The Harrowing Hope of This Is Us
When I was a college freshman, a fellow Christian asked me what the point of prayer was for Christians who believed everything was already predetermined. “If nothing can change, if, whether by free will or God’s sovereignty, it’s all fated anyway, what’s the point?” I didn’t know how to answer, and frankly I didn’t even like thinking about the question. It was one I’d pondered myself, but, as a new Christian, I found such questions more like betrayal of my newfound faith than marks of healthy curiosity. The idea of predestination was one of the most troubling to me. It not only exposed my own autonomy to be somewhat of a farce; it also undermined my ability to hope. If everything is already what it will be, what—I thought—is the point?
Beneath the layer of contrived drama that coats This Is Us lurks the show’s real power—exposing goodness in ordinary moments, and death is a strangely ordinary part of the human experience.This is largely the same reason that I’ve had a hard time engaging with the hit show This Is Us. As viewers of the drama are well aware, many of the show’s plot lines (half of which take place in present day and half of which take place in the past) have centered on the death of Jack Pearson, the family’s beloved patriarch. It is revealed early in season one that Jack dies, though viewers have only recently been shown exactly how and when. At times I’ve felt writers have used Jack’s death cheaply. For most of season one it was little more than a contrived tool meant to churn interest in the already wildly popular show—a move that inspired me to lovingly refer to the drama as “How I Killed Your Father.”
That aside, I have enjoyed the show—not for the dramatics that have practically branded it as an extended Kleenex commercial, but because, at its best, This Is Us siphons romantic notions from ordinary moments. It highlights beauty and dysfunction in relationships in such a way that one never counteracts the other. They’re drawn out not as competing forces, but as similar pulses of energy that drive relationships in sometimes divergent directions. And so I’ve joined in every week and half enjoyed This Is Us—only half, though, because I have struggled to find a way to root for Jack Pearson.
Because the show features the Pearson family in both the present day and the past, I knew the bottom line of Jack’s story: He died. His wife remarried his best friend. His kids never really moved on—or, if they did, they did so burdened by the bulky weight of his death. What was there to hope for?
Though the shows could not be more different, I have engaged with season five of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D in much the same way. Maybe that’s because I’ve been watching them back-to-back during 4 AM feedings of my newborn, but I think there’s more to the connections I see than merely my own sleep deprivation. Set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the show is a sci-fi adventure that features the agents who work alongside The Avengers, and for the first time since its inception, this season explores the idea of time travel. It doesn’t really surprise me that writers of a science-fiction adventure story have worked in time travel to the show’s plot, but it does surprise me that they’ve featured it in a philosophically compelling manner.
Season five finds the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D transported to a bleak, dystopian future—one that is thus far not easily undone by the usual “find and fix the catalyzing moment of change” methods. Despite the fact that the agents know how the earth quite literally cracked in two, they have thus far been powerless to change it—a phenomenon Fitz refers to as a time loop, which others might refer to as fate. In other words, knowledge of the future does not empower the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D to change it, and it has left me unsure of how to hope for them.
If I’m being realistic, I know that, because it’s still a science-fiction story at heart, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D will recover. This Is Us, however, will always be a world in which Jack Pearson died while his wife was getting a Twix bar from a crappy hospital vending machine. I’ve thus far made peace with this strange formula by investing in the present day Pearsons. I still don’t know how their stories end, after all, and not knowing makes it easier to hope.
It is for this reason that the long-touted episode after the Super Bowl was so difficult for me. My heart didn’t break over the death of Jack Pearson—it had already done that; it sank because, if the last scene is any indication, the show’s writers are about to take viewers of This Is Us to the future. Part of me wants to close my eyes and plug my ears for the remainder of this series’ run. The other part, though, knows that my discomfort with zooming out on the Pearsons’ story reveals a brokenness in the way I hope: not for goodness, but for a good result, which are often two very different things.
The writers of This Is Us do not employ time travel to rectify Jack’s death in the same way Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D might, but they do use the past to redeem his story. I watched Jack traverse the sometimes-rocky terrain of his marriage, ultimately finding good, difficult ways to love his wife. I watched him struggle to parent three very different children, an endeavor he sometimes failed at in meaningful ways—failings I suspect the writers will explore more, eventually. I watched the beauty and dysfunction of his life, and I saw the goodness in that, even while my knowledge of his untimely death threatened to undermine my perception of these things. There was always hope for Jack Pearson, even if there was no hope for a different ending. By front-loading the knowledge of his death, the writers of This Is Us forced viewers to hope for Jack’s life. They summoned the clichéd “life is not about the destination, but the journey” and called our collective bluff.
In that way, This Is Us has shown me more meaningful ways to hope—to hope for goodness in what is, rather than goodness in what I wish for. Such hope requires a peace I often fumble. It requires acceptance of the intermingling of beauty and dysfunction. In some ways I’m still not ready for This Is Us to zoom out further—but in other ways, it seems more on-brand for the show than dangling the carrot of Jack’s crockpot-induced death across two seasons.
Beneath the layer of contrived drama that coats This Is Us lurks the show’s real power—exposing goodness in ordinary moments, and death is a strangely ordinary part of the human experience. It is the ending everyone will eventually face, after all, and we have a tendency to invest deeply in endings. That’s the true beauty of This Is Us—it has illuminated the absurdity of allowing an ending to undermine the rest of someone’s story. And knowing this has freed me to hope more fully.