[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “This Is Us” Season 6, Episode 18, “Us” — the series finale.]
When “This Is Us” premiered in the fall of 2016, my former editor Michael Schneider (now at Variety) bestowed a lasting nickname (at least to me) on the hit NBC drama: “Twist Is Us.” After all, the pilot is built around its closing reveal — that the featured characters who share the same birthday also share the same family — and subsequent episodes stack up mystery after mystery. How did Rebecca (Mandy Moore) end up with her husband’s best friend, Miguel (Jon Huertas)? When did Rebecca meet William (Ron Cephas Jones), and why did she keep it from Randall (Sterling K. Brown)? Who will Kevin (Justin Hartley) end up with? Who will Kate (Chrissy Metz) end up with? And the granddaddy of them all: What happened to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and, once that was answered, how did he die?
Plenty more major and minor twists amassed over six tear-jerking seasons (remember how long we thought Nicky was dead?), but while each reveal helped generate headlines and stoke fan theories, they also created a dichotomy the series struggled to resolve. “This Is Us” is a nighttime soap, dependent on massive emotional swings spanning several timelines to keep its audience from losing interest — but it’s also a thoughtful, sensitive family portrait with prestige TV bonafides and weighty conclusions about life’s grander purpose. The former could (and did) upend the latter, as too many twists unbalanced scenes of genuine substance, but “This Is Us” was a hit — a massive success for NBC and network TV alike. The weight of the Pearson family’s private dilemmas was matched, if not toppled, by the responsibility thrust upon The Big Three to save broadcast television. Open questions demand resolution. Demand drives engagement, and engagement is more sustainable via teases and cliffhangers than simple, moving stories.
Ron Batzdorff / NBC
Whether relieved of its burden to snare live viewers or naturally gliding to its story’s end, the finale, written by creator Dan Fogelman and simply titled “Us,” set aside any last vestiges of the “Twist Is Us” moniker. What always worked best about the expansive family drama were direct moments of vulnerability. Randall’s anxiety attacks over self-imposed pressures. Rebecca’s mid-motherhood pursuit of a singing career. Jack’s low-key heroism, like whenever the Pearson patriarch plagued with daddy issues stands up to dismissive father figures, or when the modest everyman has to summon the right words of encouragement for his kids.
The 106th episode embraces what has historically been the show’s strongest attribute: highlighting the little moments that crystallize the value of a loving family. And it starts with Jack noticing a tiny scar on his wife, years into their marriage. Rebecca explains how she got it, describing how much she loved when her father pushed her on the swingset, and she remembers how much time she wasted worrying about when he would stop. “I really wish I had spent more time appreciating it when it was all happening, instead of just worrying about how it would end,” she tells Jack. The two are laying side by side, mirroring the position from the penultimate episode when Rebecca took a (metaphorical) train ride to the afterlife, and Jack was waiting for her in the last car.
For a second, I expected the two scenes to merge, and we’d be back on the train with Rebecca for some kind of additional send-off. But when she sits up instead, telling Jack they’ve got a free Saturday because Randall’s mathlete event was canceled, it was clear: “This Is Us” was going to stick the landing, because “This Is Us” wasn’t holding any more tricks up its sleeve.
From there, in the early ’90s, Jack becomes the Captain of Morale, asking the kids to come up with ideas of what to do with their free day together and then jubilantly enjoying each activity. The only problem: Neither of the boys offer ideas and maintain their sullen demeanors until Jack can sort out what’s wrong. Honest talks are had. Wise words are imparted. Shaving is taught. Soon enough, the family is gathered to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey — a game Jack found shortly after the kids were born and predicted they’d rarely play. Instead, back in the present, the Pearson family at large picks out the same game to keep them entertained and together after Rebecca’s funeral.
Fogelman shows considerable restraint throughout the finale (which, given all the super-sized episodes wreaking havoc on television, must be commended for clocking in at the customary 44 minutes), but no more so than when we skip past Kevin, Kate, and even Randall’s eulogies. Randall, always the perfectionist, had been fretting over his speech the whole episode, but we only see him give it; we don’t hear the words. Instead, sitting on his mother’s cabin porch, Randall tells his concerned daughters that he feels adrift. “I spent my entire childhood worried about losing her,” he says. “I spent the last decade abjectly terrified of it. Now she’s gone, and yet the birds chirp on. I noticed that I’m hungry. Five minutes ago I thought about work. Tomorrow I’ll shower. It just all feels so pointless.”
Ron Batzdorff / NBC
There’s no quick cut to Rebecca in bed, as a reminder that she once echoed Randall’s worries. Rather, Deja sits down next to her dad and reminds him he’s going to be a grandfather. Randall thinks back to his own father then, his birth-father, William, who once reminded him that love shouldn’t only be appreciated at the end of things; that even fleeting memories carry deep meaning, and aging can intensify relationships in ways unimaginable during one’s youth. Yes, the scene serves to get Ron Cephas Jones one more moment on camera. Yes, the mere mention of William and Randall’s trip to Memphis is enough to evoke nostalgic sorrow for their heartbreaking goodbye. But the scene also grounds Randall in a particular mindset: He just lost his mother. He remembers losing his birth-father. He’ll always remember losing Jack, who’s aptly prominent in the finale.
The mighty Sterling K. Brown deftly recollects these painful memories in a way that allows their weight to impress upon us without bogging things down. When Deja reminds him she’s pregnant, that he’ll be a grandfather, and tells him she’s having a boy — to be named William — his teary excitement rings true. Randall has always been the most authentic, engaging, and rewarding character on “This Is Us,” and Brown, a three-time Emmy winner, deserves every accolade for always making the saccharine sincere. Fogelman is right to lean on him in the final hour, just as he was right to avoid skipping ahead to President Pearson’s swearing-in ceremony, Kate’s front-row seat at her famous son’s Grammy win, or Kevin’s inevitable home renovation series on HGTV.
In its closing moments, “This Is Us” sits alongside Jack and Randall as each respective father watches their families play together. Is it a bit of a stretch that all those kids would ignore their phones and play a decades-old game like Pin the Tail on the Donkey? You bet. Is it a bit odd that Rebecca (along with Kevin and Kate) takes a backseat at the very end for the audience’s two favorite dads? Sure, especially given Mandy Moore’s excellent performance this year. But these are the minor quibbles easily forgiven when “This Is Us” gets the focal sentiment just right. Taking a seat with these characters — as millions of fans did week after week for the last six years — and respecting what that means feels like a proper send-off. Rather than twist itself into knots, “Us” basks in the fading moments that make for great memories. Memories that make a life. A life that means something.
There’s nothing wrong with a lazy Saturday. It’s often exactly what we need.
“This Is Us” is available to stream in its entirety on Hulu. Select episodes of Season 6 are available via Peacock.