In a special post-Super Bowl episode of NBC’s hit drama “This Is Us” (2016—), viewers were given an answer to the question they have been asking since the show’s premiere: how, and why, did Jack Pearson die? Warning: major spoilers ahead.
The series, which centers on the lives of the Pearson family shown through both flashbacks and present-day narratives, has built up to Jack’s death throughout its entire first two seasons. The show’s post-Super Bowl special episode was intentional and borderline emotional torture: Jack, the beloved patriarch of the Pearson family, died on Super Bowl Sunday — his favorite day of the year — 20 years prior.
Over the course of the series, the story of Jack’s death unfolds, as a hint about his cause of death is woven into almost every episode. Bit by bit, we learn that his death involved a tragic house fire caused by a faulty slow cooker; it happened when his kids were teenagers; and his daughter Kate sees herself as culpable in her father’s passing. Watching her reconcile this guilt is almost unbearable to watch. Even with all of these puzzle pieces, the full story of Jack’s death doesn’t come together until “Super Bowl Sunday,” the 14th episode of the show’s second season.
The episode opens with Jack waking up in the middle of the night to the sight of roaring flames and smoke engulfing the house he built himself two decades prior. In a moment packed with more emotional fervor than the series has ever showcased, he manages to rescue his family and get them out of the house safely. Once outside though, they hear a bark coming from inside the burning house. Realizing his daughter’s dog is trapped inside, Jack bolts back into his flaming abode to rescue it because, as an adult, Kate reveals through tears later in the episode, “he couldn’t bear” to disappoint her. Anybody else crying yet?
In the most anxiety-ridden 30 seconds of the show’s two-season run, we’re led to believe that Jack’s act of fatherly love burned him alive. Just when all hope is lost, he emerges from the house carrying the dog along with a box of family mementos, most importantly including the Berklee audition tape that he filmed for Kate, who watches the video every Super Bowl Sunday because she can see Jack in the background holding a video camera, gleaming at her with pride. Are you still not crying yet?
As much relief as this moment provided, all it does is delay the inevitable. We know that Jack is going to die; it’s been the major arc of the show thus far, and there’s no avoiding that fact. So the audience suffers through a few more minutes of agonizing anticipation until all the pieces of Jack’s demise come into place. He arrives at the local hospital to be treated for a first-degree burn, but by the end of the night, passes away by a widowmaker heart attack caused by smoke inhalation. Rebecca’s reaction to seeing the love of her life lie lifeless in the same hospital where she brought her children into the world 18 years prior is some of Mandy Moore’s best acting to date.
And with this, the mystery of Jack Pearson’s death is finally solved. Having him die of a heart attack — and not as a direct result of an act of love toward his daughter, or even by way of the alcoholism that plagued him throughout his entire adult life — was humanizing, understated and undramatized. It was the kind of ending his character deserved.
But even in an episode all about Jack’s death, it really isn’t much about Jack at all. We find out the cause of Jack’s death about halfway through the episode. The other, and perhaps more profound, half shows how the four remaining Pearsons have tackled their grief in the 20 years since Jack’s passing.
We learn that each family member has their own tradition for mourning the anniversary of their patriarch’s passing. Rebecca makes Jack’s favorite lasagna, watches the game and waits for Jack to send her a sign. Kate wallows in her self-guilt by watching the Berklee audition tape her father filmed for her. Kevin, a recovering addict like his father, usually drinks himself into oblivion, but spends this Super Bowl Sunday with his mom in New Jersey. Randall celebrates the day by throwing a massive Super Bowl party, this year for a bunch of his tween daughter’s friends who, relatably, couldn’t care less about sports.
By the end of the episode, each of their traditions reveal that, even 20 years after his passing, Jack continues to affect their outlooks on life, loss, family and love. Kevin and Rebecca are able to start on the path to a healthier relationship unhindered by guilt and regret. Kate realizes that her fiancé, Toby, was her saving grace in that he was the first man to believe in her the way her father used to. Randall comes to understand that he modeled his family and fatherhood in the image of the best father he ever knew: his own.
As moving as this all was, the most emotionally loaded scene was an understated shot of a splatter painting on Randall’s daughter Tess’s wall shown in the final minutes of the episode. The painting, as revealed early on in season one, was a gift to her from her Uncle Kevin, who used the painting and all of its vibrant, overlaying colors as a way to explain to her the circle of life. By focusing on this painting, the show references Kevin’s monologue from this earlier scene, which is especially fitting to the end of an episode centered on Jack’s death. He says:
“Life is full of color, and we each get to come along and we add our own color to the painting … I mean, it’s kind of beautiful, right, if you think about it, the fact that just because someone dies, just because you can’t see them or talk to them anymore, it doesn’t mean they’re not still in the painting. I think maybe that’s the point of the whole thing. There’s no dying. There’s no you, or me or them. It’s just us.”
Jack Pearson didn’t deserve the death he had, or to go as soon as he did. He deserved to watch his children grow up, to witness one last Steelers win at the Super Bowl and to grow old with his wife to whom he said, just minutes before his death, was “all he ever really needed.” (Okay, you really should be crying by now.)
Jack Pearson deserved to be in more of life’s painting, but he’s still in there somewhere watching, loving, wishing, hoping and mourning, along with the rest of us.
We’ll miss you, Jack.
“This Is Us” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.