This Is Us Season 4 Episode 17 recap: Randall’s fantasy dies

THIS IS US -- "After the Fire" Episode 417 -- Pictured: Sterling K. Brown as Randall -- (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)
THIS IS US -- "After the Fire" Episode 417 -- Pictured: Sterling K. Brown as Randall -- (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC) /

After four seasons, This Is Us has finally answered the question, “What if Jack didn’t die in the fire?” Unfortunately for Randall, that answer is a bit more complicated than he first thought. 

Spoiler alert: This post contains details from This Is Us Season 4, Episode 17.

What Randall Tells His Therapist He Thinks Would’ve Happened

The hour opens with Randall in therapy as he tells Dr. Leigh (Pamela Adlon) that ever since his confrontation with Kevin in New York City, where Randall admitted that he believes he could’ve saved Jack, he hasn’t stopped picturing that alternate reality. When Dr. Leigh asks him what he thinks would’ve happened had Jack survived, we are immediately brought into that reality.

It’s a reality that hinges on the idea that immediately following the fire, Rebecca would reflect on bad decisions she’d made in the past and aim to correct them. As a result, in this reality, Rebecca comes clean to Jack about knowing William. He supports her and together, they tell Randall the truth 19 years earlier than he would’ve found out.

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Jack accompanies Randall to William’s apartment and watches as Randall and William hit it off. He allows Randall to see William regularly on the condition that William gets clean. We’re then treated to a montage of Jack and William going to AA meetings, and William eventually getting clean.

Randall still goes to Carnegie Mellon, but it’s to be closer to William, not Rebecca, who, in this reality, he’s estranged from. At Carnegie Mellon, he meets Beth, who ultimately encourages him to reconcile with his mother, and he and Beth still end up getting married.

At the wedding, Jack gives the toast, as the Pearson gang, along with William, who’ll be involved in several other Pearson events, looks on. Since William is in Randall’s life earlier, Randall is there to catch William’s cancer before it spreads, and William survives. At the end of this reality, Rebecca still develops memory problems, but thanks to good ‘ole Jack and Randall, they’re able to team up and convince her to attend the clinical trial in St. Louis.

Not buying it? Neither is Randall’s therapist, and neither am I, but we’ll get to that.

At this point, Dr. Leigh stops Randall just short of us finding out if, Rebecca too, will be saved in this alternate reality and tells him to stop playing games and start being honest. Although he assures her he is being honest, Dr. Leigh challenges him to consider what scares him the most about if his father lived.

A Vision Through Not So Rose-Colored Glasses

In this alternate reality, Rebecca still comes clean to Jack about knowing William, however, instead of being understanding, Jack is furious. As they begin to argue, Randall overhears what they’re fighting about and is devastated. Jack and Randall still go to meet William but are turned away, likely because of the promise William made to Rebecca.

This adds to Randall’s devastation and fuels his anger toward Rebecca.

THIS IS US — “So Long, Marianne” Episode 409 — Pictured: (l-r) Mandy Moore as Rebecca, Sterling K. Brown as Randall — (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)
THIS IS US — “So Long, Marianne” Episode 409 — Pictured: (l-r) Mandy Moore as Rebecca, Sterling K. Brown as Randall — (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC) /

My initial response to Randall’s first alternate reality was confusion because I didn’t believe for a second that Jack would take the news about William well. As Nicky tells The Big Three in Season 3, Episode 11, Jack saw the world in black-and-white, there were no grey areas. Jack might’ve understood why Rebecca kept a secret from him as he was keeping a secret from her too.

What I don’t believe he would’ve understood was why she would deny Randall the opportunity to learn about his birth father because, as we saw in Season 1, Episode 9, he believed that Randall deserved to have a better understanding of who he was.

So anyway, since Randall now has nothing keeping him at home, he ends up attending Howard University, which means that he never meets Beth and is never encouraged to reconcile with Rebecca. He rarely visits home, and when he does, there is a tense air in the room, especially since Jack and Rebecca’s marriage is on the rocks. When he gets older, he attends Kevin’s wedding to Sophie, where we learn that he’s a professor at Brunel University in London.

He’s a bit of a womanizer, having shown up with one of his teaching assistants, claiming that it’s nothing serious, and we’re given the impression that he’s remained distant from all of the Pearson’s except Jack for years. When Kevin, who runs Big Three Homes with Jack, calls him out on it, Randall gets defensive and leaves. The next night, he gets a box in the mail with a letter informing him that William has died but wanted him to have a box of his things.

Although he seems momentarily touched, he ultimately throws the box in the garbage.

The next morning, we see Randall with a new T.A. He receives a call from Jack, who asks him to come home for Thanksgiving. Randall hesitates, but Jack, who’s learned to forgive Rebecca, asks Randall to do the same and then reveals Rebecca’s diagnosis.

Of course, this prompts Randall to reconcile with Rebecca as this alternate reality ends.

Both realities seem to suggest that without Beth, Randall would’ve never forgiven Rebecca. However, with the way we saw their estrangement play out inSeason 1, Beth had nothing to do with Randall forgiving Rebecca. As we learn, later on in this episode, Randall forgave her because he’d cared for her for so long after Jack’s death, their bond had become so strong as they grieved together, that he knew not forgiving her after all they’d been through would break her.

If anything, Jack’s death ensured Randall and Rebecca’s bond wouldn’t be broken after Randall found out about William. So it makes sense that it would take another tragedy, e.g., Rebecca’s Alzheimer’s, to reunite them. Although Randall is adamant that Jack surviving the fire would’ve made his life better, in this reality, out of all of The Big Three, his life seems subjectively worse.

Doctor’s Prognosis

At the end of the session, Dr. Leigh reveals that this exercise had nothing to do with Jack, but did have something to do with Rebecca. The event that seems to be at the heart of both realities is the William reveal, and that’s 100% a Rebecca-centered event. Dr. Leigh suggests that Randall still harbors resentment toward Rebecca for having kept William a secret from him when he was younger and urges him to confront her before it’s too late.

Randall agrees that he may be harboring resentment, but tells her that he’s already lost three parents and can’t risk losing Rebecca. So later that night he calls Rebecca, who’s having a game night with Miguel, Kate, Toby, and Kevin, and has a heart-to-heart with her instead:

"“I’ve been a good son, and I’ve never asked you for anything. But I am asking you for this now.  And I need you to say it. You are going to St. Louis. And you are going to do this clinical trial.”"

To this, Rebecca looks tearfully at those she’d be leaving behind and agrees.

Kate & Toby need to work through Jack's disability. dark. Next

How will Kate and Kevin react to Rebecca’s decision? Will this be the inciting incident to Randall and Kevin’s feud? Let us know what you think!

The This Is Us Season 4 finale airs Tuesday, March 24, at 9pm ET on NBC.