The return of This Is Us this season has caused a little ruckus among longtime fans. After a delayed kickoff to the fifth season, the hit NBC show premiered season five in October, with many eager fans waiting for their favorite comfort show to distract them from the troubles of 2020. Instead, the two-hour special highlighted the Pearsons’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and the unrest driven by racial injustice.
This Is Us has never shied from tackling tough topics; it’s what made the show so relatable and attractive to many of its viewers. So why would it not wade through a tough time we’ve all experienced together?
I’ll admit I was a little unsure about the idea of reliving the chaos of 2020 with the fictional Pearson family, but as I watched I found myself understanding why the script writers believed they had to address the pandemic and national unrest.
It’s my theory that at least one of the aims of the show’s script writing is a cautionary message—that loss itself is catastrophic, but failing to properly grieve loss creates even more troubles.
More than simply remaining relatable, the show’s decision to process the troubles of 2020 with the Pearsons, intended or not, was a way of helping us not to stay stuck in our grief—because the Pearsons know firsthand how dealing with grief or not can set your life on a trajectory. We can be defined by the tragedies we’ve experienced, or we can choose to define how those tragedies shape who we are as people, who we surround ourselves with, and how we foster our relationships in the world.
What it means when death is a defining moment
The show has done more than hint that Jack’s death is a defining moment in the lives of the individuals in the Pearson family. More than a few people have told me they’ve stopped watching This Is Us because it’s depressing.
They’ve expressed frustration that Kevin’s character is plagued with problems he never can seem to get over—like addiction and casual sexual relationships with women. Kate similarly fostered a strange connection to her deceased father—talking about him in the present, watching Steelers games with his urn beside her, and displaying more unhappiness than happiness, despite being married to the seemingly wonderful Toby. Randall seemed to have it all together—a stable marriage, good relationships with his daughters, and a good job—until his crippling anxiety revealed perfectionism and a sense of over-responsibility that has controlled his life.
I understand what my friends are saying when they say the show is hard to watch—the script is written with such a relatable tenor that the problems of the Pearson’s can easily feel real and, thus, heavy. But I’ve stayed intrigued by the show precisely because of this relatability in the harder parts of life—and because I’ve speculated that within the Pearson family story is a lesson for us all on the impact of trauma and grief that continues to linger.
Following the episode in season three where the cause of Jack Pearson’s death was finally revealed, the show’s writer Dan Fogelman tweeted:
The wide lens viewers can see through
Longtime fans have become accustomed to the process of guessing what certain flashbacks or flash-forwards are telling us about the Pearson family. In the first few seasons, theories about Jack Pearson’s death abounded. Fans looked for “clues”—was it caused by his drinking? Kate said it was her fault—was he driving with her when he got into a car accident? Even in the episode when fans knew we’d learn the cause of his death we were teased—the entire family made it out of the fire safely. Jack and Rebecca are talking at the hospital. Rebecca is relieved enough to realize she’s hungry and leaves Jack to go get a candy bar. Then he suddenly goes into distress and dies—a heart condition he’s had since he was young meant his body couldn’t withstand the smoke inhalation. The viewers felt the shock and suddenness of it all.
But watching the story unfold through the flashbacks and the flash-forwards into the present moment also allows us to understand in real time how moments in a person’s past were influencing their lives then and are still influencing them today. Let’s take, for example, Kate’s reaction to Jack’s death.
Kate, we learned, believes it’s her fault. Jack went back into the burning house because Kate couldn’t bear the thought of the family dog not making it out of the fire safely. Upon his death it was revealed he had simply inhaled too much smoke to survive—and he certainly was inside the burning house longer than anyone else in the family. But Jack’s decision to go back into the house may not have been just a flip decision made in a difficult moment—he struggled consistently to say “no” to Kate; we saw that in flashbacks prior to and following his death. Does Kate realize that?
This may sound cold on its face—I’m criticizing a (fictional) man’s decision that led to his death. But one of the markers of incomplete grief is idealizing a person, and failing to remember any mistakes or weaknesses they may have possessed. Kate’s guilt over her dad’s death is, I believe, misplaced, because she is failing to see that her father, while selfless, was not flawless. His “yes” to her in that moment was tragically the wrong decision, but it was his decision, not her pleading with him that made it happen.
