This Is Us recap: A muted season finale looks to a mysterious Pearson future
Tonight’s muted conclusion of This Is Us’ third season feels, for better and for worse, appropriate. No element of the finale is bad, per se, but there’s a workmanlike quality to it, no scene save for a few really given any time to breathe, the wrap-ups of various storylines tidy and competently executed, but far from the deep emotional impact we know this show is capable of. Season 3 has managed to deliver several standout standalone episodes — including one just last week — but it has struggled, far more than the previous two, with providing compelling, continuing story lines. “Her” is a decent episode of This Is Us. Expecting anything more as a cap to this stretch of the show would have been unrealistic.
The smartest decision the This Is Us team makes is to frame “Her” as an ode to Rebecca. So much of the show, up until about midway through this season, was dedicated to the myth of Jack as the center of the family, of the Pearson lore. But more than at any point during the show’s run, Jack is in the background right now — no real questions surround him, and much of the intrigue of his past has already been mined. This leaves Rebecca, and the question of what she means to this family. Particularly, this episode asks from several angles: Who are the Pearsons without her?
Kate confronts this question on the most personal scale. Baby Jack is on the road to recovery, but there remain unique challenges to raising him. As they work on his breathing in the hospital, Rebecca proves a quick study: taking down every note the doctor gives, big and small; asking every imaginable question that needs an answer; and putting everything she learns into practice, at one point averting a potential crisis which Kate turns flustered over. Kate takes all this as further evidence that she will never live up to her mother — a theme that’s run through the entire show, whether the concern is in terms of singing, beauty, or motherhood. At least now Kate has grown, some: She recognizes the “triggering” effect her mother’s perfectionism has on her, as well as her own efforts to sabotage and work against them. After essentially sending her mother away from the hospital earlier in the day, Kate returns home and apologizes. She tells Rebecca she needs her around — confirming she’ll be making the move — not just for her, but for Baby Jack, who deserves a grandmother as attentive and loving as Rebecca.
In the past, meanwhile, the family considers the loss of their matriarch in much more immediate terms. Near the episode’s beginning, a younger Rebecca gets in a devastating car crash; we next see her in the hospital, beaten up pretty badly but stable all around. She’s going to be fine — this is clear both to Jack when he visits her, and more obviously to us, given that she’s also alive in the present timeline. But for the kids the story is different. They first enter her hospital room terrified, and when Rebecca asks Jack to take them home for the night, the sense of something being wrong only escalates. The unit doesn’t operate correctly without her. Jack makes terrible “corn sandwiches.” He struggles to talk the Big Three out of their vivid nightmares. And so early the next morning they go back to the hospital. Cue big-speech time: Jack tells the woman manning the front desk that their family just doesn’t feel right without Rebecca, and that they need her, and that even though visiting hours haven’t started yet, they need to see her.
And then, of course, there’s the future timeline — where we will continue to learn, slowly but surely, what has happened to Rebecca and what this means for her family. But I can’t get there just yet — This Is Us, in dutiful fashion, has a few other season-arcs to wrap up as well. The more effective conclusion comes on the Randall/Beth side. As “Her” opens, Rebecca is trying to hold it together at home while Randall sleeps at his office. Randall comes by to take Deja to a debate meet — she joined the debate team, apparently, to both her parents’ surprise — and has one additional tense exchange with Beth. It’s obvious to all of the kids that this couple is having problems. And it’s felt most acutely by Deja, who has a more mature, complex understanding of adults and their relationships, given everything she’s been through.
When Randall takes Deja to her debate meet it’s clear it’s not a debate meet at all — Deja instead has taken him to the foster home where she suffered particular abuse, as we glimpsed last season. She tells him the story of how her foster parents withheld food so they could use the government stipends for lottery tickets. She prepares a big speech for Randall — Randall-style. “Most people don’t win, Randall,” she says. “But you did. You won the lottery twice.” She says he needs Beth — much in the same way Jack realizes in the past timeline that he needs Rebecca. Randall absorbs the message without much argument. He returns home, where Kevin and Zoe had been babysitting (more on that shortly), and tells Beth upon her return that he’s decided he’s going to resign from the city council, no matter the cost, after explaining Deja’s grand gesture. But Beth offers an alternative idea: They move to Philadelphia. Randall beams. Beth lays the whole plan out: She’ll open her own studio — as we know she will — while Randall’s commute is cut dramatically. They’ll scale back to afford their new lifestyle. And they’ll support each other’s dreams. This has been an unevenly plotted storyline, but this conclusion felt, if a bit pat and inevitable, affecting all the same. Credit it to Susan Kelechi Watson and Sterling K. Brown, who did tremendous work all season and really elevated it as a whole.
But there’s a glaring elephant in the room here — Deja. Not long ago, This Is Us dedicated much of an episode to the idea that she needs stability, so much so that she shouldn’t be changing grades according to her academic ability, much less an entire city. The show does not acknowledge that this year — which feels strange and unsatisfying, ignoring the familial complexities which defined Randall and Beth’s predicament to begin with. I thought of this as Randall and Zoe’s romance came to an end. These two never had great chemistry and this show wants you to know when you’re watching a great love story — see Jack/Rebecca, Beth/Randall — so it was unsurprising it would end, respectfully but firmly, here. (The background: They have a great time babysitting Tess and Annie; Kevin brings up the kid thing again; Zoe puts her foot down again, this time saying he needs to pursue it since he’d make a great dad.) The show framed the beginning of their romance forebodingly, with Beth alluding to Zoe’s challenging background — her history of abuse. And it came into the show when narratively convenient. This show is above treating an abuse story flippantly. But even if it’s continued down the line — Zoe is still a member of this family, after all — it’s insufficient as a cap to this season to leave it to the side, as if it only needed to be brought up in the context of plot teases and conflict. Much more generally, this part of the episode felt almost unnecessary, epilogue-esque, a need to give Kevin a seasonal farewell along with the rest.
Anyway. We’re all here for those episode-ending flashforwards — the reveals which raise a bunch of frankly small questions. We discover the house older Beth is in, drinking coffee and waiting for Randall, is Kevin’s. We discover she and Randall are indeed still together and happy, with Tess by their side. (No mention of Annie or Deja, though that’s likely due to the brevity of the scene.) Toby, now with a long beard, says Jack Jr. and someone(s) else is coming with, presumably but not certainly his mother, Kate. (The show, in general, seems to be teasing something relatively dark with them, either divorce, death, or something else.) Kevin has a boy with blonde hair, though Kevin doesn’t appear in the scene either. (Who’s the mother? Who knows.) And there’s no sign or mention of Miguel.
The final scene is moving, if quiet. Randall walking to see his mother on what may be her deathbed. The scene elegantly cuts between young Randall rushing through the hospital hallways to see his mother, and an aged Randall trudging through Kevin’s home to see his mother. He opens the door and she’s on her bed, frail. He says who he is twice — an indication, potentially, of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Nicky is there — this reveal is ruined for anyone who knows Griffin Dunne plays the role since his name appears in the opening credits — and Randall doesn’t appear too surprised to see him. We end on Rebecca’s face — once more, the family is left to consider who they are without “Her.” It’s a resonant, worthy area of inquiry for the show. Hopefully, it yields some fresher material in season 4.