“This Is Us” Penultimate Episode: One of TV’s Finest Hours
OK! Can we talk about Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us for a minute? The penultimate episode!! What a masterpiece of creativity! I have watched several television series finales in my lifetime. Some have left me sad that the show was over, some left me angry at the way it ended, and others gave complete closure whether it was the way I had anticipated and hoped or not. This was different. It gave me insight and respect for the circle of life and the seasons of life and loss. It gave me PERSPECTIVE. The best hour of TV to date in my opinion. It was AMAZING!
I’ll start out by saying that in addition to the extreme creativity, the casting was fantastic. The main characters are aged with make-up and hair but even the characters that are grown versions of the children (Rebecca’s grandchildren) were so on point. But so were the characters of Kate, Randall, and Kevin throughout each and every episode, so why should we expect anything less. The casting never left us wondering who is this supposed to be.
The title – The Train. Rebecca goes from train car to train car to meet the people that shaped her life. Each person looks the way Rebecca would have remembered them at the happiest moments of her life. Just as I imagine Heaven to be. Her kids are shown at all the different stages because as mothers, each stage brings us happiness for different reasons. The final car, the caboose, just happens to be the word that Rebecca cannot recall, because of her Alzheimer’s, in an earlier episode this same season when she talks about a book her father used to read her (The Little Red Caboose). The way the producers tied all of this together was simply genius.
The perfect placement of the characters on that train gave me a new appreciation of the transition to death. The first to volunteer to say her goodbyes is Randall’s wife, Beth. The confident and secure woman who married the “complicated, incredible, beautiful boy” that Rebecca raised. Beth exemplifies that perfect mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship. Respect for having raised Randall, yet knowing that she raised him right to be a good husband and family man, so she was never interfering or overstepping. Beth tells Rebecca “I got him now.” We all want to ease our loved one’s minds as we tell them our goodbyes. We want them to know it’s ok to go. Beth knew how much Rebecca always worried about Randall and she let her know all was good. Toby threw in some comic relief while he said his goodbyes and asked “you love me more than Phillip, right?” Her escort to the different train cars was Randall’s father, William. It was fitting that he would be the one walking with her through the steps of death, helping her transition, just as Randall had been the source of joy and surprise that helped her overcome the death of her third baby many years earlier. Without William, there would be no Randall, and Rebecca may have never felt whole.
Her final visit, in the caboose, was certainly who we all expected and hoped it would be. I even clapped a little when she rolled over and saw her beloved Jack. But some of the wisest words were spoken to her by William before she entered that final train car. Rebecca says to William “this is quite sad, isn’t it? The end?” William wisely tells her “Oh, I don’t know. The way I see it, if something makes you sad when it ends, it must have been pretty wonderful when it was happening.” That line reminded me of the Dr. Seuss quote “Don’t cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.” The reason we are so sad when we lose a loved one is because we will miss all of those wonderful things that we had, experienced, and felt while they were here. But how lucky we were to have had those moments with that person! Death isn’t what makes us sad. It’s the ending of all those good things that the person embodied and shared with us that makes us so sad. This is why we mourn the losses of those we loved the most, the hardest. People die every day, but it is the ones who brought us the most joy and love that we have the hardest time saying goodbye to.
The allusions were so perfectly placed in the episode. I think the most nostalgic and reminiscent scene is when Rebecca meets Dr. Kowalski as the bartender. The lemons, the mugs, the TV playing the Super Bowl, the VHS tapes… Dr. Kowalski tells Rebecca he almost lost her during the birth of the babies. That after the birth of the first child, she began to crash. He says “You survived just to lose a child. And a husband. But still, what a thing you made of it all. What a big, messy, gigantic, spectacular thing.” Rebecca made her own lemonade. I think the two best parts of the episode were her conversation with the doctor and the flashback to the night Jack died.
