Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

“The Wedding” spends its runtime trying to convince us that something bad is going to happen. Will Kate freak out and run away from her wedding? Will Toby get cold feet and call it off? Will Kate and Rebecca get into a big blowout fight? Will Deja act out and ruin the wedding, potentially by murdering Randall and Beth? Like the “Worst Case Scenario” game Randall and Beth play to calm themselves down in times of stress, This Is Us wants its audience to think through all the devastating twists that could occur in this second season finale. And then it pulls the rug out from under us by delivering on none of them. There’s certainly a lot to unpack in the episode’s final montage of flash-forwards (and we’ll get to those, don’t worry), but the biggest twist of “The Wedding” is that there is no twist. Things go off without a hitch, give or take Deja angrily smashing Randall’s prized car with a baseball bat, which, to be fair, is still far from the worst case scenario Randall and Beth envisioned for her.

For the most part, “The Wedding” is a sweet, surprisingly low-key finale that allows the show’s ensemble to come together and try to out-charm each other with their increasingly endearing performances. This isn’t a top-tier episode of This Is Us, but it’s far stronger than the dour first season finale “Moonshadow.” And it caps off an emotionally draining season with a little bit of fan service.

Interspersed throughout the episode are scenes of older Rebecca and Jack renewing their vows for their 40th wedding anniversary. The sequence turns out to be a dream Kate has been having and it’s ostensibly designed to demonstrate the way Kate is letting the past hold her back from embracing the future (Toby isn’t a part of the dream). Mostly, however, the dream sequences are just there to give fans a chance to see Milo Ventimiglia in old-age makeup, interacting with the chunk of the show’s cast he doesn’t normally get to interact with. Given how dark some of the Jack-related storytelling has been this season, I think This Is Us has earned the right to indulge in a bit of sweet, pointless fantasy. But it’s also true that those sequences also offer little more than just sweet, pointless fantasy.

The other moments of fan service come when “The Wedding” seems to be setting up Toby and Kate to have respective crises of faith about their marriage, only to have them swerve and reaffirm how much they love each other. The larger emotional context of those scenes is fine, particularly Kate’s decision to spread Jack’s ashes as a big step in her grieving process. But the wedding-threatening fake-outs are a cheap way to up the episode’s tension before providing quotable moments for Toby and Kate shippers.

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Thankfully, the episode undercuts that mawkishness with a flash-forward to a moment in Toby and Kate’s life that’s less picture perfect than their wedding—one where Toby’s depression seems to have returned. A surface level reading of that scene could take it as an indication that Toby and Kate’s marriage falls apart in the way Toby’s first marriage did. But it seems to me that This Is Us is actually setting up a far more nuanced depiction of mental illness. Clinical depression is a chronic medical issue, not a reflection of how well one’s life is going in any particular moment. So while the image of Toby lying motionless in bed is an upsetting one, the fact that he has a supportive partner and is getting medical treatment for his depression means there’s actually a lot of hope in it too. After a season in which Toby was a support system for Kate, it seems we might be getting a reversal of that scenario next season.

Potentially less hopeful, however, is the flash-forward to a point further in Randall’s future (the one we saw in “Super Bowl Sunday”). Let’s get one thing out of the way: Without question this episode wants us to think that Beth is going to die young, leaving Randall as the new Rebecca and his daughters as the new, grieving Big Three. “It’s time to go see her, Tess,” old Randall tells his adult daughter in a grave tone. “I’m not ready,” Tess responds. “Me neither,” Randall says. The present-day montage that follows is then filled with a bunch of pointed shots of Beth being happy and oblivious to the idea that she might die young.

Here’s the thing though, there’s absolutely nothing in the flash-forward to confirm that Randall and Tess are talking about Beth. They could be talking about any woman they both know, including one we haven’t met yet. Or—my personal theory—they could be talking about visiting Rebecca on her deathbed. So while I imagine there will be a lot of handwringing over the idea of the show killing off Beth, I’m hesitant to get too worked up about something we don’t actually know is going to come to pass, especially given how much This Is Us loves a fake out (just look at this episode for evidence).

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The final flash-forward reveals that sometime in the near future Kevin will take a trip to Vietnam with his new girlfriend Zoe, Beth’s hitherto unmentioned cousin who we find out was basically raised as her sister. And that speaks to one of the weaker parts of this episode: Zoe is a perfectly fine character who’s winningly played by Melanie Liburd, but it’s weird that she emerges from nowhere and goes on to play such a major role in Deja’s storyline. Perhaps because Deja got such a focus last week, her story gets the short shrift here. I’m glad This Is Us isn’t pretending that having Shauna legally give up her parental rights would be easy for Deja, no matter how much Deja loves the Pearsons. But it still feels like we’re missing a lot of fallout from last week’s cliffhanger. How did Deja find out about Shauna’s decision? And will Shauna still be a part of Deja’s life via regular visits or is she gone for good?

Having to time Jack’s death to our real-world Super Bowl gave this season of This Is Us a slightly odd shape, one it never fully got a handle on. So while “The Wedding” does its best to put a button on some of This Is Us’ season-long storytelling while still leaving things open for the future, it can only do so much in the face of some messy big picture storytelling choices. A lot of things that were introduced early in the season are still mostly left hanging in this finale, like Jack’s time in Vietnam, his relationship with his brother Nicky, Randall and Beth’s apartment project, and Kevin’s movie.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strongest element of “The Wedding” is the one that provides payoff for the most cohesive, well-paced story of the season: The relationship between Rebecca and Kate. Rebecca’s worst case scenario is that she’ll somehow ruin Kate’s wedding day just by being there, which is basically what happened when she went to watch Kate sing back in the second episode of the season. It’s heartbreaking to watch Rebecca walk on eggshells around her daughter, but it’s understandable that she feels the need to do so given how needlessly hostile Kate has been in the past. Thankfully, the emotional bridge the two women built after Kate’s miscarriage seems to have stuck. Kate and Rebecca get a lovely scene in which Kate reveals that she sees her mom as a role model, not an enemy. And Kate’s clearly going to make more of an effort to show that in the future, which is a wonderful note on which to end their season-long storyline.

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“The Wedding” isn’t a perfect episode of This Is Us, but it does remind us how fun it can be to hang out with the Pearsons and how heartbreaking it is to see them in pain. Those are the qualities that drew fans to the show in the first place and they’re smart ones to reinforce at the end of a messy, moving, inventive season of TV.


Stray observations

  • Didn’t Rebecca sell the Pearsons’ cabin back in the first season?
  • As someone who’s very comforted by thinking through potential bad outcomes, I found Beth and Randall’s “Worst Case Scenario” game to be the most romantic thing they’ve ever done.
  • This is an all-around great episode for Kevin. I loved the scene where he was curtly discussing gift bags on the phone only for it to be revealed that he was talking to Randall. I’m also glad that Kevin is self-aware enough to realize that Madison is exactly the type of girl he’d sleep with only to regret it later. Yes, his wedding toast was arguably too much about himself, but I still teared up when he channeled Jack and called Kate “Katie girl.”
  • Relatedly, I’d watch a whole spinoff show about Kevin and Randall becoming wedding planners.
  • And that’s it for This Is Us’ second season! I’ve loved getting to review this show and I can’t wait to see what the next season has in store. In the meantime, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with your theories on if/how Beth is going to die.

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