"I’m so sick of chasing ghosts": Time Manipulation in This is Us

Curator's Note

In the last three minutes of the season four finale “Strangers: Part Two,” This is Us viewers visit the Pearson family in four nonlinear timelines in the past, present, and future. In the past, father Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore) mourn the loss of one of their triplets. In the present, son Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) reels from the reveal that former fling Madison (Caitlin Thompson) is pregnant while his sister Kate (Chrissy Metz) and her husband Toby (Chris Sullivan) decide to expand their family through adoption. The future, split into two segments, sees Kevin and second Pearson son Randall (Sterling K. Brown) reuniting at their ailing mother’s bedside; even further on, Kate’s son Jack (Blake Stadnik) welcomes his daughter Hope into the world. Time jumps between the family’s past, present, and future are not uncommon on This is Us, which manipulates time repeatedly to remind viewers that even the smallest decisions can drastically change the courses of our lives.

For the threads introduced in this montage, though seemingly small moments in the past and present timelines, have a ripple effect some thirty years into the future. Jack and Rebecca’s loss of a biological child creates a space for an adopted child in their family, allowing Randall to join their family and support Rebecca during her slow cognitive decline. Kevin’s decision to support Madison throughout her pregnancy creates a new family, allowing his twins to stand by and comfort him as he mourns Rebecca's memory loss at the end of her life. Kate and Toby’s decision to adopt creates a sibling support system for Jack that will remain long after they're gone, allowing sister Hailey (Adelaide Kane) to be present for Hope’s birth while his other family members are absent, with other threads waiting to reveal their ties to the present in due time. Every little decision we make, This is Us reminds viewers again and again through time manipulation, has consequences. As noted by García (2018), narrative time manipulation can be used to promote “new conception[s] of collective intelligence” (p. 1) that illustrate new ways to accept the times in which we live. Nowhere is this statement truer than in This is Us, where multiple timelines are manipulated to collectively arrive at the incredibly timely message that the decisions we've made in the past and the ones we make in the present can impact our future as well as that of those we love.

“I’m so sick of chasing ghosts,” says Kevin at the start of this montage, ready to leave his old life behind. As scenes from the past and future cut in and out around him, Kevin willingly accepts the role of father; he may not yet know what the future holds, but because of the montage's time manipulation, viewers do, and it is beautifully filled with both loss and love. Here, This is Us shares its collective intelligence with its viewers—choosing to embrace new opportunities that greet us in the present, while being mindful of our past, can have exhaustive effects on our future...even if we can't see them yet.


I've always enjoyed television for its ability to play with narrative time in ways that bring audiences closer to its characters. This seems like a perfect case study for examining how and why this works so well.

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