This Is Us premiere recap: The Big Three cope with grief following the Challenger explosion
This Is Us has delivered five seasons of heart-wrenching, roller-coaster drama on-screen, and now the pandemic has created drama off-screen in the form of disruptions, episode trimming, and delays. But with the sixth and final season of the show finally kicking off tonight, so begins the closing chapter of the story — a chapter that star Chrissy Metz told EW will be the most emotional one yet.
That's unsurprising given where things left off: Madison finally accepted Kevin wasn't in love with her and canceled their wedding. A flash-forward to a different wedding revealed Nicky got married, Randall is some sort of "rising star," and most importantly, the wedding appears to be that of Kate and her colleague Phillip, suggesting she and Toby are going down. Creator Dan Fogelman told EW all the show's mysteries would be answered by the series' end, so let's dive into which — if any — answers came in the season premiere.
The premiere is titled "The Challenger," after the Challenger spaceship explosion that occurred when the kids were about 6. How the kids cope with the tragedy, and how their adult selves comparatively cope with present-day issues, are the major themes of the episode. So too are the Big Three's 41st birthday and Rebecca's apparent cognitive decline. (The episode could have been titled "Planes, Trains, and All of the Feels.") Let's begin with the latter situation.
The episode opens on flashbacks of the Pearson matriarch celebrating big days — the Challenger launch, Jack's birthday during her pregnancy (a callback to Jack's nude-except-for-a-Steelers-towel scene), and before the present-day Big Three's 41st birthday party.
But Rebecca's primary storyline is really about her mental health. When she, Miguel, and Nicky take the grandkids on a train ride in a park, Rebecca tells baby Jack about riding the train with her father as a child, but she's unable to remember the word "caboose." She consequently gets lost all day in two memories: train rides with her father and reading the kids a book called "The Caboose." She explodes in frustration during the birthday dinner, prompting her to confess to receiving troublesome medical results. She and Miguel insist it's not too dire, and she eventually remembers her word, but difficult days are clearly ahead.
How the Big Three handle the news, and how they might handle what's coming, is predicated by the Challenger explosion.
The Challenger Explosion
At school, the Big Three's teacher turns on the television for the Challenger space shuttle launch. When the explosion occurs, the room falls somber. That afternoon, Rebecca and Jack ask the kids if they want to discuss the tragedy. Kate has the most grounded reaction, blending realism and magic in saying, "It's a good thing they were that high up — that means they were closer to heaven." The boys remain quiet, and Kevin seems unfazed.
Later, Rebecca finds Randall putting away his space shuttle toy. Eventually, he asks whether someone is making dinner for the children of the astronaut teacher who was killed. He wants to send them food just in case. Meanwhile, Kevin tells Jack the explosion wasn't real — it was just a story on television. But later that night, Kevin crawls into Kate's bed and says, sadly but accepting, that their parents will someday die. Kate calmly affirms his realization.
Meanwhile, Rebecca is concerned about Kevin's apparent non-reaction to the explosion. Jack says Kevin understands what happened, but his brain is protecting itself; Kevin will figure things out — he won't be "a 40-year-old man who can't stop talking about the Challenger explosion." Randall's reaction also concerns Rebecca. She thinks he's too good for the world. Likening him to Holden in the book "Catcher in the Rye," she says Randall may struggle to accept that he can't save everyone. She fears his life "will be this beautiful but perpetually disappointing ride." The conversation is capped by a series trademark line, split by Rebecca and Jack: "What a thing, being a parent… what a thing, being a kid."
As Kate begins her 41st birthday, a flashback to her 36th shows how things compare. She remains on a journey to be healthier but is now busy with two children. Toby, away at work in San Francisco, gifts her with a kid-free day (the grandparents are taking them) and an at-home massage. When the masseuse remarks how great Toby is for gifting Kate the appointment, Kate initially says it's very Toby — but then notes he usually makes grand gestures in person instead.
Later, Phillip beckons her to the school for an emergency. When she arrives, she overhears Phillip breaking up with his girlfriend because she bores him. The emergency, however, is actually a birthday gift performance from the students. Phillip has a curmudgeonly attitude toward the idea — it wasn't his — but he softens as he watches Kate melt over the performance. Later that night, Toby surprises Kate at home to properly celebrate her birthday.
Meanwhile, on his birthday, Randall attends the arraignment of the man who burglarized him and threatened him with a knife. When Randall confronts the burglar, David, it soon becomes apparent that the man has mental health issues. Struck by this, Randall bails David out of jail on the condition that they meet that night so Randall can potentially get him help. Even Randall can't believe he has so much sympathy for the man who's given him nightmares for two years, but he tells Beth he sees David as an addict like William, Jack, Kevin, Laurel, Déjà's mother Shauna, and all the addicts in his district he wants to help. Beth is initially exasperated with Randall's latest hero complex demonstration but eventually softens, saying she's glad his worst vice is only helping people. Sure, it's compulsive and excessive, but it makes Randall an "incredibly decent man." (ALL HAIL BETH. No matter how exhausting Randall can be, Beth supports him because she knows who she married, and her heart is just as big.)
Randall ultimately has to deal with the disappointment Rebecca feared would plague his life when David doesn't show up. Still, as Rebecca also predicted that night of the Challenger explosion, the setback doesn't dissuade him. Instead, he tells an ever-understanding Beth that he needs to do more for people, hinting that Randall might up his political game, perhaps with a run for mayor. It seems the flash-forward "Rising Star" newspaper headline relates to politics, as expected, and we're officially on our way to that end.
We find Kevin living in Madison's garage, making an effort to co-parent their twins, and things seem to be going well — at first. He takes a meeting with Casey, his former boss on The Manny, who offers him a bit role in a Manny reboot (despite hating Kevin for his previous meltdown). Casey suggests Kevin has no other options, noting that the show's local shoot and minimal time commitment are ideal for his new family situation. Still, Kevin aggressively declines.
His bad day continues when he finds Madison at home with a flirtatious book club peer, Elijah. While Kevin is initially jealous and threatened, the encounter helps him realize things are really over with Madison, and living together isn't going to work. He leaves Madison's for Kate's house, lamenting to her that his children won't grow up living with their father. He tells her he's taking The Manny job to give his kids stability and wishes the world would stop to save Rebecca from her decline. Kate says the world doesn't stop for the bad stuff and insists they'll find the light at the end of the tunnel. Like with the Challenger, Kate proves to be the siblings' rock, while Kevin is again slow to accept reality.
What this all means for the Big Three's future remains to be seen. Here's to at last getting into the final steps on the Pearson journey.
Nicky, who's living with Miguel and Rebecca, spends the day griping about not having the courage to message his lost love Sally on Facebook. Eventually, tired of his whining, Rebecca declares they're going to drive to Sally in the morning because life is too short. Meanwhile, Déjà misses Malik, who's away at college but still sending her romantic messages.
Correction: This recap has been updated to reflect that the Challenger explosion and the Big Three's sixth birthday did not occur on the same date.
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.