Kate seems to be now, in her forties, waking up to the fact that things in their childhood, not just Jack’s death, are still impacting all the Pearson children today. We saw this in the final episode of 2020, during a conversation she and Kevin have over the phone, and then again a bit later in the episode when she reveals to Toby she has a secret she’s carried with her since her teenage years, related to her dating relationship after Jack died.
But this is not the first time that the show writers’ have highlighted how Jack’s death defined the Pearson family, and how their failure to properly grieve may be holding them back from moving forward in life. In season two, when Kevin was in rehab for his addiction struggles, a family therapy session showed him wanting to discuss the addiction patterns he saw in their family.
Until this point, Kevin, and it seems the other members of the Pearson family, believed that the shock of losing his father was what propelled Kevin into his drinking and drug problems. But Kevin explained that he was learning it wasn’t his grief about Jack’s death that led him into addiction. Instead, he believes his childhood struggle to feel connected with members of his family led to his insecurities, which—in light of Jack’s and Jack’s father’s own addictions—may have spurred his alcoholism eventually anyway. Kevin even suggested that Kate’s struggle with her weight may be a symptom of the same genetic tendency to addiction. The therapy session was explosive, with Rebecca becoming particularly offended. Her children only got 17 years of memories with their father, she said, and she didn’t want to taint them by highlighting his “one flaw.”
A conversation following the group session between Kevin, Kate, and Randall revealed a deeper appreciation that their father’s death was a defining moment in their lives, but it wasn’t the only event in childhood that could be impacting their present day life trajectories. It was a step in the right direction toward processing Jack’s death and their grief with greater clarity.
The people we trust with our pain
Of course, not all healing from grief and loss needs to be processed in a professional setting. In fact, a great deal of authentic healing from trauma happens in our relationships. This is certainly true for the Pearsons.
The tight bond in the Pearson family was formed, at least in part, by the traumatic experience they lived through together—and it carried on through their lives as they welcomed new people into their family. In fact, Beth, Toby, and Miguel have bonded over the fact that they can’t break through the Pearson bond that revolved around Jack. Yet, each of them in their own way has been instrumental in helping the Pearsons find joy in life after grief.
As Toby showed his care and reliableness, Kate let go of pieces of her dependency on her late father (we haven’t heard about game watches with Jack’s urn in quite some time). Randall has sought professional help for his anxiety because of Beth’s persistence and insistence that she needs Randall mentally well in order to care for her and their daughters. Miguel has given Rebecca another chance at love and happiness, and also been a protector of her when her tendencies to do anything for her children threaten her ability to both help them grow and also keep her balance. (Remember when Kevin moved in after rehab, and he and Miguel sparred about the way Kevin appeared to be taking more than he was giving in his relationship with Rebecca?) And Madison, Kate’s best friend from her eating disorder group therapy days, is challenging Kevin to shed some of his insecurities about himself (no doubt fed by his complicated relationship with his parents and siblings, as well as the fact he wasn’t at home the night of the fire).
The hinge our lives swing on
I could go on for several more paragraphs piecing together flashbacks, flash-forwards, and present day behaviors and beliefs that illustrate how trauma and grief continue to influence for better and for worse the Pearson family (and yes, there are goods for the Pearson family that resulted from Jack’s death). But I’d rather conclude by returning to the complaint viewers have had about the show’s script this season and my friends’ complaints the show is too sad generally.
I’ve many times felt that the number of problems the Pearsons face in their lives seems to stretch belief. They seem like good people, who sought to make the best of the tragic circumstances of their lives, and sometimes it feels like they can’t catch a break. For example, Randall is already suffering from heightened anxiety when an intruder breaks into his family home. Kevin finally decides he wants to commit to a woman while dating Beth’s cousin, and she announces she doesn’t desire parenthood like he does. Kate suffers a miscarriage and fertility issues, finally gets pregnant, and delivers a premature baby who faces a number of health challenges, including being blind. And the problems only seem to be mounting this season. But I’m beginning to wonder if the introduction of all these struggles is to showcase the myriad ways that loss can be a defining moment in our lives.
