Note: This article contains spoilers for the entirety of “This Is Us,” including Tuesday’s series finale.
Following the tried-and-true “This Is Us” formula, the last episode weaves together the present and the past. In the future, it’s Rebecca’s funeral and the Big Three — Randall, Kate and Kevin — say a final goodbye to the family’s near-mythical matriarch after she battled Alzheimer’s disease for years. But the tears don’t come in tidal waves. This farewell is reflective. Randall, the show’s crier-in-chief, struggles with the very meaning of life.
“It just all feels so pointless,” Randall tells his eldest daughter, Deja.
Back in the past, Jack has an explanation for his son. It’s the ’90s and the Pearsons have a rare lazy Saturday. The preteen Big Three approach the day with varying degrees of excitement: Kate wants to watch old home videos and just be together; Randall and Kevin are restless.
“That’s what we’re doing, just collecting these little moments,” Jack tells them. “We don’t recognize them when we’re in them because we’re too busy looking forward. But then we spend the rest of our lives looking back trying to remember them, trying to be back inside them.”
Taking in the sum of our experiences. That’s the sweet spot of “This Is Us” — and what makes the show both cathartic and comforting.
“It forces you to think about why we show up in the world the way we do,” explained filmmaker Codie Elaine Oliver, whose OWN series “Black Love” has featured “This Is Us” actor Sterling K. Brown.
In the end, this is a show about love, how we show up for one another and, most important, the ripple effect of our major decisions. It would be nearly impossible to map out all that the Pearsons have gone through. But here’s how their stories began in the pilot episode in 2016, and where they ended Tuesday night.
Rebecca and Jack
The show opens and closes with these two. In the very first scene, Rebecca (Mandy Moore) is heavily pregnant with triplets on Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) 36th birthday, and her water breaks. While she is in the throes of a difficult labor, Jack tells their concerned doctor, the godlike Dr. K, “We’re walking out of this hospital with three healthy babies and one healthy wife.” That happens, but not in the way they’d planned. One of the triplets is stillborn and that tragedy leads the Pearsons to take home another baby, later named Randall, who had been abandoned at a fire station that very day.
Jack and Rebecca’s love story — even after Jack’s sudden death in Season 2 — is the beating heart of the show. Together they weather Jack’s alcoholism, Rebecca’s brief stint as a lounge singer, and raising a Black son, a disaffected daughter and a self-absorbed jock. After Jack dies in his early 50s, Rebecca eventually falls for his best friend and later hers, Miguel. The unlikely pair spend their golden years together, and when she slowly slips away, Miguel becomes Rebecca’s devoted caregiver until his own death. Though Rebecca sees Miguel when she transitions to the afterlife, it is Jack who is there waiting for her at the end.
“Hey, babe, we did good,” he tells her as they head to the next adventure together. “You did so good.”
Randall and Beth
When we first meet Randall (Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), they are already an institution. Much like Rebecca and Jack, they are a pair with an easy intimacy — a power-couple archetype in line with the Cosbys or the Obamas. Randall is a hotshot corporate suit complete with a glass office and luxury car. Beth is the better half who takes no crap. “Oh my God, baby, you’re cracking up,” Beth tells Randall after he invites William (Ron Cephas Jones), his biological father, to their suburban dream home in the pilot. William, a recovering drug addict who is dying, eventually lives out his final months with Beth, Randall and their girls, Tess and Annie. After William dies, Beth and Randall buy the decrepit building he used to live in and adopt a teenager, Deja, who shares a special father-daughter bond with Randall.
For a while, it seems like Beth and Randall, who met in college, can do practically anything together. But when their career paths take yet another turn with Beth returning to the dance studio and Randall running for public office, their relationship finally hits what could be an impasse. “At any other point in our marriage, if you had decided that you wanted to go back to dance, I would have been nothing but supportive,” Randall tells her in Season 3. “Oh, so when would I have done that?” Beth snaps. “Between which of your anxiety attacks?” But they rallied, moving to Philadelphia together and making it work.
