(Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

“I just need two minutes, okay? I’m going to step aside for two minutes.”

There are a dozen different things I could focus on in this review of This Is Us’ most-hyped, and likely most-watched, episode. We finally learn the full circumstances around how Jack Pearson died (cardiac arrest caused by the smoke he inhaled saving both his family and Kate’s dog from the Crock-Pot-sparked house fire from the previous episode). The present-day Big Three use the 20th anniversary of their father’s death to take huge personal growth steps. Dejà is back! And the episode even drops a whopper of a twist with potentially game-changing repercussions for how the series will handle time moving forward. Yet the one thing I can’t stop thinking about is Mandy Moore.

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While the first season of This Is Us unquestionably belonged to Sterling K. Brown, Moore has emerged as the MVP of season two, particularly in episodes like “A Manny-Splendored Thing,” “The 20’s,” and “The Fifth Wheel.” That streak continues tonight as she turns in two different but equally compelling performances. On the worst night of her life, 1998 Rebecca rides an unimaginable rollercoaster of terror, loss, joy, and then even more loss all while recognizing it’s now her job to be strong for everyone around her. In the present day, meanwhile, we see the way Rebecca has come to terms with her grief in the intervening two decades. The sadness of losing Jack is still there, but she can now celebrate the joy of what she had with him too.

In addition to serving as an ongoing (and game-changing) episode for longtime fans, “Super Bowl Sunday” also has to serve as an introduction to the series for first time viewers who stuck around after the Super Bowl. And the episode’s harrowing opening fire escape scene is perfectly calibrated to appeal to both audiences. It’s a compelling, well-staged action sequence regardless of whether you’ve seen the series before or not. And most importantly, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. After offering an early twist that Jack didn’t actually die in the Pearson house fire, “Super Bowl Sunday” quickly gets back to the business of being a more grounded This Is Us episode.

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In an episode full of gut-wrenching scenes, the most devastating one starts with Rebecca on a hospital payphone. Yes her house just burned down, but compared to the moment she thought she lost Jack, that feels like nothing. Her family is okay. She can handle the logistics of booking a hotel room for an indefinite stay. She knows Kate will eventually track down Kevin. She can relax and have a snack. After a night of crisis, she can finally focus on the mundane for a moment. But she doesn’t notice what the camera allows us to see: A medical emergency is unfolding behind her. Doctors and nurses are rushing to Jack’s room. And then suddenly, someone is there telling her that her husband is dead. All she can think to do is take a bite of the candy bar she’s holding.

That bite is something present-day Rebecca says still haunts her, but Moore makes it entirely possible to empathize with Rebecca in that moment of disorientation. How could the man she was just talking to—the man who has been her partner for so many years—suddenly not be there anymore? Surely there’s been a mistake and she and Jack will laugh about it together.

As I was hoping, This Is Us doesn’t go too over-the-top when it comes to depicting Jack’s death. We don’t see him have the heart attack that kills him and we only see his lifeless body reflected in the window of his hospital door. Rebecca’s grief is overwhelming and beautifully acted by Moore, but the show doesn’t revel in it. As in the episode about Kate’s miscarriage, This Is Us pulls back slightly so that it doesn’t just become emotional porn. Only this episode uses silence and montage even more effectively than that one did.

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The episode’s slight emotional distance feels like a reflection of the way Rebecca allows herself just a tiny bit of space to grieve. Her immediate priority is to become a rock for her family. She can’t break down when she tells Miguel about Jack’s death because she has to go inside his house and ruin her kids’ lives by telling them their father is dead. Later, once Kate and Randall have reached some level of temporary stability, she allows herself just two minutes to grieve. She breaks down in her car in the scene we briefly saw in This Is Ussecond season premiere (it’s even more devastating here), then she pulls herself together and tries to honor Jack’s legacy by filling the impossible-to-fill void he left behind.

From the beginning, This Is Us has painted Jack as an unquestionable hero. The show’s second season has been about recognizing Rebecca as a heroic figure in her own right too, and this episode feels like the perfect culmination of that arc.

(Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

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Where “Super Bowl Sunday” feels most like an intro for new viewers is in the present-day storylines for the Big Three. There’s a lot of extra exposition designed to establish the show’s world, and Kevin, Kate, and especially Randall feel like slightly archetypal versions of themselves. Apparently each year on the anniversary of Jack’s death, Kate wallows, Kevin avoids, and Randall celebrates. But 20 years after their tragic loss, the Big Three finally move away from their self-prescribed grieving methods and embrace a more holistic approach. After almost losing the footage of Jack watching her sing, Kate takes stock of the fact that she’s not the self-loathing person she used to be, largely thanks to Toby’s support. A dead lizard, of all things, helps Randall come to terms with the fact that he can’t just use the “Super Bowl Shuffle” to paper over the sadness of his father’s death. And facing his first sober Super Bowl in decades forces Kevin to finally tackle all the emotions he’s been running from.

The Big Three each get a moment (and a monologue) in which to shine, but of the three storylines, Kevin’s was the most successful for me. The previous episode beautifully set up Kevin’s despair over his inability to make amends with his father. So watching him try, however imperfectly, had a lot of emotional payoff. And it dovetailed perfectly with present-day Rebecca’s storyline about Jack sending her a belly laugh each year. This year her laugh came courtesy of Kevin, and it’s really moving to see how much the Rebecca/Kevin relationship has grown since their blowout therapy fight.

And then there’s the episode’s big twist; one I never saw coming even though, in retrospect, it’s such an obvious step for the show to take (especially after Lost did it first). The little boy we first glimpsed in “Number Three” isn’t destined to be Randall and Beth’s foster son. His storyline is taking place in the future and his social worker is none other than a grown-up Tess. Seeing older Randall walk into that room was a genuinely shocking moment, one I’m still processing. But though it’s not yet clear whether This Is Us will regularly be incorporating flash-forwards to its timeline, there’s a special kind of thrill from watching a TV show suddenly expand its world in such a major way.

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Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us (yep, there are two new episodes airing this week) will mark a new era for the series. The show no longer has the mystery of Jack’s death to fuel it, and as I wrote about in this For Our Consideration, that could very well be a good thing. Without having to write around a major part of their story, This Is Us can dig even deeper into the Pearson family. Hopefully that will give both Mandy Moore and the rest of the show’s insanely talented cast even more of a chance to shine.


Stray observations

  • Jack is truly fantastic in a crisis up until he needlessly puts his life in danger because of his panicked teenage daughter’s emotions. I’m sorry, but that’s on Jack, not Kate.

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  • I find it slightly odd that the Pearsons mark the anniversary of Jack’s death via Super Bowls (which always take place on a Sunday) rather than on the date it actually happened. On the other hand, kudos to This Is Us for weaving football into the fabric of this show from the beginning so that tonight’s Super Bowl Sunday conceit didn’t just feel like a cheap gimmick.
  • Relatedly, it’s fun that This Is Us and NBC managed to put actual footage from tonight’s Super Bowl game into this episode. Also congrats to the Eagles and especially to Nick Foles’ adorable baby!
  • Have we ever seen Jack and Rebecca eat lasagna together before?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how pissed is NBC that Netflix dropped The Cloverfield Paradox tonight and stole at least part of its live-tweeting thunder?

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  • Jack Death Watch: In the final installment of this macabre series, I’d like to shamelessly brag about this prediction I made a few hours before the episode aired: