Love Lingers: A Powerful Message From The Finale of “This Is Us”`
Love lingers long after life ends. Those we love are never far away and their presence surrounds us like a warm blanket. That was one of the many messages from the hit television show This Is Us that broadcast its finale after six stunning seasons. For those who have never seen this remarkable rendering of the life of the Pearson family, headed up by Jack and Rebecca, know that you have missed out on a combination of talented actors, who have taken the words of brilliant writers, under the direction of showrunners, producers, and directors who managed to bring people from all walks of life together each Tuesday night at 9 pm EST.
Every emotion imaginable has been evoked since the show premiered on September 20, 2016, and breathed its last on May 24, 2022. I eagerly watched tissues at the ready, just in case. I imagine that stock in tissue manufacturing companies rose exponentially with each episode. One of the first things I noticed was that it had a sense about it, akin to the series thirtysomething. There was a good reason for that similarity as Ken Olin, who played Michael Steadman on this 1980s-90s ensemble show was also the Executive Producer for This Is Us. That show planted the seeds for what blossomed nearly 30 years later.
This show is time-bending with flash-forwards and retrospectives in the lives of the characters which initially was challenging to navigate. It also introduced ancillary people who at first glance, seemed to have nothing to do with the Pearson family, but those clever writers tied up the loose ends magnificently. The first big mystery of the show was portrayed in a ‘Who shot JR?’ manner since it was revealed in the beginning that Jack died. His death laid the groundwork for all that occurred in the lives of his immediate family members and the generation that followed.
I came late to the game. After so many of my friends, and my daughter-in-law encouraged me to watch it, I finally succumbed to its charm and binged the first two seasons in two weeks. How could I have predicted what this show would mean to me, such that people in my life came to know that this hour was sacrosanct, and they were on notice not to call me during that time unless it was an emergency? Fortunately, no crisis occurred to interrupt my ‘all the feelz’ moments with a family that became almost as familiar to me as my own.
The main characters who are seen in both the first scenes and the last are Rebecca and Jack Pearson whose meeting was serendipitous and life-changing. Together they endured the stillbirth of the third of a triplet pregnancy; a boy who they named Kyle. The surviving two were named Kevin and Kate. The same day they were born, another baby was left at a fire station, the child of William and Laurel, both struggling with drug addiction, brought to the hospital by a firefighter who had contemplated adopting the little one himself. Imagine how the trajectory of the show would have changed since Randall, as Jack and Rebecca named him is a pivotal character in so many of the family dynamics that follow. Together, they are known as The Big 3. A grieving Rebecca had a difficult time wrapping her mind around the idea of bringing this child home with them but fell in love with him quickly.
In a conversation with adult Randall who, as a Black child adopted by a white family, as much as he was loved, always felt disconnected and in one episode was questioning if every Black family he saw could be his birth parents, Rebecca assured him, “Sometimes in marriage, someone has to be the one to push to make the big moves. Oftentimes in our marriage, yes, it was your father. Our marriage wasn’t perfect, it’s true. But none are. And your father wasn’t perfect either, but he was pretty damn close. As close as they come. He pushed a stranger on me, and that stranger became my child. And that child became my life. He became you,” she said.
Randall eventually met his birth father, William and formed a bond with him, 36 years after he was left at the fire station. Tragically, William is diagnosed with cancer and dies, but not before he and Randall take a road trip to Memphis. Randall’s birth mother, Laurel appeared to die shortly after his birth, but after William fled with the infant, she was revived. The episode that told her life story was one of the most touching. Randall struggled with perfectionism, anxiety, and OCD. While in college, he met Beth who is the wise comic relief in sometimes painful experiences. They play the worst-case scenario game which is something I turn to when I worry about things I can’t control. They gave birth to Tess and Annie and then adopt Deja.
Rebecca was the daughter of a father whom she adored and a mother who was a perfectionist who expected nothing less from her offspring. Jack was the son of an abusive alcoholic father and an abused mother who did her best to care for him and his brother Nicky. When Nicky was drafted during the Viet Nam War, Jack enlisted in order to keep an eye on his brother. What ensued was a tragic accident that left them both emotionally scarred and estranged for the rest of their lives. Jack succumbed to his father’s addiction and rarely spoke about what happened during the war. With the love of his family and commitment to recovery, as well as AA and a few rounds with a punching bag, he was able to rise above it before his death.
Kevin, the first-born Pearson, was a natural athlete who resented the attention he felt was given to Randall, at his expense. A rivalry continued until close to the end of the series. After a high school knee injury that ended his potential football career, he became an actor and while filming a scene with Sylvester Stallone, he reinjured his knee, causing him to spiral down into substance addiction to numb both the physical and emotional pain. He also danced through numerous relationships but the love of his life, Sophie, who he had married and divorced and then remarried was ‘end game’. Before he and Sophie rekindled their relationship, he had a one-night stand with Madison who is one of his sister Kate’s friends, and she became pregnant with twins. After leaving him at the altar because he was in love with the idea of family and not her specifically, they co-parented Nicky and Franny (so named for his uncle/Jack’s brother who the siblings tracked down and bring back into the fold, and Madison’s grandmother).