Loss and grief are facts of life for everyone. Jack’s death was the hinge that the Pearson family life swings on—life before Jack and after Jack. But each of us will have a moment (or maybe several) that our lives will hinge on—life before that loss and after it.
Fictional stories like the Pearsons’ can help individuals understand and name emotions they may be experiencing in the face of grief. In fact, according to an NPR report, “Experts say there is also a catharsis in watching someone struggle with feelings you are having.”
As Sheryl Sandberg wrote in her book about grief, Option B, “We plant the seeds of resilience in the ways we process negative events.” There are lots of ways to process grief—everyone will take and need a different approach. But the first step toward processing negative emotions is acknowledging they are there—which is not as simple as it sounds.
When I sat down to watch the opening episode of season five, I didn’t realize that I was half holding my breath wondering if the decision to cover COVID-19 and the nation’s reckoning with racial injustice in 2020 would bring me down more than it uplifted me. Instead, I found myself chuckling as Kevin and Madison sorted out that they wouldn’t be breaking social distancing norms if they just quarantined together, and Kate demanded they step more than six feet back with masks on before she opened her door to greet them outside. I was relieved when Kevin had to move Madison’s mask below her mouth during a doctor’s appointment in order to pick up her facial expressions during a conversation (a loss I have felt deeply in the masked up world we operate in now). I found myself even more understanding of how Kate’s well-meaning request to Randall, “Where can I donate or help the cause?” felt like a burden as he was processing his own anxiety and sadness as a black man watching the unrest our nation experienced over the summer of 2020.
But then Beth (arguably my favorite character of the show) closed the episode with a perfectly delivered pep talk that was directed at Randall, but I believe was actually directed at all us viewers. In fact, until Beth Pearson spoke, I didn’t realize how much I had resigned to living life indefinitely with the low-grade sadness many of us developed last year and how incomplete my own grief of 2020 may be. She said:
When my dad was dying, I remember he said that “it’s the tragedies that define our lives. They are the fence posts on which the rest of our lives hang, baby girl.” I always think about that, like our lives just hang there between these really sad fence posts. Baby, you were born out of tragedy. Multiple tragedies. All that loss, all that sadness, and look what you hung on your fence posts. Look right in front of you, right here in this room. Look at what you did with all of that.
As Beth directs Randall’s attention to their daughters smiling and laughing in front of them, she continues on:
“You are a beautiful resilient man. The world is a brilliant, resilient place. We fight on. Darkness before dawn and all that.”
They make a joke together and she concludes:
“This pain is not forever. This moment in time is not forever. Nothing is forever. Except us. We fight on.”
Resilience. Fighting on. The fact that dawn will come after this darkness. I hadn’t thought of so many of those things in so long. So much of 2020 was spent simply surviving and adapting to the rapid changes of our world; it was easy to lose sight of the resilience we displayed in order to survive and adapt like we did.
In my idealizing life before 2020 I lost sight of the fact that some changes brought on by this year can actually be considered good changes. For example, I hope special shopping hours for the elderly and medically vulnerable becomes a new norm in all grocery stores. For some professions, some sort of flexibility to at least work from home more often could help our society get closer to that work/life balance we’re constantly wrestling with. And more awareness, conversation, and exploration of change can’t be a bad thing when it comes to building more bridges for racial equality. As it turns out, not everything about life before 2020 was just right.
No matter what grief we experience (in 2020, or from losses before or after it), hopefully we’ll take a cue from our fictional friends the Pearsons, and know that while our loss may be catastrophically life altering, our decision to lean into the grief will show us the depth of strength that can be found in ourselves, in those around us, and in the relationships we choose to let define us.
We may at times cling too tightly to our grief, failing to see clearly through it. We might let go of it too quickly, failing to learn from it what we’re meant to learn for our betterment.
But all of our lives are part of a cycle—the cycle of light following darkness; grief and joy intertwined; being caught off guard by loss but choosing to fight on. It’s an outrageously beautiful story indeed, this story of our humanity, and we are stronger than we know.