This Is Us Season 6, Episode 17
Posted by Shannon
I have spent the last week preparing for the series finale of This Is Us. I’ve revisited old recaps, highlighting favorites on twitter. I’ve thought about the music selections (often including some of my most precious artists) and everything they’ve added to the show. I’ve thought about the casts – especially the kids – growing and changing in front of us. (What a luxury it is now, to have a long standing, sprawling family drama that allows us to watch a cast growing and changing in front of us.) By extension I’ve thought about my own life over the last six years; how much that’s shifted, in large ways, in small ways, in ways completely out of my control and in ways I’m deeply proud of myself for navigating or driving towards.
I’ve thought about the people who have come and gone during these past six years and the wildly varied locations I’ve written in and the wildly varied circumstances under which I’ve written. It’s been done in trains, on flights, in living rooms and guest rooms and bad apartments and good apartments and with my godkid crawling on top of me as a baby and then as a toddler and now as a kid. It’s been done when I’m tired, or grumpy, or scared, or ecstatic, or weepy for any reason in between. I’ve thought about all of it, a lot.
I don’t believe in a grand plan or predestination. I don’t necessarily think that things are meant to happen. But I do think that there’s power in looking back and seeing the path that led you to where you are today. In drawing lines and connecting dots that may or may not be there. Those lines help us navigate what we’ve been through and where we’re going, and they give us closure, and they grant us peace.
We knew from the beginning that the line of this show would not be straight. It would be a splatter painting; everything building on itself, with seemingly random interludes and shifting characters and layered timelines. But it would be based on some fundamental truths and it would always return to our main family tree. The best of This Is Us has always been when it’s drawn those sprawling lines from the past and into the future, leaned into nonlinear storytelling, and grounded itself in people we love. “The Train” is the best of all three. It’s one of the best hours we’ve had, and it’s what Rebecca Pearson deserves as a farewell.
It’s been years since we first saw the opening sequence of Kevin calling his siblings and telling them it’s time to come say goodbye. While there was plenty of opportunity for the worst of the show’s missteps to come back and repeat themselves with the loss of the second Pearson parent, we didn’t get that same slow march to trauma as there was with the mystery of Jack’s death. The show’s learned from its mistakes – or maybe just outgrown them.
As a society, we’re uncomfortable with death. Homes are no longer typically multi-generational. There are rarely cases of families taking in their elders and allowing the same type of space the Pearsons have in the cabin. As the family gathers, including Toby, Elijah, and Madison, the mood is almost celebratory. This is a moment for mourning and farewells, but it’s also a moment to honor Rebecca and the family she built. Randall questions whether or not it’s appropriate for everyone to be haggling over Chinese takeout while their matriarch slowly makes her way onwards in the other room, but Deja’s right. There aren’t any rules for any of this. And this would have been exactly what Rebecca wanted; up to and including Deja telling Randall she’s pregnant that very night. (With Malik. Honestly at that reveal, I threw my hands up in the air and yell-cried “Sure, you know what, great.” These two kids found their way back to each other and cemented Deja’s position as the next generation’s Randall Pearson and I can’t be mad about it.)
With everyone gathered together (excepting Kate, who’s on a last minute flight back from London and yes obviously more on that later), they each take a moment to say their farewells. It’s a gorgeous sequence, despite some selected nitpicks. (Not seeing Nicky’s goodbye was a massive missed opportunity, and not just because I’m biased.) There are small character moments with Toby and Sophie. There’s a masterful turn by Susan Kelechi Watson. There’s a stunning inclusion with Annie, sharing advice her grandmother told her that we never saw on screen.
All of it boils down to legacy. Rebecca’s legacy was built quietly, but without a moment’s hesitation to be loud when the moment called for it. In so many ways, her unspoken advice to Annie was the mantra through which she lived her own life. Rebecca has always chosen her moments and her words carefully and with great intention. She has picked her battles. But she has rarely hesitated out of fear. Hers has been a slow burn. She wasn’t perfect, but, as Kate said last week, she was magnificent.
While the family takes turns honoring their unique connections to Rebecca, the larger group holds court in the living area of the cabin. Their meeting has the energy of an Irish wake but without the booze and crying; led on by Kevin, the collected Pearsons all speak about their favorite moments with Rebecca. The ways she impacted their lives as a “lowkey matchmaker,” and the celebrations of their own life markers that she was always fundamentally a part of. Half the stories that get brought up here probably wouldn’t have stuck out to Rebecca, but she would have loved every single one of them — including Madison laughing about the strippers Kate hired at her first bachelorette party in front of the third generation of kids. This is Rebecca’s legacy, too. This joy and celebration and laughter and this music.
