If you've ever happened to be on social media on Tuesday nights this fall, you’re likely aware that people are obsessed with figuring out how Jack Pearson dies on This Is Us. The show has been deliberately slow in revealing the full story of Jack’s tragic demise, doling out small clues one emotional, gut-wrenching flashback at a time. For many viewers, putting the puzzle pieces together to discover how, and why, the character died has been a driving question that keeps them watching.
In the months leading up to the show's second season, fans talked a lot about the central mystery. How could this perfect, kind-hearted, generous patriarch of the Pearson family, who happens to have the dad bod of an angel, be ripped from this Earth so young, with his children still in high school? How dare this television program give us a classy elderly Mandy Moore, while withholding scenes with Milo Ventimiglia as a dreamy silver fox? People started devising fan theories about just how Jack met his end: Does he die as he lived, a hero willing to sacrifice himself for his family? Was his death related to his alcoholism? Maybe, in a strange soapy turn, he was murdered by his best friend, Miguel (unlikely)?
While the Season Two premiere episode offered a big hint, there are still many questions left unanswered surrounding exactly how Jack dies. Everyone seems to have a theory, and everyone wants this mystery solved already — but why, exactly, do we care so much? To find out, we asked a few clinical psychologists and therapists for their theories on what’s driving this fan obsession.
Two of the experts we spoke to believed that the intense interest might lie in the show’s method of storytelling. “People are often drawn to shows that are of a non-traditional format and also to those that have an element of mystery, especially when they admire the characters,” explained Dr. Laurel Steinberg, a New York-based psychologist specializing in anxiety and relationships. “Add in the dramatic elements of beauty and death, and one would be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn't take an interest.” So, in other words, we are likely to care because the show's structure of withholding information is compelling us to. But Jack’s undeniable goodness, and Ventimiglia’s big brown eyes, don't hurt, either.
Nicole Richardson, an Austin-based licensed therapist and counselor specializing in relationships and trauma, agreed that story structure helps drive viewer ratings, which have made the NBC dramedy one of the year's biggest hits. “I think that people might be craving suspense as a reaction to the prevalence of instant gratification,” Richardson said.
Richardson explained that because This Is Us unfolds over dozens of episodes, each released one week at a time on network television as opposed to the increasingly common streaming service practice of dropping an entire season at once, the format encourages people to engage in “almost-mindful watching.” For people who regularly binge-watch TV, picking up a suspenseful story every week that relies on small revelations offered intermittently — with a few red herrings possibly thrown in — is a welcome change of pace.
This theory would also explain how this sort of plot device, with unexpected character information delivered through a series of flashbacks, made Lost appointment television a decade ago. But there have been other series that have used similar techniques and didn't pull the same devoted fanbase (R.I.P. Flash Forward) so clearly structure isn't the sole reason why so many people find This Is Us' mystery irresistible. Richardson believes there’s another factor that makes us hungry to figure out the cause of Jack's demise. She says it's because predicting how Jack died is inherently satisfying — even if you get it wrong.
“If he dies from an addiction then the hero has fallen, whereas if he dies in a tragic fire then that’s a hero’s journey,” Richardson said. “Whichever you believe happened is also self-revealing for if you’re a cynic or an optimist.” If you are somebody who wants to think Jack died in an alcohol-related accident or commits suicide, then you might just be a pessimist, whereas if you want to believe he died in an act of bravery, then you’re probably an optimist. Richardson says it can be equally exciting to have your worldview validated or to be proven wrong.
Though, then again, maybe it all has to do with the characters and how we relate to them. Mariana Plata, who specializes in child and adolescent psychology in Panama, has gathered her own theories while watching the series. “I think unconsciously the show makes people think about their own families and how family history shapes you,” Plata said. Over the past year, she’s noticed many people talking online about the show's character relationships and family dynamics. “It makes people think about their interactions with their own parents, and, if they’re parents, how their parenting habits affect their children.” The loss of Jack might particularly affect audience members who either lost a parent or another mentor-like figure.
According to Plata, that connection with death also plays with our feelings in another way. “Death is always there — it’s on the back burner — and we want to understand it, we try to rationalize death to protect our emotional well-being and cope with it,” Plata says. She theorizes that by trying to solve the mystery of Jack’s death, and by holding out hope that Jack, who she describes as an “ideal character,” dies in way we think justifies his loss, we’re attempting to make death “hurt less.”
Whether we care so deeply about this mystery because of clever plotting, a love of predicting story beats, our personal affinities to the characters, or some combination of all of the above, you have to admit it would be nice if This Is Us revealed Jack's cause of death to be something that gives viewers some catharsis as we grapple with our own mortality. That’s a pretty a big ask for a television series, though, even if it is a good one. Still, we hope to get answers soon — both to how he dies and what it means for how we see ourselves.