Everyone loves a good twist, whether it’s a lemon twist, Painting With a Twist, or the Chubby Checker twist. But if we’re all being honest, there is one twist that rules them all: the TV plot twist. A great TV plot twist is a beautiful thing because it’s just so hard to pull off well — it needs to genuinely surprise, it needs to be executed seamlessly, and it needs to push the story in an unexpected direction. For every “We have to go back, Kate!“, there’s a Bobby Ewing in the shower.
Not all plot twists are created equal, but imagine a TV show that doubles down on them. A show that doesn’t just save some world-upending moment for its season finale, but instead bakes twists into its very premise. Now, imagine that show isn’t about survivors on a mysterious island or sexy cowboy robots realizing they are sexy cowboy robots. Instead of science fiction, this particular show is a feel-good cryfest of a family drama. Now stop imagining: The show exists, it’s called This Is Us, and it’s NBC’s biggest new drama of the season.
Thanks to handy-dandy timeline jumps, This Is Us follows the Pearson family through the ‘80s and ‘90s, as Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) raise their three kids — and then it leaps ahead to the present-day adult lives of Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley). Plot twists are par for the course on this show, which means some surprises work better than the others. So, let’s do what Americans are wont to do and rank some stuff.
One note before we get started: This is a ranking of the actual plot twists in This Is Us. Randall’s biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), having a great love affair with a man is more of a character reveal than a twist, while Kate’s boyfriend Toby (Chris Sullivan) having a heart attack is … well, it’s just plot. To land a spot on this list, a moment needed to turn something we previously believed to be true on its head or reveal information that takes the story in a bold new direction. Make sense? Let’s get to the twisting.
5) Jack Pearson, We Hardly Knew Ye
The death of Pearson patriarch and top-notch facial hair wearer Jack had the potential to be the show’s most emotionally resonant plot twist of all. Thanks to over-hype, predictability, and clunky execution via urn, it mostly fails. This twist’s greatest fault, though, is that it robs us of what I am sure would’ve been the greatest sad old man beard the world has ever seen. For shame, This Is Us. For shame.
While Rebecca’s present-day whereabouts are confirmed in episode two (a flawlessly executed plot twist we’ll discuss later in this list), we were left in the dark about Jack’s current location until episode five, when Kate introduces Toby to her roommate, Jack’s Urn. That left quite a few weeks of pondering, mostly fueled by NBC’s promo department yelling, “WHERE IS JACK?” at us through our televisions. With only two basic answers to that question, plenty of viewers already guessed Jack’s deceased status by the time it was disclosed. Of course, there were little clues left along the way: Although she’s married to another man, Rebecca still wears the moon necklace Jack gave her when he promised to be a better man, which would seem way harsh if Jack were still breathing. If nothing else, the conclusion was painfully obvious because killing Jack off is the more dramatic route to go — and it will undoubtedly give our ensemble of actors some great material to work with down the road. It was emotional to have our suspicions confirmed, but there was no real surprise in what was meant to be a Very Big Reveal. The real twist would’ve been keeping Jack alive and taking the story in a less obvious direction. Or maybe I’m just really sad about that old man beard.
4) When Rebecca Met William … in 1980
From the moment Randall told Rebecca that his biological father was sitting upstairs, it was clear that something was up. She didn’t flip a table, she didn’t seem shocked, she didn’t slide down the wall while ugly crying. She had almost no reaction to the news at all. Instead, she very calmly, if not a bit brusquely, asks to meet the guy. Once alone, Rebecca tells William he “looks well” because (1) This is Ron Cephas Jones and he is very cute, and (2) The show needed to tell the audience that Rebecca already met William. Dun dun dun.
Is this twist melodramatic in execution? Sure. But all things considered, it ends up serving several important functions. First and foremost, it gives us a great flashback scene between Mandy Moore and Jermel Nakia (who plays Young William), in which Moore rocks a stellar beret. All twists should have their own signature headwear. In addition, the scene is moving and accomplishes a lot of character work: It allows This Is Us to simultaneously build Rebecca’s relationship with her adopted son and to dismantle it, because lord knows this secret won’t stay a secret for long. Which leads me to its second purpose: It builds suspense. When and how will Randall discover this betrayal? Will he be the one who slides down a wall while ugly crying? See? Suspense! She didn’t flip a table, no sliding down the wall while ugly crying.