Kate, the second of the triplets to enter the world, was a Daddy’s girl whose relationship with her mother was fraught since she loved and admired her, but never felt she could match up to her own idealized version of Rebecca. Her emotional insecurities led to food issues. In her teens, she found herself in an abusive relationship, got pregnant and had an abortion. Her mother and brothers rescued her, but she took matters into her own hands when years later, she confronted her abuser. She married and eventually divorced Toby after losing a child and then giving birth to a preemie that they named Jack after her father. He was born with retinopathy, a condition that permitted him only to see light and shadows. A year or so afterward, Kate and Toby adopted Hailey. Even though their marriage ended, their connection didn’t. As co-parents, they remained friends. Young Jack becomes a rock star whose love of music came from his mother and grandmother. Kate then married Phillip who was her boss at a music school for blind students.
Many years after Jack’s death, Rebecca reunited with Miguel, Jack’s best friend, and the family’s guardian angel. When he started to develop feelings for her, he moved from Pittsburgh to Houston. It was after her granddaughter Tess was born, and she posted an announcement on Facebook, that Miguel found her. They eventually married and despite being less than a fan favorite, he redeemed himself when Rebecca was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and he became her stalwart caregiver.
During the reception at Kate’s wedding, Rebecca experienced a last hurrah, as she performed a heart-rending song called The Forever Now which was written by the show’s composer Siddhartha Khosla and Mandy Moore’s husband Taylor Goldsmith, lead singer of Dawes.
Part of the magic of the show has always been its relatability. Everyone knows someone or IS someone who has dealt with loss, death, addiction, anxiety, depression, stillbirth, racism, adoption, body image issues, transracial parenting, grandparenting, abuse, illness, war, injury, family secrets, career change, marriage, divorce, Alzheimer’s, caregiving, and coming to terms with their impact on your life. Each of these issues is handled with care and sensitivity.
From the get-go, I knew that there had to be therapeutic consultants whispering in the writers’ ears. My friend, at whose house I sprawled on the couch, tissues in hand, marveled at how I was able to predict dialogue and plot points. I reminded her that as a therapist I had special insights into family drama.
My theory was confirmed when a local psychotherapist colleague informed me that indeed she had had the privilege of consulting for the show. When I asked her to describe the experience, she responded, “All I can say is that it was an amazingly creative and fluid experience with the producers, one which I hope to repeat. They created the storylines, not any of the consultants. We just provided details, excerpts, and guidance. And no…there will not be any spinoffs.”
That last comment was in response to viewers’ intense wishful thinking. On the Facebook fan groups I am on; I shake my head at the theories some have about the possible death of a main character because she wasn’t seen in the flash-forwards and to whom they think certain characters could be related.
The last season was a roller coaster ride as Rebecca’s condition deteriorated, Miguel died and the now 50-something-year-old triplets have to make major end-of-life decisions for their mother. The next to the last episode, called The Train had a bedridden and barely conscious Rebecca take a trip on a luxury railroad where she moved from one car to the next, meeting people from her past and current life. The guide on the train was William (Randall’s father) who hastened her along. She was determined to delay since she was “waiting for someone.” That turned out to be Kate who was en route from London where she was holding meetings to create music schools in the U.K. Once she arrived, the train sped up and she finds herself entering the caboose where she lies down on a bed and turns to find the love of her life waiting for her.
The final episode was more mellow and satisfying as loose ends were tied up and answers were provided. It highlighted an easy Saturday when the Big 3 were tweens. Randall and Kevin learn to shave, eager to feel grown-up, while Kate is content to play childhood games like Foursquare and Pin the Tail on the Donkey, wanting time to stand still for a little longer. It also gave us a glimpse into the future of the Pearson children as urged on by their mother while she still had her faculties, “Take the risks. Make the big moves, even if they’re small moves. Forge ahead with your lives in any and every direction that moves you. I’m asking you to be fearless.”
Forge ahead, they did. At the end of the series, Randall was a Senator, contemplating a Presidential run, Kevin left acting to head up a non-profit that hired veterans to build houses, in honor of his father and Uncle Nicky and Kate created music schools for blind children, worldwide.
One of the most wonderful aspects of the show was the casting. Since the timeline spans many decades, the actors who play the younger versions of the characters are spot-on as the mini-me for each of the Pearson children. Mandy Moore’s portrayal of Rebecca was Emmy worthy, with her character presenting as a woman in her 30s through her 80s. The attention to detail, including age spots and wrinkles, was remarkable. The hair and makeup artists deserve kudos too.
As I bid farewell to what was more than entertainment, but an appreciation of life and love, some of the amazing quotes remain with me. This one, offered up by Randall’s birth father William Hill, provides the ultimate gift to viewers who hoped the show would last forever.
“The way I see it, if something makes you sad when it ends, it must have been pretty wonderful when it was happening. Truth be told, I always felt it a bit lazy to just think of the world as sad, because so much of it is. Because everything ends. Everything dies.”
If this was challenging for the viewers, I can only imagine what it is like for the talented actors who embodied these characters for six years to say goodbye to them. Wishing them joy in the next steps of their journeys wherever they find themselves. Thank you for allowing us all to be honorary Pearsons.
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