Slowly, with a mixture of dread and intrigue, we continue to collect those precious puzzle pieces of Jack’s demise. Think back to our first few journeys into This Is Us, when we didn’t even know whether heart-of-gold patriarch Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) — the man who could weave a most magical tale about a ratty t-shirt — was alive or dead. It would turn out to be the latter, his ashes left to rest in an urn on Kate’s mantel. And for weeks after that revelation, we still did not know even approximately when he died. Finally, we were dished the detail that he died in the ‘90s as we caught a fleeting glimpse of the Big Three in their teenage years, mourning him at his funeral.
In Tuesday’s episode — which also saw Randall quit his job and finally forgive Rebecca, and Kevin (Justin Hartley) pull off the re-opening night of his play, which drew interest from (cameo alert!) Ron Howard for a movie that would send him away from Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) in New York — we did not learn the most coveted piece of information: How did Jack die? But it did feel like the puzzle box was nudged opened again. And we might have just seen him on the last day that he was alive.
It has been made clear that Kate’s connection to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) was something special and fraught — she is the keeper of his ashes, and it was her memory of the funeral that we had accessed — so it made sense that the next revelation about his demise would be moored to her. Emboldened by heartfelt advice proffered by her brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz) finally began to open up to her fiancé, Toby (Chris Sullivan), about her father’s death, taking a deep breath and telling him, “It’s my fault… I’m the reason he’s dead.”
Before we could race through all the implications of what that might mean, the episode segued into the last scene of the night, which time-tripped us back into the era in which Jack meets his maker. To recap, Jack and Rebecca’s marriage was rocky at best: She was hitting the road with her ex-semi-boyfriend, Ben (Sam Trammell) to chase her music dreams, he was hitting the bottle to mute his feelings (and was being chased by Heather at the office). Jack lingered at a retirement party for a co-worker that he did not feel strongly about instead of racing home to say goodbye to Rebecca before she departed. Then, sitting around later that night at home, he decided to go to Joe’s Tavern for the company afterparty that Heather (Megan West) told him about earlier, and he put himself in temptation’s way or at least adjacent to it, accepting her offer of a drink. But when Jack was more directly propositioned by her — she sensed that he was a bit broken — he snapped back to “Jack,” and told her she had crossed the line. He dialed Kate from the pay phone outside, telling his daughter that she’d been right about the strain that she noticed in her parents’ marriage, and that he was determined to fix this situation. He hung up, dropped his keys on the ground (Drunk? Sure seemed like it), got in his car, and drove off, presumably headed toward Rebecca’s two-hour-away gig —toward redemption or toward disaster — as Sufjan Stevens was heard singing “Every road leads to an end” in “Death With Dignity.”
So many questions, almost as many emotions. Let’s locate the nearest pay phone and ring up the man who plays dead with the best of them, Milo Ventimiglia.
[Click here to sneak a peek at a script page from the This Is Us season finale, complete with annotation from the writers.]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Jack’s relationship with Rebecca is as unstable as we’ve seen it, certainly since episode 2. There’s almost that moment of connection in the kitchen, and then she has to leave. Jack doesn’t say a proper goodbye; it’s only when Kate prods him to go outside does he do so, and it’s too late. When he complains that her gig is two hours away, she points out that her gig is only two hours away. Why is it so difficult for him to try to mend fences here? Is pride getting in the way a little bit, or is he just hurt that she would put her career (for once) ahead of him and the family, and family is so important to him — the most important thing?
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: I feel as though there are a lot of things happening here. There is, of course, Rebecca deciding to do something that’s going to pull her away, even for a short period of time. It really shows how fragile Jack is with needing his family. His family is what holds him together. His family is what keeps him in line, keeps him intact, and I think that initial threat is now being realized, she’s going on tour. Now, at the same time, the thing that she worried about in episode 15, she said, “I can’t leave now, we’ve got the kids, and they’ve got all these things, and they’re teenagers and they need us.” Even the argument they had where they were talking about the kids — everything revolves around the family structure, and Jack is now the one that is responsible for them. If Rebecca is on tour and, yeah, they’re teenagers, but they still need guidance around, so Jack has to shoulder everything. So, there is this sense of responsibility without partnership that I know that Jack is feeling.
What was the spark that moves Jack into action to fix his marriage? Did it suddenly hit him that he was risking his marriage and family by being in this situation with Heather at the bar, or did Kate’s words of concern just finally sink in with him?
The threat of infidelity wasn’t on his end. It’s never been on his end, every step of the way. And I know that was a worry for a lot of fans. People would walk up to me on the street and say, “Oh, please tell me Jack doesn’t cheat!” This is a couple that loves one another; they just find themselves in disrepair. They both need to take that moment for themselves to decide, “What is it we need to do? How is it we need to communicate?”
The one thing that I realized Jack isn’t doing is communicating. He’s not exactly telling her how he feels. The only time he does tell her how he feels is in a heated moment of an argument, so it doesn’t feel like it was the threat of infidelity, so much as it was he removed himself from a bad situation, a dangerous situation, and the first thing that Jack always goes to is his family. They’re his first, they’re his only. So picking the phone up and talking to Kate, I think there’s a realization, whether Jack wants to or not, he misses his wife. Whether he’s mad at her or feels abandoned, he misses his wife. She’s his world, you know? So I really, truly believe that it comes from this deep inherent need for Rebecca that Jack decides to make sure the kids are okay, and then let Kate know that [their] conversation had an impact on him. That’s got to be something that he has to factor in as the kids get older — as he’s giving to them in raising them, they’re giving it right back to him. It’s got to be a great sense of pride, I mean, even down to that very first episode where William says to Randall, “Your father must be very proud of you.” I think moments like that reflect so well.