"This is Us," created by Dan Fogelman, is one of the most popular television dramas to come out in recent years — and one of the most consistently heartbreaking.
The time-jumping drama follows the Pearson family over several decades of their lives. The earlier timelines, depicted as flashbacks, focus on Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) raising their three kids — twins Kevin and Kate and adopted son Randall. Meanwhile, the present timeline focuses on the adult lives of Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) as they face everyday challenges and continue to grapple with the death of their father, Jack, in their late teens. As the show progresses, more timelines have been added, even including flash-forwards decades beyond the present.
While spanning so much time, "This is Us" covers a lot of ground in terms of the hardest situations individuals face on a daily basis. The show confronts death, addiction, marital struggles, and much more. Of course, the show has plenty of joyful and heartwarming moments every episode, but it still has quite the reputation for being a tearjerker of a show.
Below, we breakdown some of the show’s most heartbreaking moments. So grab yourself a box of tissues, and read on.
When Randall first meets his birth father William (Ron Cephas Jones) in the pilot, he’s angry that William abandoned him, but it is obvious Randall still wants to know his birth father. So, over the course of the first season, Randall and William build a relationship, with William even moving in with Randall and his family.
Throwing a wrench into their belated relationship is the fact that William has stage four cancer. It becomes clear — to the viewer and to Randall — that his time in Randall’s life is going to be short. Thus, Season 1 Episode 18, titled "Memphis," proves to be one of the most heartbreaking of the series, as William succumbs to his illness and dies.
As Randall sits next to William’s hospital bed, minutes before he passes, William tells him, "You deserve the beautiful life you’ve made. You deserve everything, Randall, my beautiful boy. My son." As he speaks, Randall begins to cry — and so does the viewer.
Randall finds out Rebecca hid William from him
As Randall gets to know William, the viewer finds out through flashbacks that Rebecca has known who William is this whole time — despite Randall thinking his parents were as in the dark as he was. It’s true that Jack never knew about William, but Rebecca tracked him down while Randall was a newborn and decided to keep it to herself for Randall’s entire life.
Those at home watching the show are likely pretty mad at Rebecca for doing this to Randall — but it’s nothing compared to the hurt that Randall feels when he figures out that they knew each other by finding a letter that Rebecca wrote to William, in which she included a photo of Randall.
In the eighth episode of Season 1, titled "Pilgrim Rick," Randall tearfully confronts Rebecca in front of the whole family at Thanksgiving dinner. Randall declares that he "can’t even look" at Rebecca and, with his eyes closed, continues, "All the times I asked you about my family and if I hadn’t found him on my own, I … " Randall doesn’t need to finish his sentence for us to know that he’s thinking about the gut-wrenching possibility that he could have gone his whole life without meeting his birth father, all because of Rebecca.
Kate miscarries — and Rebecca consoles her
In the pilot episode, Kate laments to Kevin about how she hasn’t achieved the "dream life" she envisioned as a kid, explaining, "I would marry a man like Dad, I would be a mom like Mom." Well, her dream life starts to come to fruition in the first season when she meets and falls in love with Toby (Chris Sullivan), a man just as kind and caring as her father was. It isn’t long before the two are engaged and, not long after that, that Kate finds out she’s pregnant.
However, this pregnancy results in a miscarriage — which absolutely devastates Kate. In Season 2 Episode 9, "Number Two," Kate is justifiably having a really hard time dealing with the news of the miscarriage and what ends up helping Kate the most during this time is being consoled by her mother. Despite Rebecca and Kate having a somewhat up and down relationship, we know how much Rebecca loves her daughter — and this moment is a bittersweet reminder of that.
When Rebecca shows up at Kate’s door, Kate is clearly surprised to see her. But when Rebecca opens her arms, Kate begins to cry and buries herself in Rebecca’s hug. Kate is still in pain, but we can tell the comfort of her mother is going a long way toward her recovery.
The family sees Rebecca on her deathbed
With so much of the show focused on the lingering aftermath of Jack’s death, it’s somewhat shocking when the audience comes face-to-face with Rebecca’s death. Throughout Season 3, we see a few flash-forwards in which the characters refer to "her," whom they are all gathering to go see. In the Season 3 finale, aptly titled "Her," we find out that it’s Rebecca they’ve been talking about — and she appears on her deathbed.
