Is THIS how Jack died?

What a way for the show to return. But really, did you expect anything else from This Is Us? One thing is for sure — season two is not going to pull any punches, and there’s definitely not going to be any lapse in emotion. Coming off a stellar and critically acclaimed first season (and a well-deserved recent Emmy win for Sterling K. Brown), This Is Us is stronger than ever and continues to show us why it’s one of the most well-written shows on television.

So let’s dive in, shall we? While last year’s pilot opened on The Big Three celebrating their 36th birthday, this episode begins with them celebrating their 37th (and what a year it’s been). But the past is still very much a part of the Pearson family’s lives, as evidenced by the soothing voice of dearly departed William, who narrates the opening… because this show just wants you to start crying in the first five minutes.

We start with Kate, who is down two dress sizes and trying to make it as a singer. Meanwhile, Kevin, who accepted work on that Ron Howard movie at the end of season one, is hard at work in LA and finally seeing some traction in his career, and Randall is hot with baby fever, trying to convince Beth they should adopt another child. In essence, this is what This Is Us is all about: families following their dreams and pushing themselves to better lives and brighter futures.

Of course, the show also reminds us that the past is never forgotten — something that is driven home throughout the hour, and something that we’re reminded of as we see the characters dealing with new challenges, and working on old ones.

Take Rebecca, for example. Season one ended with the “perfect” couple deciding to take a break, as Rebecca more or less threw Jack out. They tell their children, who are understandably upset — probably more so because we all know that despite Jack’s issues with his marriage, he really is a great dad to his kids. Jack moves into Miguel’s and Rebecca tries to lift her spirits with a new Tom Hanks movie. (A girl after my own heart, going to the movies to make herself feel better. I knew we were connected.)

Back in the present, Randall is dealing with a challenge of his own: Beth doesn’t want a baby the same way Randall does. She’s frustrated that Randall has become so focused on what he wants that he’s never asked her opinion on these things, which of course leads to tension that Randall is hoping to avoid. He goes to Rebecca for help, and gets some surprising advice: His marriage might never be perfect, but someone needs to take charge, and he shouldn’t be afraid to be the one to do it. Teary moment No. 2 of the evening: Mandy Moore’s speech and the way she tries to console her son and give him hope while clearly struggling with the events of the past. Rebecca ultimately admits that when they adopted Randall, Jack had to be the one to convince her.

Spurred by Rebecca’s words (and ghost dad William, cue teary moment No. 3), Randall realizes his dream isn’t what he thought it was. He compromises with Beth, who suggests that instead of a new baby, they adopt an older child — one who is in trouble, who needs a home and help. It’s what William would have done, and it’s what Rebecca and Jack would have done, if the situation presented itself. He tells Beth that his mother’s advice, while good, isn’t the advice he needs. He doesn’t need to push his family and have that fractured and unbalanced relationship, because that’s not his relationship with Beth. “We’re practically imperfect,” he says, and I, along with everyone else, scream at the television that we need a Beth and William origin story STAT.

Meanwhile, Kate’s trying to push forward, but she’s struggling with the past too — namely, that incident at the pool when she was a kid, where she was ridiculed for her weight. She bolts from her audition for a wedding singer, too afraid of potential humiliation. At least she’s not totally running away this time: She talks to Toby and Kevin, who has come back to New York for their birthday. Toby and Kevin butt heads over how to best counsel Kate, who could really use Rebecca’s advice: Someone in the relationship needs to take charge. After hearing all of their fighting, Kate realizes the only one she can trust is herself, and she pushes herself to go back to the audition.

And she kills it. I mean, she really kills it. We’re enthralled in Kate’s audition until it’s cut short, but Kate stands her ground and tells them she won’t be judged because of her weight. But the agent has a different criticism for her: She’s just not good enough. Strangely, Kate is actually relieved, because it means they were judging her on talent and not looks. And hey, if we know anything about Kate, it’s that she WILL succeed.

(Sidebar: Kevin bought out an entire restaurant for the Pearsons’ birthday bash. Over-the-top Kevin is still in effect this season, it seems.)

Back in the past, Rebecca could probably use some advice from well-adjusted Randall. Her marriage with Jack is still as rocky as ever. After sitting through her movie, she shows up at Miguel’s house and tells Jack she never should have asked him to leave. Jack listens, but Jack is also drunk. Like, really drunk. He’s been drunk for weeks, and he can’t go back to his family right now in this condition. Rebecca is heartbroken and all but forces Jack to come home by promising they’ll work on his problem together. Because that’s what they do, and that’s what a family does. This would be so much easier to stomach if we didn’t know so much about where everything ends up down the line.

Thanks to a stealthy bit of editing, we end the episode with Rebecca driving away from Miguel’s house, seemingly after her talk with Jack — but Jack’s not with her. Well, he is, but in the form of his effects — which are in a plastic bag. We come to realize this scene is just after his death. Kate and Randall are crying on Miguel’s couch with another child, but Kevin is nowhere to be seen. (We learn Kate will be the one to tell Kevin what happened, which explains why their bond is so strong and why they always seem to need to be there for each other.)

But perhaps the worst, most haunting part of the episode is the final shots: the Pearson house — a home of laughter, love, and happiness — burned to the ground. Is this it? Is this the answer that we’ve been waiting for, only one episode into the first season? Something tells me that it’s not going to be that simple — given the show’s history of pulling the rug out from under its audience, we could finally learn the cause of Jack’s death only to find a bigger and more devastating mystery. And that’s not even the only question of the episode. Where was Kevin during Jack’s death? Why was his leg broken, since it obviously seems relevant to the story?

We end with William’s voiceover again (cue teary moment No. 4), reminding us it’s better to have loved and lost, but to try not to lose it all. I have a feeling this will be a more muted and somber season of This Is Us, but the show does its best work when it’s tapping into the family’s emotions, and I can’t wait to get on the ride again.

What did you think of the season two premiere? Tell us @BritandCo.

(Photos via NBC)