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.