The sky is blue. The grass is green. The Pearsons are going to make us cry this year. Those are just some cold, hard facts, people. As This Is Us delivers its final act, we should all prepare to be emotionally devastated. It’s tradition! And with this being The End, I think we can all assume the devastation will be kicked up a few notches. A sure sign this is the case: In this episode, Kate is the Pearson exuding the most optimism and hope for the future. KATE. We should all be on high emotional-support alert.
But it’s true! As the Pearson clan grapples with the news that Rebecca’s condition is getting worse — she spends the entire episode searching for the word caboose in some very cool memory sequences — it’s Kate who reminds us how far they’ve come and that while this may be a dark time, the Pearsons, like Bane before them, were born in the darkness, and they always manage to find some light eventually. Kevin thinks it’s comforting, so that’s nice. It’s a little harder for those of us in the audience to fully buy into since, ahem, thanks to that five-year flash-forward in the season-five finale, we all know that Kate is headed straight for a big ol’ divorce at any moment. I don’t care how many at-home massages and birthday surprises Toby arranges from San Francisco: The British are coming, baby. Sorry, Toby, but all it took was one tiny smile on Phillip’s face as he watched Kate be moved to tears when her students surprised her with a birthday rendition of “Time After Time” for me to be all in on this new romance. Phillip!! I don’t care that this means I have absolutely zero loyalty for a relationship we’ve watched grow over five seasons! I am ready for this!! And you know what? Maybe it makes sense for Kate to deliver that whole “we’ll find the light again” speech because although things are about to get rough, we already know she’ll find happiness again soon after. Phillip.
The show offers up another justification for making Kate the bearer of optimism here: Even as a little kid, Kate, apparently, could find the silver lining. The premiere travels back to January 28, 1986 — the day of the Challenger explosion. Those familiar with This Is Us lore know that this isn’t some random reference but rather a callback to a moment in the pilot episode in which Kevin, flanked by two young ladies clad in bikinis on his 36th birthday, goes on and on about how it was the Challenger explosion that really messed him up. Now we get to see that! Isn’t that fun? Just kidding, it’s horrifying. But anyway, as Jack and Rebecca navigate how to discuss death and the tragedy they all just witnessed on live television with their very tiny children, we see that many of the coping mechanisms the Big Three had as kids have stayed with them as adults in some ways (this is not some big revelation; it is basically the premise of the show). Enter Kate and her silver linings. When Jack and Rebecca ask how the kids are feeling about everything, Little Kate says something about how the astronauts were close to heaven when they died. Now, honestly, that’s pretty fucked up, but Kate is, like, 5, so we’ll allow it, I guess?
Little Randall is preoccupied with Christa McAuliffe’s children. He wants to know who is making them dinner and thinks they should send them macaroni and cheese just to be safe. Rebecca spends the evening angsting over how Randall “is too good for this world” and worrying that Randall’s “life will be this beautiful but perpetually disappointing ride.” Then she compares him to The Catcher in the Rye and Holden Caulfield, and honestly, my eyes rolled so far back in my head I worried if they would ever return. Has any parent in the history of the world ever thought their own child was too good for this world?? Rebecca’s obsession with Randall runs deep.
In the present day, we get an example of Randall’s trying to save people and winding up disappointed: The man who broke into their home and pulled a knife on Randall has been caught, and Randall takes it upon himself to go to the guy’s arraignment hearing to confront him face-to-face. Pretty quickly, Randall realizes this encounter is not going to provide the closure or the justification for skipping birthday sex that he’s looking for. The man, David, is an addict and clearly has a lot of issues; he can’t even remember who Randall is except for the wedding photo he stole from Randall’s dresser. So instead of saying his piece, Randall pays David’s bail and sets him up with a bed at a shelter nearby. Beth is annoyed but resigned: This is the man she married. At least she, unlike Rebecca, can recognize Randall’s actions as “compulsive and over the top.” But Randall has his reasons: He has known and loved and still loves a long list of addicts. Three of his parents were addicts. He can’t just let that go. Unfortunately, what happens is what Beth warns him about and what Rebecca feared: David never shows at the shelter. Still, the whole situation is a reminder to Randall that he wants to do more for the people of his city. Since we know that Randall is getting a profile in The New Yorker in five years’ time, we also know he must be up to something.
And then there is Kevin. In 1986, he’s the one Jack and Rebecca worry about most. He’s probably the one who should be worried about the most in the present day, since when we last saw him he was getting dumped on his wedding day and his acting career was in the shitter thanks to that pretentious shirtless-lawyer movie. But back in 1986, they’re at the kitchen table trying to ease into a difficult conversation, knowing their children have witnessed something horrific on television, and this little dude is just chowing down on mac ’n’ cheese. It doesn’t even look that good, no offense, Rebecca. Later, Jack sits with his son and tries to get him to talk about his feelings, to which Little Kevin responds that “it was just a story on TV. It wasn’t real.”
While it brings me immense joy to hear Jack assure Rebecca there’s nothing to worry about because there’s no way Kevin’s going to “wind up a 40-year-old man who can’t stop talking about the Challenger explosion” — oh, Jack, if you could see your kids now — maybe he shouldn’t have been so quick to brush off Kevin’s denial. At 41, denial, deflection, and masking the pain is pretty much Kevin’s MO, right? Whether through alcohol, painkillers, or even his humor, Kevin has a tendency to avoid accepting reality as truth. But really, he just processes things differently than his siblings. After all, back in 1986, we see that he has actually taken in the enormity of the situation, just in a different way. He eventually crawls into bed next to his sister, clutching his toy space shuttle, and says, so innocently, “Mom and Dad are gonna die one day,” the reality hitting him for the first time. In the present day, it’s once again Kate whom Kevin chooses to open up to, finally admitting that their mom is sick. “This is really happening,” he says, no longer able to deny that things are about to get very, very bad. So, yeah, a super-uplifting premiere episode to a final season that is sure to have us all ugly-crying while sliding down our respective walls at some point. So much to look forward to!
This Is the Rest
• From the moment it was revealed that Kate and Phillip would end up together, you knew they’d give this crank some sort of tragic backstory to explain why a man who teaches at a music school for blind children also seemingly hates all people. Well, This Is Us is laying the groundwork for that from the get-go. I mean, his ex literally yells, “Don’t you dare use your traumatic past!!” at him during an argument. Ah, the subtlety. Anyway, prepare yourselves for this “condescending prick” to make his inevitable hero turn.
• Kevin getting so jealous over Eli from Madison’s book club is hilarious, and what a lovely surprise that it didn’t take Kev like four episodes to realize that living in Madison’s garage just to be close to his kids is a terrible idea. Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize the same about taking the offer to star as the dad in a reboot of The Manny. Sure, he’s doing it to hopefully give his kids some stability, since it means he’ll stay in L.A., but, come on, that can’t be good for anyone.
• Deja is angsting over Malik being away at Harvard. Listen, I’m rooting for these two, but there’s no way this first love lasts, right? Also, who is Deja having a baby with in the big flash-forward?
• C’mon, Randall. You always pick Door Number Beth.
• Oooh buddy, it looks like we’re headed on a road trip next week, as new best friends Rebecca, Miguel, and Nicky set out to finally track down Nicky’s long-lost love Sally. Will the whole thing probably be the most awkward? I truly, truly hope so.
• Jack’s face when his whole Splishy-and-Splashy entry into talking about death — that Rebecca was vehemently against — actually works is perfect. Give Milo Ventimiglia more to do in season six!
• “REO Speedwagon are the new Beatles. Remember I said that.” Oh, Jack, you beautiful dummy.