This is Me Crying Watching 'This Is Us'
This article contains a few spoilers for season one and two.
A devilish white circle appears in the bottom right of my screen, begging me to press play on the next episode. It counts down. I have less than ten seconds to decide if my heart can handle another 50 minutes of emotional trauma. I see my tear-stained face reflected in the black screen for a split second as the next episode loads. I panic, moving my mouse swiftly to the X button. The credits disappear. My mind feels numb, not yet ready to come back to the real world. I gently close my laptop screen, forcing my mind to untangle itself from a programme I know I will always return to.
This is Us (2016-, Amazon Prime) is a master manipulator, dragging your brain to its darkest depths until you cannot handle it any longer. The plots centres around the Pearsons and pulls at our heartstrings by mercilessly ripping apart and steadily rebuilding the family, meandering between the past, present and (albeit more rarely) the future.
Pennsylvania born and raised, triplets Kate, Kevin and Randall make their bumpy way through life, while we watch. Appearing only in the past, Jack, the triplets’ father, is the glue that holds the weaving storylines together. Unbeknownst (or not) to his family, he leaves a lasting imprint on their lives. He is partly responsible for Kevin’s addiction issues and also the cause for Randall’s decision to foster children. Popping up all over his children’s lives, he makes ripples and waves from beyond the grave. No, he is not a ghost. He does not haunt his loved ones from the spirit realm beyond. But his passing has left a void, a void that none of the characters can seem to fill. Jack’s impact on the people in his life is felt deeply by them and us, and this makes the build up to his death that much more terrifying for the viewer.
The narrative is delicately positioned to surround Jack’s death on both sides: flashbacks are used to show the before, and the aftermath, but not the event itself. It becomes a subtle game of spectatorial eye-spy: what can we spot in the triplets’ childhood that is going to resurface when they are adults? It’s a way of making us work for the answers; nothing is given up easily. The flashbacks also work to pace the story, concealing the truth for longer by converging the narratives of multiple characters over two time settings. The writers keep a deadly secret from us, stringing us along, and ensuring that we are maximally invested before hitting us with the real bombshell.
Kate, Jack’s only daughter, serves to remind us that something awful is going to happen to him. Every appearance of Jack and Kate together is tainted, the interweaving of past and present undercuts each moment with the fear of knowing that eventually Kate will be confronted with Jack’s passing. Deciding whether or not to press play becomes deciding whether you can submit yourself to this inevitable future: of Jack and Kate being ripped apart.
The show works hard, inflicting intentional pain onto us, as we imagine every possible future under the sun for the Pearsons. Just like the characters themselves, we too become unable to let go of Jack. Every image of him hurts, as we anticipate the worst, our hurt mirroring their hurt, forging a uniquely empathetic and emotive link between character and spectator.
It’s exhausting, each episode toying with our brains like a Rubix cube you can’t solve until the writers let you. But, this is exactly what keeps us coming back. We are desperate to uncover what actually happens to Jack and finally be able to smugly proclaim “I knew it!”.
It’s not easy-going though, and constantly being tricked takes its toll. We experience the intense adrenaline and fear that builds up to grief but are deprived of any catharsis. This is Us becomes more than just a show, it becomes an emotional experience with no guarantee of respite. Nor is it passive viewing, where you can switch off or zone out. To press play is to make a choice, a choice to engage your brain, in full knowledge of the pain it will inflict.
So if you think you’re ready, grab your tissues and buckle up.
As an introvert doing a drama degree, Sally is always overanalysing TV and Film, unable to escape her semiotics module. She has a vested interest in YouTube, from travel vlogs to cooking channels to Minecraft “Let’s Plays”, she’s got you covered. Sally finds time for herself through yoga and kayaking. She can otherwise be found with her nose in a book about feminism or ecology, hoping one day to become a writer or playwright too.