(SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Train,” the May 17 episode of “This Is Us.”)
The end is very near. During Tuesday’s penultimate episode of NBC’s “This Is Us,” the Pearson family gathered to see Rebecca (Mandy Moore) one last time on her deathbed. During the hour, as the family each said their goodbyes, Rebecca, in her dreams, saw Randall’s biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones). He walked her through the train — hence the episode title — which included those in her life she loved the most as she could hear their goodbye messages. Even Dr. K (Gerald McRaney) was on board, making her a vesper martini. William guided her to the caboose of the train, which represented the end of her life, where she reunited with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) in the afterlife.
While many viewers may have been surprised to see Rebecca die in the penultimate and not the finale, creator Dan Fogelman says that will be understood once they see the last episode.
“To me, the show has been about many things and a lot of people can lock on to different elements of the show. They have favorite characters, they have favorite issues we explore, the dynamics we explore,” he tells Variety. “When I zoom out, I’ve always thought that the show was a lot about the loss of a parent and eventually losing parents. And so that isn’t just about the moment of loss, it’s about which comes after.”
For Fogelman, he felt it was important for next week’s series finale to be about more than loss.
“So much attention that was put on ‘How does Jack die?’ early on. How Jack dies and the big episode where, in fact, he does die. But so much of our series is about what happens after. And I always wanted and always had planned for the final episode of the series to revolve around the epilogue of the continuing story of the family rather than the moment,” the showrunner says. “It felt important to me to go out making the show about how the human condition and the human spirit kind of endures and moves forward, rather than just a moment that would have everybody hysterically crying because somebody passes at the end.”
The penultimate episode also featured a completely separate story, showing a family getting into a car accident that left the youngest child, Marcus, with a permanent leg injury. Moments before the episode ended, it was revealed how the family was connected to the Pearsons: The accident took place the same night as Jack died. As Jack got coffee at the hospital — when everyone thought he’d be OK — he met the father that was driving the car, who, at the time, was not sure if his son would make it.
Jack told the man something he learned — and the audience learned in the pilot episode of “This Is Us” — from Dr. K: how to take “the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turn it into something resembling lemonade.”
It was a message the man shared with his family, because in flash forwards, Marcus, his brother and sister laughed about it. As it happens, the doctor who was tending to Jack thought he was OK and went upstairs to help young Marcus, who needed saving. While he was gone, Jack died, and Marcus survived. In the future, Marcus becomes Dr. Marcus Brooks, who has developed drugs targeting Alzheimer’s disease — the disease that took Rebecca’s life.
Moore, for her part, tells Variety she “felt a tremendous amount of responsibility” about telling the story of someone battling the disease that affects so many.
“This poor woman who lost a child, who lost a spouse, then finds herself at this juncture of her life in cognitive decline, with a degenerative brain disease. It’s just very, very sad. But I also feel buoyed by the fact that we’re able to represent this situation that millions of people find themselves and their families in and for people to feel a sense of community and not feel like an anomaly and hopefully feel a little less alone,” she says. “The way that we were able to model this family caregiving situation, it’s an important conversation and I don’t think that it’s one that’s had enough. In that sense, I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s another legacy that hopefully our show will be remembered for.’”
Moore also found the importance in talking about aging and death, knowing that it is coming no matter how daunting the thought may be.
“It’s happening to all of us at all times. I know it’s a scary concept and I know we celebrate youth in our culture, but it’s an important conversation to have and done so well with our show. You’re able to see this isn’t just an 80-something woman who is finding herself in decline with Alzheimer’s. This is a woman who was a mother — a young mother and a young wife and a mother to teenagers and a mother to adults. We’ve seen so many different iterations and chapters. So I think it continued to humanize people at a point in which it’s difficult,” she tells Variety. “You see with Kevin and Randall at first, it’s really hard for them to look at their mom, to touch their mom anymore because they don’t recognize her. And it’s a really uncomfortable situation to be in. I love that our show continues to humanize and show this is still the same woman and she deserves to be celebrated and loved in the same way, even if maybe she’s not seemingly the same mother you have known your whole life.”
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