By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 25, 2022 at 5:56 PM

And so that was that on "This Is Us" – and for a show famous for its emotional fireworks, the NBC family hit came to a surprisingly muted close. Not a bad one, mind you, but just one more subdued than expected. After six seasons of drastic heart-pulling that rivaled the Kali Ma sequence in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," for its final notes, "This Is Us" went with sweet modest hugs over dramatic teary heart-tugs. So, in its way, it was a perfect final move in classic "This Is Us" fashion: one last time zigging when you expected it to zag. 

I, on the other hand, will do exactly what you expect now: Let's break down the big final takeaways from the big final hour of "This Is Us" ... just as soon as I come up with one final low-key reference to the episode to transition into the bulletpoints. 

1. Last week was ... OK?

I have a confession to make: I didn't love last week's penultimate episode of "This Is Us." OK, that's not entirely true: I liked a great deal of it. I actually thought the metaphorical train was quite a lovely bit of concept, visualizing something that could've come off hokey or trite, and the interactions with Rebecca on the train – and with the Pearsons saying goodbye back at the cabin – were quite lovely. 

But then there was the other family subplot. 

Listen, I love Dule Hill, whether he's Gus or Charlie Young on "The West Wing" or, heck, even Sam from "Holes" – but the subplot involving his family took time an attention away from an episode that should've been about saying goodbye to Rebecca. The focus should've never been tighter on the Pearsons in this intimate moment the WHOLE SEASON was building toward – but instead the show somewhat overthought things and added a subplot that added little but distraction to what should've been emotional proceedings. 

You see, instead of getting more time with Rebecca processing her life and the Pearsons saying their farewells, we got the mysterious saga of Hill's family getting into a VERY dramatic car crash that leaves most of them OK except for their son, whose leg is wounded and potentially bleeding out. He must survive, as we see in the future that he's fine and working at a hospital – a tease that this is potentially Deja's new significant other and father to her child. But it's eventually revealed that, no, Malik thankfully is the father to Deja's baby – and that this family's connection is that they were in the hospital the same night that Jack died. In fact, when Jack shockingly coded and passed, the doctor was off rescuing Dule Hill's wounded son just a floor away, thinking all was well with the fire survivor. But before he died, Jack told Hill the show's famous line about lemons and lemonade – a line that passed through to Hill's family and wounded child, who would go on to help treat Alzheimer's. 

The final message of these storytelling shenanigans – that even the darkest moments have silver linings, good things can be born from bad – is cute enough, but it sure is a lot of screenwritting sweat in the name of a fairly familiar idea. A fairly familiar idea that, frankly, the episode already has with Randall finding out about Deja's child on the same night as watching his mother pass away. But instead, we got a subplot that got everyone's brains distracted, trying to solve a mystery about a mostly unnecessary bunch of new side characters during what should've been a tribute to the show's essential matriarch. I know the show was defined by its high-concept screenwriting twists and turns – many of them successful and meaningful – but in this case, show creator Dan Fogelman overthought it, playing with narrative just to play with narrative. ("Crazy Stupid Love" and "Life Itself" know a little something about that ... ) 

That all being said ... 

2. Last week might've also been the better finale

OK, so I know I just spent the last several paragraphs harranging the last episode for being overstuffed with unnecessary characters and "intrigue" ... but last week's episode also felt a lot more like a proper, or at least more expected, "This Is Us" series finale. 

Whereas Tuesday's actual finale left several characters surprisingly unattended to, "The Train" felt like it brought so much of the show full-circle, bringing back some of the original quotes, bringing together the whole family and bringing together so many of the side characters along the way – oh hey, William and Miguel and Dr. K! – for a final goodbye to Rebecca, ending just right with the two Pearson parents literally laying to rest together and the matriarch at peace with where she left her family. The train concept also gave the penultimate episode some cinematic and mystical realism flourish, some emotional and theatrical fireworks, while the proper finale didn't have ... much of that at all. In fact, it was a pretty mundane episode; Rebecca's funeral was barely glimpsed while the big flashback sequences were just a regular rainy day together, with petty grumbles about minor life problems like Randall having school troubles and Kate not sure how she fits in Four Square with five Pearsons. If you didn't know any better, you could've easily forgotten that Tuesday night was IT and was the show's final statement, forever.

