— “The Pearson epitaph with read: ‘Lovely people. Cried a lot. Dramatic as hell Thanksgivings.’”
When Mandy Moore runs her last campaign to finally win the Emmy she’s long deserved for This Is Us, I hope she submits “Taboo” as her “for your consideration” episode. This final Thanksgiving installment doubles as an ode to the character who’s long been the true heart and soul of the series: the woman who gave Jack a purpose, made her family a home, held them together during the impossible, lost her voice to the quiet creep of aging, and finally found it again in the face of a terrifying illness. Rebecca Pearson started This Is Us as something of a supporting player—the quiet contrast to the much larger personalities in her family. By now, however, it’s clear she’s the real backbone of the Pearson family. And “Taboo” is a gorgeous showcase for both the character and Moore’s talents.
This final Turkey Day hurrah unfolds across three different Thanksgivings: The mid-1970s, where a newly engaged Jack and Rebecca are hosting their first Thanksgiving for her parents. 1999, where Rebecca and Miguel’s unacknowledged feelings finally come to a head in a devastatingly understated way. And the present day, where Rebecca calls a formal family meeting to lay out exactly what she wants her illness treatment and end-of-life care to look like.
These three versions of Rebecca are distinct in some ways and unified in others. The vivacious, tenacious 20-something fretting over pies and gravy is a far cry from the poised 70-something quietly, calming puttering around the kitchen and “flossing” with her granddaughters. Yet at any age Rebecca has always been defined by her unique mix of free-spirited originality and conventional sensibilities. A part of her will always be the little girl raised in the picture-perfect image of wealthy, conservative 1950s domesticity, just as a part of her will always be the rebellious young woman who came of age during the 1960s and ’70s with dreams of being the next Joni Mitchell.
What’s great about “Taboo” is that it lets a lot of complicated, sometimes conflicting emotions exist at once without feeling the need to resolve them in a neat and tidy way. In the 1970s, Rebecca’s mom Janet drives her up the wall with her constant critiques and corrections, leading to an all-timer of an outburst from Rebecca mid-meal. And yet as soon as Rebecca learns that her parents are moving eight-hours away to Connecticut, she instantly bursts into sentimental tears. “Mom, I’m going to miss you so much,” she half cries before she and Janet both turn on Jack for spilling the beans in an inelegant way. And while Rebecca’s dad Dave may dismiss all that as just the complicated, unknowable mystery of a mother/daughter bond, what is his newly chummy relationship with Jack if not exactly the same thing?
The Barefoot In The Park-style comedy of the 1970s subplot provides a nice, buoyant contrast to the heavier stuff in the other two timelines. The 1999 Thanksgiving, in particular, is just brutal to watch—first because of the cringe-worth awkwardness of Rebecca and Miguel’s double date night gone wrong and then because of the absolutely devastating swerve the episode takes when Miguel announces he’s moving to Houston to be closer to his kids.
There’s so much that goes unsaid between Rebecca and Miguel on that front porch after a heightened game of Taboo forces them to reckon with just how much they’ve become a unit since Jack died. They can only go so far as to admit that their jabs at one another’s dates weren’t harmless or accidental. Anything beyond that exists in the space of ellipses. “These past two years, Miguel, you’ve been so good to me, to us. And I just think somewhere along the way I…” Rebecca tries to explain before Miguel cuts her off. He gets close enough to kiss her before he responds, “I feel like I’ve been staying around because, I, um…. It’s just, it’s time Rebecca. Now that you’re back up on your feet. It’s time for me to go.”
They aren’t solely driven apart because 20-year-old Kevin essentially hexes their relationship with the specter of Jack’s memory, but it’s not not because of that either. “I just, I don’t know what else to do,” Miguel tries to explain. “You’re my favorite person.” That devastating goodbye sets up the Miguel/Rebecca separation that we know won’t be resolved until nine years later, when they reconnect on Facebook shortly after Tess is born in 2008. And given that we’ve seen hints of how crushingly lonely those years were for Rebecca, it’s especially heartbreaking to think of how much happier she might have been if she and Miguel hadn’t pulled away from one another.
