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‘This Is Us’ Bosses on Randall’s New Challenges, Rebecca’s Other Man and Diving ‘Deeper’ with Zoe

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “A Philadelphia Story,” the second episode of the third season of “This Is Us.”

There was a lot to celebrate in the second episode of the third season of “This Is Us,” but true to Pearson family form, it of course came with a healthy dose of drama, too.

The present-day storyline saw the family gathering for Kevin’s (Justin Hartley) movie premiere, but very quickly attention turned away from the man of the hour when the family found out Kate (Chrissy Metz) was doing IVF treatments and they had mixed feelings about it. Rebecca (Mandy Moore) worried about the risks, while Randall (Sterling K. Brown) fumed over hearing Kate believes she’s the only one who can really carry on a piece of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia).

“As someone who feels an incredibly intense connection to his adopted father, he feels like he very much carries on a piece of Jack with him in the way he leads his life. So the implication that because he doesn’t have the biological connection means he doesn’t carry that, he’s finding pretty offensive,” executive producer Isaac Aptaker tells Variety. 

The past storyline mirrored the format of should-be celebration overrode by complicated feelings. While Rebecca looked for a new family home and teenage Randall (Niles Fitch) learned he got into Howard University, teenage Kevin (Logan Shroyer) was drinking a lot and teenage Kate (Hannah Zeile) had gained 25 pounds and had to admit she never turned in her tape to the Berklee College of Music.

The episode also brought back Emmy winner Ron Cephas Jones as William in another flashback storyline that ended up connecting with his adult son’s story of fixing up the apartment building he bought.

“We loved the idea of the bridge between past and present with William and Randall being in the same space and interacting with the same person,” executive producer Elizabeth Berger says. “It felt like it had this cosmic magic to it.”

Here, Aptaker and Berger talk with Variety about how the Pearsons will rally around Kate in the coming episode, why now was the perfect time to introduce Chi-Chi (Yetide Badaki) and what’s ahead for Jack and Rebecca’s love story.

Randall was clearly upset by Kate’s comments about carrying on Jack by having a biological child, but Rebecca seemed to come around when she helped give her the hormone shot. Where does the family fall going forward?

Aptaker: We’re going to pick right up on that in our next week’s episode and see what that look was all about, but clearly that has shaken him.

Berger: If you know Randall you know he’s not going to sit on a feeling he has for very long! So we’re going to see the two of them deal with this pretty immediately and hash it out, and after that for the most part the family is going to be extremely supportive. Even though we’ve seen Rebecca having mixed feelings about this, they just want what’s best for Kate and want Kate to be happy, so overall they’re going to be a supportive bunch.

Rebecca did have a moment where she noticed something was off with Toby, and seeing her in her grief in the flashbacks after Jack’s death, it felt like she could have been suffering from a depression beyond grief. 

Berger: She’s obviously in a deep state of grief and I think you could probably call that a depression. I’m not sure we saw them exactly the same, but they have some characteristics that are the same. She’s grappling with losing her soulmate and the love of her life, and last season we saw her make these promises to her kids about how everything would be OK and how she’s going to rise to the occasion and take care of them, but the reality of going it alone is much more difficult than she anticipated it would be, and we’re going to see how that plays out throughout the whole season.

What research have you had to do to tell both the depression and IVF stories respectfully and accurately?

Aptaker: We have consulted with at least three, maybe four fertility doctors. We screened the [premiere] episode, before anyone else saw it, for an IVF doctor who said we checked all of the boxes and that it rang really true to him. With anything we do that’s medical it’s really important because it affects so many people so if there was a false note in it it feels like people would really pick up on that.

Berger: We’re very careful to research what the real side effects would be and what the real fallout would be [of Toby going off his meds].

Aptaker: We’re really fortunate, in that we have an incredible writing staff who have a lot of first-hand experience with issues we cover, so we have people on our staff who have experienced it or are very close with people who suffer from depression and are struggling with their medications, so it’s something that we’ve been able to get first-hand experience on to help it ring very true.

Why was this episode the right time to introduce Chi-Chi and connect William and Randall’s worlds deeper?

