[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “This Is Us” Season 2, Episode 14, “Super Bowl Sunday.”]
At first, it seemed like they were going to get it over with; as “This Is Us” began its much-hyped, if less anticipated, post-Super Bowl episode, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) woke up to a house awash with flames and it seemed, ever so briefly, like creator Dan Fogelman & Co. were going to get the self-perpetuated question of “how he died” out of the way so the series could finally focus on “why it matters.”
Instead, “This Is Us” regressed to its worst tendencies. Sure, it dwelled on the macabre details to produce overwrought melodrama, but that was expected. At this point, the show had to embrace the bigness of Jack’s death in order to justify its lengthy tease. But what it didn’t need to do was kill Jack twice. It didn’t need to become “Twist Is Us” again. It didn’t need to draw out the cause of death even longer, nor grossly watch as its characters — mainly, Rebecca — were blindsided by Jack’s close call and Jack’s unexpected death.
But before we dig into the particulars, it’s important to put the episode into context; not only for new audience members, but for anyone who’s accepted the show’s at best unsettling and at worst insane obsession with Jack’s death.
“All your questions will be answered” — that’s the tagline NBC emphasized for weeks leading up to this episode. Aptly named “Super Bowl Sunday” for both its real-world and diegetic timing, the reason for all the chatter was because NBC’s hit family drama was finally going to answer the big question: What happened to beloved family patriarch Jack Pearson?
There’s only one problem: We already knew what happened. Leading up to the episode that’s been called everything from “The Crockpot Catastrophe” to “This Is Snuff,” audiences already knew:
- Jack is dead.
- Jack died in a fire.
- The fire started when a Crock-Pot short-circuited and lit a kitchen towel.
- The first goes unnoticed because the Pearsons forgot to buy batteries for the smoke detector.
- Kevin isn’t at home when the fire starts. He’s sleeping over at his girlfriend’s house.
- Every other human member of the Pearson family survives.
So what was left to be revealed? Only exactly what happened to Jack, a.k.a. why he died and no one else did. It was a legitimate question considering most of the family was in the house when the fire started, but the answer to that question had to be relevant enough to earn its immense buildup — and grotesquely ghoulish teasing — for nearly 19 episodes.
It wasn’t, but there was one more thing: Kate cryptically hinted in the previous episode that she had issues with dogs because of what happened with her father. So, sure, that makes two things audiences needed answers for Sunday night. Those answers were indeed provided, but at great cost.
When Jack survived the fire in those agonizing opening moments, that twist was for the audience, and it was rough enough. We knew he was going to die that day, so letting him live through the fire didn’t provide any relief, only frustration. But the next twist was for Rebecca, which is worse: Jack’s heart attack was a twist in her story, not the one we were watching.
She had to suffer from the emotional whiplash of thinking everything was OK, and her switch from oblivious relief to devastated anguish was staged so painfully you couldn’t help but picture the writers rubbing their hands with callous glee. “She thinks they’ve escaped the worst of it, but not so fast, Rebecca!” Jack probably died at the exact instant she told Miguel, “He’s OK.”
Not only was it a step too far, but it added zero weight to the story. Because the audience knew Jack was going to die that day, it was easy to see the last twist coming. As soon as the doctors started running, it was obvious he had died; all that was left was waiting to hear the doctor tell Rebecca and watching Mandy Moore act her ass off.
In the end, viewers had an opposite reaction to the characters: When Rebecca saw his body and realized he really was gone, she was devastated; when we saw his reflection in the mirror, confirming there’s no way this ghastly storyline could go on any longer, it was a relief.
That’s the opposite of what needed to happen because it creates a distance between viewer and subject. Now that Jack’s death is in the rearview mirror, hopefully “This Is Us” can embrace the present or even look to the future, as it did with Tess’ (Eris Baker) storyline this week. Randall’s story is still incredibly strong two seasons in, and the rest of the family shows spurts of potential when they’re not hamstrung by stories that ask them to cryptically discuss Jack’s passing. If this is what it took to move on, so be it. But it should’ve never taken this long.
“This Is Us” airs new episodes on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC. There are four episodes left in Season 2.