairly certain tonight’s This Is Us would finally reveal how Jack Pearson died. So I watched the episode through that lens, counting down the minutes to what I assumed would be an emotional wallop of an ending. And then the episode went ahead and ended on a cliffhanger instead, leaving all that emotional buildup without anywhere to go. What a classic This Is Us twist!

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I should clarify that this episode only kind of ends on a cliffhanger. We now know most of the logistics of how Jack Pearson died. A faulty crockpot (a long ago gift from an old neighbor), a misplaced kitchen towel (once part of a Christmas gift from Jack to Rebecca), and the battery-less smoke detector from last week created a chain of events that allowed the beloved Pearson household to go up in flames. The show’s dramatic looking post-Super Bowl episode will reveal exactly how Rebecca, Kate, and Randall survived while Jack died. But given Kate’s emotional baggage when it comes to dogs, it’s not too much of a stretch to assume Jack will make an ill-fated attempt to go back for Kate’s stray, thus explaining why she blames herself for her dad’s death.

To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about turning Jack’s death into a two-part extravaganza. When people binge-watch these episodes in the future, I’m sure it will all play as one continuous, emotionally rich story. But for now, it feels like we’ve gotten the buildup without the pay off and that makes “That’ll Be The Day” a tricky episode to write about without seeing its conclusion.

Going in with the assumption that Jack’s “last Super Bowl with the kids” would also be his last ever day with them gave this episode a potent sense of dramatic irony for me. If the Big Three had known these were the last moments they would ever have with their father, I’m sure they wouldn’t have spent them sniping over college applications or running off to hang out with their friends or refusing to talk to him on the phone. But they don’t know their lives are about to change forever. So they spend their final moments with Jack being bratty teenagers, confident they’ll have plenty of time to work things out in the future; confident their dad will be around for years to come. Except he won’t. Nor will Jack and Rebecca get the chance to start a house flipping business together. Both the highs and lows of this episode are made more resonant because they’re the last highs and lows Jack will ever have, something we know and he doesn’t

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Until its final moments, “That’ll Be The Day” is actually a relatively low-key episode plot-wise. But unlike last week’s episode, which felt effortless in its “slice of life” storytelling, you can feel “That’ll Be The Day” straining in certain places. The bookending scenes of old married couple George and Sally don’t add much to the episode and the storyline of teenage Kate learning to see herself through Jack’s eyes and thanking him for it was just a touch too sentimental for me. Plus, as I mentioned before, the cliffhanger leaves this episode feeling rather lopsided, at least for now.

The present day stuff also feels like This Is Us spinning its wheels until the big event, albeit in an enjoyable way. Kate’s trip to the animal shelter gives us the chance to meet an adorable dog named Audio, which is reason enough for it to exist. And the incredible Kevin and Randall construction montage also more than justifies the storyline about Randall’s overly ambitious first day as a landlord. Though “Randall buys an apartment complex!” continues to be a weird swerve for this season to take, I really loved Randall’s monologue about getting older and his anxiety over living a longer life than Jack got to. In fact, the monologue was so good, I briefly thought the episode was going to serve up a twist and skip Jack’s death in favor of Randall getting gravely injured by a faulty beam or something. Thankfully, we get a much sweeter moment of Kevin telling Randall he’ll make a great old man, just like his “other dad.”

It’s Kevin who carries the most emotionally hefty present-day storyline this week, as he sets about making amends with those he’s hurt. That includes a particularly difficult apology to Sophie, who seems to make her definitive exit from the show. Kevin is karmically rewarded for his efforts by the return of Jack’s necklace. But though he gets a piece of his dad back, Jack is still the last person left on Kevin’s apology list. Perhaps he’ll always be the person left on Kevin’s list.

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Unlike Kate and Randall, who got sweet final moments with their dad, Kevin and Jack were in the middle of a squabble when Jack died. And though we know both men were planning on making amends to one another, it’s something they never actually got to do. And because of the fire, Kevin didn’t even get to see the loving note his father left for him (“Kevin, if I don’t see you before work tomorrow, I love you. You owe us an apology –Dad”). As the episode’s emotional final montage drives home, in addition to the unspeakable tragedy of losing Jack, losing the Pearson home was a tragedy in its own right too. That house was like a sixth member of the Pearson family and the simple elegance of the episode’s final few moments emphasizes just how many of their family memories were made there and just how many mementos were lost in the fire. This Is Us frequently does its most emotionally effectively storytelling through montage and this one is no exception.

The preview for the next episode promises This Is Us will finally (finally!) reveal the full story behind Jack’s death. But though it serves as a direct intro into the big event, “That’ll Be The Day” doesn’t offer much indication of what kind of tone that watershed episode will take. I could easily see it being either the best or worst thing This Is Us has ever done. For now, however, let’s hope it’ll be even half as good as this episode’s final montage.


Stray observations

  • In addition to Sterling K. Brown’s Outstanding Actor win, the entire cast of This Is Us won Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series at the SAG Awards. Here’s Milo Ventimiglia’s speech:

  • The Chi creator Lena Waithe turns in a nice guest performance as the dog shelter owner.
  • “Jack, I’m trying to do something cute here, can you take a corn muffin?”
  • Was Randall getting all his tenants complimentary hotel rooms supposed to be an example of how insanely generous he is as a landlord? Because as someone who’s lived in a cockroach-infested building before, that was definitely not a perk I was given.
  • Teenage Kevin casually sleeping over at Sophie’s felt really weird to me, even if her mom was around.
  • I used to think house fires in movies and TV shows were exaggerated for dramatic effect, but last year I witnessed a house in my parents’ neighborhood go up in flames in a matter of minutes. No one was injured, thankfully, but the house was almost instantly destroyed. Please take fire safety seriously, everybody!

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Next week: This Is Us is off next Tuesday but will return Sunday, February 4th for its special post-Super Bowl episode.