Last Sunday, as much of Boston mourned the New England Patriots’ loss at the Super Bowl, NBC viewers witnessed another tragedy: the death of Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), the beloved patriarch of “This Is Us.” The show has racked up Emmy nominations, earned a history-making Golden Globe win for Sterling K. Brown and won the hearts of countless viewers since its debut last year, and the hype has been fed in part by avid speculation about the death of Jack Pearson. The show is told nonchronologically, juxtaposing flashbacks of the family early on, before Jack’s death, with their lives 20 years later. Slowly, the show presents snapshots of Kate (Chrissy Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall Pierce (Sterling K. Brown), as well as their parents, Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), at different stages of life. All the while, viewers get to know them while waiting with bated breath for the answer to the question: What happened to Jack?
That question was answered last Sunday, when a faulty crockpot-induced blaze that gutted the family home caused Jack to go into cardiac arrest induced by smoke inhalation.
In a flashback during the following episode, “The Car,” Jack explains to the car salesman what he wants for his family. Not being one for big words that make him sound smarter than he really is, he jokes, the best way he can describe what he wants for his family is “okay.”
Really, if there is anything confirmed by the heartwrenching Super Bowl episode of “This is Us,” it’s that the producers aren’t that different from Jack. They want us to be okay. They gave us 30 episodes to prepare ourselves for last Sunday.
“This Is Us” is an exercise in preemptive grieving. Fans cried enough last season that they were ready for Sunday’s episode. Producers have warned viewers of Jack’s demise since the pilot episode, when a teary-eyed Kate reminds Kevin of what their dad used to say about lemons.
They prepared viewers for the heartbreak wrought by the beloved patriarch’s death when Kate explains to her boyfriend Toby (Chris Sullivan) that she always watches the Super Bowl alone with her late dad, whose urn sits on her mantelpiece and whom she cannot talk about.
They even gave viewers practice runs— moments where viewers held their breaths while preparing for the worst, thinking it was the end—when present-day Kate, claiming fault for his death, precedes flashbacks of Jack driving drunk.
They prepared viewers with another painful death in an even more excruciating episode. Although viewers didn’t know William (Ron Cephas Jones), Randall’s newly-discovered biological father, the way viewers knew Jack, his death last season was just as heartbreaking.
Yes, viewers have been wondering how Jack died for over a year. The mystery of his death kept most viewers that much more intrigued, especially early last season, and it was perhaps the question that most defined the show. However, by this point showrunners Dan Fogelman, Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger have given us more than enough substance and questions to keep us watching. While waiting for answers to Jack’s fate, viewers have come to love the rest of the characters as well. If “This is Us” can turn one death into a satisfying mystery spanning more than a season, surely they can keep us guessing about other mysterious events in other characters’ histories.
Fogelman and the rest of the cast have a number of potential mysteries at their disposal to use as tantalizing replacement questions. We know little of what happened between Jack’s death in the late 90’s and the start of the present-day storyline in 2016. Viewers have seen the grief 20 years later, but they have seen next to nothing from Kate or from Kevin and Randall’s late teens, twenties and early-to-mid-thirties.
Furthermore, viewers know little of Beth’s life pre-Randall or of Toby’s life pre-Kate. And we still have the mysteries of what will come next. Déjà (Lyric Ross), the teenager briefly fostered by Randall and Beth, looks set to reappear and should provide compelling storylines with emotional charge as Randall seeks to continue Jack’s legacy by taking in a neglected child. We even have more tragic losses to ponder. We know little of Randall’s biological mother, who died after delivering Randall, or of Jack’s brother, who died in Vietnam and who Jack finally alludes to in conversation with his sons.
While it was frustrating to wait so long for an answer to Jack’s fate, the result was fitting and shouldn’t make “This Is Us” any less compelling. Ultimately, it’s still a great show with plenty of stories left to explore and questions left to ponder.