Many great love stories are juiced with a heaping helping of heartbreak. As for the one framing This Is Us, that cup runneth over — and soaketh the floor. The season 1 finale of the crafty, heartfelt NBC family dramedy delved rawly into the weathered marriage between Jack and Rebecca that was, if not breaking apart, in a state of deep disrepair, juxtaposed with the couple’s individual struggles and magnetic meeting a decade and a half earlier.
Yes, the inebriated Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) showed up to Rebecca’s gig in Cleveland in one piece — no telegraphed drunk-driving fatality here! Actually, no information about Jack’s death at all!— but he was far from in the clear. The glassy-eyed patriarch stumbled through the club in search of Rebecca (Mandy Moore), only to find Sam (Sam Trammell), Rebecca’s bandmate (and ex-boyfriend, if we want to get technical), and deck him, putting the finishing ruinous touches on Rebecca’s big debut. (She already was crestfallen after Ben made a pass at her just before the show, causing her to question the reason he asked her to front his band on this two-week tour.)
And then things got ugly. Or uglier. After a seething Rebecca drove Jack home from the cancelled gig, they had the explosive, in-your-face fight that had been bubbling under the surface for so long, spewing horrible things at each other: Jack derisively called his wife “a 40-year-old woman singing covers in a pub” and that to call that a career was “ridiculous,” while Rebecca scoffed at Jack saying that he would get help for his drinking, calling it “this alcoholism of yours” and “convenient” that it came at a time when she was pursuing her musical ambitions. She ended the blow-out argument by challenging him to name one thing he loved about her — not early in their marriage. When he fell silent, she said: “Next time that you tell me that you love me, make sure you’re not just doing it out of habit.”
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When tempers had settled the next morning and Jack started to apologize, Rebecca said that while they both felt terrible, last night’s blaring alarm couldn’t be unsounded, that he should give them “some air” by staying at Miguel’s house for now. He quietly agreed to do so. When she expressed worry that this split (temporary, yes?) would mess up their children, he responded that this would be a blip on their screen, and that “at the end of the day, what happens to them — how they turn out — that’s bigger than us.” While he spoke of the decisions they will make that prove to be good, bad, and life-changing, we saw glimpses of our present-day Big Three: Kevin (Justin Hartley) told Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) that he loved her while he went off to meet with Ron Howard about a movie shooting not in New York but L.A., Kate (Chrissy Metz) told Toby (Chris Sullivan) that she wanted to become a singer like her mother. And Randall (Sterling K. Brown) came with knock-us-off-our-feet news: He informed Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) that he wanted to adopt a baby, paying tribute to the way he was raised.
Before Jack exited the house with his belongings, he sweetly rattled off a few of the things that he did love about her, concluding with, “You’re not just my great love story, Rebecca, you were my big break. And our love story, I know it may not feel like it right now, but baby… I promise you, it’s just getting started.” And as he winked and exited the front door, she sat there and held the moon necklace that she promised never to take off, a tear streaming down her chin, thinking about everything.
The implosion of their marriage was contrasted throughout “Moonshadow” with the tale of how they met way back in 1972. Jack had returned home from the Vietnam War and was living at home with his alcoholic father and tolerant mother, doing odd jobs to make ends meet and eventually open an auto body shop. (He’d tried to boost his finances at a poker game, but wound up roughed up and robbed, leaving him disillusioned about always being the good guy but not reaping the rewards.) Meanwhile, Rebecca was joyfully pursuing a music career that hadn’t gained traction, finding no support from her friends, who were pressuring her into settle down with a man. Both Rebecca and Jack ultimately agreed to set-up dates, but when Rebecca showed up at the restaurant, it was not with Jack, but a suitor in mergers and acquisitions. She bailed on him mid-date, explaining that she needed to be with her true love — singing on a stage — which is where she first locked eyes with Jack, who had forgotten about his blind date and was about to seize his fair share in life by robbing the bar that ran the poker game.
