Spoiler alert! The following story contains spoilers for the Season 6 premiere of This Is Us, “The Challenger.”

Fans of This Is Us knew it wouldn’t be easy to see the beginning of the end, as the sixth and final season premiered Tuesday night. “The Challenger” was set mostly around the Big Three’s 41st birthday, looking back at how far they’ve come in the past five years. Amid all the celebration, or lack thereof for some, it was Rebecca‘s heart-wrenching story that struck a chord, as she dealt with the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Mandy Moore‘s performance was stunning and really showed viewers that we’re in for an emotional ride.

A lot happened in “The Challenger” to set up what’s to come over the course of Season 6. Kevin and Madison navigated the world of co-parenting, Randall continued to try to save the world, Kate had a genuinely lovely moment with her future husband Phillip, and Nicky talked nonstop about Sally, “the one who got away.” 

In the middle of it all, Rebecca was mostly silent through the episode, as she struggled to remember the word for the last car on a train. As she, Nicky, and Miguel walked Kevin’s twins around the zoo, and as they sat down for Kate’s birthday dinner, Rebecca seemed in a fog as she relived two memories – one of train rides with her father, who walked her through each train car until they reached the caboose, and one reading The Little Red Caboose to her kids at bedtime each night – until her frustration literally exploded out of her.

Mandy Moore played Rebecca’s silent struggle perfectly, and Rebecca’s stubbornness in refusing to let Miguel or Nicky help her with the word was crushingly real. In the end, the word came back to her, and an exhausted Rebecca leaned against Miguel, uttering, “Caboose.” There was no celebration and barely relief, as Rebecca knew as well as viewers the significance of what was happening.

Mandy Moore even underscored the moment on Twitter, making me wonder if she, like me, had been fighting the urge to yell, “Caboose!” at the screen for the past hour. 

Mandy Moore’s performance was beautifully subtle, and it became real what this season is leading up to – the 2034 timeline where Rebecca is dying. Kevin and Kate had that realization as well, about how sick Rebecca really was, and Kevin’s wanting to stop time just to have a moment to process it all is precisely the kind of heartbreak I think we can expect from Season 6. 

Next week’s episode looks to feature some of our extended family members on road trips, as Rebecca and Miguel accompany Nicky to find Sally, and Deja travels to Boston to see her boyfriend Malik. This Is Us returns at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, January 11, on NBC. Be sure to check out our 2022 TV Schedule to see what else is coming up this month. 

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