We are still just over a week away from This Is Us’ big post-Super Bowl episode, in which the full story of Jack’s death will finally be revealed, but “That’ll Be the Day” is plenty revealing in its own right — culminating in a fire blazing through the Pearson household that was started by, of all things, a faulty Crock-Pot. It’s an insanely dramatic way to end things, not least because the rest of the episode progresses in a much lower key.
“That’ll Be the Day” is fittingly framed around the idea of time running out: Kevin is on a mission to make his amends, Randall is doing too much too quickly in his new business/personal venture, and in the past timeline, Jack is trying to get “Big Three Homes” off the ground, a direct continuation from the hopeful place where we found him last week.
The Randall section of the episode feels the most superfluous, if only because its real function seems to click into a sort of thematic puzzle. We kick off where we left him in “Clooney,” taking over William’s old building and vowing to fix every tenant’s problems, one at a time. “I suddenly realized I can do this,” he tells Beth. “My dad was in construction. It’s in my blood.” Beth’s cynicism is again well earned here, imploring Randall to take things slow, but he doesn’t — or maybe can’t — listen. He tries to do a month’s work in a day: fixing washing machines, correcting heaters, plunging toilets. And he’s mostly successful. So too, for that matter, is Kevin, who joins his brother for the day in an effort to distract himself from making amends with the person he’s most scared to face: Sophie. Kevin’s even more obsessive than Randall is — he enthusiastically takes up one woman’s request to tear a wall down in her apartment.
Of course, things don’t go according to plan. Randall leaves a hole in an area where he was working, and an infestation of roaches appears almost immediately, forcing him and Beth to relocate the residents to a motel temporarily. Kevin won’t even leave the building, still destroying a wall even as the rest of the building has been evacuated. Randall goes to get him, and it’s only here that the story line really connects. “I’m almost 40 years old and I’m starting a new career,” Randall confesses to Kevin. “Feel like I’m already running out of time.” He then adds: “It’s hard to picture myself outliving Dad.”
Kate struggles with this in a different way. Suspecting Toby of watching porn, she instead finds that he’s hiding an aggressive dog hunt on his laptop — pictures of cute puppies, links to animal shelters, and so on. He admits he wants a pup, acknowledging in the process that he knows it’s a “sensitive issue” for Kate. (More on that in a minute.) But in “That’ll Be the Day” we see Kate try to push past that pain. She visits an animal shelter, where a lovely employee played by Master of None’s Lena Waithe introduces her to Audio — basically the cutest dog in existence. Kate is smitten immediately upon making eye contact with him. She goes through with adopting the dog after plenty of reluctance — including a teary scene, played beautifully by Chrissy Metz, where she tells him she won’t be able to take him home, saying, “You come with a lot of baggage that isn’t your fault” — and you feel it’s a real breakthrough for her. (Though if she didn’t adopt him, I totally would have signed up for a Waithe-Audio This Is Us spinoff.)
In the past, meanwhile, we’ve come a long way from that ominous season 2 premiere image tease of teen Kate comforting a previously unseen dog at the time of Jack’s death. We’ve since seen how he was adopted and brought into the fold. This episode’s direction lays on the mystery of the dog’s significance a bit thick — so many random shots of the pup — but you can be sure he’ll figure prominently into whatever happened to Jack, and why.
It is Super Bowl Sunday circa 1998 in the Pearson household, and we find the family, at long last, where we caught glimpses of them in the season premiere, when big clues of Jack’s passing start coming in: Randall with his redheaded girlfriend Allison, Rebecca in a Steelers shirt, Kate with the pup. There’s a sadness to it, as Jack proclaims it the final Super Bowl Sunday for the family, but he only means it in the sense that his kids will soon be going off to college, living their own lives. And they’ve already drifted. Randall leaves to go see Titanic with Allison, Kate is immersed in working on her audition tape for Berklee College of Music after making it to the final round, and Kevin is still irritable and broken over his injury. After a fight with Jack, he leaves in a huff — and let’s not forget, he wasn’t at the house with the others in that season premiere tease. In other words, this is it. (Recap continues on page 2)
Jack, like Randall in the present timeline, is anxious about starting a new business so late into his life; he decides to take it slow, focusing on flipping houses and making some money before launching “Big Three Homes” for real. Jack is also, like Kevin in the present, intensely focused on fixing things as a means of distraction. “Every time I want to grab a drink, instead I just pick up a hammer,” he tells teen Kevin while working on a new shelf for the TV. You see where the Pearsons’ “Number One” gets it from.
