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"This Is Us" Wants You to Cry Harder Than You've Ever Cried

Are you ready to see what would've happened if Jack Pearson had lived?

As America's favorite family, the Pearsons don't have many flaws.

Sure, the patriarch Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) struggled with alcoholism, and he and his wife, Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore) weren't equipped to address the subject of racial inequality in America despite adopting a black son, but the mythology that This Is Us has crafted around Jack and Rebecca Pearson is untouchable: They were the perfect love story.

Except Jack Pearson died tragically in a house fire when his three kids were just teenagers, his widow ended up marrying his best friend who has the personality of plain toast, and now, in her old age, Rebecca is showing signs of Alzheimer's disease, meaning that she'll one day forget all about her epic love story with Jack.

Only two more episodes remain until the season 4 finale (titled "Strangers: Part 2," which suggests the return of Cassidy Sharp, played by Jennifer Morrison), and the time-jumping series has been teasing more dramatic reveals than ever: Who is Kevin's fiancee and mother of his child? Will Randall experience another nervous breakdown? Will Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) and her husband, Toby (Chris Sullivan), break up over the conflict of raising a child with special needs?

Of course, there have been signs of hope for the Pearsons, like dangling ropes to hang ourselves with while we wait for the Pearsons to figure their sh*t out and become the well-adjusted people we ourselves will never be. By the end of "Clouds," we saw that Toby seems to be adjusting to fatherhood with a blind son, Randall has continued his much-needed therapy despite his pride, and Kevin–well, who knows what Kevin will do next, as that boy has a twisted sense of love and relationships.

But tonight's episode, "After the Fire," will attempt to wrench the the still-beating heart out of America's chests by showing us what life would have been like if Jack had lived. At the end of last week's episode, "New York, New York," Randall (Sterling K. Brown) told his brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), that he often thinks about what would have happened if their father had survived. Promo materials show the return of elderly Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), who has made brief appearances in his children's dreams.

Following his first appearance as 73-year-old Jack in the season two finale, Ventimiglia shared with CNN that the show's makeup artists based his aged look on photos of his own late father. The process took three hours and involved a wig, but the impressive realism matches that of Mandy Moore's time-jumping transformations. Ventimiglia added, "Looking at the history of Jack and how he had lived his life in a very simple way, I feel like a broken record saying he loves his wife and he loves his kids, but I feel like that is expanded when you get to your 70s." He added, "He felt like a man that was probably interested in slowing things down as best as he could, just to hang on to the moments."

With Randall beginning regular therapy for his anxiety disorder, is his preoccupation with his father's death a driving source of his anxiety? Would Jack have taken Randall to meet his biological father, William, when he was a teenager (giving him decades of time to spend with William before he succumbed to cancer)? Would Randall have been happier if he hadn't felt the responsibility of looking out for his mother throughout his life? Would Rebecca have been happier? Would she still have become sick?

This Is Us will come for your soul Tuesday, March 17, and the finale will air on March 24, on NBC.

This Is Us 4x17 Promo "After the Fire" (HD)

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"I Can't Teach My Son ​How to Be Black": Jack Learns a Lesson on "This Is Us"

Jack Pearson, America's Favorite Dad, shows how a good man and a good father can be totally ignorant, and sort of a d*ck.

This Is Us isn't sugarcoating the tough questions in Season 4, whether that's regarding Cassidy Sharp's (Jennifer Morrison) PTSD, the reality of teenage parenthood, or Randall Pearson's (Sterling K. Brown) adolescent struggles as a black adoptee in a white family.

In the last episode, "The Dinner and the Date," two difficult dinner conversations about race and class, taking place in two different decades, overlap. The episode teased out this season's surprisingly complex themes about interracial families and socioeconomic clashes. Helming the show's unique turn is writer Kay Oyegun, who continues to elevate its creative and thematic sophistication by bringing fraught conversations to the attention of the show's 12 million viewers. Namely, how can a white family help their adopted child of color figure out his identity?

