In the penultimate episode of This Is Us’ first season, Jack’s actions and Kate’s big reveal had us all preparing for the worst. Having said goodbye to William in “Memphis,” it looked as though we were about to learn the truth about Jack’s death, and I, for one, was tricked into believing it would be the result of a horrific drunken accident en route to see Rebecca perform. But series creator Dan Fogelman allows the season finale, “Moonshadow,” to go out on a relatively calm and contemplative note, one that strongly mirrors the Big Three’s moments of self-reflection in the pilot. This Is Us has come full circle.
“Moonshadow” focuses entirely on Jack and Rebecca—who they were prior to meeting one another, and how they grew together (and subsequently apart) over sixteen years of marriage. After returning from Vietnam, Jack struggles to find full-time employment and suffocates under the tyranny of his father, not to his mother’s defenselessness. He’ll take on any odd job he can get, even if it means letting well-meaning grannies to set him up with their friends’ granddaughters. He’s dedicated his life to being everything his father isn’t—respectful of women, honest and hard-working—but despite being the good guy, he has little to show for it. He’s in need of purpose. Though he’s working towards his dream of owning a car body-shop with his buddy Darryl, the peanuts he scrapes together on a daily basis don’t get him anywhere—and when he finally decides to channel his inner bad boy and steal a wad of Happy Hour tips from the cash register of his local watering hole, it’s Rebecca’s rendition of “Moonshadow” that stops him from going through with it. She literally changes the course of his life.
Rebecca, determined to make her big break as a musician, is the black sheep of her group of soon-to-be-married friends, all of whom are delighted to devote their lives to being full-time housewives. Her girlfriends—whose mentalities and fashions seem to hail straight from Hart of Dixie’s Bluebell, Alabama—are making important life decisions, such as whether to serve filet mignon or lobster at the wedding reception, and they can’t possibly understand how Rebecca isn’t falling apart without a boyfriend or a “real” career to speak of. The scene is infuriatingly accurate: Many a writer, artist or musician is familiar with the pitying, ridiculing looks Rebecca’s friends give her, incapable of opening their minds to the possibility of pursuing their dreams, no matter how difficult. They also happen to be the type of women who depend on men for their happiness—because, really, what’s a woman’s worth without a husband and kids?
Jack knows how hard Rebecca had to work to be taken seriously as a singer, which makes his attitude toward her career later on all the more hurtful. Although he’s done his utmost to be supportive of her, he seems to have forgotten that Rebecca is not just a mother and a wife, but also her own person—and that part of her has gotten lost along the way. Amidst triple diaper changes, tantrums and, later, teen dramas, she has become a ghost of her former self. While Jack, in part, understands this, he can’t help but to feel insulted by, and insecure about, the fact that his wife could possibly need more than him and the kids—because to him, Rebecca and the kids are everything. He really couldn’t wish for more. Rebecca was “his big break”: the one he feels she’s still looking for.
Jack’s drunken attempts at reconciling with Rebecca before the show turn into a spectacle when he finds out that Ben, the very man Jack blames for setting him down the road of extreme insecurities, tried to kiss his wife—just as Jack had predicted. But even though punches are thrown, blood spills and threats are made to call the cops, the real gut-wrenching moment happens between Jack and Rebecca in the privacy of their own home. Rebecca, torn between her responsibility to her family and wanting to spend her evenings realizing her dreams— even though she feels “like a mom playing dress-up”—sees no other choice but to pack up and drive her husband home. And Jack’s thanks to her is telling her that her singing covers in bars as a forty-year-old woman is not a career.
The fight that ensues between Rebecca and Jack is the episode’s strongest scene. All the bottled-up resentment that’s accumulated over the years comes spilling out in a whirlwind of fury; the camera perfectly captures their body language as it mimics their inner frustration and disappointment. Not only does the argument highlight their opposing characters—Jack’s quietly brooding and subtly condescending tendencies, Rebecca’s headstrong and uninhibited emotional expression—it also manifests just how desperate they are to break out of the claustrophobic head space they’ve landed themselves in. No matter how much Rebecca raises her voice and confronts him with flailing arms, Jack cannot hear her; Rebecca no longer wants to hear Jack and the excuses he links back to his childhood traumas.
The episode closes with a (hopefully) temporary end to Jack and Rebecca’s great love story, and the new beginnings that await the Big Three in This Is Us’ second season: Inspired to pursue her dream in honor of her mother, Kate decides to take up singing; Randall, in a fit of nostalgia, brings up the idea of adopting a child with Beth; Kevin is about to risk his relationship with Sophie once again by taking a meeting with a director in L.A. “Moonshadow” may have been somewhat anti-climactic as far as season finales go, but this seems to be part of a formula that works incredibly well for This Is Us. It has found a natural rhythm that follows up deeply dramatic and heart-stirring episodes with one or two episodes that allow its viewers respite from all the Tuesday evenings spent crying over stellar characters and story arcs, keeping intact the special touch that reaches through the screen and straight for our hearts.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.