(Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Taken together, the past three episodes of This Is Us have served as a mini-series about Jack Pearson’s death. “That’ll Be The Day” celebrated Jack’s final day on Earth, “Super Bowl Sunday” depicted his tragic death, and “The Car” is about laying him to rest, both literally and figuratively. Since it’s designed to function as a denouement, this episode is a bit quieter (although no less emotional) than the ones that have come before it. This final chapter eschews any present day stuff to focus on the day of Jack’s funeral as well as small but meaningful moments he shared with his family throughout the years. “The Car” utilizes a more fluid storytelling structure than the show generally does, but that’s a fitting way to memorialize a man whose power lay in the accumulation of small but powerful moments.

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The thing that’s impressed me most about This Is Us’ second season is how much more confident the show is with its use of time. “The Car” jumps through a bunch of different eras of the Pearsons’ lives, revealing things we never knew about (like Rebecca’s cancer scare) and looping back to things we’ve glimpsed before (like Jack’s funeral). Yet the episode never feels the need to over explain or telegraph what’s going on. It trusts its audience to follow its various timelines and that allows the episode to move through time in a really elegant, lyrical way.

The glue loosely holding the episode together is the Pearson family’s Jeep Wagoner. It would be a step too far to call the station wagon a sixth member of the Pearson family (and anyway, I think I already made that claim about the Pearson family home), but it has been a consistent presence throughout the series. So when the episode creates a montage of Pearson family moments that occurred in and around the car, it doesn’t just have to make them up wholesale—like that sweet family bonding moment during Rebecca’s bridge-inspired freak-out—it can also cut together footage from the show’s entire run. “The Car” cleverly turns the time we’ve invested watching this fictional family into a reflection of the years they’ve spent with one another.

This episode features three particularly strong scenes that emphasize Jack’s many strengths as a family man. Frustrated with Kevin and Randall’s bickering during a driving lesson, Jack ditches them on the side of the road and makes them walk home together. He’s firm but empathetic as he explains to his sons that one day they’ll be the only ones who remember the life they lived together so they shouldn’t take each other for granted. (It may take a couple decades, but at least we know Randall and Kevin eventually get the message.) Elsewhere, Jack is at his warmest and most playful as he helps Kate skip school to go to an Alanis Morissette signing, all while trying to encourage his daughter’s musical talents. (Again, it might take a few decades, but Kate does eventually take his encouragement to heart.) And Jack is at his most, well, Jack-ish as he distracts Rebecca from a medical scare by taking her to his “favorite tree,” which is really just an excuse to get her out of her head but still near a payphone. “Why is this your favorite tree?” Rebecca asks. “Because it’s where you find out you’re okay,” Jack answers.

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The warmth of those three scenes makes Jack’s absence in the main storyline all the more devastating. Though they pull themselves together to handle the logistics of his funeral, the Pearsons are also clearly unraveling. Kevin and Randall butt heads over who will be the “man of the house” (well Kevin butts heads with Randall, Randall just immediately jumps into helping his mom); Kate blames herself for her dad’s death; and Rebecca worries she’ll fail her family without Jack at her side. Luckily, Dr. K—the Pearson family guardian angel—is on hand to give Rebecca the boost of confidence she needs. Gerald McRaney is always a welcome presence on This Is Us, and I felt a palpable sense of relief when he showed up at Jack’s funeral. What Rebecca needs more than anything throughout this episode is someone to lean on, and Dr. K provides that in a way no one else could have.

“The Car” is clearly designed to provide one last burst of catharsis before putting a button on this arc about Jack’s death, and Rebecca’s impromptu tree memorial does that perfectly. The remaining Pearsons begin to make peace with the idea of a future without Jack, which allows the show’s audience to do the same (it helps that we know Milo Ventimiglia will be still sticking around in the flashbacks). Yet while I enjoyed watching “The Car,” I found myself even more interested in the question of where the show goes from here.

In order to maintain the mystery of his death, This Is Us has entirely avoided depicting the time period between Jack’s demise in 1998 and the Big Three’s twenties in 2008. I’m really excited to see the show finally delve into that hugely formative and deeply troubled time in our main characters’ lives. In fact, although I’m not entirely sure the writers want us to think about it, a lot of the heartwarming moments from the end of this episode are lessened by the fact that we know how imperfect the Pearsons’ relationships with one another go on to be for the next 20 years.

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I’m also really curious to see how much This Is Us is willing to tear down Jack’s legacy after his death. Though it makes sense that an episode featuring his funeral would memorialize Jack’s heroic qualities, there’s also an argument to be made that Jack’s compulsive need to be a hero is what led to his death. Rebecca firmly tells Kate that Jack’s death wasn’t her fault and I have to agree. It was Jack’s hubris that got him killed and if I were Rebecca I would be really, really pissed at him for that—if not right away than at least at some point. So far, teenage Kevin is the only Pearson to channel his grief into anger (although he lashes out at Randall, rather than at his dad), but I think This Is Us could mine a lot of strong storytelling from the anger the other Pearsons might eventually feel towards a man they also can’t bear to denigrate.

Or maybe This Is Us will never delve into the question of whether Jack was too heroic for his own good. This show is inconsistent about when it wants to tackle tough emotional realities. But it’s surprised me in the past and I’m hoping it will again in the future. Jack Pearson was a complicated man and while this episode is a moving tribute to his strengths, I think there’s still a lot more to be said about his flaws too.


Stray observations

  • The Big Three’s first concert was Weird Al Yankovic, which is delightful.
  • While talking to Kevin and Randall about his childhood, Jack confirms that his brother died in Vietnam. I’m glad the show isn’t setting up “How did Nicky die?” as its next big mystery.
  • I definitely believe Jack as a lame dad who prefers Bruce Springsteen to Alanis Morissette; I don’t for a second believe him as someone with the uncanny ability to predict the endings of movies.
  • I’m curious about Rebecca’s extended family, none of whom seem to be much help to her at the funeral. Are her parents still around in 1998? Doesn’t she theoretically have a sister we still haven’t met?
  • The 1998 Super Bowl took place on January 25th yet during Jack’s funeral there are leaves on all the trees and Rebecca has bare legs.
  • The way Hannah Zeile delivers the line, “Mom, is it possible that we don’t do all of it?” while spreading Jack’s ashes made me tear up both while watching the episode and while typing it here.
  • “I’ve memorized all the phobias.”
  • In case you missed Mandy Moore’s helpful PSA, This Is Us is taking a break for the Olympics but will return with a new episode on February 27th. See you back here then!

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