Oh, this music.
Rebecca Pearson was a family woman and a phenomenal mother and an ARTIST. From John Singer Sargeant to Joni Mitchell, Rebecca Pearson has filled the lives of her children and grandchildren with art. Jack’s the one who clocks Joni Mitchell first when Kevin puts on “The Circle Game,” but I’d like to think every single one of the grandkids would have gotten it. (And the look on Nicky’s face at that moment said it all. Again, not including his farewell was a real loss, and I maintain that Nicky and Rebecca’s love of sad Canadian folk music would and must have bonded them.)
Her character’s love of art and folk music has added so much to the quality of the show. It’s given her a means of expression and connection, and allowed for artistic explorations that otherwise would have gone unspoken. She’s built in space for Kevin to paint, for Beth to dance, for Kate to teach music, and for Jack to sing – even though no one yet knows what his future will bring. This, too, is her legacy.
As the rest of the family trails off to bed, Kevin and Randall are left intentionally last, to sit with their mother throughout the night and do their own reminiscing. Notably, though, neither of them can bring themselves to say goodbye. They talk about it, and have their own private remembrances, but they hold off in the hopes that Kate will get there before they absolutely must say farewell. While they share jokes and memories, Randall wonders aloud “if any of this is getting through to her.” And because Rebecca Pearson is as tough as they come, and as stubborn a matriarch as anyone has ever seen, it does get through to her – and she makes it through the night.
The train is equal parts metaphor and plot device, and every ounce of it is effective and moving as hell. While the Pearsons have collected themselves and said farewell, Rebecca has heard it all – as much as she can – through the train speaker. And William Hill is the one to lead her down the cars, through scatterings of her collected memories, passing her loved ones as they flicker from one age to the other. She hears and feels it all – all the decades, all the growth, all the change, and all the sadness. It’s stunning storytelling, and a master class from Mandy Moore.
It’s not just the family members surrounding her who make up the train; Rebecca is also wandering through her own memories. Her father, herself as a child, her favorite art, Dr. Kay, Miguel. She’s exploring her own final fears and memories and gratitude for everything she’s seen and lived through. The thing that broke me the most though, in an hour of a whole lot of things breaking me, was seeing Kevin and Randall through her vision – all three versions of them. Randall, with himself on his back. Kevin, guiding himself through. I can’t imagine the intensity of filming those sequences, because the emotion of it all – the journey they have all gone through, individually and together – radiated off the screen. It was breathtaking.
Finally, William leads her to the final car. The one we all know will have her Jack, and her final moments. But as Rebecca has insisted the entire time, she’s waiting for someone, and will not enter that final car without her.
We could have been set up to believe that she was waiting for Jack, expecting him to take her along the way, but the moment Rebecca Pearson set her teeth and insisted to William that “No, I told you I’m waiting for someone,” I knew it would be Kate. The tension of her daughter not making it to say goodbye never felt real; it’d be too cruel, even for this show, this late in the game. Kate practically flies across the yard when she gets to the cabin, and the moment she gets inside, her brothers know this will be the moment their mother can finally let go. The Big Three get their final goodbyes, and Rebecca Pearson can rest.
Colors of the Painting
- Throughout the hour, there’s one final surprise – Marcus, a young adult using a cane, who’s a doctor trying to cure cancer. As a young kid, he was in an accident the same night of the Pearson’s fire. His father (Dule Hill, heeey!) encountered Jack in the coffee room the very night he died, and Jack’s own final legacy was to impart Dr. Kay’s wisdom to Marcus’s family. It’s a charming way to poke fun at Dr. Kay, even while including and honoring him, and to remind us all that while the legacies we know about are vital and beautiful, the legacies we don’t know we created can be just as important.
- A word for Sterling K. Brown, who broke out the single tear not once but twice this hour – and did so perfectly. As Kim has said frequently these last few weeks, it’s been a privilege to watch him work every week.
- I missed Ron Cephas Jones desperately and while I knew he was filming something for the final season, I never could have imagined something so perfect. What a beautiful send off to William Hill and a perfect use of both his talents and his character.
- Again and forever, Beth Pearson, I’ll miss you most of all.
- “The Circle Game” is a beautiful song from a beautiful poet, and I love it very much. Enjoy.
What did you think of “The Train”? Are you ready to say goodbye to This Is Us? Let us know in the comments.
I will miss these recaps! I look forward to them every week and the ways they have helped me to process my own thoughts and emotions around each episode. I know they take a lot of time and work and I am grateful for the ways you all have shared your craft so generously with us! Thank you so very much