As we’ve said before on Unpopcult we’re nothing if not completists. And so, a few weeks later than scheduled, with CJ’s broken Sky PVR having complicated matters further, I’ve picked up the This Is Us baton to round the season off.
Episode 17 is the first one after William’s death, which inevitably looms large in the present-day timeline. He left a letter instructing that Randall and Beth’s daughters should plan his memorial service, which they’re willing to do. Meantime Randall is still finding out more about his father: he was, says William’s partner, “a soft armrest for weary souls to lean on”; he went walking with the mailman. It’s never too late, seems to be the message, to cherish people while they’re still with us. The one person not embracing the melancholy yet celebratory vibe is Beth, who feels under-appreciated by William. She will turn out to be wrong about this, but in the meantime it’s hardly a good look to make your father-in-law’s death all about you.
In the middle of all this Kevin is trying – again – to get his play off the ground, and reconnect with Sophie. He’s unable to persuade Big Important Drama Critic to come to the second first night, after what happened to the first first night. As it happens, even though the critic doesn’t attend, the play seems to go well, as a result of which Ron Howard – and I wasn’t spoiled for this, so it came as a genuine surprise – hits him up and offers him a film role in LA. Which is great and all, but would mean leaving Sophie, just as she’s let him back into her bed. Tricky. And Randall is so empowered by the death of his father and the success of Kevin’s play that he leaves his well-paid job without lining anything else up; a quixotic gesture loved by TV characters, less so by people in real life.
And Kate tells Toby that she’s struggling to tell him about her father’s death, because she was responsible for it. Which takes us to this week’s flashbacks, in which Rebecca is off on tour with former boyfriend Ben; and Jack, drinking with work colleagues, is hit on by Heather-from-the-office. He declines the offer, but Kate then wonders why he’s not gone to Cleveland see Rebecca’s gig, whereupon – somewhat under the influence of alcohol – he drives off into the night.
We’re clearly meant to think he’s going to kill himself in an accident, and that it was all Kate’s fault for persuading him to go see Rebecca. However, as episode 18 reveals, nothing of the sort happens. In fact, it’s a low-key season finale, mostly about Jack and Rebecca’s past: of course Ben is hitting on Rebecca; of course, when Jack finds out, he responds by smacking Ben about.
This leads to the episode’s key scene, and it’s terrific: a hold-nothing-back argument between Jack and Rebecca which is wonderfully well-written and acted. The thing is – and I suspect that someone on the writing staff knows this – when a happy couple generally don’t argue with each other, this actually raises the stakes for any fight they might have, because there’s a danger that all of the stuff they’ve been holding onto for years will come pouring out, and things which are said can’t then be unsaid. Which means that, the morning after, Jack and Rebecca agree to separate for a while. This is interspersed with the story of how they met – a flashback within a flashback – which turns out to be something to do with blind dates that didn’t happen, and a poker game that went wrong. It’s kind of charming.
And, back in the present day, the other characters don’t get too much time, although it could be argued that Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson, in particular, have done more than enough this season already, and deserve to be on the beach clutching a cold one. Kate decides that she wants to pursue her dream of a singing career. Randall tells Beth that he wants to adopt which, coming soon after he left his job, starts to smack of a midlife crisis provoked by William’s death. And Kevin heads off to LA for the Ron Howard gig, leaving Sophie pouting on the New York sidewalk.
Which is a nice place to leave This Is Us. It would be easy enough to identify (Toby) the occasional storyline and character (TOBY) which haven’t worked (TOBY TOBY TOBY) but, all in all, the show has been a triumph; and, in America at least, a ratings success, already renewed for two more seasons. It’ll be interesting to see if it manages to pick up any Emmy recognition on the back of that, or whether cable and streaming dramas will squeeze it out. But I will certainly be watching the next season. (And, if CJ can’t face it, probably reviewing it as well.)