This Is Us is technically a TV show, but let’s be real: It’s also a tear-jerking machine that coaxes salty fluid from our eyes even when we try to resist. I like this show, and I also have some publicly documented issues with it. I still cry at least once every episode. I can’t help it. It is designed to break me, and to break us all.
With the first season now behind us, we can finally look back on all the weeping, the way God, and possibly Pilgrim Rick, intended: by ranking the top 20 sobbiest moments in season one from least amount of tissues required to “Oh My God, Please Back Up a Kleenex Truck and Dump All of Its Contents Into My Living Room.”
20. The washing machine montage (Episode 7, “The Best Washing Machine in the Whole World”)
Should images of children and their parents washing clothes and/or standing in laundromats over the years really make a person cry? Normally, no. But shove “The Wind” by Cat Stevens onto the soundtrack alongside those images, and you’ve got yourself at least a couple of sniffles.
19. The wedding vows in the bathroom (Episode 14, “I Call Marriage”)
It might be a little too schmaltzy when Jack takes Rebecca to their old apartment, decorates the place with Christmas lights, then revisits their wedding vows, while they reminisce about the time their sexual exploits broke the soap dish in the shower. But when you’ve preset your cry meters to This Is Us levels, some liquid may leak from your tear ducts during this scene, regardless.
18. Jack’s funeral (Episode 13, “Three Sentences”)
The snapshots of Jack’s funeral are brief, brought on by memories Kate has while taking an intense Pound class. We still don’t know how he died at this point, but just seeing so many young Pearsons in black and a memorial photo of Milo Ventimiglia are enough to bring on eye dabs.
17. Rebecca tells William he can’t see Randall (Episode 3, “Kyle”)
This is the episode where, in the flashbacks, Rebecca is having trouble bonding with baby Randall (then called Kyle), and in the present, William learns that his cancer will kill him sooner than later. Bridging these two story lines is a scene in which young Rebecca tells young William that he can have no contact with his son, which is heartbreaking knowing what we know about William’s future health. The whole thing gets even worse when Rebecca, in peak clueless-white-woman mode, adds insult to injury by seeking William’s help with her child-bonding issues.
16. Randall’s hallucination (Episode 9, “The Trip”)
Remember that time when Randall was really mad at his mom for not telling him she knew about his birth father, and then he accidentally drank a psychedelic mushroom smoothie and had a hallucinated heart-to-heart talk with Jack? Yeah, it sounds pretty ridiculous when I describe it this way, but Milo Ventimiglia and Sterling K. Brown manage to make the moment pretty moving.
15. Kevin ditches his play to be there for Randall (Episode 15, “Jack Pearson’s Son”)
Brown is so devastatingly broken in this scene that there’s no way to watch it and not tear up, at least a little. The only reason I didn’t rank it higher is because I still have some issues with what happens here. Specifically: How could Kevin walk away from his play right before he’s supposed to go on stage? The whole reason he’s doing it is to rehab his image, after impulsively bolting from the set of his TV show. Would he really make the same mistake twice, and — as subsequent episodes reveal — apparently get away with it and continue in the play without consequence? It’s very nice that he wants to be there for his brother the way that Jack would have been, but come on, This Is Us. (Related question: Given that Rebecca bails on the first concert in her tour in the finale, should we assume that 11th-hour-performance ditching is a genetic trait passed down from Pearson to Pearson?)
14. The reveal of the Jack Pearson urn while Kate watches a Steelers game (Episode 5, “The Game Plan”)
Is it sort of weird that Kate regularly watches Pittsburgh Steelers games with her dad’s ashes? Kind of, in a way that, in another context, could inspire an entire Alfred Hitchcock movie. In a This Is Us context, though, it’s sweet and also really upsetting because: Oh, shit, this means Jack is definitely dead.
13. Randall confronts his mom (Episode 8, “Pilgrim Rick”)
Once again, Brown is excellent in a scene where Randall calls out his mother for keeping a huge secret from him, one that caused him to lose out on years of knowing and loving his biological father. Ugh. This moment is a crusher.
12. Dr. K. visits his wife’s grave (Episode 12, “The Big Day”)
There are certain This Is Us truths we can now hold to be self-evident, and one of them is this: If Gerald McRaney shows up, there will be crying. Seriously, every time you see one of the Simons from Simon & Simon — or, if you prefer, Raymond Tusk from House of Cards — you know it’s about to get emotional. That’s the case in this episode, which flashes back to the day Rebecca goes into labor and reveals how much Dr. K. is still grieving over his wife’s loss, most poignantly when he visits her grave.