Aptaker: It sort of speaks to Randall’s bigger picture storyline for the season, which has to do with his father’s old neighborhood and is a natural extension of the building he’s purchased and the commitments and promises he’s made to these people. It’s kicking off his season-long story. … Chi-Chi’s a big part of Randall’s world whenever he’s in this building. We had met that actor and knew we wanted to find a part for her because she was so talented. She was on “American Gods” and other stuff, so it was about finding the right part and the right time. That was part of it, but then our writer of this episode, Kay Oyegun, is an immigrant, and we always knew we wanted to tell an immigrant story, and this felt like a very organic way to do it. We loved exploring a different time in William’s life that we haven’t been in very much — the recent history just pre-Randall. So we knew we were going to tell a story where Randall’s connection to this community is told through a William story, and it felt like a perfect opportunity to introduce this character.

Berger: Kay, who’s a brilliant writer, is also Nigerian and the character is based on her own experiences.

Aptaker: She also lived in Philadelphia for part of her life. We just got to draw on so much of her life story to really make this person feel true.

Going forward in the season, is William’s story focused in this timeline?

Aptaker: He’ll be in this timeline but other timelines. We love putting Ron with our characters, too, and obviously in this timeline he hasn’t met any of them, so whenever we can find a story for him, regardless of where it is in our chronology we’re always eager to put it in.

The flashbacks to the teenage Big Three started to really seed the issues we know they struggle with as adults. How far will we see them fall in the past?

Aptaker: That’s such a seminal time in their lives — they’re about to graduate high school and that’s when you put yourself on a track towards adulthood regardless of whether you just have the must traumatic, defining incident of their lives, which they had. We’re a few months after their father died and their home has completely been destroyed, so certainly they are in one of the darkest times of their lives, and this season when we’re in the ’90s, it’s about who is able to pull themselves out of it and who gets lost in the spiral.

Is Randall’s decision about Howard final?

Berger: Yes, this decision set him on a different path than he anticipated going on, but also the path that he went on led to Beth and a lot of joy and happiness.

Speaking of Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), how much of her flashback episode will also give insight into why she warned Kevin about her cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd)?

Aptaker: Zoe was raised by Beth’s mother pretty early in her life, and Zoe is part of the fabric of Beth’s life, so when we go into Beth’s history, Zoe will be there.

Berger: We’re also digging deeper as Kevin and her relationship unfolds. We’re learning more and more about her.

How objective is what we will learn about Zoe if it’s coming in Beth’s flashback?

Aptaker: We tend to think of those backstories as pretty objective, unless we’re going into a memory, which is different. It’s Beth’s backstory, but Zoe is featured.

How influential will Zoe continue to be over Kevin? Is he inspired to go to Vietnam because of her or because of his experience with the movie?

Aptaker: He’s pretty head over heels. They have great chemistry, and he’s really, really into her. Next week we’ll see the beginnings of what leads Kevin to Vietnam, but she’s a big part of that.

Berger: Yeah, I think he’s enamored with her obvious beauty but also her intellect and her inquisitive personality, so how she approaches the world will influence how he sees the world.

Aptaker: He’s a little intimidated by her, and I think because she is so sophisticated and accomplished, he wants to rise to the occasion. She really does bring out the best in him.

On a broader level, as you continue to expand the size of your cast, what has become the most important aspect of balancing the stories and whose to service when?

Berger: Our most important priority is that our line producer doesn’t murder us! [Laughs] No, I think we always feel like our Pearson family is the heart of this show, and we’re always making sure we have enough Jack and Rebecca and then enough of our Big Three, and then everything circles around that.

Aptaker: What’s also really freeing this year … is not every episode this year features a full story for each of our characters. We’re sort of keeping it balanced across the whole season and letting ourselves do really deep dives. So you might get an episode that’s 80 or 90% Jack’s backstory and we don’t get a lot of Kate in that one, but then the next week we do a huge Kate story. Week to week although we don’t have the room to give everyone a big story, we’re using the time we do have to really go deeper into these characters and make them incredibly complicated and full realized.

Speaking of Jack’s backstory, can we trust what he said about his brother dying in the war?

Aptaker: What Jack says about the war is very complicated. We know from the mechanic thing that a lot of what he says shouldn’t be taken at face value, and there’s more to that story there, and you’re going to get all of the answers this year.

When you were writing and casting Alan (Hunter Parrish), how different did you want him to be from Jack?

Berger: [Rebecca] is at a crossroads — we’ve seen her with two different men, and she’s going to have a choice to make, and we wanted it to seem like a really complex choice for her. This means that there are going to be things that this other guy can offer her that Jack can’t offer her, and there are things Jack can offer her that he can’t. We want this to feel like a really, really complex decision.

“This Is Us” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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