We gave it a B
It was always going to be tough to follow the episode that’d been hyped for very nearly This Is Us’ entire run. “The Car” carries the rather solemn responsibility of guiding the show’s characters — not to mention its audience — through the beginning stages of grief. There’s no present timeline in this episode, only a funeral and snippets of memories from before it. In “The Car,” there’s only life around Jack, both dead and alive.
The title reflects the episode’s framing device: Jack buying the Wagoneer that’s been present for so many iconic Pearson family moments. We open on Rebecca, in the aftermath of Jack’s death, sitting cold and silent, staring at an envelope of Bruce Springsteen concert tickets and an old to-go coffee cup. She’s parked in the Wagoneer outside of a motel room, honking for her kids to come outside and head to the funeral. Her stoic presence is juxtaposed with the ebullient memory of Jack bringing the whole family to the dealership, and announcing — despite it seeming out of their price range — that the Wagoneer was theirs forever.
What follows is the build-up to the funeral, intercut with brief scenes of quiet but pivotal family moments, all centered in some way on the Wagoneer — and on Jack. Our first memory finds the family on the way to a Weird Al Yankovic concert, where they get stuck on a bridge with construction happening ahead of them, and we learn of Rebecca’s “gephyrophobia” — fear of bridges, as Randall accurately defines it. She’s panicky, but we see how her husband and kids lift her up and get her through it, singing and chanting and then yelping in joy as the traffic finally moves. In another, more affecting flashback, Jack takes Rebecca, who’s in the midst of a cancer scare, to his famous “tree” while she awaits word on her MRI. He calms her, and she later gets word that she’s going to be okay. “You’re going to live forever,” Jack says, ominously, in the car on the way back. “That means I’m going to go first…. Don’t put me in the ground, okay? Let me be outside.”
If the show was guiding Jack toward an increasingly saintly status through to last week’s climactic episode, the trend only accelerates here. Each character seems to note in various car-related memories that he knows just what to say — to Rebecca when she’s scared; to Kevin and Randall when they fight while learning to drive for the first time; to Kate as she considers her singing aspirations, skipping school to meet Alanis “Atlantis” Morissette. (Of course, Jack lets her skip after catching her and drives her to the album signing himself.) Near the end of the episode, after the funeral, Rebecca even recalls how Jack had an eerie ability to predict how movies would turn out. “He could see things before they happened,” she suggests.
It does start feeling a little redundant at a certain point, though — especially since the last two episodes hit pretty much the same note of the almost mythical hero tragically gone too soon. “The Car” also takes on the sheen of a car commercial, and it’s hard to know just how intentional that is; those precious family memories captured in that same distinct automobile are no less sugary than the ads companies like Jeep still run on the regular. This Is Us is usually better than this at balancing the saccharine with the resonant. Indeed, Jack’s speech at the end of the episode to the salesman about why his family needs the Wagoneer could have been plucked straight from the company’s marketing material. “That car is going to tell my family’s story just by looking at it,” he gushes. “I want my kids to be okay, I want my family to be okay…. I see my family okay in that car.” Who wouldn’t hand him the keys after that pitch? (Recap continued on page 2)