Again, for a show often defined – and even ridiculed – for being an emotional gauntlet ruthless to tear ducts, the finale was shockingly low on big grand moments to really remember or obvious tear waterfalls to Kleenex away. The family laid Rebecca to rest mostly offscreen, the Pearsons had a diverting rainy day, "This Is Us" ended ... and that was kind of that. The episode oddly faded quickly from mind Tuesday night – and in fact, I'd bet when people look back at this final season, they'll remember several other episodes well before this one. Heck, they might even recall "The Train" as the actual finale, forgetting this pleasant but minor-key epilogue of sorts. 

But THAT all being said ... 

3. Still, this final bow worked

Not to put on my snooty culture critic hat and say something kookily pretentious like "but actually it's disappointing ON PURPOSE" ... but if the "This Is Us" finale was unsatisfying or underwhelming, then good, the episode did exactly what it set out to do.

In perhaps its wildest misdirection yet, "This Is Us" ended not on loud tears but thoughtful meditation, skirting the obvious drama at hand and instead reflecting on the general themes and ideas the show's tangled with over all these years. After all, it's not like the show just ... forgot to show Rebecca's funeral or the speeches. Or that it accidentally picked a random day from the Pearsons' past and realized too late that they forgot to write anything dramatic for it, that it was just a lazy rainy day of games and mild distraction. For a show about big drama and moments, the finale instead became about the opposite: how for all the giant emotional swings, life is mostly made up of small moments and fleeting people that come and go seemingly so fast – so much so that it can seem impactless. 

That's Randall's takeaway at first, serving as the audience surrogate well into the episode, wondering if life's pointless if a moment as seemingly massive as his beloved mother's funeral can disappear so fast. The event plays as such to the viewers, glimpsed in almost audio-free montage. We don't see any of the speeches or any of the major moments, just faces in thought and reflection and the occasional tension-popping laugh everyone's begging for at a funeral. It just comes and goes – just another moment washed away in time's unfeeling constant stream. Not that "This Is Us" ever needs me help with picking song cues, but "Is That All There Is?" would've played nicely here (if absurdly on the nose so, actually, never take my music advice, show). 

Randall quickly gets corrected by Deja, learning that he's going to be a grandpa to a boy and learning that they want to name the child after William. But even without the punctution of Deja's speech, the episode gets its point across by making the small moment – the rainy day in the past – big and the big moment, Rebecca's funeral, small. The result is a surprisingly thoughtful way to investigate, one final time, the show's grand theory of life: That life may be this uncaring fleeting stream constantly moving, but throughout it all, people and moments big and small make their ripples, ones that bounce off one another and grow and impact the whole in ways we could never fathom. Since the beginning, "This Is Us" has always been at its core about those fascinating ripples, how they echo and intertwine and bend through time and through people – and while it wasn't with the usual emotional punches and timeline craziness, that's exactly how it wrapped up too. 

4. Solving some final Randall mysteries

It wouldn't be "This Is Us" without a few final mysteries to solve – and thankfully this time the intrigue wasn't based around a completely unrelated family that really seemed superfluous to our already pretty stuffed narrative! (Again: Love you, Dule Hill! Big fan!) 

No, the finale's last loose ends all involved Randall – which makes sense. While Kate and Kevin got their own mostly solo-focused episodes to bring their stories to a sense of closure, Randall strangely never got his hour, going from one of the most well-served characters on "This Is Us" to one of the least by this final run. Then again, did anyone really want to dedicate any more screentime than necessary to Randall's political subplot? That's what I thought. 

Thankfully it doesn't get much of a spotlight, but Randall's political career is at the heart of the finale's biggest question mark: What the heck was Beth talking about with the deep-fried Oreos?

Early in the episode, Beth's nagging Randall about how his big eulogy speech is coming together. Answer: It's not. Randall's got about a sentence and a title and ... that's about it, with little improvement in sight. (Been there, Randall; on every single thing I've ever written ever ... been there.) He knows he'll figure something out – he is, after all, the show's resident monologue master – but there's also something else on his mind: a decision involving ... deep-fried Oreos. Is this some Pearson traditional snack I've forgotten about over the years? But no, as Randall eventually reveals in the final Big Three chat, deep-fried Oreos are a classic treat at the Iowa State Fair ... where the DNC wants to send him to see how he plays with the people. And if he plays well ... Presidential nominee Randall Pearson?

