The following contains full spoilers for This Is Us Season 6, which wrapped up on May 24 on NBC.
Tasked with wrapping up some of the show’s most emotionally charged stories, the final season of This Is Us — the non-linear NBC family melodrama — takes a winding and unconventional approach, but one that feels perfectly in tune with the series. The plot, essentially, concludes about two-thirds of the way through the final block of 18 episodes, paving the way for a fantastic run of focused, cathartic chapters that proved, week after week, why the show is so beloved. When things finally come to a close (in the quietly devastating series finale, simply titled “Us”), the result is as moving and satisfying as it is mysterious and poetic.
The season kicks off with flashbacks to the Challenger Disaster, the televised 1986 explosion of a NASA space shuttle. Pearson parents Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) have to navigate the wildly different reactions of their elementary school-aged children, Kevin, Kate, and Randall (played, in this timeline, by young actors Kaz Womack, Rose Landau, and Caron Coleman), in a self-contained, life-lessons style story typical of This Is Us, but it’s also a subtle roadmap to the rest of the season.
As shots of the pre-launch Challenger play on a classroom television, the siblings watch on with excitement, but we, the audience, know what’s about to happen. There’s little we can do — no character we can reach out to, hope as we might — as things hurtle towards disaster. Season 6 functions much the same way. Flash-forwards in prior seasons have shown us that, in the present, the already fraught long-distance marriage of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) — who got together in the pilot after meeting at a weight loss support group — won’t last much longer, and that Rebecca’s Alzheimer’s will get much, much worse in future episodes. The cards have been on the table for some time; these outcomes are inevitable, and there’s little we can do but prepare, as the show’s most vital facets are threatened. This Is Us has always been about love and memory, and the horrible idea that these things might be lost looms over the proceedings. The Pearson kids have already lost their father by the time the series starts, and the thought of losing another parent is almost too much to bear.
Of course, this doesn’t prevent This Is Us from remaining one of the funniest shows on television. All it means is that it needs to strike a more careful balance — which it does. Randall (Sterling K. Brown), the Pearson adoptee, has a particularly tough time coming to terms with his own adopted daughter Deja (Lyric Ross) trying to carve her own path and move in with her boyfriend Malik (Asante Blackk), a plot that unravels delicately for the teenage couple, and hilariously for the most high-strung of the “Big Three” siblings, as Randall wrestles between his discomfort — with the help of some vintage banter from his quick-witted wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) — and his desire to ensure Deja has a bright future. All the while, Randall is also forced to accept his helplessness to change his mother’s condition as it worsens.
The first hints of this arrive when the police finally track down the man who broke into his home in Season 4 (as the show wraps up, it brings back numerous threads from the past, all with distinct purpose). Randall, ever the fixer of everyone’s problems, shows up to court to make sure this man won’t harm anyone ever again (and that his own family can sleep safely), but this thief turns out to be little more than a former junkie with no memory of the event. It’s a deeply sympathetic scene, as is Randall’s on-the-fly adjustment of his plan, as he’s not only pushed to change his idea of what it means to help people (and pushed to accept that some things may be outside his control), but he’s also forced to stare his mother’s future in the face.
A character equally forced to prepare for the future is former Hollywood star Kevin (Justin Hartley), who finally comes into his own as a father and learns to take on the responsibilities of not only raising twins, but caring for an aging parent (he finally builds his mother the home Jack always meant to, as the wistful sounds of The Cinematic Orchestra’s “To Build A Home” return one last time to close the loop on this story). With his addictions finally under control, Kevin’s hurdles this season involve taking those final, terrifying steps to make amends, and to accept that his chronic singledom is a consequence of romantic idealizations. For a show that frequently adds a layer of gloss to romantic scenes, this ends up being a particularly poignant self-examination; This Is Us has always been a show where the idea of “family” is unconventional, and for Kevin, this means accepting his role as a co-parent with not only Madison (Caitlin Thompson), the mother of his children, but Madison’s new fiancé Elijah (Adam Korson), even if he rubs Kevin the wrong way through no fault of his own.
However, of all three Pearson siblings, the biggest challenge this season belongs to Kate, now a mother of two, raising them both (including a visually impaired son) in Los Angeles while Toby visits once a week from his job in San Francisco. Kate’s past, involving her abusive boyfriend — a thread explored vividly and viscerally in recent years — makes her especially vulnerable in this scenario, at least from a standpoint of fear and codependency. Toby is by no means abusive, but the couple can’t seem to stop their mutual frustrations from taking the form of barbs and personal jabs. At one point or another, they’re both at fault for the way things turn out, but the show’s masterstroke here is framing their divorce not as an inevitable tragedy, but an inevitable evolution of their relationship (they, too, end up better friends and co-parents than spouses, despite their grand love story). Their crumbling marriage is the glue that holds this season together, so when this plot point is wrapped up as early as Episode 12 (“Katoby”), it’s a bit of a surprise, especially as the rest of the show begins taking place several years in the future.
