This Is Us Season 1, Episode 18
Posted by Shannon
The first season of This is Us had some near-perfect episodes. It also had some that stood on the importance of their character development, even when the plot or structure faltered, and some that worked despite sections with deeply problematic writing, but it hadn’t yet had an episode that just fell flat. So it’s especially unfortunate that the first episode to truly disappoint me was also the season finale. “Moonshadow” revelled almost exclusively in the show’s worst qualities, and while This is Us is secure in its unprecedented second and third season renewal, I for one hate that its first season went down like this. With barely a moment for the Big Three, no closure on Jack’s passing, and a lack-luster closing speech, we’re left with some lingering questions and a whole lot of plot devices to tide us over until season two.
A Vietnam veteran, Jack has returned from the war and is living at home, working as a fix-it guy around the neighborhood. Mrs. Peabody, a widow who wants to set Jack up with her best friend’s granddaughter, opens the episode by offering him $5 for fixing up her car and chatting with him in the driveway. (Her car is immediately recognizable as the one Jack drives later on, so all that work on the engine will pay off in time.) Jack is trying to piece together his livelihood on odd jobs, and while he painstakingly saves every dollar he earns in a box with his dog tags, it’s slow going. Not only is he living in his parent’s attic, his horrible father is back and is taking every opportunity to berate Jack and his mother.
At least Jack has one friend to commiserate with; Daryl, with whom he wants to open up an auto shop. They even have a spot in mind, and they spend nights sitting outside of the garage, making plans and drinking beers. Jack and Daryl just aren’t saving up money fast enough, and Jack asks Daryl to get them into his cousin’s poker game in an attempt to move things along. It’s clearly misguided, but we’re still meant to see the origins of Jack’s best qualities in this conversation: against all odds, we’re told that he’s returned from Vietnam without any emotional or physical wounds, and he’s toiling away in a horrible family situation, working hard to pull himself and his mother out into safety. Instead, though, I found this characterization of Jack to be entitled and indignant. When he told Daryl that “we’re good guys, we deserve to make it,” for the first time it occurred to me that Rebecca was onto something when she called Jack out as only acting like the good guy to make himself feel better. Yes, motivation and drive are good qualities, but being a good person does NOT mean that good things will automatically happen to you, and even at this age, Jack doesn’t seem as naive as he’d need to be to believe otherwise.
Once they get to the poker game, things are even more painful to watch. The set up is a cliché representation of a dive bar, just smoky enough to read as “bad” without actually feeling dangerous, and Jack plays the part of the fool, walking in and winning a pile of money on his first hand, only to bail on the rest of the game immediately afterwards. It’s a bad move in the best of circumstances, and of COURSE it means that he and Daryl get beat up outside the bar, with all their earnings stolen. Jack doesn’t see how foolish his behavior was, instead blaming it all on how unfair the world has been to punish him instead of his father, who’s always broken on the side of the morally bankrupt. He’s chosen to be the opposite of his father, to be “respectful to women, be a good man – look where it’s gotten me.”
Jack is feeling angsty and angry, and ready to “take the life that I was supposed to have.” He intends to take that life by blatantly standing up his blind date and stealing his poker winnings out of the bar. Everything is going according to plan when Jack spots Rebecca singing an open mic, and stops short his life of crime. I’m not sure what it would have taken for me to find this plot line interesting, or more importantly, actually in character for Jack. Maybe if he’d seemed more genuinely angry or frightened by his life’s path, maybe if his entire character wasn’t now based in Rebecca as his salvation from petty thievery. Maybe if he hadn’t openly decided to stand up some poor unnamed woman, with never so much as a phone call or a thought to her well-being. It’s possible that this will all make more sense if we spend more time with young Jack, but with the context we’re given in “Moonshadow”, it just fell flat. Being a good person is not something to be done for a reward. You do good because it’s right, not because it will pay off in the end in some karmic display of gentle retribution. Before this episode, Jack had never seemed like the kind of person who acted singularly for ulterior motives, positive though they may be. And now that he’s been established as such, it’s that much harder for his words to ring true.
Single Rebecca is, by contrast, living a pretty great life, despite friends who are on a constant mission to set her up. Rebecca is happy to sit alone, happy to focus on her career and to stand up for her individual goals. She’s busy and content, doing open mics and recording demos for a family member who works at a recording studio. Rebecca also manages to be confident in the face of two friends who seem dead-set on feeling bad for her, telling her that she needs to “diversify” her options by taking a date with a guy in finance so she won’t be doomed to go to a wedding alone.