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.
After she gets a rejection letter from the recording studio, though, Rebecca is feeling less certain and accepts the offer of a blind date. The show sets us up to think, of course, that this blind date is Jack. She gives up a spot at an open mic night and arrives at the restaurant first, annoyed that the date is late after she made the sacrifice of a night on stage. It’s not Jack that she’s waiting for – instead, it’s a dull and vaguely horrible finance guy named Ethan, who works in mergers and acquisitions. That is, when he’s not calling up his secretary to save him after he’s locked himself out of various locations. Rebecca barely makes it through a drink before she bolts, knowing that she belongs on stage that night.
Everything that “Moonshadow” gets wrong about Jack, it gets right about Rebecca. This Rebecca still feels like herself. She’s young and a little starry-eyed, sure, but she’s also dedicated and comfortable in her own skin. The Rebecca Malone that meets Jack at the bar that night isn’t an unevenly written, bizzaro version of herself. She’s a little foolhardy and not without her own family and career struggles, but she is still very much herself. And she certainly didn’t need saving, not by Ethan, not by her friends, and not by Jack.
Jack and Rebecca
In hindsight, I should’ve known better than to think that Jack’s death would be resolved this episode. After setting the audience up to believe that Jack would be in a car accident while driving drunk to Rebecca’s show, he instead makes it there safe and sound and plunks himself down in front of the bar to get another drink as he waits for her to perform. Rebecca, meanwhile, is getting ready backstage, and her nerves are at an all-time high. She admits to Ben that she feels like a fraud, that “I should be watching ER” instead of singing in front of a crowd full of people. Rebecca’s mindset has clearly been shaken. After all, she’s just left her husband earlier that day, who has been stifling (with varying degrees of success) the opinion that she has no business performing at all, much less in this kind of venue. Jack’s words have gotten to her, and she keeps muttering things like “I have kids, I have multiple kids” as a reason to doubt herself. Ben talks her down, but he also crosses the line, misreading the moment, and tries to kiss her. Rebecca is having none of it, and shuts him down immediately. She runs past the bar to the payphone out front, missing Jack completely, and leaves him a message on the home machine.
With even more whiskey in his system, Jack stumbles backstage, demanding that he see Rebecca. Instead, he finds Ben, who assumes that Rebecca has told him what happened and admits his wrongdoing in an attempt to calm Jack down. It has the opposite effect, and Jack once again punches someone out at a bar after drinking too much, just like he did all those years ago at Froggy’s. This time, though, the consequences could be much more dire. Ben decides not to press charges, but Rebecca doesn’t see any way out except to drive Jack home, quit the band and leave the tour behind.
Once they return home, there’s a moment of calm before the storm. Rebecca immediately moves to delete the message she left on the machine, even before giving Jack a glass of water and frozen vegetables for his hand. The two stare at each other in silence, before finally talking about Jack’s lapse in sobriety. He immediately offers to go to meetings, but Rebecca doesn’t think that the reason for his drinking is singularly alcoholism. I’m not a professional, and I don’t have a lot of personal experience with this disease, so I don’t feel comfortable speaking to the root of Jack’s drinking. But I can see that he’s clearing acting out, and he immediately uses Rebecca’s gigs against her as the reason she didn’t notice his change in behavior.
Jack and Rebecca have been a powder keg for a while now, and the two finally explode into a painfully realistic, uncomfortable fight. They both give voice to some ugly truths about themselves and their feelings, and the scene doesn’t shy away from these two characters screaming over each other in a desperate attempt to be heard. Jack admits once and for all that he thinks Rebecca’s performing is a joke, mocking her for calling it a career, while Rebecca finally calls Jack out on his frequent habit of making family-wide decisions without consulting her. Everything that’s been hiding under the surface of 90’s Jack and Rebecca comes to the front. She admits to feeling like “a ghost,” with grown kids who don’t need her anymore and a husband who comes home late and goes to bed early, while Jack sees himself as the only emotional support for whole family. As is the case in fights like this, there’s no real way for either of them to end it, but Rebecca tries, with “I’m tired, and I’m really sad, and I’m going to bed.” Jack lets her go, and spends the night on the couch.
For me, that fight was the stand-out scene of the episode, and its most honest moment comes from Rebecca the next morning. She doesn’t shy away from what had been said, knowing that “we may have hated the way that we said it, but we meant it.” There’s no easy way to move on once they’ve given those thoughts a voice, and so Jack packs up to stay with Miguel for a while. Rebecca’s first thought is for the kids; that this moment will be defining for them, and that it will cause them pain for the rest of their lives. (It certainly will for Kate, though it’s unclear why.) Jack doesn’t see that, insisting instead that “this is just gonna be a blip on the radar years from now.” While Jack delivers one last Big Speech of the season, we get a glimpse of what the kids are planning in their modern timelines. Kate, back in LA with Toby, is inspired by a photo of her mother and decides to pursue a career in music. Kevin takes the movie meeting, leaving Sophie to admit her feelings after his taxi pulls away. (“I love you too, God help me.”) And Randall, after pasting a photo of William into his baby book, decides what he wants to do with his time now that he’s quit his job; adopt another child.
Colors of the Painting
- I will say this for “Moonshadow;” they nailed their continuity, with Jack wearing his lucky alligator shirt the night he met Rebecca.
- “He’s in finance!” “Yeah. We know, Katherine.”
- Rebecca’s apartment as a single woman is stunning and so completely her. There are Joni Mitchell albums abound, with a Janis Joplin poster hanging up, a guitar in the corner, and what looks to be the same piano she has in the Pearson family home against the wall.
- Spotted in what we assume is Kate’s childhood bedroom: a killer Buffy the Vampire Slayer poster.
- I have a moderate wish-list for Season Two, but mostly I just want Randall to stay home and take care of the kids while Beth gets back to work.
What are your thoughts on “Moonshadow”? Let us know in the comments.