This Is Us’ series finale is a gentle goodbye hug

·8 min read
Photo:  Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

I didn’t expect to spend the This Is Us series finale smiling more than crying. After last week’s inventive, emotionally harrowing goodbye to Rebecca, “Us” is a gentle denouement for the series—one last hug for the road. There’s little here that’s revelatory or artistically innovative. In fact, you could probably argue this episode slightly weakens the hour that came before it. (I would’ve just left Jack and Rebecca’s train bed conversation at the “heys,” for instance.) But there’s a hell of a lot of charm and gentle humor to go around. And if any show has earned the right to a sentimental victory lap, it’s this one. This Is Us has always been defined by its mixture of simplicity and ambition. And while last week’s penultimate hour emphasized the latter, this episode embraces the former.

It helps that this finale has one last trick up its sleeve: After a season spent avoiding the era where Lonnie Chavis, Parker Bates, and Mackenzie Hancsicsak played the Big Three, those actors make their glorious return here. And by the looks of it, the show actually shot this footage sometime around its third or fourth season as the trio are noticeably younger than they were the last time we saw them barreling towards puberty in season five. Given that Chavis, Bates, and Hancsicsak were the first kid versions of the Big Three we ever met, it only seems right that the show should end with them. And I love that the series had the forethought to save up one last lazy Saturday of Pearson family fun for this finale.

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As Jack tries to explain to Randall and Kevin in an adorable scene where he teaches them to shave, life is just a matter of collecting little moments and trying to hold onto them as long as you can. And that’s very much the philosophy that fuels this finale. There’s the moment Kate and Toby bond at Rebecca’s funeral. The moment Nicky begrudgingly thanks Kevin for saving him. The moment Randall excitedly celebrates that he’s going to have a grandson. A hitherto unseen moment that William and Randall shared around the time of the first season episode “Memphis.” And, most of all, those sweet, funny, everyday moments that Rebecca and Jack spend with their kids on a random Saturday afternoon.

Screenshot:  This Is Us/NBC
Screenshot: This Is Us/NBC

If This Is Us didn’t want to end with “The Train” (which it maybe should have), this back-to-basics approach is at least fitting. Indeed, my biggest fear heading into tonight’s finale was that the show might do something too structurally out-there, like follow the next couple generations of Pearsons through the decades, which I think would’ve been too abstract a concept for a series that always shone brightest when it focused on its central performers. While the reveal that Randall is considering running for president made me laugh out loud (never change, This Is Us), the idea that he, Kevin, and Kate will always see their childhood nuclear unit as their core family is an apt sentiment to end the series on. The Pearsons are a strange, sweet, codependent bunch. And the Big Three seem to realize that at some point it’s better to embrace that than to fight it.

In fact, there’s a part of me that wishes this entire episode had just been set on that lazy 1990s Saturday as that’s where “Us” is at its most lived-in. While the funeral throughline feels like it’s missing a layer or two (perhaps it would’ve benefitted from more montages of the show’s past in place of the montage-heavy service itself), the ’90s storyline gives each of the central Pearson Five a moment to celebrate their defining characteristic: Kate’s sunny sentimentality, Kevin’s oddly charming self-centeredness, Randall’s anxious maturity, and Jack and Rebecca’s strong partnership as they muddle their way through parenting the best they can.

Screenshot:  This Is Us/NBC
Screenshot: This Is Us/NBC

The sweet exchange where Jack and Rebecca rank each other on a scale from 1-10 is a callback to the show’s second ever episode, where Rebecca chastised Jack for dragging their collective parenting score down to a 6 on the nights he spent out late drinking. It’s one of the many moments of tension that arose over the course of their fairy tale love story; a reminder that the strength of their marriage was greater than the sum of its parts. And the same is true for This Is Us as well. Looking back, it’s easy to see the flaws, detours, and dangling threads in the show’s overall narrative arc. Yet I’ve seldom found a series as rewarding to rewatch as This Is Us.

While some twist-heavy stories feel hollow when you revisit them, the most impressive thing about This Is Us is that each new addition to its story has only made the stuff that came before it richer. I can’t even count the number of times I critiqued the show for dropping a storyline, only to discover it was actually just waiting for the right moment to resurface a buried issue. And the series’ careful attention to its own history has allowed it to retroactively add depth to even its weakest storylines.

In this final hour, This Is Us settles on a simple thesis: We keep living on after we die, if not literally in some kind of afterlife then at least in the people we love and the people they go on to love as well. Deja never met William, but she decides to name her son after him anyway because he shaped the man who raised her. And though the Big Three no longer have any living parents, the spirits of Jack, Rebecca, William, Laurel, and Miguel will continue to live on through those whose lives they touch—from veterans to blind music students to (potentially, lolz) the entire U.S. population.

Photo:  Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

It’s a fittingly sentimental idea to end this uniquely sentimental series. As the peak TV bubble boomed over the past six years, This Is Us remained an earnestly old-fashioned beacon; a holdover from a time when network TV dominated the culture conversation. Yet the series has also been refreshingly thoughtful in its willingness to tell complicated, intergenerational stories about family, relationships, race, gender, addiction, loss, adoption, illness, abuse, PTSD, American history, and so much more.

At its worst, This Is Us was a well-acted, slightly corny family drama. But at its best, it was something truly transcendent—a show that could fold time in on itself in ways both simple and complex. More so than maybe any other series I’ve ever watched, This Is Us embodies the idea that the more specific something is the more universal it becomes. And while its run may be over, I suspect This Is Us’ legacy will continue to live on for many more years to come.

Stray observations

  • It initially struck me as slightly odd that so much of this episode is framed as a Randall story, but I suppose that with Kevin and Kate’s love lives getting such prominence recently, he really is the member of the Big Three who’s gotten the least focus this season.

  • If there’s a big flaw of the second half of this season it’s that we didn’t get a chance to say a proper “goodbye” to the young actors playing Randall and Beth’s kids. Giving Lyric Ross and Eris Baker more to do on Rebecca’s train journey would’ve been nice.

  • I also think it would’ve been nice to have adult Tess bring a partner to the funeral to put a button on her coming out arc from seasons four and five.

  • It’s retroactively hilarious that in the season four episode “Unhinged,” Randall and Jae-Won pledge that unlike traditional politicians they can actually make a tangible difference in their community because they aren’t just using his city councilman position as a stepping stone to bigger political aspirations…

  • I loved that simple opening montage of all the generations of Malones, Pearsons, and Damons pushing their kids on swing sets.

  • “That’s a Back To The Future reference.” / “I know, I was married to you.”

  • Off the top of my head, my five favorite episodes of the series are “Sometimes,” “Memphis,” “Number One,” “One Small Step ...” and “The Train,” with honorable mention to “Clouds,” “Brothers,” “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life,” “Vietnam,” “Six Thanksgivings,” “New York, New York, New York,” “After The Fire,” “In the Room,” “Don’t Let Me Keep You,” “Miguel,” and both “Pool” episodes.

  • And with the caveat that the Vietnam War stuff in season three is my favorite thing the show ever did, here’s how I’d rank the seasons: S2 > S4 > S6 > S5 > S3 > S1.

  • Thank you so much for following along with these reviews over the years! This Is Us is hands-down my favorite show I’ve ever gotten to write about, and one that’s as close to my heart as any TV series has ever been. I’ve loved getting the opportunity to dig into these episodes so deeply—and to read your own insightful comments each week. If you’d like to stay in touch, you can follow me over on Twitter. Otherwise, I hope you’re all able to turn your sourest lemons into something resembling lemonade.