It’s subtle, the way Kevin carries the heaviest burden of tragedy in this episode. But you feel it increasingly with every scene he appears in — adult or teen. When he moves on from Randall’s renovation project, he finally musters the courage to face Sophie after he wronged her so profoundly. But she asks him, simply, to let her go. “We tried to squeeze a puzzle piece in because it fit once when were kids,” she says, fighting tears. “You really want to make amends? Just leave me with the past. Let me remember you at 10 or 17 or 20. Just let me remember you when it was good.” He tries apologizing once more, and she forgives him but only asks that he go.
It’s a devastating moment, because beyond the obvious emotions, there’s a real depth of grief that Kevin is experiencing. And indeed, another wave of pain comes right after. Kevin returns to Rebecca’s and finds a package waiting for him at the front door. It’s the necklace from Jack he’d lost on his drunken bender, mailed by his old high school classmate Charlotte — we see in a note she attaches that Kevin had sent her a letter apologizing, seeking amends, and explaining the situation. He takes out his list of those whose forgiveness he’d sought. He checks off Sophie. He checks off Charlotte. And he’s left, only, with “Dad.”
Back in the past, the argument between teen Kevin and Jack erupts out of a simple piece of news: Sophie gets accepted to NYU, celebrating with her parents. With Kevin’s dream of a football scholarship shattered, it’s yet another blow. He leaves the house to be with her, presumably the last time he’ll ever see his dad — angry and unable to, well, make amends. (He calls the house later to say goodnight to his mother but declines to come home or to even speak to Jack.) Jack writes a note on Kevin’s door for his son to see when he returns, giving his love while also scolding, “You owe us an apology,” but within minutes we learn it’s a note Kevin will never see.
And why? The damn slow cooker!
“That’ll Be the Day” actually opens not on one of the Pearsons, but on Jack and Rebecca’s elderly neighbors. As the episode begins, George and his wife are lamenting the fact that their house has been on the market for a month, and that no one has bought it; the garage is filled with old junk that George seems unwilling to part with. It’s an innocuous scene that takes on a foreboding new context later in the episode. Jack and Rebecca make an offer on a house after Rebecca sees it listed in the newspaper. We cut back to George and his wife; their house must be the one that Rebecca thinks can be Jack’s fresh start. (Jack also tells Rebecca to partner with him, which she accepts.) But George is actually from an earlier time in the past, back when a pregnant Rebecca and bearded Jack were still sprucing up the home. George, sad to be saying goodbye to his home, brings a box of old junk to the young couple’s door for them to keep. Among the goodies included is a slow cooker — an old appliance that needs to be “fiddled” with to firmly shut it off.
Last week came the reveal that Rebecca and Jack forgot to buy batteries to keep the smoke alarm powered. And this week we see the (presumed) consequences. We watch Jack cleaning the kitchen after the Super Bowl, alone, putting away the uneaten snacks, throwing dishes into the dishwasher, sweeping the floor. He says goodnight to Randall, who returns home giddy over his Titanic date. And he turns off the Crock-Pot — or so he thinks. The final five minutes of “That’ll Be the Day” move into a gorgeous montage, contrasting a lifetime a joyous memories with an agonizingly clear account of how the Crock-Pot switched back on without Jack knowing, how the fire started, and how it spread through the house without anybody noticing — finally burning Jack’s note to Kevin on the bedroom door. The juxtaposition of joy and tragedy — of the family’s togetherness from earlier years and the sight of Jack in the kitchen alone — is so blisteringly effective that it’s terrifying to consider where we’re headed next.
And answers are coming next week. After again bearing witness to their special bond this week, we’ll get a clear picture of why Kate’s grief has long been so pronounced and so riddled with self-blame — hint: it probably involves the dog — and there will no doubt be several other surprises and twists along the way. But “That’ll Be the Day” can only leave us with this: If this is indeed how Jack dies, it’s hard to stomach that we have ol’ George and a faulty slow cooker to blame, and the knowledge that Jack was left to watch his last Super Bowl without his Big Three.
Head here for Milo Ventimiglia’s thoughts on this story.