In a series of flashbacks, we witness the night Jack (Milo Ventimilgia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) Pearson invite young Randall's favorite teacher—and the only black instructor at his elite private school—Mr. Lawrence (Brandon Scott) and his wife, Trish (Skye P. Marshall), over to dinner. Simultaneously, in the present, we see Randall (Sterling K. Brown) inviting the parents of his adopted daughter's would-be boyfriend over for dinner to plan their children's breakup. Deja (Lyric Ross), the daughter of a drug addict who's experienced homelessness and abusive foster care, has served as a stark contrast to the privileged upbringing Randall had and the one he's giving his children with his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). Now her first love interest, Malik (Asante Blackk) is an earnest, kind, confident 14-year-old who understands Deja in a way no one in her upper middle class family has been able to—and he happens to have an infant daughter.

This Is Us 4x07 Promo "The Dinner And The Date" (HD)

So the two conflicted dinners mix the cringe comedy of socially awkward conversations with the serious gravity—and deep, deep flaws—of Jack's comment to Mr. Lawrence: "I can't teach my son how to be black."

Mr. Lawrence's response is perfect and well-acted: a mortified snort. "Oh don't...don't do that," he chuffs, before going to his car to retrieve a book of black conscious poetry that he intended to give to Randall. Instead he gives it to Jack, who takes the collection of Langston Hughes poetry to young Randall's room, and the two bond over Randall's favorite poem, which he's already memorized.

Whether or not you're like me and hate to admit you've ever shed a tear over anything short of battery acid straight to the eye, young Randall's recitation of "I, Too" is the kind of formulaic pathos and prime time pageantry that great tear-jerkers are made of. That is to say: Yes, I f*cking wept, you cretins, and if you didn't, then you are a Black Mirror robot dog.

In its totality, this is Hughe's "I, Too" poem, and what follows is why I, Jack, and most of America caught a bug in the eye or something when young Randall recited it.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

The driving force of tension at Mr. Lawrence's dinner at the Pearson's is Jack's palpable feeling of being threatened by him. During last week's episode, "The Club," Jack struggled to articulate why he was intimidated by Randall's affinity for Mr. Lawrence. Driven partly by over-protection and probably part shame, he said that Randall is getting older and asking more complex questions "about his place in this world" and that there are things he "can't show [his] son." He even made the faux pas of telling Randall, "I don't see color, I see my son," which he quickly realized was, however well-intentioned, very off the mark, as Randall replied, "Then you don't see me, dad."

So with Mr. Lawrence and his wife sitting at his table with his children, Jack continuously makes passive aggressive remarks challenging Mr. Lawrence's right to introduce Randall to new parts of culture, like the local black arts festival that Randall asks to attend with his teacher. Jack interrupts to say that the Pearsons can all go "as a family" and leave Mr. Lawrence to go "with his friends." The tension builds until Rebecca meets Jack in the kitchen to inform him of the absolute obvious: Randall is his son; Randall will always prefer him to any other male role model in his life; but if Jack makes Randall choose him and sacrifice having other important figures who could help him learn who he is, then Randall will suffer for it.

This is Us 4x07 Sneak Peek Clip 2 "The Dinner And The Date"

It's a clear cut, direct, and honest depiction of a good man and a good father (Jack is inarguably America's Favorite Dad)—being completely ignorant, and sort of a d*ck. Jack is threatened and worried that he is fundamentally lacking as a white father to a black son—not from any racial prejudice, but from insecurity in himself as a parent. He recognizes that race does matter to the world that will receive his children as adults—grievously so, in fact. He has a very human, self-protective instinct to deny and resist that reality, but he senses that doing so would be harmful to Randall in some vital way.

So really, his stumbled comment, "I can't teach Randall how to be black," is his best articulation of that anxiety and his acknowledgement of that terrible, sad fact. And he senses, in some itchy, nebulous way, that if Randall doesn't learn how to respond to the way the world will treat him, and if he doesn't learn the history of how people who looked liked him were treated, then Randall will be ill-equipped to face the world. Or, more accurately, Jack would be keeping him away from something that he needs in order to live a fully conscious life.

That's how we get to the scene in young Randall's bedroom, after he's just declared his favorite poem to be Langston Hughe's "I, Too" and recited it from memory in front of Jack, who promises that they're going to read the entire collection of poetry together.