“I really wish I had spent more time appreciating it while it was all happening, instead of worrying about when it would end.”
This Is Us wrapped up its six season run by giving viewers closure and one final emotional catharsis. The series finale, entitled “Us,” was written by series creator Dan Fogelman and directed by executive producer Ken Olin. Viewers were with the Pearsons on the day of Rebecca’s funeral and on one of the lazy Saturdays of their childhood. This Is Us has always been such an apt title for the drama because the series reflected what so many of its viewers experience—albeit with better hair, clothes, and make-up. With growing children and aging parents of my own, the final season of This Is Us spoke to me in such a direct, personal way.
Free from the drama’s trademark plot twists and jaw-dropping big reveals, the final episodes of the NBC series have offered almost a meditation on the meaning of life as it ended its run. There was no more haphazardly addressing COVID. No more surprise brothers. No more Vietnam backstories. No more deaths by crockpot. No more wondering who they were all going to visit, who Kevin (Justin Hartley) would end up with, or how Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Miguel (Jon Huertas) reconnected.
Instead the show honed in on the passage of time: what it’s like to watch your children grow, your parents age, and persevere through life’s ebbs and flows. “When you’re young, you’re always trying to be older. When you get old, you’re always trying to go back.” Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) tells a young Kevin (Parker Bates) and Randall (Lonnie Chavis) as he teaches them how to shave.
As my own children approach the end of the school year and the flurry of activities (softball tournaments, band concerts, science fairs, dance recitals), part of me longs for the more relaxed days of summer. Any parent will tell you that the COVID of it all has made this school year particularly exhausting. But at the same time, I don’t want to wish time away. I know once the school year ends that means, in three months’ time, my children move up a grade, getting older and moving one step closer to becoming adults of their own. Yes that sounds dramatic but it’s also so true. My mom called my sister and I “her little chickens” long after we actually were. In my teen years especially, it was mortifying. But now looking at my children, I understand. When I look at them, the home movies of my daughter and son as babies play in my mind. The sense of nostalgia is immediate. “All I want nowadays is to slow things down,” Jack says.
This Is Us understood the full circle of life at its core. If we are lucky, we were raised by loving parent(s) who helped shape our view of the world and gave us the foundation we needed to go forth into adulthood. (One point the show drove home is that Rebecca and Jack were good parents because their own parents showed them what kind of parents they didn’t want to be.) If we are even luckier, our parents die of old age and live to see us become adults and accomplish goals of our own. Yes, that’s aspirational and a rose-colored view of the world, but This Is Us was extraordinarily aspirational. Even in divorce it was aspirational. Toby (Chris Sullivan) tells Kate (Chrissy Metz) that he’s proud of her and that he loves her. Even in death it was aspirational. After a few minor squabbles, the whole family agreed on Rebecca’s care. Rebecca died at home, surrounded by her family, and her journey to the afterlife was a train ride that ended with her reuniting with Jack who assured Rebecca that she would not be leaving her family behind. That she would not miss out on watching her grandchildren grow up. “It’s hard to explain but you’ll do all those things with them,” Jack tells her.
In the final hour, the ever-practical Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) spearheaded one last “worst case scenario,” perhaps my favorite recurring bit on the show. Beth pondered that Randall (Sterling K. Brown) might lose it after the burying of his “fourth and final parent.” That he’ll buy an RV and spend his days driving from resting place to resting place. “You decide you need to go to Puerto Rico and try to learn about [Miguel’s] deceased great-grandmother’s story. Come back talking about swimming in the Atlantic ocean with Miguel’s great grandmother’s ghost,” she tells him. We could always count on Watson to bring the much needed comic relief.
The idea that our lives go on even after our loved ones leave us is an adjustment. “Now she’s gone and yet the birds chirp on. I notice that I’m hungry. Five minutes ago I thought about work. Tomorrow I’ll shower. It just feels so pointless. Is that too depressing?” Randall wonders. It is depressing. But I’m pretty sure anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a loved one has felt that same way.
It was the performances that made the series, and no discussion of This Is Us can be complete without talking about Mandy Moore’s incredible performance as she played Rebecca from her early 20s to her death. Yes the make-up, clothes, and hairstyle helped viewers see Rebecca at these various stages of her life. But it was the way Moore carried herself, and the cadence of her voice, that created such a lived-in performance so that we believed Rebecca at every age—from a beaming young mom to an elderly woman ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease on her deathbed.
You don’t need me to tell you that This Is Us is emotionally manipulative. I half expected the series to end with Deja (La Trice Harper) giving birth to triplets and the next generation of the Big Three being born into the family. Deja tells Randall she’s having a boy she wants to name William. “Your grandson is going to be named after a man I never met, but I know him. Because I know you,” she tells her dad. I never minded the emotional manipulation, though, because it was always rooted in truth.
I’ve long contended that family dramas are the hardest to produce. There’s no weekly crime to love, patient to save, or case to litigate. The storylines all must come from within. This Is Us’ hook was the way it played with time going back and forwards, and even further back and further forward, to tell the story of the Pearson family. I have my quibbles of course. This Is Us could never really decide on Kevin’s level of fame. The series became much stronger once it stopped making Kate’s weight loss her only plot line. And, for a family that lived on opposite coasts from each other, they saw each other a lot.
Surprisingly, there were no more time jumps farther into the future in the series finale. It was quiet and contemplative. Except for a brief glimpse of Toby and Kate’s son Jack pushing his own child on the swing, we saw no more of Jack or his rise to fame. We know that Kevin is going to focus on his nonprofit, Kate is going to continue to open up music schools for visually impaired children, and Randall is probably going to become a Presidential candidate. But we don’t see that happening. We didn’t see all their deaths, Six Feet Under style. They are, as Kate says, going to “live fearlessly,” as Rebecca would have wanted.
The final shot is Randall watching his family much the way Jack once watched his and the way Deja will one day watch hers. Life for the Pearson family will go on. We just won’t be there to see it.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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