Warning: Do not proceed if you have not watched Tuesday's episode of This Is Us. You are entering major spoiler territory.
What if Jack didn't die?
That's the question at the center of Tuesday's penultimate episode of the season on This Is Us, titled "After the Fire," and one that produces some very complicated answers. In one of the series' most creative episodes, the hour explores two of the many possible paths the Pearsons could have gone down had Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) not perished from a widowmaker's heart attack soon after the house fire. As it becomes clear, the grass isn't always greener on the other side.
Consumed by decades of guilt (some self-imposed), Randall (Sterling K. Brown) initially goes into his therapy session with Dr. Leigh (Better Things' Pamela Adlon) with the intention of airing out his frustrations over his mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), choosing to skip the Alzheimer's clinical trial. But instead, spends most of the session rehashing what-could-have-beens with Jack. So, let's go down the what-if trail with Randall...
In Hypothetical World No. 1, had Jack heeded Randall's orders the night of the house fire and not gone in to save Kate's dog, Louis, Randall believes -- however naive or rose-colored -- that everything would have worked out perfectly fine. Like, everything would have worked out, even things and situations he can't ultimately control.
From finding out the truth from Rebecca about his birth father to immediately finding William, getting him clean, his parents' marriage thriving, being married to Beth and having the same daughters, curing William's stomach cancer, getting Jack to deal with his alcohol addiction and having both his dads at his engagement party. In Randall's mind, life would have been so sickeningly perfect that any troubles or conflicts that surfaced would be solved or resolved in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, that's not how the real world works.
When Dr. Leigh calls Randall out on the fact that he believes the best-case scenarios would have played out if he had control over every situation, he stands firm. "That's what I think would've happened," he states matter-of-factly. That gives Dr. Leigh pause, as he's not digging deep enough to get to the root of the problem. "We can either play games or you can be honest, your choice," she says, presenting him with an ultimatum, which leads us to...
Hypothetical World No. 2, where Randall spells out his greatest fears if Jack was still alive after the house fire, and the picture he paints is a lot more damning. After Rebecca comes clean to Jack about meeting Randall's birth father behind his back, everything goes horribly awry. Jack and Rebecca's marriage becomes strained, William denies he has a son, a tense family dinner forces Randall to leave early to return to school after it becomes unwittingly clear that he isn't ready to forgive Rebecca for her betrayal.
As a result, Randall isn't the one getting engaged -- it's Kevin and Sophie's engagement party -- and the brothers' bond is lukewarm at best. Randall and Kevin (Justin Hartley) have essentially switched places with Randall, now a professor at a university, failing to have anything beyond hookups (with his T.A.s!) and Kevin the successful developer working alongside his dad. After William dies from stomach cancer, Randall receives a box of mementos, including his signature fedora and newspaper clippings. Instead of keeping the memories, he dumps them in a trash can as he leaves his office without a second thought. Brutal.
Later, Jack calls Randall begging him to come home for Thanksgiving and asking him to forgive Rebecca for keeping the truth about William from him for much of his formative youth. When Randall bristles at the idea of coming home, Jack reveals to Randall that she's "not well" and that her memory is starting to go.
While the exercise in the what ifs created interesting snapshots into what the Pearson family may have looked like, the point of the matter is, every moment after the house fire, including Jack dying unceremoniously at the hospital that night, could have gone "a million different ways." For Randall, this exercise distilled everything down to one fact: It would have made a difference in how he processed Jack's death if he knew he did everything he could to save his father. And that, ultimately, is why he can't fathom letting go of the Alzheimer's clinical trial with his mother that he believes could save her life. (We know where Kevin stands on this issue.)
So much so that Randall calls Rebecca up, behind Kevin (and frankly, Kate's) back, and gives her an ultimatum. She may have decided in New York City that she didn't want to go through with the clinical trial, but that doesn't matter. She has to do it because Randall "doesn't want to be in therapy 20 years from now wishing I had pushed harder or done more because maybe if I had, you would still be alive. I can't live with that, even if you can," he says without fail, emphasizing that he can't bear losing her after already losing his other parents. "I will do anything to keep that from happening. I'll do whatever it takes."
And so he does. And Rebecca, after understanding the magnitude of this decision, reluctantly agrees to do the clinical trial. "OK...," she says over the phone. "I will go to St. Louis and I will do the trial." Kevin and Randall's relationship has already splintered, and this is surely going to destroy whatever connection they have left.
Hartley warned earlier this year that Kevin and Randall's big fight was deeper than a superficial argument and he was 100 percent right. It's unclear how the repercussions of this will play out in the immediate aftermath, though we know things get worse between the two before they, fingers crossed, get better.
"It's big. No, it's big, big," Hartley told ET in February in previewing this episode. "It's more than a misunderstanding. I think it's a philosophy. It's like, 'This is how you handle your life and this is how you deal with things and this is what you think. I go about my business a different way,' and they just can't [see eye to eye]."
"This one's for real," the 43-year-old actor expressed. "This is not like we're going to argue about something. This is two men, two brothers each taking a stand that suggests that if they don't bend, the other one will not be in their life. I mean, it is a big deal. It just gives them... it's a big deal."
The season four finale of This Is Us airs Tuesday, March 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
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