Seeing actress Mandy Moore — who plays Rebecca at all ages, in every timeline — in old age makeup was already jarring the first time we saw it, in the second episode of the first season, as it’s a prime reminder of how quickly life can go by (for audiences, we can see several moments of Rebecca’s life in just one episode). But seeing her in the future, in what is estimated to be the year 2032, with significantly more wrinkles, completely white hair and lacking almost all exuberance is not an easy sight to see. As a viewer, we most associate Rebecca with the flashbacks — where more of the focus is on her, rather than the Big Three — and, thus, her youth.
At one point, Randall’s daughter Tess (played in the future timeline by Iantha Richardson) tells Randall that she isn’t ready to see Rebecca yet, to which Randall replies "Me neither." When we finally do see Rebecca, we, as the audience, realize we weren’t ready either.
Kevin comforts Randall during a panic attack
Early on, we begin to get glimpses into Randall’s acute anxiety, which makes sense due to the Type A, overachieving qualities we’ve seen him exhibit — after all, the type of pressure he puts on himself is a natural cause of nervous breakdowns.
His increasing anxiety comes to a head in Season 1 Episode 14, "Jack Pearson’s Son." After seeing Randall continue to struggle throughout the episode, in the final minutes, Randall calls Kevin to tell him that he won’t be making it to the opening night of Kevin’s play. Kevin, noting that something seems strange on Randall’s end, gets a feeling that Randall may be creeping into one of his nervous breakdowns again. We see a gut-wrenching flashback in which a teenage Kevin sees a teenage Randall breaking down in tears during a panic attack and deciding not to do anything about it, instead just walking past Randall’s room. In the present, Kevin gets to atone for past mistakes, as he ditches his play to console Randall.
Once he has arrived, Kevin finds Randall on the floor of his office with a blank expression and tears already streaming down his face. Kevin pulls Randall into his arms and Randall begins to cry harder — out of catharsis rather than sheer pain — as Kevin has provided the kind of comfort that he needed in the moment.
Kevin and Randall have their epic fight
Kevin and Randall may have come a long way since their contentious childhood, but they are still very different people. This becomes incredibly evident when the two clash on how to proceed with the onset of Rebecca’s dementia, which is becoming increasingly worse. When Randall goes behind Kevin’s back to plead with Rebecca to get help, it’s not long before Kevin finds out — and the result is a blowout of a fight that is both shocking and agonizing to watch.
The fight, which happens in the fourth season finale titled "Strangers: Part Two," begins with each brother accusing the other of being selfish when it comes to making decisions about Rebecca and evolves to being about Jack’s death. Kevin tells Randall that if he had been there when the house fire that ultimately killed Jack broke out, he would’ve done anything to save Jack. Randall responds, "Well, Kev, I guess we’ll never know because you weren’t there. And he died ashamed of you … but you’ll never be him and you’ll never be me because you’ll never know what it’s like to devote yourself to anyone other than yourself."
To this, Kevin responds with what is arguably the most heartbreaking line of the entire show: "You know, I used to think that the worst thing that ever happened to me was the day that Dad died. It’s the day they brought you home. Hand to god, Randall, the worst thing that ever happened to me is the day they brought you home."
Jack and Rebecca have their own major fight
It’s not easy to watch Jack and Rebecca’s marital rough patch as it’s explored in the first season, because it’s clear how unconditionally the two love each other. So when they have an epic fight in the Season 1 finale, "Moonshadow," it’s incredibly saddening. It begins when Jack finds out that Rebecca is continuing to perform with a band that includes an ex-boyfriend despite Jack asking her not to. A very drunk Jack (who has recently relapsed after getting sober) seeks Rebecca out at her performance and the two return home together, where the massive fight ensues.
The two say many awful things to one another — Rebecca downplays Jack’s alcoholism, Jack calls Rebecca’s desire to be a singer "ridiculous" — but the saddest line is Rebecca’s when she tearfully screams at Jack, "I have zero life, Jack. I am a housewife to three teenagers who do not need me anymore. I have a husband who waltzes in every night at eight o’clock, if I’m lucky, goes to the kitchen, recaps his day for me and then passes out upstairs at ten o’clock. I have no life, I’m a freakin’ ghost!"