The last moment of our ‘70s story was the two people at the center of the show’s epic love story saying a simple, loaded “hi” to each other, and it was spliced right into the middle of ‘90s-Jack’s assurance to Rebecca about their love story just getting started. And so we left this season awash in melancholy but buoyed by some bit of hope. (See: the necklace she was given by Jack in the late-’80s, which she promised never to take off; the now-wife of Miguel still wears it in the present day.)
Feeling emotionally beaten up by this final episode of season 1? Apply a bag of frozen peas to your heart and read on, as This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman walks you through that affecting ending — and leaves you with plenty to think about during this long, cruel off-season, including the new question he thinks should be keeping you up at night.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We need to talk about that ending, which is heartbreaking yet optimistic. Jack and Rebecca agree to take a breather, and Jack makes this wonderful speech and says that their love story is not over — which is poignant because we know that he will be dying soon. She’s left crying and holding the necklace she said she’d never take off. What did you want to accomplish in that moment?
DAN FOGELMAN: We have a marriage at a crossroads and a real low point, and we’re leaving the audience questioning a number of things, the main one being: We know at some point in this time period Jack passes away, but what state is Jack and Rebecca’s marriage in when that happens? More than even how Jack dies, I would argue that that’s the biggest question looming over their story. Maybe not for the internet (laughs), but it’s a big, complicated thing. This was always the exact plan for the 18th episode of the season. I knew we were going to do the 16th episode with William and Randall, and I knew the 17th episode would be the aftermath of that, and the 18th episode would be the continuation of this time period where Jack and Rebecca’s marriage was at its rockiest — and [we would] leave them open-ended as we end the season.
When we have these moments of crises in our marriages and our relationships, no one person is all the time right or wrong. It’s very complicated, and whenever we’ve been in this time period with Jack and Rebecca, there’s been an undercurrent of age in the marriage. This marriage has aged, and you feel it specifically when it butts up against the younger versions of themselves. I think it’s real life. And often in this show, people are enjoying seeing the best versions of themselves reflected in these characters, even if the characters are flawed and making bad decisions, and here is a moment where the characters aren’t quite acting as you want them to. There’s a part of you that wants Jack to say, “I’m not going to leave,” and there’s a part of you that wants Rebecca to stop him at the door, but these are deep-seated issues in their relationship. It was a bad fight and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s forever, but a fight that’s been gestating for quite awhile doesn’t just get repaired necessarily in one speech.
Their fight is ugly and real, with both sides saying horrible things. All of the resentment over the sacrifices that both sides have made — Jack working his ass off over the years and giving up dreams of opening his own business, Rebecca giving up her music dreams to raise kids — rush to the surface. They’ve sublimated their needs for the other person for so many years, and there’s something tragic about their lack of communication. What is at the root here?
It’s time. Time can exacerbate the small problems and allow for a really bad misstep like the one Jack makes here to lead to something more explosive. You’re right, it’s a lack of communication, and it’s really the sum total of years of decisions — I find that moment of the fight really unsettling and also really just interesting, and all the things we’ve spent the first season of this show showing is very much at the crux of what they’re fighting about. From the moment they started talk of a family that Rebecca wasn’t quite ready — she didn’t want it — to her relationship with her mother and her career has been a complicatedly fraught one throughout. Jack had clearly moments starting with episode 2 with a background that involved a bad upbringing, an explosive father; we’ve shown him to have an explosive temperament at moments — as a younger man and the drinking — so things aren’t coming out of nowhere; there’s years of festering and catching these two at a moment when they’re not communicating as well as they used to… We’re not going to be coming back into season 2 with them divorced and sharing the kids on the weekend — there’s a journey ahead for them still — but this is definitely the most unsettling place their marriage has been.
I think people are going to be unsettled watching fights they’ve had being shown this way, between this couple — the heroic version of the couple who we all imagine ourselves to be. I’m in a fantastic marriage, my wife is incredible, we are not huge, explosive yellers, but we’ve had some pretty heated arguments where people are not communicating — they’re talking on top of each other — and I think every marriage does, to a certain extent. And I can only imagine what that’s like after three kids and 16 years. So I think people are going to debate who’s in the right or wrong, and I think people are going to debate what this says about marriage, and their marriage and other people’s marriages. I think it’s the darkest place we’ve been, but hopefully it also starts some really interesting conversations between spouses. Hopefully.