THE LEMONS! I can still hear Dr. Kowalski talking to Jack in the Pilot Episode after they lost one of the three babies. He told him about the numerous kids and grandkid he had, but that he had lost his first child. He said that he had delivered more babies than he can count, but that not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of the baby he lost. As any parent who has lost a child will tell you, there are no truer words! He said he would like to think that losing his baby was the reason he got into obstetrics to begin with. That maybe HE (God) led him on that path for a reason. The producers used this episode as a way to show us how our experiences in life affect us in so many ways that shape our future. I can’t help but think of Jeremiah 29:11 during this allusion to the pilot episode “For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.” Doc tells Jack that he hopes that he can take this, the sourest lemon life has to offer (the loss of a child) and makes lemonade out of it. At the time of the conversation, Jack had no idea that Randall would come into their lives. Rebecca sees the doctor on the train with a big bowl of lemons as he is tending the bar. Rebecca thanks him for being her doctor. “I was only your doctor that one time,” he says. “It was a big one though,” Rebecca answers. Even the smallest encounters in our life can have the biggest impacts. We have no idea how something so simple and mundane to us can be something life-changing for someone else. Dr. Kowalski was just doing his job that day he took care of Rebecca and delivered her babies. Just as the doctor says he was only Rebecca’s doctor once. But that ONE TIME was Rebecca’s WHOLE LIFE. Those babies were her ENTIRE WORLD from that day forward. Jack used the wise advice Dr. Kowalski gave him and passed that cliché saying onto his Big 3 (Kevin, Kate, and Randall) “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”
THE CAR CRASH! During this episode, we see a flashback to a car crash. We aren’t sure who the family is, but we realize later when we see Jack with his hands wrapped in gauze from burns from the fire having a conversation in the hospital while getting coffee. Jack explains to a man that his house burned down but that all were ok. The man is distraught with worry and tells Jack of his car accident. When Jack asks if all are ok, the man is unsure and weepy and tells him that his son, Marcus, is in surgery. He tells Jack “you’re pretty much catching me on the worst night of my life.” Jack tells him he was in the same position 18 years ago (he means the day that he found out their third baby had died), “on a night that changes everything” and Jack alludes to the conversation Dr. Kowalski had with him. We see the grown version of this man’s children at dinner laughing and talking about that same saying that their dad always told them. The same saying Jack passed on to Kevin, Kate, and Randall. They represent a new “Big 3.” Connected not only by that small and quick interaction between Jack and Marcus’ dad in which they exchanged a lemonade story on one of the darkest days of their lives, but we find out that Marcus ends up being saved during the same time that Jack passes away, by the same doctor that was treating Jack after the fire. In an ironic turn of events in which we think all is good for Jack, yet hope is dismal for Marcus, we find that the tides have turned. This made me think of the saying “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.” It reminded me that there is always someone praying for what we have. That you can always find someone who has it worse off than you do. Interestingly, Marcus grows up to walk with a cane because of that car accident and becomes an accomplished scientist who works tirelessly to develop drugs to help treat a disease, none other than Alzheimer’s. The very disease that ends up robbing Rebecca of her life. This boy that was saved, while the love of her life (Jack) died, grows up to develop drugs to combat the disease that caused so much grief and distress in the Pearson Family so that other families don’t have to experience that same agony. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28
The episode beautifully portrayed the final transition into death. Rebecca can’t go peacefully until Kate is there. The voices of those telling her goodbye come over the train speaker. We learn of Deja’s pregnancy during the episode we lose Rebecca - the circle of life. We are reminded by William that “the end is not sad. It is just the beginning of the next incredibly beautiful thing.” This reminded me of the lyrics in the song “Closing Time” by Semisonic: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” In life, those hard times, those really sad and lonely times, the ones that we aren’t sure we will ever make it through are just a small patchwork in the quilt of life. Paintings up close can be nothing more than blobs of colors smeared together, but when you stand back, take a wider view, a bigger perspective, that’s when you see the true beauty that the artist intended for you to see. When we get caught up in the negatives, when we focus too much on a tiny aspect of our lives, we will never fully grow into the person God calls us to be. The beauty of life is a much larger picture that encompasses the good, the bad, and the ugly to make us whole. God is our artist. Our life is his masterpiece. William says “Truth be told, I have always felt it a bit lazy to just think of the world as sad. Because so much of it is. Because everything ends. Everything dies. But if you step back, if you step back and look at the whole picture. If you’re brave enough to give yourself the gift of a really wide perspective…” Perspective is a gift we give ourselves. Seeing the glass half empty or half full. Overcoming adversity or cowering to it. Dwelling on the past or living in the moment. Life is full of ups and downs, good and bad, and any one of those things can affect us and impact us in big ways. Death causes us to look back on that bigger picture sometimes. Seeing things in hindsight are often much clearer. We are all just one small, yet integral part of God’s creation. Our existence will impact countless people, known and unknown. Many times, our experiences will not make sense to us at the time, but we must have faith that each and every one of them was orchestrated by God with our best interests in mind.
After hearing Rebecca say “I wish I had spent more time just appreciating it when it was all happening, instead of worrying about when it would end” in the preview for next week, I have no doubt I will be inspired by this show yet again. Thank you, This Is Us for reminding me of the BIGGER PICTURE and the value of PERSPECTIVE, and for giving me the best hour of TV in the history of my life.