If you were to rank everything that has ever happened on This Is Us by how quintessentially This Is Us it is, killing Jack Pearson on Super Bowl Sunday — in an episode set on Super Bowl Sunday — because his wife made some chili that nobody ate in a Crock-Pot that he steadfastly refused to give up on…well, that would be No. 1. By the length of a football field. Were the details of Jack’s long-teased demise a surprise in the end? Yes and no. He lived a few hours longer than most of us probably expected, but he still went out the only way he could: trying too hard not to let anyone down.
“Super Bowl Sunday” picks up with flames licking at the Pearsons’ upstairs bedrooms, which Jack announces with a yell that feels almost too casual: “HEY KIDS, THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE.” He’s a little bit in denial, maybe, and a little bit in dad mode; it’s not the last time tonight a parent will compartmentalize to be “strong” for the kids. Jack guides Randall to the master bedroom — which has a better exit window — easily enough, but a panicking Kate is further away and harder to protect. When Jack grabs her mattress from her bed, it looks for a second like he’s about to throw it out her bedroom window to give them both a soft landing, but instead he uses it to cover them on the walk back to his room. His hands pay the price. It’s a horrifying, effective visual: Jack holding too tight to his daughter’s shield even as it burns him.
He manages to lower the rest of the family to safety from the upstairs ledge, but when Kate screams at the sound of the dog’s barks, Jack disappears back inside the house. This feels like the end. The second floor is engulfed in flames as Rebecca screams and Randall holds her back — and then Jack emerges from the smoke, sooty but alive, holding not only Louie the dog but a pillowcase full of family mementos.
Years later, as we know, Kate will blame herself for the death that’s still to come, but even she knows this is her father’s personality: He died because he couldn’t disappoint her, and he clearly couldn’t disappoint the rest of the family either. “Take a breather, Superman” is right. Jack played hero, and he almost got away with it — and if he had survived, the family would celebrate this day, two decades later and every year in between, as the anniversary of his brave act. There’s such a thin line between helping others and hurting ourselves.
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Rebecca goes with Jack to the hospital while Kate and Randall wait at Miguel’s, and for a while, the prognosis is good. Jack shares a sincere moment with his wife (“I’ve still got the only thing that I ever really needed”), but he also makes time to joke; the last thing he says to Rebecca is that she’s blocking the post-game coverage on the TV. As Rebecca calls a hotel about rooms, she misses — turn around, Rebecca! — some commotion unfolding in the background, slightly out of focus. She gets a candy bar from the vending machine. The doctor interrupts, asks her to sit. And when he tells her very gently that her husband’s lungs, and therefore his heart, were under a tremendous amount of strain, and that he went into cardiac arrest, she takes a bite.
Rebecca, in denial, assumes that the doctor has mistaken her for someone else and hurries to Jack’s room. We see his body only in the reflection of the window of the door; the camera stays locked on Mandy Moore as she turns in one of her best performances to date, crumpling to the floor in tears. After eventually pulling herself together enough to fill out the necessary forms, she returns to Miguel’s home hollowed out, her eyes somehow both deadened and teary. She tells Miguel outside the house that Jack fell victim to a widowmaker heart attack (of COURSE) and then, in one of her all-time coolest moments, tells him to take a walk around the block if he can’t pull it together. “I have to talk to my kids and I have to ruin the rest of their life,” she says, “so I’m going to be strong for them.” This Is Parenthood. (Next: Eulogy for a lizard)
If the past season and a half have taught us anything, it’s that Rebecca isn’t really wrong when she says this is going to ruin her kids’ lives. In the present, Kate punishes herself by watching the VHS tape of Jack watching her record her audition; it’s one of the things he saved from the fire. She does this every year, but she’s going especially hard this year to commemorate the 20th anniversary. It nearly destroys the tape. Luckily, Toby “knows a guy” who restores it and even backs it up to the Cloud — an upgrade Kate objects to but eventually accepts.