NEXT PAGE: Fogelman on Jack’s death and the question that he wants you to be asking yourself.
In that big speech, Jack says he was supposed to be on another date but he saw Rebecca and stood the other girl up. But we saw him at the bar at 8:30 p.m. when he realized that he forgot about the 7:30 p.m. date. When he told Rebecca that she was his “big break,” he didn’t mention what really happened: That he forgot about the date and that he was going to steal money from a bar. Why did he lie/omit that?
It’s interesting, I never really thought about that.… I think in the back of my head, Jack has probably told her about his fallen past, and maybe just on the heels of a split, maybe he just starts thinking back, “God, I was actually supposed to have a date that night” as he’s thinking back on it. I don’t think it’s a huge lie or omission. I think in some shape or form, she probably knew.
Is this a good marriage? There has been love there, but what is this relationship right now?
The key line in it all is when Rebecca says to him, “The next time you tell me you love me, make sure you’re not just doing it out of habit.” It’s a thing that I think people go through when they are in deeper stages of marriage, where you’re going through the motions or forgetting to validate or give the other person what they need in their life the way that you used to when things were fresher and younger. That’s really at the crux of a lot of what’s going on, along with the specifics of her career and his drinking.
Very early in the episode, we learn that Jack did not die drunkenly in a car crash, which will please a lot of people who were not ready to see him die and a lot of others who would say, “No, that seems too obvious!” after what was shown at the end of the last episode. Do you think some fans will be disappointed, though, that they didn’t learn more about how he died?
It’s going to be our complicated thing to navigate until it actually happens in the show as giving and not frustrating and not showing too much. What this episode does more than anything is it puts in the distant mirror in a different way. If I started to say to the audience, “Here, this should be it,” having watched what the reaction is in a good way — but also in a real way — to William passing away, I think it’s a good thing to kind of slowly get the audience there mentally and emotionally (laughs). And then the relief that they feel when it’s not, it maybe gives them a precursor to what they might feel at some point.
Near the end of the last episode, Kate tells Toby, “It’s my fault that Jack died. I’m the reason he’s dead.” Is that true on any level, or is she just haunted by guilt that she probably shouldn’t feel?
Even though Jack doesn’t die in the drunk-driving accident like it might look like there, the basic thing I can say there is: When Kate says that to Toby, it’s very real. And if, hypothetically, Jack had died in this car crash having followed Kate’s advice to go see her mother, it will be the equivalent feeling when it does happen. Meaning that Kate does harbor the belief that she’s responsible. It’s not something that we threw in there to make a great ending of the episode. Kate’s side of it is definitely 100 percent how she feels, and what she carries.
How did you and the writers decide how many details about Jack’s death you wanted the audience to know by the end of the season? How do you find that balance of giving some information but not stringing it out too long?
There’s a lot known at this point. We know that Jack has died, we know that it happened roughly in this time period — exactly when we’re not sure — we know that Kate feels responsible and carries in some ways the heaviest burden. We know that Rebecca in present day still wears the moon necklace, which we have to consider, so there’s a lot of information given. But there’s still a lot of things looming: Exactly when did it happen? Exactly how did it happen? I think the biggest question — and the question that’s become a bigger question than how Jack died to me — is: What state was Jack and Rebecca’s marriage when it happened? And in terms of the Jack and Rebecca in this timeline, when we return to it in season 2, that’s very much what we will be exploring. For people who watch the how, based off the ending and Jack walking away and Rebecca clearly touching that necklace and thinking of him, I think there’s a reason to be hopeful even as we’re sad, which I think is a good mantra for the show: Hopeful, but sad.
To read what Milo Ventimiglia had to say about the finale, click here.
For Mandy Moore’s thoughts, go here.
And for more This Is Us scoop, follow @dansnierson on Twitter.