This Is Us has been on such a tear of superb episodes, it was bound to fall back to Earth eventually. It’s just a shame that this particular episode also happens to be the season finale. “Moonshadow” doesn’t necessarily leave a bad taste in your mouth, but it might leave a quizzical look on your brow — as in, “Hmm, okay … but did we really need that extended scene of Young Jack playing poker?”
This show has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t need a huge twist ending to tell captivating stories. It was smart to juxtapose Jack and Rebecca’s first meeting with their separation to amp up the emotional intensity, but it all feels a bit lackluster for a season finale. Not to mention very depressing. No one likes to see Mom and Dad fight, and the bulk of this episode is exactly that. For such a hopeful, earnest show, it’s a strange note on which to end such a strong debut season.
Let’s unpack it.
First, let it be said: The saddest moment of all is when Milo Ventimiglia rolls out from under a car to reveal that he HAS NO FACIAL HAIR. Okay, it’s understandable because this is 28-year-old Jack, but also no. Young, spritely Jack is home from Vietnam (he was a mechanic in the military) and is trying to make enough money to move out of his parents’ house. Apparently, his terrible dad is living there again. It’s time to go.
Unfortunately for Jack, times are tough. He fixes a car (his future Chevy Chevelle!) for his neighbor Mrs. Peabody (Debra Mooney), but in return only gets a fiver and a blind date with her friend’s granddaughter. Which is basically negative money. Blind dates are the worst!
The lack of funds won’t deter Jack and his dreams of opening an auto body shop with his buddy Daryl. Jack believes that nice guys will always get their break, and he has an idea to make his happen: He wants in on the big poker game that’s run by Daryl’s cousin at a local dive bar, Ray’s.
Thus, the aforementioned poker scene. Jack goes all in (TYPICAL JACK) and ends up winning a huge pot on his first hand. Then he calls it a night. I haven’t played much poker in the backrooms of seedy bars, but even I know you don’t just win a huge hand and then bail. It’s so shady! That’s exactly what Ray thinks, too. Also, he doesn’t like getting showed up. As Jack and Daryl celebrate their turn of fortune outside, they get beat up by some of Ray’s goons, who take all of the money back.
Yes, this is a storyline on This Is Us. Dive-bar goons!
Jack’s had enough with being the good guy. He’s not going to sit around and wait for the life he deserves to come find him — he’s going to take it. By which he means: He and Daryl are going to rob Ray’s bar. He has a whole plan that involves a payphone and duping an old bartender. This is not the Jack we know. But wait, there’s hope! As he gets ready for the big “heist,” we see him put on his magical Daytona Beach shirt — the same one he told Little Kate he was wearing the night he met Rebecca. Now we know something’s up.
Speaking of Rebecca, she’s confronting the fact that she has very boring friends. They don’t understand why she would focus solely on her singing career and not want to immediately settle down. “Diversify your options,” the terrible blonde married to a finance guy tells her. Rebecca basically tells them to go choke on their options, but when she gets a rejection letter from the recording studio she swore was going to be her big break, she takes those friends up on their offer for a blind date.
I know what you’re thinking: Both Jack and Rebecca have been offered blind dates?! What a coincidence. But friends, that would be too easy.
Rebecca sits down with a boring finance guy, only to leave early for an open-mic night. And Jack blows his date off completely to go rob that bar. (I hate that I had to type that.) Just as Jack’s plans to break bad go into motion, he hears a heavenly voice singing onstage, and he is mesmerized by the person that voice belongs to. Yes, Rebecca’s open-mic gig is at Ray’s, the same dive bar Jack is going to rob. Only, now he doesn’t need to. He’s laid eyes on Rebecca, and everything is different.
We’re not just being told this story for the sake of watching Milo and Mandy say hello to each other for the first time (although that is the best moment of the entire thing). The choice to show us the beginning of their relationship at this moment is because we are also getting a glimpse of that same relationship falling apart in the ’90s.
As most of us guessed, Jack does not die in a drunk-driving accident while on his way to fix things with Rebecca on her first tour stop in Cleveland. But he is very drunk when he shows up at the venue. His first move is to sidle up to the bar. His second is to go wander around until he finds Rebecca. Neither are great choices, to be honest.
Unfortunately, Rebecca isn’t where she’s supposed to be. While getting ready for the big gig, Ben comes in to calm a very nervous Rebecca down … with his lips. She’s having none of it, and runs off to call Jack at home and tell him how much she misses him. Obviously, he doesn’t get that message. He does, however, run into Ben, who mentions something about “crossing the line” with Rebecca. Jack promptly punches Ben in the face. Repeatedly.
Rebecca eventually gets Jack to stop, tells Ben that it’s all over, and makes the long drive back to Pittsburgh with her drunk husband in the passenger seat. Once they get home, they unload on each other.
Like, really unload. Rebecca finds Jack’s alcoholism inconvenient. She wanted one thing for herself. She feels like a ghost in her own life. Jack tells Rebecca she’s ridiculous for pursuing music. He’s hurt that he and the kids aren’t enough for her. They both scream over each other about what they’ve sacrificed. It is hard to watch. Also, I have to assume it was very exhausting for Ventimiglia and Moore, who remind us once again that they have this married-couple authenticity thing down.
The next morning, both Jack and Rebecca know they can’t take back what they said — and, even more gut-wrenching, that they meant it all. They need to press pause on their marriage. Jack will go stay with Miguel and Rebecca will stay with the kids. She worries that they’re messing Kevin, Kate, and Randall up, but Jack reassures her that regardless of their marriage, they’re good parents and they’ve done the best they can for their kids. He also finally answers her question from the night before: What does Jack love about her right now, in this moment? I won’t do the injustice of trying to paraphrase it, but suffice to say that the answer is another killer Jack speech. And it ends with him repeating that this is just the beginning of their love story. Then he picks up his bag and leaves.
Which means the question we’re left pondering until season two is: Do Jack and Rebecca kiss and make up before he dies? Now that, right there, would be a real heartbreaker.
This Is the Rest
• It was a nice touch to have Rebecca come out of her bedroom the next morning and look for Jack on the hallway floor. This time, he didn’t sleep outside the door — and that says everything about where their relationship is.
• The mystery of the moon necklace has been solved: Rebecca knew Jack picked a moon for her because of “their song,” and it turns out that song is also the title of the episode: “Moonshadow.” It’s the song Rebecca was singing when she saved Jack from a life of robbing bars.
• Kate, back in LA with Toby (no!), finds an old picture of her mother and decides she wants to pursue music. At least that entire storyline hasn’t been completely forgotten!
• Kevin heads off to Los Angeles for his big Ron Howard audition. Sophie seems supportive; I seem to be falling asleep.
• After Randall takes a trip down memory lane via an old book of photos, he’s struck with an idea: He wants to adopt a baby. Beth seems a little hesitant, but I love this idea!