Yet the biggest takeaway from “Taboo” is that it’s important to learn from the past without letting it define you, which is a lesson Rebecca’s daughter is trying to take to heart as well. In probably the best weight-related story This Is Us has ever delivered, Kate and Toby’s two different experiences as fat people leads to a conflict in how they want to feed their kids. Toby hopes to prevent the pain he experienced by raising Jack on a diet that could counteract his genetic predisposition to gain weight. Kate, meanwhile, wants to break the cycle of shame around food that defined so much of her life—and the lives of generations of women before her. It’s a well-written conflict that’s both specific about health and body positivity, but also tied up in Toby and Kate’s broader issues with trust and communication too.
Throughout it all, there’s a feeling of Kate and Toby never quite saying what they really mean. And that’s exactly what Rebecca is trying to avoid when she sits her kids down for a frank discussion about her medical future. Like the Rebecca/Miguel 1999 breakup, it’s another quietly harrowing sequence—especially once Rebecca announces that she’s going to pick just one of her kids to handle her medical decisions in the event that Miguel is no longer around to captain that ship.
There’s an argument for each: Fun-loving Kevin brings out her happiness. Empathetic Kate brings out her warmth. And responsible Randall has devoted pretty much his entire life to making her feel safe. But in the end, she goes with Kate, validating the long path of reconciliation they’ve been on these past six seasons and quietly crushing Randall’s soul in the process. (The way Rebecca’s eyes dart to his and he looks away is some beautiful silent acting from Moore and Sterling K. Brown.)
Indeed, around its margins, this is a really interesting hour for Randall, who is quietly grappling with how much his relationship with his mom has changed since she moved to the West Coast. “I miss her,” he tells Beth, echoing Rebecca’s own sentiment to her mom all those years before. Yet it’s not hard to see where Rebecca is coming from with her decision either. “You can’t just fix people, Randall,” 20-year-old Kate tells her anxious brother when he can’t figure out what to do when Rebecca won’t stop crying over Miguel’s departure. And while that’s a lesson that Randall has incrementally learned over the years, I suspect that—like Kevin’s perpetual tension with Miguel—it’s one he’s going to spend his whole life struggling with too.
While the first six episodes of this final season were just a touch meandering, “Taboo” feels like This Is Us kicking into high gear. In yet another great moment from Moore, present-day Rebecca demands that her children continue to live their lives to the fullest without feeling held back by her illness—the ultimate rejection of the passivity that was often her own biggest roadblock. Indeed, after decades spent holding back her voice, Rebecca reclaims it here, giving the season a new sense of purpose and a new source of conflict in the process. I guess there’s nothing like Thanksgiving to get this show cooking with gas.
- I yelped with joy when Jae-Won appeared.
- Maybe they were trying to put more of a focus on the show’s original characters, but it felt weird not to have Nicky (or his cocktail shrimp!) in this final Thanksgiving episode.
- Is this the first time Randall has referred to his family as “the Black Pearsons”? That really made me laugh.
- Jon Huertas gives an absolute master class in passive aggression with Miguel’s little “Sure” in response to Matt asking if the wine was okay.
- Jack promises to ensure Rebecca keeps visiting Janet in Connecticut, which presumably kicks off their tradition of driving to her parents’ house for Thanksgiving every year. That lasts until circa 1989 in the season one episode “Pilgrim Rick,” where Rebecca blows off her parents and the Pearsons establish all those kooky traditions they still do today.
- Of all the questionable things Toby has done over the years, claiming the makeover scene from She’s All That isn’t a crucial piece of cinematic history is easily the worst.
- Teen Kevin greeting Matt: “Firm handshake. You own your own house?”