Of course, it also threw us off the scent of the real twist …
3) The Second Meeting
It’s a twist within a twist! While us schlubs were waiting for Randall to discover that Rebecca met William when he was first born, This Is Us had loftier plans. The confrontation was bound to happen during a big holiday dinner — that is, after all, the best time for Damaging Family Secrets to come to light — but it would’ve been tough to guess that Randall would discover evidence of a second meeting between Rebecca and William. A second meeting that took place eight or nine years after the first, when Randall started asking about his biological parents. A meeting in which Rebecca realized that William had turned his life around and could possibly have some interest in being a father to Randall, and made the decision to keep William’s existence a secret out of fear that she could lose her son. I KNOW, YOU GUYS. Shocking.
The shock is felt because, yes, it’s an unexpected turn of events, but also because it’s not just the audience learning something new. This time, the characters are stunned too. The emotions surrounding the discovery are much more raw. Not to mention, it is a big move creatively: This reveal sets fire to one of the show’s strongest relationships. Randall forgiving Rebecca for keeping William a secret when she knew he was using drugs is one thing, but lying about his existence after she learned that they could have had a real relationship? That’s next-level. This Is Us tried to explain Rebecca’s actions by having Randall meet a drug-induced hallucination of Jack (isn’t this show the best?!), who explained that Rebecca will always do everything in her power to protect her family. If pressed, though, I bet even Hallucination Jack would admit that this level of betrayal goes beyond a mother’s love. It saddles the Rebecca character — and the show’s writers — with a big ol’ hurdle to find their way around.
2) Rebecca Marrying Jack’s BFF, Miguel
How dare she? Episode two reveals that our swoon-worthy soul mates didn’t make it to 2016. The twist that Rebecca is now married to Jack’s one-time best bud, Miguel, wins a whole gaggle of points simply for shock value. (I’m not just talking about Mandy Moore in old-lady makeup, but I could be.) It’s especially gut-wrenching to see Old Mandy Moore and the traitorous Miguel standing at Randall’s door, greeting their grandkids after spending most of the episode watching Jack promise his wife that he’ll be a better husband. Just when we think Jack’s impassioned heart-to-heart solved all of his marital problems — it’s a really, really good speech — This Is Us rips the rug out from under us.
What could be more unexpected and bold than announcing that the Pearsons don’t get their happy ending? It also leaves us with a whole slew of dramatically interesting questions: mostly when and how, but also why, God, why. This is the twist that set off the WHERE IS JACK? pandemonium, which, for as much as I dumped on it just a few paragraphs ago, was initially an intense and emotional question. Most importantly, this twist taught us that This Is Us wasn’t finished with the surprises. Grab your tissues and strap in; this roller coaster of emotions has only just begun.
1. The OT (Original Twist)
Ah yes, the This Is Us twist that begat all other This Is Us twists. The dual-timeline reveal doesn’t just top this list because it came first, though. A great plot twist doesn’t come out of nowhere; it’s a surprise that’s been hiding in plain sight. If you go back and watch the pilot episode, this Original Twist is set up from the very beginning: Jack and Rebecca have a box of photos labeled ‘75–’79; there’s an outdated vacuum in the background during the Pregnant Cupcake Dance (what a time to be alive!); while Randall checks his email, there’s a message from Kevin with the subject “It’s Our Birthday Bro”; the hospital equipment looks questionable at best; and so on. The tracks for this twist were clearly and deliberately laid.
The setup is great, but the payoff is even better. That final sequence all the way up until that hits-you-in-the-face moment when a firefighter offers Jack a cigarette in the hospital is weaved together so beautifully that it still gives me chills. It unfolds so wonderfully that you can’t even be mad at the show for pulling one over on you. Instead, you thank it and ask it for more. It was the first twist, but it was also the best.