*Warning: Spoilers ahead*
After 31 episodes, many clues and one attention-getting misdirection, This Is Us finally reveals how patriarch Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) died in Sunday’s post-Super Bowl episode.
“All of the stuff people might be theorizing about regarding Jack's death will get wrapped up in this episode,” creator Dan Fogelman tells USA TODAY. "I think people are going to be satisfied and, in … ways they don't see coming, they're going to be really surprised."
The fact of Jack's death, an unexpected reveal in the hit NBC drama's first episode, has obsessed many fans — who analyze hints and and seek clues about the cause — and annoyed others, who complain the mystery has dragged on too long.
‘Super Bowl Sunday’ (10:15 ET/7:15 PT, time approximate, with the cast appearing later on The Tonight Show) shifts between the 1998 Super Bowl, the day of Jack’s death, and this year’s big game, as Randall (Sterling K. Brown) hosts a Super Bowl party. (Could there be a worse matchup for the Steelers-loving Pearsons than Eagles-Patriots?)
In the earlier timeline, “it’s a continuation of where we left off (in the Jan. 23 episode) with the fire starting to spread” after a slow cooker shorts out and ignites a curtain, Fogelman says. “In the present day, we’re connecting with characters as they’re contemplating the 20th anniversary of that fire.”
Us fans also learn more about how Jack's tragic passing affected family dynamics: Why Kate (Chrissy Metz) blames herself, and Kevin (Justin Hartley) has trouble processing his father’s death.
"Kate is self-examining, Randall is, in his own way, celebrating his father and Kevin (considers) his history with his father," Fogelman says.
He always planned to resolve Jack's death sometime late this season, hoping to link the tragedy to a holiday "that we could build into family lore."
But when he realized the audience-boosting post-Super Bowl slot was available, he called NBC executives and pitched the Pearsons as "a football family." He probably would have received the slot anyway: The series, one of TV's buzziest, is broadcast TV's No. 3 drama, averaging 15.5 million viewers, and the top scripted series among young adults.
Many fans reacted strongly, and negatively, to Season 1's penultimate episode, in which Kate first claimed responsibility for Jack's death and a drunken Jack was seen driving erratically, leading many to expect that would lead to his demise.
"We thought that was a cool cliffhanger. We didn't realize it was going to set the Internet ablaze," Fogelman says. "We've become careful" parsing out details.
After the Season 2 premiere revealed Jack's death was connected to a house fire, the show focused on other storylines, including Kate's pregnancy and miscarriage, Kevin's drug dependency and Randall's adoption effort.
"While Jack's looming death was always in the background, I thought it dissipated a little bit, in a good way," Fogelman says. "It only built up again recently," with the revelation that the kitchen smoke detector was missing batteries in the closing shot in the Jan. 16 episode.
Besides "heartbreakingly sad" moments, the episode also is "in parts hold-your-breath thrilling," especially the opening six-minute scene, he promises. And “we have something looming with (Kate’s) dog that we’ve been setting up for quite a while.”
Fogelman doesn't worry that post-game newcomers will be left in the dark.
"This isn't Lost. It's not so complicated. I think it's pretty easy to dive in if you want to," he says. "I think it's very possible to watch this as the first episode you've ever seen, and then (go to) Episode 1."
Will the heavy subject matter prove too much of a downer right after the game?
"Our show is made by optimists and romantics, and even in our hardest episodes, that comes through. Even our saddest stuff is not ugly. It's done with love," says Fogelman. "At the end, I think there is a degree of, 'It's going to be OK.' "