'This Is Us' offers a graceful goodbye in series finale: 'This was special. This was rare'

·6 min read

It started with a bare butt.

And six seasons and 106 episodes after Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) dropped the Pittsburgh Steelers Terrible Towel from his waist to “celebrate” his birthday with his extremely pregnant wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore), the family that shepherded viewers through layers of emotions and intriguing time jumps said a graceful goodbye.

Life, as illuminated in Tuesday’s finale of NBC’s “This Is Us,” isn’t tidy – or finite. Even after the heart-crushing – if expected – death of matriarch supreme Rebecca (Moore) in the exquisite penultimate episode (“The Train”), it carries on with impending births, ambitious life goals and requisite reflection.

Creator Dan Fogelman, who developed the series as a tribute to his mother, who died more than a decade ago, says that while the ending of the show was mapped out from the beginning, exactly how it would unfold revealed itself as “This Is Us” evolved.

Milo Ventimiglia (left) as Jack and Mandy Moore as Rebecca Pearson in the fourth episode of the final season.
Milo Ventimiglia (left) as Jack and Mandy Moore as Rebecca Pearson in the fourth episode of the final season.

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“I wanted the finale to capture a moment in time of an American family, and also this American family,” he says. “I knew that Rebecca would pass in the penultimate episode and the finale would be this slice-of-life day, and with it the message that, ostensibly, just because someone dies, they don’t leave the painting.”

In Tuesday’s farewell, the Pearson family, spearheaded by the Big Three – siblings Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) – gather for Rebecca’s funeral. Their eulogies are intentionally seen but not heard, a choice Fogelman, who wrote the last two installments, extracted from his own experience.

“For my mom’s funeral, I did the same as Randall – I stayed up all night and stressed over every single word, and the next day I wasn’t present for any of it. I’m told it went well. But I don’t remember being a human being in that moment,” Fogelman said. “In the script, it just said, ‘Randall drifts through time and space at his mother’s funeral, and he can’t experience anything.’ And it was all the more fitting for Randall, this man of words, that he doesn’t remember a word he said.”

Mandy Moore (left) as Rebecca Pearson endures the final stages of Alzheimer's Disease while Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) says her goodbyes.
Mandy Moore (left) as Rebecca Pearson endures the final stages of Alzheimer's Disease while Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) says her goodbyes.

While half of the finale is set in the present day, the rest is centered on a “This Is Us” hallmark – flashbacks. Jack, he of the sporadic facial hair, and Rebecca, she of the sweet, doe-eyed disposition, spend a lazy weekend day with their young trio, each child demonstrating the burgeoning personality traits that would define their adulthood.

Fogelman filmed the footage in 2018, at the beginning of Season 3, wanting to capture the siblings – Parker Bates (Kevin), Mackenzie Hancsicsak (Kate) and Lonnie Chavis (Randall) – at the same age.

Moore, the only actor to work with every group of Pearson spawn, from infants to middle-aged adults, recalls filming those scenes but says she was unaware of Fogelman’s intentions.

“We didn’t know the context in which it would be used, so it didn’t have this monumental weight. It was more like, ‘OK, cool, let’s capture this time capsule with the kids this age.’ I feel like their pseudo-mom and I can’t believe how much they’ve grown now,” she says, with genuine awe.

While much of “This Is Us” focused on Ventimiglia’s Jack – the flawed hero who adored his family, died abruptly after saving his family (and Kate’s beloved dog) from a house fire and remained an untouchable deity to his children – the second-to-last episode illuminated Rebecca as the true anchor of this clan.

The "Big Three" of "This Is Us" gather after the funeral of their beloved mother, Rebecca. From left, Justin Hartley as Kevin, Chrissy Metz as Kate and Sterling K. Brown as Randall.
The "Big Three" of "This Is Us" gather after the funeral of their beloved mother, Rebecca. From left, Justin Hartley as Kevin, Chrissy Metz as Kate and Sterling K. Brown as Randall.

In “The Train,” directed by frequent collaborator  Ken Olin (“Thirtysomething”), present-day Rebecca lies motionless in bed as she experiences the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. As family members – including Randall’s soulful wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Kate’s ex-husband and wisecracker extraordinaire Toby (Chris Sullivan) – come to her bedside to express heartfelt goodbyes, viewers see that Rebecca might be physically unresponsive, but her mind is taking her through a walk to remember.

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Guided by a reassuring William (Ron Cephas Jones), Randall’s birth father who died at the end of the first season, Rebecca glides through the train cars, interacting with family both living and dead. A scene between a luminous Rebecca, clad in a resplendent red dress, and Dr. K (Gerald McRaney), the advice-dispensing obstetrician who delivered her children, is particularly tenderhearted.

“You’re as tough as they come, Rebecca Pearson. And you, my dear, have earned a rest,” he tells her.

Moore admits to having her own deep-breath moment when hearing the dialogue.

“That line,” she says, “the first time (McRaney) delivered it, my heart exploded. He was giving (Rebecca) permission to submit to where this journey is taking her.”

In the penultimate episode of "This Is Us," titled, "The Train," Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore) experiences highlights of her life before she dies, including a reunion with Dr. K (Gerald McRaney), who again delivers wise words.
In the penultimate episode of "This Is Us," titled, "The Train," Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore) experiences highlights of her life before she dies, including a reunion with Dr. K (Gerald McRaney), who again delivers wise words.

Rebecca stalls before entering the caboose – the metaphorical end of her life – before laying down on a bed in the last train car, where she is reunited with Jack.

That a network family drama sustained such a devoted following proves “This Is Us” was a unicorn in the current TV landscape. Viewership has dwindled since earlier seasons, but this final run has reignited interest. The show peaked at an average of 17 million viewers during Season 2 in 2017-18 (including seven days of delayed viewing), which included 26 million for a post-Super Bowl episode, according to Nielsen. The show is averaging 8 million viewers this season, and has been the No. 1 broadcast drama  among adults 18-49 since its 2016 premiere, according to Nielsen.

Fogelman believes it's possible that another family drama can achieve similar success in a broadcast TV landscape mostly dependent on police procedurals because “being part of a family is probably the most universal experience. We all had childhoods, no matter how different, and we all had parents, some good, some maybe not so great. There is room for those stories if the networks continue to take chances that something will be unique.”

Moore, however, is confident that “This Is Us” will remain inimitable.

The show "really allowed people permission – and we don’t have enough of this in life – to feel our feelings and have some cathartic experience to process and then have conversations about it with family and friends,” she says. “It’s going to be hard to replicate entertainment that means as much to the audience as it does us. We were never immune to the stories we were telling ... all of us have been really present and appreciated the ride. This was special. This was rare.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'This is Us' series finale a graceful end after six seasons

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