“This is Us” incorporated “Dynasty’s” infamous 1985 wedding-massacre cliffhanger into its wedding-episode season finale, which exhibits both a sense of humor and an element of TV savvy. But then the show delivered another pair of pull-the-rug-out surprises, less paving the way for its final season than reinforcing the sense that it’s probably time to go.
The fifth season’s closing chapter had built toward the wedding of Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Madison (Caitlin Thompson), in a slightly awkward union that has followed the birth of their twins. Yet Kevin’s response to a marriage quiz in the penultimate hour reinforced Madison’s fears that his heart might not really be in it, leading to a confrontation that seemed inevitable as the hour wore on.
“I can’t marry someone who’s not in love with me,” Madison finally announced, after Kevin proved unable to utter those three little words.
“Couldn’t say it to her,” he admitted to his family, after the whole thing had been called off. “Couldn’t lie to her.”
As is so often the case with this Emmy-nominated NBC drama, though, wait, there’s more. The story then leaped several years ahead, to another wedding, this time involving Kevin’s sister Kate (Chrissy Metz), who has been going through her own real-time crisis regarding her current husband Toby (Chris Sullivan).
Alas, those two plots — which have taken center stage through parts of the season — rank among the less interesting that the show has conjured in this complicated year, which saw series creator Dan Fogelman and his team incorporate the coronavirus pandemic into its storylines. They reflect the show’s efforts to conjure twists as it jumps back and forth in time, a gimmick that has perhaps unavoidably begun to yield diminishing returns.
The real highlights of the finale were smaller in scale, but in the show’s dense narrative, no less significant. Rebecca (Mandy Moore) tearfully apologized to her son Randall (Sterling K. Brown) for concealing information about his birth parents, after the most recent leg of his personal journey brought him information about his biological mother.
“I’ve let you let me off the hook far too many times,” she said.
Elsewhere, Randall’s wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) engaged in a sweet exchange with their daughter Tess (Eris Baker), after the strain placed on their relationship since Tess came out as a lesbian and began dating a nonbinary classmate.
Those sequences represent the beautifully played, tear-evoking exchanges for which the show is renowned — and that tend to be overshadowed by more swing-for-the-fences flourishes, like Kevin being left at the altar.
Some stunts never go out of style, and it’s worth noting the VCR argument between Rebecca and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) likely wouldn’t have been an issue now, since that missed “Dynasty” episode would have been streaming somewhere the next day.
With its various hooks into the past, present and future, “This is Us” still has plenty of room to navigate in its sixth and final season. Yet while the Pearsons haven’t run out of problems, the season finale merely underscored why some viewers — including this one — welcome the idea of the show ending before they run out of patience.