Despite numerous sets of flashback timelines (when the siblings are toddlers, tweens, and young adults, and even when Jack is a young boy), This Is Us has always been strongly rooted in the present. It isn’t some fantasy idea of the present either; the show is one of the very few to not only deal head-on with COVID-19, but with the massive upheaval in social consciousness caused by nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Season 5 saw characters frequently masked and separated by the pandemic, and it even featured an enormously charged, deeply cathartic thread of the Pearson family finally coming to terms with Randall’s identity as a Black man in a white family, and the parts of his experience they couldn’t previously put into words (the show has always been partially about Blackness navigating white America).
The siblings, having worked to mend their relationships last year, and having come to a deeper understanding of each other, begin Season 6 as better versions of themselves (or at least, versions of themselves with the potential to become better), but whatever problems they’re able to solve, the biggest ones that face them now don’t have solutions. After a series of four stellar episodes with differing perspectives on the trio’s childhood (anchored by Logan Shroyer, Hannah Zeile, and Niles Fitch as Kevin, Kate, and Randall as young adults on a bad day), the season’s final third unfolds about five, seven, and ten years into the future (the late 2020s and early 2030s). Kate is happily remarried, Kevin is more composed and philanthropic, and Randall is on his way to positions of political importance — but none of them can stop the march of time.
The 15th episode, “Miguel,” finally concludes the story of how Rebecca came to marry Jack’s best friend Miguel (Jon Huertas) years after his death, another subplot with a monumentally high bar, but one the series clears with aplomb. It’s an episode filled with flashbacks to Miguel’s childhood and his years in isolation, away from the Pearson family, but it also unfolds in a present (some years from now) where Miguel’s own health is waning as he tries his best to care for the ailing Rebecca. It’s a deeply moving chapter that sets the stage for the final few episodes, in which the Pearson siblings must prepare, against all odds, for their mother’s passing.
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In some ways, they’ve already lost Rebeca. Moore has spent years playing a dignified older version of the character, but her glassy-eyed expression through much of Season 6 proves difficult for the kids to accept. Since she’s also their living connection to the little family rituals of the past (Jack was always one for tradition), it feels like what little part they still have of their father is being lost as well. However, as they go on to learn, these little moments are things they’ll inevitably carry forward too, with their own kids, as they finally try and fill their parents’ enormous shoes.
In the penultimate episode — which plays particularly like the series finale of a more bombastic show, but This Is Us knows better than to end on some romanticized crescendo — two key elements from earlier in the series make a comeback. The first is the long-dead William (Ron Cephas Jones), Randall’s biological father. The show’s events kicked off when Randall first tracked William down, and he became a surprisingly large part of the Pearsons’ lives. This episode, “The Train,” is about the Pearsons gathering to say their goodbyes to Rebecca as she slips away; in her mind, she sees this process as walking through a train and revisiting people from her past. William’s return, in this imagined construct, is a warm and welcoming presence, as well as a testament to the way This Is Us has balanced Randall’s story as a man caught between his adopted and biological lineage. Perhaps this is some imagined version of the peace Randall hopes his mother will feel at the very end.
The second element the show brings back is a subtle one: an abstract, Jackson Pollock-esque painting which William points out to Rebecca aboard the train. First appearing in Season 1, it was painted by Kevin, and composed of many overlapping streaks of color; Kevin once compared the individual layers of this painting to people and experiences, which one could step back and observe as an overlapping collage of life itself. The “big picture,” so to speak.
This idea of the big picture bookends the entire season. When it begins, we know where things will end up to some degree (both for the Pearsons in the present, on their way to divorce and disease, and for the kids in the flashback as they eagerly await the Challenger launch). In the final episode, the trio is left to deal with their mother’s passing, and Randall in particular has trouble seeing beyond his mourning. The episode’s flashbacks (featuring the welcome return of Parker Bates, Mackenzie Hancsicsak, and Lonnie Chavis as tween Kevin, Kate, and Randall for the first time this season) don’t follow some grandiose event en route to one of Jack’s life lessons. Rather, they follow a simple, rainy day — an unremarkable day, and a pretty bad one for young Kevin and Randall — during which Jack, Rebecca, and Kate just want to play, and watch old home videos, which the boys readily reject.
Kevin and Randall are in that phase where they’re eager to grow up, and anything connecting them to their childhood — including having fun with their parents — feels like a burden. It’s deeply ironic, since we know what comes to pass, and we know that they may eventually grow to regret not having spent more time with Jack and Rebecca. We can see the big picture, even if they can’t, which makes this mundane scene of tweenaged sulking seem almost tragic (though it’s also undeniably sweet, as Jack teaches the boys to shave for the first time).
However, the comforting idea that This Is Us eventually offers is that even though we’re shackled by the present, and even though we may never be able to see the beauty of life’s dynamic portrait until we look back on it someday, there are moments when this idea of the big picture, of family, and of life as a connected fabric lived with other people, can be the most important, vibrant, inspiring, and comforting thing in the world, brought on by a mere awareness that what we’re painting will eventually become a complete and beautiful portrait. And so, when the show’s final montage begins unfolding (and Siddhartha Khosla’s thoughtful music tugs at the heartstrings one last time), and we see all the generations of the Pearson family, playing with their kids, and passing down memories and traditions, the big picture comes into view, if only for a moment.
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