It's a logical final step for his professional plotline – and also one I have no problem not seeing. "This Is Us" was emotionally epic but modestly sized when it came to the Pearson family drama – remember that brief time when people hypothesized that Jack died in 9/11? Thank god that was a false lead – and graduating up from "family drama" to "presidential election drama" would be quite the leap. We save the ridiculously melodramatic stuff for Kevin's storyline, with the Hollywood gossip and the fiery car wrecks. (Can't believe that guy never came back at all! What a weird thing!) 

Anyways, the final mystery is less of a mystery and more of a lovely final bow on a loose thread. Last episode, we got a perfectly cast Adult Deja telling Randall that she was pregnant much to Randall's joy. And for an even bigger burst of joy, during the finale, Deja breaks the news to her father that he's going to be a grandfather ... to a boy. That's right: After a lifetime of women ruling the house, he's finally getting a boy in his immediate family. It's a nice ending note for their relationship and a lovely retort to Randall's surprisingly dour attitude. After all, before he gets the news, Randall's down on life, wondering if it's all pointless after her mother's funeral – seemingly such a massive moment – is just ... over, with no memory of his once-crucial and now-fleeting words. But Deja tells him that they plan to name the child William, after a man she never met but knew so well and meaningfully through her father and others. You never know the impact and "the point" to everything – but there's always one. 

What a twist: In the finale, it's not Randall giving the master monologue but on the receiving end of it. This finale ... it's growing on me!

5. Toby, not the time!

OK, and on that note, let's talk about some of the episode's shortcomings – mainly coming up short on things for the other Big Three to do, starting with Kate. We got to hear more of her eulogy than anyone else's – but that still wasn't much, more just getting the idea of her singing Rebecca a final song rather than hearing it much for the content. As we grasped last episode, too, she tells her brothers that she's going to keep taking her curriculum global – so that's nice. And in the past flashbacks, she gets to make most of the plans for their rainy day and delivers the big meaningful line about how she's good at Pin the Tail on the Donkey because "as long as I know where you are, I always know where I'm going" – a line that I'd normally pin as being a little on-the-nose with the poignancy, but hey, the vibes were good last night and the message is sweet, so I'll give it a pass. 

Otherwise, that's about it! In fact, her biggest modern-day moment was ... oddly more of a Toby moment?

In the lead-up to the funeral, Toby finds Kate and tells her three things – warning her in advance that he's probably going to overstep some ex-husband boundaries in the process. Two of them are nice notes – that both Rebecca and he are so proud of her – but the final one is him saying that he still loves her and that if he had a time machine, even knowing how it ended, he'd always choose to go back to meeting her back in the day at the weight loss support group. Sure, it's a fairly nice moment between the two – but not the time, Toby! Keep your love statements out of her mom's funeral – not your day! Sure, it's not meant as a "win you back" attempt – but still, her mind is elsewhere, my man. (Also: I don't love that two of Kate's big moments near the end here – this moment and the call needed to push her to take charge in the family meeting – were more Toby moments.)

This scene would also ring a little nicer if Mr. Grumblypants McBritish was anywhere in sight this episode – but I'm quite sure he's nowhere to be found in the finale, an odd place to be as Kate's significant other on a very important day. I'm going to take this as evidence of the show admitting that their final pairing was a mistake and erasing his character from existence. It's canon: I have deemed it so! (*slams gavel on this cafe table, which does nothing but make everyone in the shop look at me with awkward confusion*)

6. Kevin was also there

Kate wasn't the only one oddly without much of a part in the series finale. After all, you'd be excused for forgetting Kevin (and his majestic fake beard) was in this finale at all. Overall, he still got more time for his dismount than Randall – like Kate, at least he got a last episode earlier this season to tie up loose ends and make some final grand character steps – but it was still strange how little one of the Big Three had to do in this particular high-profile hour.

