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This Is Us’ penultimate episode is something special

The show nears the end of the line as it prepares to say goodbye to Rebecca

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Image for article titled This Is Us’ penultimate episode is something special
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman has been adamant about how important it was to end the series on its own terms rather than stretch it out for years on end. And “The Train” proves what a wise decision that was. This penultimate hour is the show operating at the height of its powers—the kind of gorgeously abstract yet beautifully simple episode that only This Is Us could deliver. Fogelman pulls from every tool in the This Is Us tool kit when it comes to depicting the final hours of Rebecca Pearson’s life. And he also starts to prepare viewers for the final goodbye that’s still to come next week. As one familiar face explains, “The way I see it, if something makes you sad when it ends, it must have been pretty wonderful when it was happening.”

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Indeed, if for some reason the show didn’t come back next week, “The Train” would actually make for a pretty satisfying series finale too. It honors the show’s past, answers a few questions about its characters’ futures, and ends with that heavenly Jack/Rebecca reunion that’s basically been in the cards since the moment we learned he died. (It also circles back around to the train motif from the season premiere.) But the fact that there’s still one more episode left allows “The Train” to carry a different kind of weight than a finale would. There’s a ticking time clock here, as Rebecca tries to hold on long enough for Kate to make it to her side. But there’s also something unhurried and reflective about the final hours of Rebecca’s life, as her family lovingly recount their favorite stories while she takes a journey through her own past.

This Is Us loves to return to Kevin’s first season monologue about how his Jackson Pollock-style painting represents the complex, interwoven tapestry of human life. And that’s exactly the spirit that fuels this penultimate episode, which features three distinct This Is Us storytelling modes: The opening sequence with surprise guest star Dulé Hill sets up a classic misdirect-filled mystery. The Pearson family compound stuff allows the show to operate as a low-key family dramedy. And Rebecca’s mental train trip leans into the series’ more visually poetic impulses, as it has before in episodes like “Katie Girls” and “The Trip.” 

It’s a sort of “best of” approach that celebrates everything This Is Us can do on a storytelling level. And that’s anchored by Rebecca’s train journey, which I personally found to be a profoundly moving metaphor for the experience of dying. Fogelman’s script imagines the train as a place of both comfort and slight disorientation as William (hi Ron Cephas Jones!) guides Rebecca through a sort of living museum of her own life. Goodbye speeches from the real world are filtered into her mind as announcements over the intercom, and she operates from a place of youthful naïveté mixed with just a slight touch of trepidation—something Mandy Moore plays perfectly.

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It’s a depiction of death that feels comforting without being saccharine or simplistic; full of faith but not tied to any particular religion. From the vantage point of her train, Rebecca can drink vespers with Dr. K (hi Gerald McRaney!) and see her children and their partners existing at every stage of their lives simultaneously. But there’s also a sense that things must keep moving too, that there’s never as much time to linger as she might want there to be.

Image for article titled This Is Us’ penultimate episode is something special
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

In a less abstract way, that’s also what her loved ones are experiencing as they gather at the Pearson family compound during that much-teased flashforward sequence. It’s fun to watch them reminisce about the old family stories we’ve seen play out over the years—from Jack and Rebecca’s L.A. road trip to young Kate’s appendicitis to Randall and Beth’s proposal to Madison’s bachelorette party. (I particularly love that Kevin and Randall don’t even remember the exact origins of Pilgrim Rick, which we saw depicted in the show’s first-ever Thanksgiving episode.) Randall wonders whether this cheerful environment is the right way to mourn his mom, but as the ever-mature Deja reminds him, there are no rules for this kind of thing.

If there’s an extraneous element to this episode, it’s arguably the Dulé Hill subplot, which is initially teased as being connected to Deja’s pregnancy but which ultimately turns out to be just another thread in the broader tapestry of This Is Us. Back in the pilot, Dr. K told Jack that he hoped he’d one day be an old man talking a younger man’s ears off about how he “took the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.” And while Jack didn’t get a chance to grow into old age, it turns out that right before he died he did pass on that philosophy to another worried father—one who went on to raise a son who coincidentally did pioneering Alzheimer’s research.

More than just offering one last hero moment for Jack, the Brooks family subplot helps flesh out this episode’s thesis about the dichotomy of life: That for every moment of sadness, there’s a moment of happiness to balance it out—at least on some sort of cosmic level. Jack’s death happens at the same time that his doctor is miraculously saving a young kid from a car crash. Randall learns he’s going to be a grandfather the night before he has to say goodbye to his mother. And Rebecca’s grandchildren play a happy game of four square as she peacefully slips away after one last hand squeeze for Randall.

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It’s in those final moments that “The Train” is at its most simple and moving with its imagery. “This is quite sad, isn’t it?” train Rebecca asks William as she hears the Big Three saying their final goodbyes. But “The Train” finds a poetic sense of hope and peace for the woman who held her family together for so many years; a survivor who raised three children and outlived two husbands; a grandmother many times over. As Dr. K tells her, Rebecca has more than earned her rest. And she finds it in a big cozy bed where she gets to turn over and say hello to Jack again.

“The end is not sad, Rebecca,” William reassures her. “It’s just the start of the next incredibly beautiful thing.” Now This Is Us has one more chance to bring that philosophy home in next week’s finale.

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Stay observations

  • I’m so glad Deja ends up with Malik (that older version of him is spot-on!), but I do think that telling someone you’re pregnant by texting them a picture of a pregnancy test and three baby emojis is full-on madness.
  • I love This Is Us’ steadfast belief that “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is some profoundly unique piece of wisdom and not a super common saying.
  • It’s sweet to see Annie given an unexpected moment to shine in this episode, but I would’ve loved to have seen Tess’ goodbye to Rebecca too. I feel like Tess and Rebecca always had a special connection.
  • Given that Elizabeth Perkins and Tim Matheson already popped up this season as Rebecca’s parents, it kind of feels like they should’ve been somewhere on the train too, right?
  • Bless Kevin for finally acknowledging that Jack was weirdly ripped for a ’90s dad.
  • I’d be curious to hear what this episode’s biggest tear-jerking moments were for everyone. I think mine is Beth’s goodbye speech to Rebecca. The idea that Beth modeled her own parenting style on Rebecca is such a lovely tribute to their relationship.