This Is Us recap: The life and death of Jack's mother Marilyn
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Throughout five seasons of This is Us, we saw a fair amount of Jack's (Milo Ventimiglia) father, Stanley (Peter Onorati), an abusive drunk who ruined Jack's childhood. But we haven't seen much of Jack's dynamic with his mother, Marilyn (Laura Niemi). Last week's episode set the stage to rectify that, ending in a flashback of Jack (when the Big Three are six years old) finding out his mother has died.
Sure enough, tonight's episode, "Don't Let Me Keep You," picks up there. Through various flashbacks to different points in Jack's past, we learn how Marilyn fit into Jack's life around the dominant force that was his father.
The story is aching and painful, but of course, beautiful, and it's only right we have the chance to learn about the woman who raised the man viewers love before the series ends. With that, let's dive into the messy, moving memories.
A boy and his mom
In a flashback to Jack's childhood, he goes sledding on a steep hill, alone. As the sled picks up speed, he grows fearful and rolls off. He's unharmed, but the sled crashes into a rock and breaks.
Jack sullenly carries the broken sled home. When his mother sees the sled and Jack's face, her own falls somber, but she nonchalantly says she'll hide it and save up for a new sled, so Jack's father won't learn about the broken one. She then cheers Jack up with a meal: hot dogs and tomato soup.
Life after leaving
Around the time Jack is getting to know Rebecca (Mandy Moore), he has finally convinced his mother to leave Stanley. He first brings Marilyn to stay with a friend, then later drives her to a long-term solution: her cousin Debby's house in Ohio. Marilyn wants to be far from Stanley, but worries about missing Jack. Marilyn also worries about being a bother to her oldest son, but Jack suggests a regular phone call time, so it's not a disruption to either of their lives: Sundays at 6 p.m. He promises to always answer her call at that time, and also to visit her in Ohio.
Jack indeed always answers her call, but the conversations are often brief, and he doesn't say much of substance. They also argue about visiting. To Jack's annoyance, Marilyn makes up reasons she can't come see him and The Big Three, though it's clear she's just afraid of seeing Stanley, whether it be by accident, because he'll hunt her down, or because she'll be tempted to return to him voluntarily. Instead, she wants Jack to bring the family to Ohio, where they can take the kids ice skating in the pond by Debby's house.
She does visit him at least once, when the kids are babies. However, while there, she stresses about Stanley. She distracts herself by making lunch — hotdogs and tomato soup. Jack doesn't remember their tradition of her making that meal after he played in the snow. Marilyn frustratedly implies Jack has let his childhood be defined so much by his father's sins, he doesn't consider the bright spots she provided. Her insistence that Jack has good memories is the fiercest we see Marilyn.
In stark contrast, she always ends her phone calls with Jack with "don't let me keep you," an indication of her tendency to feel like a burden to others. Jack never said much to encourage her to be less timid. It's as if getting Marilyn away from Stanley took the last of the energy he had to deal with his childhood troubles; once she was free, he pulled away from the past — including Marilyn herself. Jack, who never did end up visiting his mom, realizes this when he goes to Ohio to bury her.
Life before death
Jack goes alone to Ohio for the funeral. He claims it's too much work to bring the kids so far, but the fact is, Jack has always kept his past — and any vulnerable emotions — close to the vest. In fact, he doesn't cry when he hears about his mother. Guilt emerges first.
That guilt starts with cousin Debby (Camryn Manheim). When Jack arrives at Debby's house, she criticizes him for not visiting over the past 13 years — Marilyn deserved more than phone calls. Jack then offers help with funeral arrangements, but Debby already has things covered; Marilyn pre-planned everything, so as not to be a burden. Eventually, Debby suggests Jack give the eulogy and pick out Marilyn's dress.
Jack spends the next couple days learning about Marilyn's life in Ohio: what she kept in her room, that she liked poetry, that she had a cat (Stanley hated cats, so that especially embodies her reinvention), and that she had a boyfriend, Mike (Jim Cody Williams). When Jack brings the cat to Mike, he excitedly shares photos and stories about his relationship with Marilyn, who had the humor to name their cat Cat Benatar. Mike, who gradually won Marilyn's trust by always making her laugh, met her at their favorite coffee shop. Jack is astonished by this vibrant version of Marilyn. For example, he can't remember when he last heard Marilyn laugh, since she was always anxious around his father.
Mike calls Jack a hero for getting Marilyn away from Stanley, but Jack deflects the compliment because he's wracked with guilt over missing everything that came afterward. Eventually, his guilt drives him to call his father to berate him for forever looming over Jack and Marilyn, keeping them from being close because their relationship was tainted with the memory of Stanley's brutality. Jack and Debby spend the rest of the weekend stressed that, due to the call, Stanley will come to the funeral, against Jack's command (luckily, he never does).
Ahead of the funeral, Jack stumbles upon ice skates Marilyn had bought for the children for the visit she always dreamt of. Plunged even deeper into his guilt, Jack calls Rebecca to lament not fulfilling that wish.
Finally, the time comes for the funeral. As Jack struggles to deliver the eulogy, Rebecca arrives with the kids. She managed three children in a long car ride, alone, to be there for him — and sure enough, it's just what he needs to continue. Ready the tissues.
Jack talks about how the only way to cope with the memories of the trauma he and his mother experienced during his childhood was to build a new life. Jack built his with his family, and Marilyn built hers with the people in Ohio. He thanks everyone in attendance for giving that to Marilyn, and then, addressing his mom, he says "don't let me keep you."
With this, he acknowledges both how they grew apart and the ties that bound them. After the funeral, Jack honors Marilyn further by worrying about Cat Benatar's future, letting the kids bond with Debby and Mike — they finally go ice skating — and by making the kids hotdogs and tomato soup.
During the meal, Jack steps away. Finally, the man who inspires so much emotion in others, but rarely displays emotions himself, breaks down in mourning for the mother he never got to know, but always loved. It's unclear how Marilyn's legacy might re-emerge this season, but we'll likely see some connections along the way. With that thought, 'til next time, readers. Don't let me keep you.
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