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'This Is Us' recap: We finally learn how Jack dies — and it's not exactly what we expected

For The Baltimore Sun

Quick show of hands: How many of y’all asked for bereavement leave from your bosses today after Sunday night’s Super Bowl episode of “This Is Us”? How many wanted to?

Yeah, me too, my friends.

Yet, here I am. I admit after watching last night’s bombshell of an episode, I sat here staring at television for approximately 28 minutes, thinking how much I did NOT want to write this recap.

But time, tide, and Jack Pearson’s death wait for no woman, so here we are.

Spoiler alert, etc. Now buckle up, buttercups. It is most definitely a bumpy ride from here on out.

Back in the Day...

We start right where we left off. Jack wakes up in bed and reaches for a glass of water, but realizes something’s off. He sees a puff of smoke billow into the room through the crack between the top of the door and the doorjamb. He opens the door to a raging inferno and …

Whoa, let’s stop right there, with the first of the Jack Pearson Memorial Fire Safety Rules: DO NOT EVER open a door under these circumstances without feeling the doorknob and the wood for heat! Didn’t we learn all this in second grade?

Jack wakes up Rebecca and, reassured by his wife that Kevin is definitely not in the basement, goes to get his two remaining kids. First, he escorts Randall down the fire-engulfed hallway, keeping low (good job!). In the master bedroom, Jack tells Randall to force his mom out the window if he’s not back soon, then takes off for Kate’s bedroom.

But the fire’s getting worse. Draping a wet towel over Kate, he grabs the mattress. Using it like a shield, and ignoring his burning hands, he gets them both back to the master bedroom. There, they climb out onto the overhang on top of the porch and use a twisted bedsheet to get down on the ground.

Except Jack takes one look at Kate’s face as she weeps for Louie the dog, whose frantic barks we can hear over the roaring inferno, and he goes back inside the house.

JPMSR #2: Once you are safely outside the house, DO NOT GO BACK IN FOR ANY REASON WHATSOEVER, GOOD LORD, JACK.

There’s a horrible minute where we’re all convinced this is it. This is how Jack goes out. Saving the damn dog.

Nope. As the bedroom window they just climbed out of explodes in flames, Jack stumbles out the front door, dog and pillowcase of Pearson family treasures in hand.

In the ambulance, Jack and Rebecca agree to drop the kids off at Miguel’s first, then go to the hospital.

JPMSR #3: No. Straight to the hospital. If you sucked down smoke, GO TO THE ER. We all saw that episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”!

At the hospital, the doctor wants to keep Jack for observation. Given how much smoke he inhaled, though, Jack is surprisingly OK. He has second-degree burns on his hands, but he’s cracking jokes.

Reassured by this Jack-ness, Rebecca goes to make a few phone calls — they’ll need hotel rooms, and they still haven’t located Kevin, who ran off to a party in the woods with Sophie, apparently — and grab a snack.

As she makes her phone calls, there’s an alarm, a “code blue” is called, and the camera focuses on a sudden rush of activity behind her. Rebecca is heartbreakingly oblivious to all this as she tells Kate on the phone that she and Jack will be there soon.

She finishes her phone calls and gets a candy bar from a nearly empty vending machine.

The doctor approaches her and asks her to sit down.

He tells her Jack inhaled so much smoke that it put a tremendous burden on his lungs and his heart, and he had a heart attack. It was catastrophic, he says.

He’s dead, he says.

Rebecca takes a bite of her candy bar. She’s confused. How can this doctor be so wrong? They were just there for a burn on Jack’s arm. Doesn’t the doctor remember talking to them just a few minutes ago? Is he out of his mind? CAN HE BACK UP AND JUST … NOT, PLEASE?

She walks to Jack’s room starting to tell her husband about what the crazy doctor just said.

She’s brought up short at the door.

We see Jack’s body reflected in the glass of the door, and the camera stays tight on Mandy Moore’s face as she goes through all five stages of grief in a rapid, never-ending cycle, sliding down the door in disbelief and anguish and denial — and just give her all the awards, right now.

Rebecca knows she has to be strong for her kids. Outside Miguel’s house, she tells him that his best friend is dead. He begins to fall apart, but Rebecca stops him. She has to go inside and ruin her kids’ lives so if he can’t stay strong with her, he needs to go walk around the block or something.

There’s no sound as we watch her tell Kate and Randall that their father is dead, and frankly, I’m grateful, because right now I feel like I just lost about six layers of skin, myself. Raw. I am raw.

… Present Day …

The Pearsons have their own individual traditions for dealing with this day. And this particular iteration of this day is the 20th anniversary, so it’s a big one.

Kate is watching her audition tape for Berklee, the one Jack took of her surreptitiously, which he rescued in the fire. Toby is in Supportive Fiance mode, so when the VCR begins making awful noises and Kate begins to panic, he is On It. He rescues the tape and promises to take it to a guy he knows who can fix it.

Kevin and Rebecca are still finding their way back to each other after the rehab confrontation a few episodes ago. She asks him what he usually does on Super Bowl Sunday. He confesses he gets blindingly inebriated and sleeps with the hottest model who will have him. And his mom? “Same,” she says, and it’s a much needed moment of levity. (Relish it. There won’t be many more this hour.)

No, really, Miguel gives her some space, she says, and she makes Jack’s favorite lasagna and eats some, then waits for Jack to send her a laugh. He always does, she says.

