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.
What makes the plot twists on This Is Us so unique, though, is the very premise of the show itself. It’s not about survivors on a mysterious island or sexy cowboy robots realizing they are sexy cowboy robots; it’s a feel-good cryfest of a family drama. Thanks to handy-dandy timeline jumps, This Is Us follows the Pearson family through their early years, as Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) raise their three kids — and then it leaps ahead to follow the adult lives of Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley). (In season two, it even jumps into the future to reveal what’s happened to Randall’s children, but we’ll get to that.) Plot twists are par for the course on this show, which means some surprises work better than 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 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.
The payoff of this reveal is yet to be seen, but needless to say, it’s coming. Up until season two’s aptly titled “Brothers,” we were led to believe Jack was an only child. Any time we saw him in flashbacks to his youth, it was just him and his parents and there was never any mention otherwise. But after Jack’s father died and we flashed back to a memory of a fishing trip gone sour when Jack was a child, Jack looked in the back seat of his dad’s truck and up popped Nicky, his bespectacled younger brother. We don’t know much about Nicky, but we do know that he and Jack served in the Vietnam War together and Nicky died over there. Since the season-two finale all but confirmed we’ll be exploring Jack’s time in Vietnam soon — because we see Kevin traveling there in the near future — we’ll surely get some answers as to what happened to Jack and Nicky and why the show kept it all a secret. The mystery continues!
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 overhype, predictability, and clunky execution via urn, it mostly failed. Or maybe I’m just angry about the loss. Grief works in mysterious ways — it can even affect internet rankings!
While Rebecca’s present-day whereabouts are confirmed early in season one (a flawlessly executed plot twist we’ll discuss later in this list), we were left in the dark about Jack’s current location until “The Game Plan,” 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 guessed Jack’s deceased status well before it was revealed. 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 was the more dramatic route to go — and it gave our ensemble of actors some meaty material to work with. Yes, it was still 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.
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, asked to meet the guy. Once alone, Rebecca told 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.
Was this twist melodramatic in execution? Sure. But all things considered, it wound up serving several important functions. First and foremost, it gave us a great flashback scene between Mandy Moore and Jermel Nakia (who plays Young William), in which Moore rocked a stellar beret. All twists should have their own signature headwear. In addition, the scene was moving and accomplishes a lot of character work: It allowed This Is Us to simultaneously build Rebecca’s relationship with her adopted son and to dismantle it, because obviously this secret couldn’t stay a secret for long. Which leads me to its second purpose: It built suspense. When and how would Randall discover this betrayal? Would he be the one who slides down a wall while ugly-crying? See? Suspense!
Of course, it also threw us off the scent of the real twist …
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 nobody guessed 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, yet made the decision to keep William’s existence a secret out of fear that she could lose her son. I KNOW, YOU GUYS. Shocking.
It was shocking because, yes, it was an unexpected turn of events, but also because it wasn’t just the audience learning something new. This time, the characters were stunned too. The emotions surrounding the discovery were much more raw. Not to mention, it was a big move creatively: This reveal set 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 went beyond a mother’s love. It saddled the Rebecca character — and the show’s writers — with a big ol’ hurdle to find their way around.
As all that timeline jumping and interconnected stories chugged along, most probably assumed that, eventually, the show would look toward the future. It fits in with the big themes, after all: Kevin’s painting speech in season one was all about how life and our stories have no real beginning or end, because they stretch on in all directions. One of those directions has to be forward. So the idea that This Is Us would hop into the future wasn’t in itself a revelation of epic proportions, but it was executed in a genuinely surprising way.
In season two, while Randall and Beth deal with the loss of Deja and the hope of trying for another foster kid down the line, we jump to a scene with a very cute boy sitting with a social worker who tells him not to worry, because they’ll find a family for him soon. This editing suggests that this little boy is the child of Randall and Beth’s dreams.
It’s not until episodes later that we see the boy and his social worker again. “Super Bowl Sunday” cuts back and forth between Beth getting a phone call that sounds like it’s from a social worker and Randall talking to Tess about how when she’s older, he’ll force her into weekly dinners at her fancy office. Again, the editing is suggestive enough that we assume Randall and Beth are about to adopt this little boy. But we are so wrong. Instead, a different couple walks in to meet their new foster son and they are followed by … Old Randall, there to meet his adult daughter Tess for a weekly dinner. We’ve been watching a future timeline all along!
Now that the future has been breached, This Is Us can use it as a tool for some narrative drama. In the season-two finale, we flash forward roughly a year and catch glimpses of what our Pearsons are up to and who they are with. It gives the next season a destination to reach and the audience something to watch out for, to hope for. And in the case of Old Randall and Adult Tess, who have a very sad conversation about not being ready to go and visit an unnamed “her,” the show offers up its next big question: “What the hell are Old Randall and Adult Tess talking about?” It doesn’t have the same ring as “Where is Jack?” but the mystery surrounding it is still the same.
How dare she? The second episode of season one 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.)
Sure, by the time season two ends, we know a little more about Rebecca and Miguel’s relationship. (It started years after Jack’s death and there wasn’t anything shady going on.) But at the time of its initial reveal, we had just spent an episode watching Jack rely on his best buddy to keep him on the straight and narrow when it came to Rebecca and his drinking problem. Miguel’s dose of reality led Jack to promise his wife that he’d be a better husband. Just when we thought Jack’s impassioned heart-to-heart solved all of his marital problems — it was a really, really good speech — This Is Us ripped the rug out from under us. And with his best friend, no less. The reveal was worthy of an audible gasp or two.
What could be more unexpected and bold than announcing that the Pearsons don’t get their happy ending? At the time, it left us with a whole slew of dramatically interesting questions: mostly when and how, but also why, God, why? Those questions are still slowly being answered, seasons later. Another important function of this twist: This is the twist that set off the WHERE IS JACK? pandemonium, which, for as much as I dumped on it earlier in this list, was initially an intense and emotional question. Most importantly, this twist taught us that This Is Us wasn’t finished with the surprises. It screamed: Grab your tissues and strap in! This roller coaster of emotions has only just begun.
Ah yes, the 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 was great, but the payoff was even better. That final sequence all the way up until that hits-you-in-the-face moment when a firefighter offered Jack a cigarette in the hospital was weaved together so beautifully that it still gives me chills. It unfolded 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.