So little I can pretty comfortably wrap it up in about one sentence: Kevin has a final kindly chat with Uncle Nicky about how life is easier when you don't care about anything, but thanks to Kevin, he learned how to care and be apart of the world again. And that, honestly, makes the scene feel bigger and more affecting than it really was, basically just played as a brief tossed-off aside before Rebecca's funeral. Other than that, Kevin is of course a part of the final Big Three chat after the funeral, saying that he's SUPER going to focus on the Big Three Homes non-profit now – which seemed pretty established before – and we see little Kevin sad that he can't do pull-ups in the flashbacks. Seems about right. 

You can say that's all in theme with the entire episode – how moments and even lives can feel so fleeting and inconsequential at the time but carry massive weight throughout time and generations – and that's certainly fair in the case of Kevin's funeral speech, which like the others goes unheard by "This Is Us" viewers for a thoughtful purpose. But in the case of everything else, the approach resulted in two of the Big Three ending the show feeling pretty small. 

7. That was "Us" – and it was pretty special

Maybe it's the fact that it was a network show, as opposed to on streaming or on a distinguished cable channel where "important" and "serious" television is typically found. Maybe it's the highly emotional, melodramatic nature of the show, which earned grumbles from critics who found it manipulative especially in its early twist-forward seasons. Maybe it's the the pop culture discourse in general, which tends to skew young and male, meaning more talk of "mature" dark masculine dramas and less room for a unapologetically sensitive drama just about a family. But despite coming of age during the era of prestige TV, despite all the awards and nominations, and despite the impressive success that inspired plenty of imitators, "This Is Us" ends its run oddly disrespected, quietly on the outside looking in of all the "Peak TV" discussions.

A shame, because the NBC drama was quite remarkable – an impressive showcase for charismatic performances (and truly incredible casting), a nimble display of storytelling dexterity and diversity, a potential last gasp of network TV scripted entertainment, and a quiet groundbreaker in the kinds of conversations we see on widely-watched television. 

It was easy for some to disregard "This Is Us" in its early – and most buzzy – seasons, putting its huge reception on its combination of heightened emotional manipulation and tricky mysterious twists and turns, myself admittedly included. While the show hit some remarkable highs in the earlygoing (the Randall and William "Memphis" episode will always be in the "This Is Us" highlight reel), the show seemed like a try-hard, riding grabby emotional tricks and storytelling twists to attention. And everyone hates a try-hard. While still always a hit, the "This Is Us" formula eventually backfired in a few directions; the show couldn't constantly supply twists and tear deluges, and when it focused on those aspects, we got the misguided "Jack DeathWatch" season, both a viewer high point but a low point for the Pearson saga, turning into Kleenex-fueled "misery porn."

But while the buzz dissipated, no longer keenly watched by TV's critical upper crust and fans no longer getting the rush of the twists, turns and teary reveations, the show ... actually got better. Freed from its "mysteries" and relentless narrative gamesmanship, "This Is Us" was able to simply become a show about a family dealing with life – sure, still with various time-hopping intrigues and emotional fireworks, but now paying off those invested in the Pearsons with depth rather than endorphin-providing shocks. Sure, it wasn't perfect – the Randall political career will always be an oddity, and you could feel this final season, after years of pulling off all the time-bouncing storylines so well, eventually pay the toll of the show's many, MANY, MAAAAAANY mouths to feed – but its highs were regularly worth it, delivering stories and dialogues unlike much else on television. 

Where else, for instance, were we finding conversations about Blackness like Randall's season five subplot, with nuances about transracial families? Or conversations about motherhood across generations, about PTSD, about alcoholism? And even more challenging, finding them delivered in a manner that felt honest, heartfelt and real as opposed to an afterschool special or a Very Special Episode? People liked to mock "This Is Us" for being so much about FEELINGS – so much so that even the show made fun of itself for its highly emotional lead family and all the speeches – but the reality is there aren't many shows about people from different places and viewplaces figuring out how to feel about life, time and their place in it. And certainly not on network TV, increasingly just a place for live sports and various brightly colored singing and dancing programs. And CERTAINLY NOT with the level of care, consideration and complexity NBC's hit regularly brought to the table, creating a cast of characters people felt connected to, even when they were irritating and screwing up – you know, almost like a real family. 

With all of that, "This Is Us" leaves behind a lot more than simply a trail of tear-soaked Kleenex. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.