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 meet-cute 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.
NEXT PAGE: Fogelman on Jack and Rebecca: “We have a marriage at a crossroads and a real low point.”