Why Jack Pearson washing dishes is the thing that bothered me most about his death

I’m not totally comfortable with my feelings when it comes to “This Is Us,” the NBC tearjerker about the beautifully complicated Pearson family.

I like watching it. Ok, fine, I love watching it, nestled under my comforter after my children have gone to bed and my husband is busy downstairs with work, or next to me pretending to read even though I know he’s secretly into it.  

I cling to an image of myself as someone who enjoys edgier, less mainstream programming. But the truth is that I find watching the show relaxing and enjoyable. Its dramatic peaks are often forced, but I happily take the emotional beating.

I, of course, followed along last season as the adult Pearson triplets weathered major challenges and the show inched closer to finally revealing the cause of their father’s tragic death - when they were just teenagers.

I, like many viewers, was surprised by the way the house fire and subsequent events played out, when I stayed up far later than I intended watching that episode after February’s Superbowl game. Jack’s death was more understated than I’d imagined, and more heartbreaking because of that.

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But the detail that struck me most had occurred at the end of the prior episode.

I watched as Jack entered a messy kitchen that his beloved wife Rebecca had abandoned following a busy day of Superbowl snack preparations, opting instead to get some sleep. We’ve all been there.

Jack, who, by all accounts is a wonderful husband and father, decided to clean it up, packing pigs-in-a-blanket into plastic bags, wiping down the counters and switching off the finicky Crock Pot before heading up to bed.

It was that scene, which caused me to sit up a little straighter. “Please, no, don’t let this handsome man clean up the kitchen and then die,” I thought.

It was a complicated feeling for me, one I recognized instantly because I’ve been having feelings like this a lot lately, wanting to at once explore and dismiss them.  Complicated because I didn’t feel affection towards Jack as he adorably tidied the kitchen so it would be ready for the family’s frantic morning. I felt annoyance. I felt annoyance because: why hasn’t he been cleaning up that kitchen all along? And the one time he does it, are we women supposed to feel thankful, and all the more grief at his loss?

I know, I know. I’m overthinking this, and I’m definitely projecting. Meal preparation and washing the dishes can be a sore subject for many families - mine included.

I feel that my husband and I are good at co-navigating the endless landscape of domestic duties involved in raising our three children; we both work, although his work schedule is less flexible than mine. But he is a helpful task-doer, and a willing recipient of my requests when I want him to do more.

And yet, while watching “This is Us,” I take note – almost counting on my fingers – all the times that Rebecca, played by the lovely Mandy Moore, is in the kitchen. Cleaning up cereal bowls. Standing at the sink for one reason or another. I don’t know what the show’s creators are trying to say or not say in those scenes – probably nothing – but I feel frustration on the character’s behalf in every single one. Or, weirdly, I feel like she’s feeling frustration on behalf of me.

Like Jack’s quiet death following the raging fire, this observation, ironically, feels harsher because it lacks drama. I, too, am often standing in the kitchen, Rebecca. Is it a big deal? Does it need fixing? Maybe.

I’m keenly aware of my thoughts as we all contend with actually high-drama cultural politics, teaching our children to grow up strong, untied to the previous generation’s norms. I think that in this historical moment, rich with a million sides to take and dense platforms to explore (Trump, harassment, racism, equal pay, you name it), I’ve grown fearful; nervous about wading in too deep and becoming angry without purpose or action; cowed to a place where I’m not sure what fights to pick.

That’s why the scene made me so uncomfortable. I don’t know whether or not the show’s plan was to have women everywhere thinking, “Finally Jack!” then feeling guilty about his coming demise, and also silly and small about harboring such minor hang-ups. I doubt it was – but that’s how I felt.

As with enjoying the show in the first place, I wish I were cooler than this, more breezy, but confident in articulating my feelings: I think I spend too much time in the kitchen, can you help? AND I think the President’s overt fear-mongering is a travesty but I’m not sure how to fix it. AND, we all deserve respect, authority and equality - and I desperately want to teach that to my children.

I think my concern is that in approaching so many quandaries, including my own domestic load, I’ll choose none. A psychological frenzy sparked by one sweet scene. Perhaps the show’s creators were doing nothing more than what they so often do: showing Jack acting in a selfless way for his family. I mean, let’s not forget that directly following his kitchen clean up, he literally saves all their lives. On to the next.

At the very least, the episode was a helpful mirror, providing insight into my own anxieties as I try to be the best role model; a good reminder that attacking our smaller demons might be just the right preparation for fighting the big ones.