“I think we’ve all been holding our breath for a long time. So before we toast Toby and Kate, before we clink our glasses, I think that the four of us should release that breath together. It’s important that we do that — that we just let go of those things we’ve been holding on to.”
This was Kevin Pearson in the season two finale of This Is Us, asking his two siblings and their mom to exhale and let go of their grief during what had to be one of the most self-involved wedding toasts of all time. In his defense, he admitted that his reception salute to sister Kate and new husband Toby was, indeed, weird. That’s partly because Kevin spent most of the non-exhaling portion of it talking about his recovery from addiction, but also because the moment seemed designed to serve a larger purpose: to signal to the This Is Us audience that this period of the series, which has been so focused on continuing to grapple with the impact of Jack Pearson’s death, is about to embark on a new chapter.
That doesn’t mean the show is going to shift away from the melancholy mood of season two and speed toward something brighter and more hopeful in season three. If the flash-forward putting a very ominous stamp on this finale is any indication, things will only get bleaker, which means that it’s time to accept that This Is Us is no longer a feel-good, weepy show. It’s become one of the genuinely saddest dramas on television, and maybe the saddest on network TV.
This is not a critique of the show’s quality — although, as you’ll see, I definitely have some issues with the season finale — as much as an acknowledgment that the This Is Us vibe has changed since it debuted in the fall of 2016. Right away, Dan Fogelman’s twist-filled family saga earned a reputation as the ultimate sobfest, but one that felt cathartic. This was a hygge drama: the kind of show you want to watch on a chilly winter night while wearing fuzzy pajamas, wrapping your legs in a chenille throw, drinking chamomile tea, and lighting vanilla-bean-scented candles. You might be moved and even weep your way through a box of Kleenex during any given episode, but the emotions it elicited felt safe and weirdly good. Even though bad things happened to the Pearsons, the show was gentle enough in spirit to make it seem like everything would eventually be okay.
In season two, “okay” went out the window. For the most part, that change was for the better because, while This Is Us can’t be accused of trafficking in realism, it was a little more real in the way it handled issues such as racism, pregnancy, and the process of fostering a child. It also dealt more directly and honestly with the fact that bad things happen to good people — not because there’s a grand plan in place, but because life is just kind of an asshole sometimes. I admire it for acknowledging that.
But holy house fires, did it really take that concept to an extreme over these past 18 episodes, which makes it strange when people still talk about this show within the context of comfort-food TV. Within the latter half of this season alone, This Is Us gave us a heartbreaking miscarriage; an almost-devastating car accident that resulted in a DUI; a fire that nearly killed Jack Pearson, then didn’t, but sort of did, because he died of a heart attack afterward, all on Super Bowl Sunday; an eviction; and a wedding day that should have been focused on celebrating Toby and Kate, but instead was dominated by the heavy grief and guilt Kate has been carrying for two decades with regard to her father’s death. At one point during the finale, I firmly believed they should change the name of this show from This Is Us to This Is Urn.
Even after Kate finally poured out her dad’s ashes and felt ready to tie the knot, her wedding was still haunted by the ghost of Jack, to the point where we didn’t even get to hear Toby and Kate speak their vows because the sound of Jack speaking to his Katie-girl in the 1990s drowned them out. I don’t think a TV wedding has been this disinterested in the couple getting married since Ross looked into Emily’s eyes on Friends and said, “I take thee, Rachel.” (Side note: why wasn’t Audio the dog there? I was genuinely bothered by this.)
Footage from a 40th wedding anniversary celebration for Rebecca and Jack — an event that turns out to be Kate’s recurring dream — was threaded throughout the episode, a tease of how lovely things might have been in some parallel, Lost-ian flash-sideways world. It hurt to watch the Pearsons’ best-case scenario, especially in light of what would happen at the end of the episode.
As Randall made his own unconventional wedding toast about the inability to control the future, he noted that no one at the wedding knew where they would be a year from now. Images then suggested where some of our characters actually would be in roughly 365 days. First we saw Kevin on an airplane with Beth’s cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd), a character who really should have come up in conversation before now, in a moment that implied they would become a couple (how nice!) and travel together to Vietnam to explore Jack’s past so that This Is Us can continue to, at least in part, be all about Jack. (Ohhhh — so, still super-sad.)
But wait, it gets worse! We also got a glimpse of the future for our happy newlyweds, which apparently involves good-time, grand-gesture Toby succumbing to crippling depression while Kate tries to take care of him. (Apparently Toby was right when he told his parents — played in the finale by guest stars Wendie Malick and Dan Lauria — that he’s the unstable one, not Kate.) And, finally, the series catapulted us to ten years from now, a time we’ve visited before, where older Randall speaks to adult Tess and says, “It’s time to go see her.” Tess, looking anxious and upset, replies, “I’m not ready.”
It wasn’t clear who the “her” they are referring to is, but it’s obvious that whatever happens to this person is not good. Instinctively, I found myself thinking back to the worst-case scenarios that Randall and Beth had considered earlier in the episode. Is Future Deja — who, at the wedding, went completely Beyoncé-in-the-“Hold Up” video on Randall’s car — in jail or a mental hospital? Is Annie the one dealing with some sort of dire circumstance? Or does Beth fall ill and wind up on life support as a result of years of worry and stress caused by Deja?
This Is Us, which loves a cliffhanger as it much as it loves to wallow in the memory of Jack Pearson, purposely doesn’t tell us. All we know is that it seems like another worst-case scenario will come true. Which, come to think of it, feels like the right thing to call This Is Us. It’s not comfort-food TV anymore; it’s a worst-case-scenario drama. And, like Randall and Beth, the millions of Americans who watch this show still somehow feel better by spending their time considering how all of life’s very bad things might come to pass.