11. Jack reassures Randall that he wants him to stand out (Episode 6, “Career Days”)
This is one of those wonderful scenes between a parent and his child that This Is Us handles beautifully. Randall tells his dad that he feels like he should stifle his intelligence so he doesn’t stand out too much from his siblings, and Jack makes sure his son knows that he should want to stand out. Ventimiglia is wonderful in this exchange, but also, give it up for Lonnie Chavis, whose portrayal of sad, little Randall makes you want to bust through the TV and hug him.
10. Jack’s speech in the finale (Episode 18, “Moonshadow”)
So we don’t see how Jack died in the season finale after all. Instead, we get this heartstring tugger of a monologue, in which Jack at first sounds like he’s ripping lines wholesale out of When Harry Met Sally (“I love that you laugh with your entire face”), but then declares in the most sincere way that his wife is his life saver. “You’re not just my great love story, Rebecca,” Jack says, visibly choking up. “You were my big break.” Come on. You know that got to you.
9. Jack and Rebecca spend Christmas Eve with Dr. K. (Episode 10, “Last Christmas”)
What did I just say about Gerald McRaney? If he appears in an episode, you’d better hope you’re properly stocked up on Puffs. When Jack and Rebecca find him in the hospital, all alone at Christmas and seemingly breathing some of his last breaths, it’s …(flaps hands at face in a universal sign of verklemptness). It’s … (keeps on flappin’) a lot.
8. The dojo scene (Episode 9, “The Trip”)
This scene is tough. On one hand, it’s moving to see Jack doing all those push-ups with Randall on his back, lifting his son “to greater heights, no matter how much pain it may cause.” But as we witness this moment, as the black mentors in Randall’s martial-arts class offer him support, we also flash to William, reading a letter in which Rebecca is — once again — refusing to allow him to see his biological son. It’s a lot to process, especially with all those damn tears running down the face.
7. Beth’s eulogy (Episode 17, “What Now?”)
The episodes toward the end of this season are heavy with cry moments, including this one, in which Beth talks about how much William meant to her, all while holding a pink karaoke microphone in her hand. “We’ll remember things as Before William and After William,” she says through tears and, man, forget it. Check, please, and say goodbye to what’s left of my eye makeup. (Side note: Susan Kelechi Watson gave a lovely, quietly dignified performance all season long as Beth. I feel like people don’t say that enough, so I’m saying it now.)
6. That conversation between Randall and Rebecca (Episode 17, “What Now?”)
This episode is super-cry-packed, isn’t it? I still feel like Randall lets Rebecca off the hook a little too easily for keeping that William secret. But as Rebecca, Mandy Moore delivers such a heartfelt apology in this scene that I can kind of understand why he does. Despite her aging makeup and a ridiculous plastic party fedora, she still makes this moment land in a big way.
5. Rebecca finds out the third baby died (Episode 12, “The Big Day”)
“No, no, no. You’re lying to me.” Distraught Mandy Moore is so upsetting. But also possibly the best Mandy Moore?
4. That conversation between Randall and Kate (Episode 17, “What Now?”)
Man, oh, man, Chrissy Metz just about kills me, cremates me, and throws my ashes out to sea in this scene, in which she completely breaks down over the loss of her own father after hearing Beth eulogize William. This Is Us only rarely gets emotional in a way that feels genuinely messy, but this is one of those times.
3. The reveal that Jack and Rebecca are the parents of Kevin, Kate, and Randall (Episode 1, “Pilot”)
This is the first big twist This Is Us pulls off. Because it’s the first, it’s also the best and most effective. As you’re watching the episode and going, “Ohhhhhh,” because you realize how everything narratively ties together, you’re also weeping at how beautiful it is that all those lovely humans are interconnected.
2. Jack finds out the third baby died (Episode 1, “Pilot”)
This is the defining moment of the series. When Jack gets the bad news about the third child, he looks so genuinely shaken (Ventimiglia is just great here) that you can’t help but be invested in the Pearsons. And McRaney takes a role that could be hokey as all hell (the compassionate doctor), and breaths a believable capacity for empathy and decency into his lungs.
1. William dies. Actually, no. Let’s just give this to the entire 16th episode, “Memphis.”
The death of William, played with such a gentle, cool-cat vibe by Ron Cephas Jones, is without a doubt the real knock-out, cry-a-river moment in this episode. But honestly, I found myself tearing up from the very beginning, when we first get a glimpse of baby William. This Is Us spends most of its time showing us what happens in multiple, intersecting lives. But in this single episode, the best of season one, we get to witness the arc of an entire life, one cut short, but, nevertheless, appreciated fully by the lovely man who lived it.