The Simulacra of Death in ‘This is Us’

Simulacra: (noun) an image or a representation of something

Has anyone else been choked up all week, after watching ‘This is Us’? While often a difficult concept to accurately capture, how perfectly did ‘This is Us’ represent death in ‘Super Bowl Sunday’ and ‘The Car’?

I remember going to church the day after my grandpa passed away, walking up to a prayer partner, and realizing I had no words, no language to express the grief I was feeling; all I could do was stand there and cry and receive the hug the old gentleman offered me, and these two episodes of ‘This is Us’ strategically brought me back to those same feelings; the silence in both of the episodes was so painful, but also so realistic–there are no words, but only visceral reactions. Both of the episodes are relatively silent, if only a simple guitar strum in the background. The action moves in slow motion, as if we, the viewer, are disconnected from the events that are transpiring (which is probably also how Rebecca feels–in disbelief). When the doctors and nurses rush into Jack’s room as Rebecca ventures to the vending machine, when she breaks the news to the kids as they sit on Miguel’s couch, the scenes at the funeral–so silent, but also so realistic, because death often carries no words.

Jack’s death was perfectly timed, and according to “The Car”, also perfectly foreshadowed (his chats to Rebecca, the concert tickets, his words about wanting his kids to be “OK”). The look in his eye as he sat on the E.R. table made me think that Jack knew his end was soon, and he strategically waited for Rebecca to be out of the room before he took his last breath (although she regrets not being there, I think this continues to speak for Jack’s selfless character and private nature–that he didn’t want Rebecca to suffer and witness his death, so he waited for her to leave). The doctors say that Jack died of cardiac arrest from the smoke inhalation, but I can’t help but wonder if Jack had some kind of underlying heart condition that would have caused the heart attack anyways (thanks to 1997 medicine, we may actually never know). We see this archetypal Christ-like figure across literature: a character who is sent down for some kind of divine purpose, dies in some kind of tragic and heroic way, once his mission on Earth is complete. Although we would prefer it not to happen, the tragic timing of Jack’s death was perfect.

As I watched ‘The Car’, I found myself desperately wanting to avoid the flashbacks of the fire. Like, because I already watched “Super Bowl Sunday”, I knew that how it happened, and it was so traumatic that I only wanted to experience it one time, but I also knew that the images were something I would continue to revisit and see (each time, a little less painful than the time before, but the memory still just as raw and fresh). And, when the funeral came, I, too, wanted to avoid it, while at the same time, simultaneously knowing that I needed to attend it. We need funerals, because we need that moment of closure; there is a period of grieving leading up to it, and once the funeral is over, while we still grieve, it is a symbol for us to begin our next chapter. Like Rebecca, I wanted to avoid looking at that static, smiling picture of who Jack once was, so that I didn’t have to admit to myself that he was actually dead. But, there’s something about seeing that urn, or the casket, that brings a finality to death that is necessary.

In death, we hold onto irrational things (did Jack’s old coffee cup in the car get anyone else choked up?); because their physical memories are absent, we try to hold onto whatever representations we can find because that is comforting to us (I’m pretty sure my grandma still has the last lollipop my grandpa was sucking on before he died). For Kate, this becomes the urn; for Kevin, this becomes the necklace; for Randall, this becomes the watch; I’m not usually a fan of promoting materialism, but in these cases, wearing something physical reminds us of their continued influence, and while some of the items may seem irrational, they are somehow fitting in our realities. But this representation of death is so accurate as well. And, as we move forward from death, we are tasked to rebuild our lives. For Rebecca, this means overcoming her fear of the bridge and driving to the Bruce Springsteen concert. We still carry scars (for Kate, her avoidance of dogs, for Kevin, his accidents), and while it is still important to carry those pasts with us, we must also begin looking forward to a future (‘The Car’ definitely finishes with an air of hope–painful and taxing, but hopeful nonetheless).

But, what I love most about ‘This is Us’ is how Jack is memorialized even after his death. Despite his physical presence being absent, his legacy, inheritance, and influence still continues to live on–through memories, life lessons, songs, his tree, etc. I’m still not quite sure where we go in our after lives, but it is comforting to see all of these instances where our existence precedes our essence. It reminds us that the choices we take, the relationships we make are still important. According to “This is Us”, as long as we continue to receive our flashbacks, Jack is never actually gone.

“I can tell you right now, there’s going to be scrapes, and dings, and stains–so many stains–that’s ok, because every battle scar is going to be another memory. And eventually, that car is going to tell my family story, just by looking at it…as parents, we talk a lot about what we want for our kids…what I want for mine…and I can come up with a fancy word that will make me sound smarter than I actually am. But, the one word I keep coming back to is OK. I want my kids to be OK. I want my family to be OK.” -Jack Pearson

(Please excuse me while I go get a tissue…)

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