Flash-forward some 20 years and the pair are poised to actually be the next Obamas. Randall is a U.S. senator contemplating “deep-fried Oreos” at his mother’s funeral, which means he’s debating heading to the Iowa State Fair to appeal to potential voters. Beth, ever the ride or die, is on board. But the real bow around their family’s love story comes courtesy of their eldest daughter Deja, who is expecting her first child with Malik, the boy she fell in love with in high school. They’re having a son and naming him William.
“Your grandson is going to be named after a man I never met, but I know him because I know you. It’s not pointless,” Deja says.
Kate and Toby
“I had this whole dream life that I envisioned for myself. A real career. I would marry a man like Dad, I would be a mom like Mom, but look at me, Kev. It’s like I ate my dream life away,” Kate (Chrissy Metz) confesses to her brother in the series opener. The two are on the floor of her bathroom where Kate fell after trying to weigh herself, which leads her to a support group for overweight people and a man named Toby (Chris Sullivan). (There’s also an annoyingly thin woman who appears in the credits as “not-really-fat rich girl.”) Despite telling Toby that she doesn’t want to date a man of his size because she wants to focus, Kate is obviously smitten. But their first date is interrupted by Kevin, who is drunk and miserable after tanking his career during a live studio taping of his hit show “The Manny.”
Eventually, Kate will get the dream life she told her brother about. She marries Toby, falls in love with teaching music and goes back to school. They have a blind son named Jack (the Pearsons love family names) and adopt a daughter, Hailey. But not all comes up roses. Toby loses the weight and takes a high-power tech job in San Francisco while Kate stays behind in Los Angeles to care for the kids. The tension comes to a head in the final season.
“I am sorry that I like putting on a suit to go to work and Jack Pearson hated it. I’m sorry I don’t father my children exactly the way Jack Pearson did. I’m sorry that Jack Pearson died and you ended up having to marry me instead of him,” Toby tells Kate.
“It’s over, Toby. It’s time,” she responds.
In the end, what Kate told Toby the day of their divorce comes true: This is not how their story ends. Kate marries her co-worker, Phillip, and Toby also finds love. They transition into one of those divorced couples that cannot only be in the same room, but probably vacation together. At Rebecca’s funeral Toby tells Kate, “I love ya, kid,” and he means it.
Kevin and Sophie
Let’s be honest, Kevin’s (Justin Hartley) first big love was himself. When we meet him, he’s in the middle of a potential threesome at a Hollywood party, but instead of taking off his clothes, he goes on and on about how unfulfilled he is in life. That’s a theme with Kevin. The man is in search of something but doesn’t quite know what it is. During the course of the show, he’s had more than a few big loves: an actress; a playwright; Beth’s cousin, Zoe; Cassidy, a woman he met in Alcoholic Anonymous. Then there is Madison (Caitlin Thompson), the aforementioned “not-really-fat rich girl.” Madison becomes Kate’s close friend, and later, after a one-night stand with Kevin, the pair become parents of twins. Their relationship makes it all the way to their wedding day before Madison realizes that Kevin isn’t in love with her.
Because all roads led back to Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge), the girl Kevin fell in love with in elementary school. They got married in college and then divorced after Kevin cheated on her with a girl from his acting class in L.A. They reconnect briefly years later, and then break up again. In fact, Kevin showed up at Sophie’s mom’s funeral but, after finding out she was engaged, left and slept with Madison (hello, twins). Through all that drama, Kevin struggles with addiction, his acting career and his relationship with his family. It isn’t until he comes out on the other side of a lifelong battle with maturity that a newly divorced Sophie shows up again — this time at Kate’s wedding to Phillip — and Kevin is ready.
It’s Rebecca who ties it all together for the two. She encounters Sophie at the wedding and, in a fragile stage of her Alzheimer’s, offers some advice for the Sophie of 20 years before: “The timing is just off right now. He isn’t ready for you. He will be, but it’s going to take a while. … But when the timing is right, he’s going to be so great.”
In the end, Kevin does turn out pretty great. He and Sophie get married and move to the cabin to take care of Rebecca in her final decade.