This Is Us: When Death Becomes a Tease

A central character’s demise in the NBC drama initially came as a shock. Until it turned into the opposite.

Ron Batzdorff / NBC

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.

In Season 1, Jack, stumble-drunk, gets in the family car to drive to Rebecca’s gig—Oh, noooo, this is it, you think, reaching for the Kleenex box, this is how he dies—but then, fairly miraculously, he makes it to his destination unharmed: another of the fake-outs the show is so skilled at executing. There are other such hints and sleights of hand that promise the solution to the “how he died” mystery only to withhold it yet again. The beginning of Season 2 suggests, however, finally—and extremely Kleenexily—that Jack dies in a fire. And yet this is presented not merely as the answer to the question, but also as the start of many others: How did the fire start, exactly? Why was Jack unable to escape it? Who was with him when it happened? Why does Kate blame herself for the tragedy?

As the show has gone on, it has peppered its plot with clues that may or may not—the tease will keep its teasing—provide answers to those questions. There’s the revelation that Jack and Rebecca might be buying another house (one with a garage full of boxed items that could, under the right and awful circumstances, easily function as tinder). And the reminders that the Pearson house has a faulty fusebox and regularly suffers power outages. And that the home’s smoke detector—for reasons thus far unexplained—is missing its battery. And that a recent trip to the mall resulted in both Jack and Rebecca forgetting to buy a replacement. Cue, at the end of This Is Us’s previous episode, “Clooney,” a lingering, ominous shot of a smoke detector, its battery connector hanging limply from the machine.

“Before this season is over, we will see how Jack Pearson dies,” Sterling K. Brown, who plays Randall, said earlier this month, on the red carpet of the Golden Globes. Milo Ventimiglia, who plays Jack, told Us Weekly last Saturday that the specific cause of Jack’s death would be revealed “very, very, very, very soon.” And, indeed, on Tuesday’s show—Rosebud meets Crock-Pot—the tragic normality of his end finally revealed itself. The Super Bowl. The kids preferring to spend their time with friends, and girlfriends, instead of their parents. The older couple cleaning out their garage, reminiscing, playfully bickering about the household objects that make up life’s dusty detritus. The gifted crock-pot. The faulty knob. The spark. The flames. This Is Us’s creator and showrunner, Dan Fogelman, told Entertainment Weekly that Jack’s death would be “a huge, romantic, sad, beautiful, melancholy wallop,” and he did not oversell the situation: Here, after months of speculation, was Jack’s death revealed to be the result not of human folly, but of the senseless tragedy of dumb luck. No rhyme, no reason, no meaning: just a horrible household accident. The kind that could happen to anyone.

Fogelman, in his preview of all that, really was sellingSad and beautiful and melancholy, after all, are key to the premises of a show like This Is Us. Week after week, audiences tune in not just to witness its drama and its wit—not just to take in the pitch-perfect banter between Randall and Beth—but also for an experience of collective catharsis. The show, as a contained story, may be supremely interested in family as a body that can be both insulating and isolating; as a cultural phenomenon, however, it revels in its own extroversions. Fogelman is extremely vocal, on social media and in the media of the more traditional iterations, about his intentions for the show. And each Tuesday, as the latest episode airs, many of its stars take to Twitter to offer their own assessments of that day’s installment of the Big Three’s story, reacting to the tales told along with viewers, in real time. It’s an interactivity—audience and authors, in dialogue with each other—that reveals itself, as well, within the framework of the show’s story itself: through little Easter eggs that reward careful viewing. Through fake-outs that take viewers’ familiarity with the show and subvert it. Through a long-running mystery that has for so long gone teasingly unsolved. Through fan service manifested, in the worst ways as well as the best, as manipulation.

This Is Us, of course, is only one of many recent shows to experiment with cliffhangers that, in spite of it all, keep hanging. Big Little Lies revolves around an unsolved murder. Riverdale begins with a dead teenager; its plot expands from that tragedy. Quantico centers around the unknown perpetrator of a terror attack; True Detective’s extended-whodunnit premises have been written into its name. This Is Us, however, is unlike those other dramas in an important way: It has promised, from the beginning, a particular kind of intimacy with its characters. So deeply felt are the emotions here—so unflinching the show’s gaze on the people who occupy its world—that the Pearsons are, in many ways, stand-ins for viewers. They feel, in ways uncommon even in this age of reality TV, real.

That fact complicates the “how did he die?” plot teases. As does the cleverness—the almost winky knowingness—with which the show has treated its own central mystery. Tuesday’s death-revealing episode is the unlucky-13th of its season. It is titled—in recognition of the song that the crock-pot-gifters sing at the episode’s outset, as they’re reminiscing about how they met—“That’ll Be the Day” (full lyrics, of course: “that’ll be the day … when I die”). The episode features the fourth wall repeatedly broken, not through overt overtures to the audience, but through, instead, more subtle acknowledgements of their presence on the other side. It features that wall, indeed, burned down. Ventimiglia called Jack’s death an “absolute soul-crushing event”; this, too, was an act of salesmanship.

NBC, in the interstices between the show’s world and the one the rest of us occupy, has also been eagerly selling that event. And This Is Us’s network home now promises that, for all the questions that were answered on Tuesday’s show, there will still be many more revelations to come. A promo that aired just after “That’ll Be the Day” concluded, seamlessly teasing the show’s next episode, featured impressionistic images of the Pearson family surrounded by menacing flames. It promised: “For every husband—for every father—for every son—for every daughter—for every wife—THIS IS THE EPISODE. All of your questions will be answered.” The network followed that up with a promotional tweet: “Tune in Sunday, February 4 after the Super Bowl and set your DVR with extra time so you don’t miss a single minute. #ThisIsUs.”

The climactic episode will air after the Super Bowl in part because it was preempted, from its typical time slot, for President Trump’s State of the Union address—another way that the Pearsons’ fictional realities have merged with, and accommodated, our own. Those intersections are all around. The show is a story; it is also a manufactured world; it is also, of course, a commercial product. During Tuesday’s episode, as the show’s plot took a pause, a series of ads reminded viewers of the sanctity of the home: the intimacies of it, the ineffable joys of it, the way things within it can, if one is not adequately prepared for them, end in terrible tragedy. “This Is Us,” one of those spots announced, “is sponsored in part by State Farm—here to help life go right.”