This is Us, the drama on NBC that debuted in the fall of 2016, immediately emerged as the breakthrough network TV show of the last season. The series in its first season was an effective drama, mostly well-acted and unusually effective as a tearjerker. It was nominated for numerous awards, with award wins including Sterling K. Brown’s Emmy win for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, and the Television Critics Association honor for Outstanding New Program.
The hook for This is Us is that it’s filmed and acted much like a standard network drama, but its storytelling structure is one more common in sci-fi and other genre work: it’s full of flashbacks and flash forwards, encompassing a continuity that spans four decades. How I Met Your Mother played similar games with continuity and flashbacks, often to great effect in its earlier days, but This is Us is otherwise rather unique among network shows in recent memory.
The three main characters are the Pearson triplets: Kevin (Justin Hartley), an actor struggling with his career; Kate (Chrissy Metz), whose plots mostly concern her love life and issues surrounding her weight, and Randall (Brown), their African-American brother, who was adopted after he was abandoned in the hospital the day his brother and sister were born in 1980.
The other major strand concerns Jack and Rebecca (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore), a couple who, as a plot twist at the end of the pilot revealed, are the triplets’ parents, with their plots taking place in the 1980s, and depicting the triplets as children. The series has branched off in all sorts of directions, including episodes based on the fireman who found Randall as a baby, and multiple stories involving their OB/GYN (played wonderfully by Gerald McRaney.)
The character of Jack is depicted in a way that’s nuanced, by the standards of fathers in TV series. He’s shown as a loving and dedicated father who undoubtedly cares deeply for his children - but also as somewhat irresponsible, and aloof, and likely an alcoholic. We also see the ups and downs, over the years, of his and Rebecca’s marriage, to the point where they separate at the end of the season, although whether they’re together at the time of Jack’s death remains a mystery.
As the plot progressed throughout the first season, it was first revealed that Rebecca in the present day is married not to Jack but to rather to Miguel (Jon Huertas) who had been Jack’s best friend in the ‘80s scenes.
Then, it was revealed in the fourth episode that Jack, in the present day, is dead. However, the exact timing and circumstances of Jack’s death remained a mystery throughout the first season. And just as Twin Peaks kept its “Who killed Laura Palmer?” mystery going into its second season over 25 years ago, the “how did Jack die?” question remains unanswered, as Season 2 of This is Us gets underway this week.
In a feature ahead of the new season, creator and show runner Dan Fogelman strongly hinted to EW that the cause of Jack’s death will be revealed in the second season- and while the definitive answer won’t come in the season premiere, “a huge piece of the puzzle” will arrive at the end of the season's first episode. It’s such a secret, in fact, that script pages for multiple episodes were redacted when the actors received them, with certain scenes filmed months later than the rest of the episodes.
The audience of This is Us has been given various clues about the mystery: We know, from a funeral scene in the first season, that the triplets were teenagers at the time of Jack’s death, putting the timing in the late ‘90s or early 2000s. We know that Kate believes herself to be at fault for Jack’s death, but is unwilling to talk about the topic.
Justin Hartley says in the EW story that the first episode reveals “where the family was” and “what state they were in” at the time of the death. Brown, in the piece, calls the death a “heartbreaker,” which “will catch you off guard.” Moore says “Once this piece of the puzzle airs, I think it will be a tremendous relief to all of us, because there’s so much that we’re tip-toeing around at this point." Fogelman, meanwhile, promised that “once this piece of the puzzle airs, I think it will be a tremendous relief to all of us, because there’s so much that we’re tip-toeing around at this point.”
So how does Jack die? Chances are it’s not of any type of long-term illness; we’ve never seen Jack sick in any of the various flashbacks, and the series already showed us the slow-motion death of a father character, when Randall’s biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones) passed away from cancer.
So let’s look at some of the popular “How Jack dies” theories, among fans of This is Us:
- The drunk-driving accident theory. This was somewhat teased last season, with all of the references to Jack’s alcoholism, and one scene in the finale when he gets into a car after drinking. This would fit in with what we’ve seen before, as well as Kate’s fears.
- The magic t-shirt theory. One first season episode had the triplets at a public pool, in which Jack invoked his “magic T-shirt,” which he uses while helping others. Fans have pointed out that perhaps Jack attempts some daring rescue, while wearing the shirt, and dies in the process. Or perhaps he drowns, while saving someone in that same pool?
- The 9/11 theory. Another popular fan theory is that Jack dies in the attacks of September 11, 2001. However, the kids would be a little older in 2001 than they looked at the funeral, and there’s been no hint of any character having lived in New York City in 2001- they’re from Pittsburgh- nor would Jack have appeared to have any professional reason to be in the World Trade Center then.
- The plane crash theory. Others have suggested that Jack dies in a plane crash, either real or fictional. We know Kate has a fear of flying, and that Kevin destroyed his model airplanes after his father’s death. This is possible, although a bearded character named Jack getting into a plane crash, in a series filled with flashbacks and flash forwards, would have just a bit too much in common with Lost. The actors on the show, in a Paley Center panel over the summer, appeared to debunk any any all plane crash theories, but TV actors have been known to lie about spoilers in the past.
- The Miguel murder theory. Did Jack’s erstwhile best friend murder him in order to run off with his wife, while somehow getting away with it and subsequently getting more or less welcomed into the family? This theory, needless to say, would be wildly at odds with This is Us' well-established tone and ethos, so it’s probably not what happened. It’s also hard to imagine that Jack was murdered or otherwise directly killed by any other major character we’ve met, either.
- The Jack’s-not-dead theory. This one seems somewhat unlikely, and would likely ruin the show if it came true, but Hartley said in an interview that he’s heard the theory that Jack in fact faked his own death and will return in the present day. Once again: It’s not that sort of show.
Of course, there’s always a chance that Jack’s death will have a cause that’s never been so much as hinted at or guessed by anyone. Therein lies the challenge of being a TV writer, in the age of nonstop Internet theories.
But even once the Jack’s-death mystery is solved, fear not: Fogelman told EW that new mysteries will be raised in the new season.
And that’s going to be the challenge for This is Us: Can it still surprise us, in year 2, 3 and 4? Are they going to eventually run out of story? Will we one day be watching episodes about the characters’ grandparents, or possibly plotlines set in the future?
This is Us airs Tuesday night at 9 p.m., Eastern, on NBC.