What will Kevin do now that he’s sober? He tries whitening his teeth, meditating, and looking at old handmade cards.

And Randall? He’s wearing his “hot dad” apron and making a ton of food for a Super Bowl party for 20 little girls (friends of his daughters) who, Beth points out, do not even understand the game. She knows it’s a big day for him and she’s worried.

No need, Beth, because “Kate wallows, Kevin avoids,” and Randall celebrates. That’s just “how Randall rolls.”

In a living room full of little girls and their parents, Annie announces that Mr. McGiggles, her new tiny pet lizard, is missing. The girls scream, but Randall gets them to calm down and look quietly for the lizard.

While this is going on, Beth goes into the kitchen to answer the telephone … and steps on something crunchy. “Oh, snap,” she says. She goes to let Randall know quietly about Mr. McGiggles’ untimely demise — “he ain’t giggling now” — and it looks like a lizard memorial service just got added to the day’s agenda.

As Randall tries to eulogize a “rock solid lizard” that they only got the day before, and explain sudden loss to these girls in an age-appropriate way, he struggles with memories of his own father’s loss. “It hurts … differently,” he acknowledges, then tries for an analogy to a toothache pain that changed from a dull ache to “like a lightning bolt, you can’t even see reaching inside of you and …”

Before he can really go off the rails, Beth saves him with a “it’s sad and we’re gonna miss him, now who wants to watch PUPPY BOWL?”

God bless Beth.

Meanwhile, Toby’s guy is fixing the tape and digitizing it, but Kate doesn’t want it “on the cloud.” Toby changes tack: Why don’t they go home and make new videos, new memories?

Kate tells him to stop. Her dad died because in their worst moment, he didn’t want to disappoint her, so if she wants to sit in this and be angry at herself for a day, Toby needs to let her.

Still, she’s thrilled that Toby’s guy fixed the tape AND digitized it, so yay! She tells Toby that he not only changed her life, but he also saved it, and “God, he would have loved you.”

Kevin decides to stop avoiding his dad. For the first time since his dad’s funeral, he goes to the tree — the one Randall took William to in last season’s “Memphis” episode — and he talks to his father.

He admits he’s not doing nearly as well as he knows Jack would have wanted. He’s had a horrible couple of decades, in fact, and he’s not nearly the man Jack was.

But he’s going to do better. He’s going to make Jack proud of him again.

He calls his mom. No, she hasn’t gotten her laugh from Jack yet. Kevin tells his mom that he just had a talk with his dad at the tree, and it really helped. She’s genuinely happy for her son. Then he says to be honest, he’s not sure he’s at the right tree. She dissolves into laughter.

There it is. This year, Jack sent her Kevin.

And we’ll end with Randall and his family. Tess fled the Puppy Bowl, so Randall goes to check on her. She finally admits what’s bugging her: Randall found William, then Deja, then a new job … it’s like he doesn’t want anything to do with her anymore.

Randall steps fully into his legacy as Son of Jack Pearson, Best Father Ever, as he tells his first-born that she is the reason his world turns. When she was born, he realized he had nothing to worry about in becoming a father because of how much he loved her. It was a lock. So even if they get a new foster kid tomorrow, he tells her — as Beth answers the phone — she will live with him until she’s 25, and when she moves out finally he’ll come see her in her fancy office to have dinner every week so she can tell him everything.

And Beth says to whoever is on the door “Do you need us to come get you? … wait, you’re here?” — and she opens the door to see Deja. Little Tess looks on as her parents talk to Deja quietly on the couch. And she smiles.

And then...

… and Future Days?

Say what, now?! This show just pulled a Season 3 “Lost” on us, y’all!

So, in previous episodes, we’ve seen this little boy, Jordan, sitting with a kind social worker lady who keeps promising him that she’ll find him a foster family. In this episode, we see Jordan and the kind social worker lady, who tells him they found a family for him!

And you KNOW that she is talking about Beth and Randall, right? Randall is finally going to get the little boy in his home he wanted to mentor and parent, the way Jack did for him!

PSYCH. No. The social worker introduces Jordan to his new foster parents, who are a random couple we’ve never met. And they look awesome and kind and very excited to meet Jordan, so I’m sure everything will work out just great for him BUT THE IMPORTANT PART IS THIS:

The social worker is TESS, all grown up! And remember Kevin’s prediction about “old man Randall” last week? He is THERE, in her not-so-fancy office, so that they can share a meal and she can tell him All The Things, just like he promised her when she was young. (You know, two minutes ago.)

And I do not mind telling you that this moment right here was when your humble recapper lost it completely. I got teary over Jack on a few occasions, but this was when the sniffs turned to sobs.

I honestly feel a little emotionally mugged by this show right now.

Next episode

We have NO time to recover, y’all. The next episode airs in its usual time slot Tuesday night. And we’ll apparently see Jack’s funeral and an earlier road trip …

And Dr. K!

Yep: the kindly older doctor who delivered the triplets and brought Randall into Jack and Rebecca’s lives is not only not-dead, but apparently he makes an appearance at Jack’s funeral, and if you thought I lost it at grown-up Tess, ask my daughter how much I openly wept when I heard Dr. K say “Hello, Rebecca.”

Fun(ish) Twitter Facts

Early ratings figures indicate a pretty stunning success. Well done, show.

You’ll have to allow me a small moment of pride: I called it.

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