The experience prompts her to thank Toby in a grand speech for not only changing her life but “saving” it. This, for me, is the low point of the hour — not only because I’ve never fully warmed to Toby, but because Kate is still drawing her sense of self-worth from someone else, and she doesn’t need to. “The night that my dad died,” she recalls, “I thought to myself, ‘We are done. We won’t come back from this.’ And then I thought, ‘Okay, maybe they can, maybe one day.’ Not because they needed him less but because they were built of stronger stuff than I was.” What Kate doesn’t acknowledge is that she, too, is built of strong stuff; she survived a miscarriage, and while she didn’t do that alone, she did it. Toby is a part of Kate’s story, but he isn’t the whole story. While Kate thanks her fiancé, the scene flashes back to Rebecca taking “two minutes” for herself, driving to the remains of the house, and breaking down in tears, as we saw in the season premiere. She rummages in the belongings Jack saved and pulls out her crescent moon necklace, which she puts on. Like Kate, she’ll find it hard to let go of what Jack chose to save.
In the present, Rebecca says that every year since Jack’s death, the anniversary has been marked with some strange coincidence, some sign from him to keep laughing. This year, she gets Kevin. The prodigal Pearson son, who heard from Kate that their dad had died while he was partying in the woods, finally crosses the last name off his list of people he needs to make amends with: He goes to the tree where some of Jack’s ashes are scattered and tells his father how sorry he is. “I haven’t turned out to be even close to the man that you…I just think you’d be really disappointed in me,” he admits. After opening up about his own addiction, Kevin promises his dad that even if it takes him another 20 years, he’s going to make him proud. And then he calls his mother and admits he’s not sure he’s at the right tree. At least he’s not avoiding his issues anymore.
All of the Big Three are shaking up their usual Super Bowl routines this year. Randall explains how it usually goes: “Kate wallows, Kevin avoids, but this is my dad’s favorite day, so I celebrate him.” He’s even invited a bunch of the girls’ friends over to watch the big game, even though Tess insists her friends only care about the halftime show. But Randall’s home always seems to be housing a makeshift funeral, and today it’s for a lizard named Mr. McGiggles. Annie accidentally lets her new lizard out of the cage, and Beth steps on him (line of the night: “He ain’t giggling now”), prompting Randall to eulogize the pet and stumble into his own grief. Losing someone unexpectedly, he says, is “like a lightning bolt you can’t even see reaching inside of you and tearing out your guts.” Beth jumps in and saves the day with the Puppy Bowl.
But Tess is upset, and not about the lizard. “You found Grandpa,” she tells her father, “and then you found Deja, and then you found a new job. It’s like you want a new life.” Randall insists that Tess is his whole world: “Even if we get another foster kid, even if we get one tomorrow, you will always be my number one. And you will live with me ‘til you’re 25. And even after you move out you’ll have dinner with me once a week in your fancy office, and you will tell me everything.” It’s a pretty speech, but if she’s feeling neglected, she’ll need actions to back it up. Randall has been veering a little too close lately to his father’s reckless heroism, and as Jack proved, that sort of behavior eventually hurts more than it helps.
For now though, Tess will have to be happy with that speech. The phone rings. It seems like adorable youngster Jordan, the boy we met a while back and are reintroduced to tonight, is destined to be the family’s next foster child. But it’s actually Deja on the phone; she’s right outside the house. As Beth and Randall talk to her, Tess watches — and Jordan meets his next family. While the couple, who seem nice enough but are not Beth and Randall, sit down with the boy, Jordan’s sweet social worker gets a visit from her dad: Randall. The social worker is Tess, all grown up and carrying on the Pearson family tradition. It seems like Randall will give his eldest a positive association with fostering after all, to say nothing of weekly dinner dates. In an hour of painful twists, this one is a balm, a reminder that the whole family didn’t stop moving on the night of the Super Bowl in 1998. As a certain doctor once said, it takes the sourest lemons life has to offer and turns them into something resembling lemonade.
Head here for Milo Ventimiglia’s thoughts on this ending for Jack.