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)
The other half of the episode is far more compelling. Overall, “The Car” seems to work best when it’s comfortable letting Jack go, and letting Rebecca, the kids, and the audience really experience their loss as it is — without Jack present in any way. Rebecca’s journey is painful but deeply felt; she tries to keep pace with Jack’s urn as it’s transported to the funeral and then to the reception. She’s wracked with guilt and a lack of resolution over not being there at the time of Jack’s death and wants to make up for it by maintaining a kind of presence, however futile. And the kids, too, are reeling. Kate’s wrestling with the feelings that continue to haunt her as an adult — that sense of responsibility for Jack’s death, since it was likely those extra moments Jack spent rescuing Louie that killed him. She considers getting rid of the dog, instinctively punishing herself. Kevin and Randall, meanwhile, are channeling their grief by clashing over being the new “man of the house” — even, most explosively, at the actual ceremony.
At the funeral itself, we catch brief glimpses of the loving speeches from the likes of Miguel and Randall, but most of the timeline’s action is spent around the reception. In the hour’s longest — and best — scene, Rebecca reunites with Gerald McRaney’s Dr. Katowski, the man who delivered Jack and Rebecca’s children and continued to counsel the former on fatherhood years past their initial meeting. It’s outside the reception where they reconnect. He’s there to pay his respects, quipping to Rebecca, “We have to stop meeting under such dramatic circumstances.”
It’s to the doctor that Rebecca finally opens up: about her shame, her grief, and, most dominantly, the feeling that she simply won’t be able to go on and keep her family together without Jack. In a stirring, beautiful monologue — at this point, a trademark of the good doctor — Dr. K reminds her of her strength. “You are the same woman who lost a child and rolled out of my hospital with three babies just the same,” he says.
Rebecca re-emerges, in a way, after this conversation — she’s ready to take charge and bring her family together. She snags the urn, abruptly telling the kids that they’re leaving the reception, and gets back into the car — noticing Jack’s old coffee cup, which she hasn’t been able to throw away, and the Springsteen tickets, which we learn through flashbacks were his big post-Super Bowl surprise. They head to Jack’s tree and prepare to scatter the ashes, and at long last, they’re able to start the long, complicated, unending process of moving on. Rebecca tells Kate that she can’t blame herself, Kevin and Randall that they don’t have to play any added role in the house, and herself (if only implicitly) that she really can do this. They scatter the ashes, with Kate stopping them before they finish and asking to take some home in the urn. (She’ll keep it for decades.) Rebecca then tells them about the Springsteen gift and reasons that they should go to the concert in Jack’s memory.
But Jack’s voice is what we’re left with, of course — one last reminder of his outsize heroism before This Is Us officially closes this chapter of its story. He gives his speech about the car, and visuals of family memories come in faster, this time from what we’ve already seen across two seasons — split-second shots of the car’s role in a collection of vital scenes from episodes past. Again, it’s a little overproduced, a little tacked on and unnecessary given the emotional power of Jack being otherwise absent in this installment. But the final images, simple and sweet as they are, still pack a wallop. We watch Rebecca and the kids drive back from “the tree” in that same Wagoneer. Randall and Kevin exchange a smile. Rebecca crosses that bridge, looking directly ahead, determined — strong. Just as Jack hoped — as he promised — they look okay.