This post contains spoilers through Season 2, Episode 13 of This Is Us.
Early on in the life of This Is Us, the show’s writers and other creators made a key narrative decision: to make Jack Pearson’s death its central mystery, the core question around which so many of its other questions would revolve. Week after week, as a result, audiences have braced themselves not just for cathartic feels—and for tears that arrive with such ruthless efficiency as to make you wonder whether NBC is in the pocket of Big Kleenex—but also for new clues to the riddle. Jack dies, the show reveals. But questions, so many questions, remain: How does he die? Where? When? Why? The show, through its secrets withheld, has taken its own shocking and tragic twist and ensured that the shock and tragedy would reveal themselves not merely over moments, but over months. Suspense, in suspension—a cliffhanger in reverse.
Where is the line, though, between dramatization and exploitation? Between the kind of manipulation that all fiction—and particularly the fiction of the primetime television series—will engage in, and the kind that can become cynical, and trying, and exhausting? This Is Us is a show that is, for the most part, exceptionally sensitive, exceptionally subtle. But the way it has played with Jack’s death—the central fact of its characters’ lives, a trauma that radiates across their experience in ways both predictable and deeply unruly—is not subtle at all. It is bold. It is brash. It suggests, indeed, writers at play. Jack’s demise, as a result, has been a tragedy that has manifested as something far more banal: a plot device. An earnest one, yes—Jack is evidently beloved by his creators as well as his fellow Pearsons—but a plot device nonetheless. His death is a catastrophic event that lingers and confuses and explains. And a way to keep viewers interested, compelled, curious. And a puzzle to be solved (did he die in a car accident? in a household accident? at the hand of Miguel?). Here, then, week after week, within the context of a show that is otherwise so empathetic, so intimate, so real … is a trauma that has doubled as a tease.