This monologue of Rebecca’s lays bare how far the two have grown apart without realizing it — to the point where Jack believes he’s devoting himself to her and the family, while Rebecca feels invisible. Furthermore, this fight scene only becomes more heartbreaking when we find out, in a future episode, that Randall heard the whole thing.
Kevin drives drunk — with his niece in the car
Just like his father, Kevin suffers from alcoholism. Also like Jack, Kevin is able to take a hold of his addiction and get sober — but only after an extremely scary incident.
In Season 2 Episode 10, "Number Three," Kevin arrives at Randall’s house, already exhausted-looking for a breakdown he had in the midst of a bender, and consumes more alcohol. After drinking a glass of vodka, Kevin gets in his car and drives off, speeding and swerving around cars — without realizing that his niece, Tess (Eris Baker) is in his backseat, having snuck into his car to get away from home. Kevin is soon pulled over and arrested for DUI before they get into any sort of accident, and Tess is safe. Realizing that Kevin has truly hit rock bottom and is acting so carelessly with his own life — and, accidentally, the life of his niece — is awful to watch as a viewer.
After his DUI, a judge orders Kevin to go to rehab, where he begins making serious strides on his sobriety. In the end, the incident results in a positive — but that doesn’t make it any less frightening and heartbreaking in the moment.
Kate’s abusive boyfriend locks her out in the cold
In Season 4, we get a glimpse into the relationship Kate had with Marc (Austin Abrams), which quickly turned abusive. The warning signs — the way Marc talks down to Kate, for example — are hard enough to watch, but the abuse hits its peak during a weekend trip to the family cabin in the fourteenth episode of the season, aptly titled "The Cabin."
While at the cabin, Marc tries to use Jack’s "world’s best dad" mug and Kate asks him to pick a different one. Annoyed, Marc pretends to almost drop the mug several times, while a nervous Kate begs him to stop. As he is finally putting the mug away, he does drop it — he swears it was an accident, but neither Kate nor the viewer sees it happen so there’s no way to know for sure. Kate, distraught, yells at him and calls him "an unemployed record store cashier." As retaliation, Marc locks the door to the cabin when Kate leaves to get more wood for the fire. Kate pounds on the door, begging to be let in and out of the freezing cold, but Marc does nothing. Kate only gets in by breaking a window.
Rebecca, Randall and Kevin show up because Rebecca got a bad feeling while talking to Kate on the phone. They soon find out that Marc locked her out, but not before Kate tries to cover it up — Kate lying to her family is one of the saddest details about the whole thing, as it’s clear she is trapped in this relationship. But Rebecca kicks Marc out and the two, fortunately, break up.
Kate imagines an old version of Jack
Kate marrying Toby in the Season 2 finale "The Wedding" is a beautiful moment, but of course, the episode is not without its tear-jerker moments. Throughout the episode, we see visions of a vow-renewal ceremony between Rebecca and an imagined older version of Jack, celebrating their 40th anniversary — Kate has been having this as a recurring dream leading up to her own wedding. Recounting this to Rebecca, Kate says, "We’re so happy together. You know, the way it was supposed to be."
Kate’s dream is a heartbreaking, poignant reminder of all the things Jack has missed out on in his kids’ lives. Further, viewers know how much of a special bond Kate felt to Jack, making her wedding day more of a bittersweet one than it would’ve been had Jack been alive to be there on the special day.
The wedding scene is interspersed with a flashback to when Kate was a young girl, with Jack describing how one day she’ll meet a man who is better than he is and that’s who she’ll marry. Jack says, "I’ll get to walk you down the aisle. And I may even cry a little," Yeah, us too, Jack.
We get to see Beth’s backstory (and her own trauma)
Randall’s wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), is extremely lovable — she’s a great wife and mother, she’s smart, kind and funny. After seeing her solely through Randall’s orbit for three seasons, fans finally got a look into Beth’s backstory in Season 3 Episode 13, "Our Little Island Girl" — including her own hardships and trauma.
Beth dreamt of being a professional ballet dancer and her dreams were encouraged by her loving father, whereas her mother Carol (Phylicia Rashad) was more skeptical about her pursuing an unpractical career. After years in the academy, Beth is still determined, but is struggling to keep up with her peers, leading her ballet teacher to warn her that she may not make it as a professional. In the midst of her self-doubt, Beth finds out that her father has lung cancer and he soon dies from it. Then, after not landing a solo role Beth was vying for, Carol tells Beth that she won’t make it as a dancer and forces her to quit.
With so much focus on Jack’s death, it was both jarring and saddening to realize that other characters have also experienced losing a parent and are similarly reeling from the loss. Further, Beth is still reeling from another loss — her dream career. Luckily, Beth finds her way back to ballet as a teacher, finding new passion in it, but knowing she went so long without it is still strikingly sad.
The Pearson family escapes the house fire
As Season 2 continues to progress, we find out that Jack’s elusive death is connected to a house fire. In Season 2 Episode 14, "Super Bowl Sunday," we finally see the house fire play out — and it’s excruciating to watch, especially since we expect to lose Jack at any moment.
By the time Jack wakes up and notices the fire, it has already spread through most of the house. Determined to protect his kids, Jack navigates through the flames to get everyone out. Despite the quickly growing flames, Jack succeeds in this and even — against Rebecca’s firm protests — goes back in to get the family dog. Somehow, Jack makes it out with the dog, but not before we see Rebecca, Randall and Kate weeping and screaming as they see the house catch more on fire, seeing no way that Jack can get out.
The viewer is right there with them, upset and angry that Jack might not make it out alive because of an impulsive decision to go back in and save the pet. Of course, he does make it out alive — but, as a viewer, the relief is short because we know that Jack will somehow still die.
Jack dies — and Rebecca grieves
After they make it out of the fire, Rebecca takes Jack to the hospital mainly just as a precaution (after all the smoke he inhales) and for his burn wounds, so neither of them are very worried — after all, it seems like the worst is behind them.
Rebecca leaves Jack in his hospital room to go to the vending machine and stops at a payphone to check on the kids. While she’s talking on the phone, we see a commotion happening behind her and, as a viewer, get a really bad feeling. Rebecca is then approached by a doctor, who tells her that Jack had a heart attack, as a result of the effect the smoke has on the heart as well as the lungs, and that he died. Rebecca, having just seen her husband seemingly fine, doesn’t believe it at first. She even yells at the doctor, telling him he’s made a mistake.
Rebecca goes back to Jack’s room, calling out to him, starting to say that he won’t believe what the doctor just tried to tell her. But she’s stopped in her tracks when she sees his lifeless body. She then breaks down, sobbing. To make Rebecca’s reaction even harder to watch, we see her pull herself together to tell the kids that their father has died. So much of the show had been leading up to Jack’s death, but watching it play out was even worse than viewers could have imagined.
Kate and Toby’s divorce is confirmed
In a Season 3 flash-forward, we see a glimpse of Toby without a wedding ring. Knowing how strong he and Kate have been in the present, it’s easy to dismiss the warning sign. But, in the Season 4 finale, we see a flash-forward to Kate’s second wedding — to her British boss, Phillip (Chris Geere). Much like with Jack’s death, the viewer knows something before the characters do, so any scenes with Kate and Toby, once the sixth and final season airs, will be sadder to witness now that we know where their marriage is headed.
Kate and Toby are also the only couple on the show who we saw the origins of in the pilot episode. Their relationship has progressed alongside the show and, naturally, viewers have a strong attachment to "KaToby" (as Toby lovingly refers to them as). Plus, the reminder that divorce happens even to couples who start off strong is another sad detail of life. But, more than anything, it’s jarring to see Kate and the other characters so happy on her wedding day while we, as viewers, are still reeling from the reveal — and the grief of knowing that Kate and Toby won’t make it.
We can definitely expect more heartbreaking moments in the sixth season, as Toby and Kate’s marriage falls apart and the Pearson family story comes to a close. Like life itself, the bittersweet highs and lows of "This is Us" are what makes it all worth experiencing.