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‘This Is Us’ EP Talks Pearson Life Post-Jack, Planning Kate’s Wedding and Deja’s Return

Jack Pearson may be gone on “This Is Us,” but he certainly is not forgotten. And his portrayer, Milo Ventimiglia, will not be gone at all.

The first episode for NBC’s hit family drama after its break during the Olympics is a Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore)-heavy one, featuring flashbacks of a key anniversary for the couple.

“It’s romantic and it’s not tinged with this imminent doom that’s been in our storytelling because we’ve known [Jack’s death] is coming. It’s really, really nice to jump back into a time that’s good for our family,” executive producer Isaac Aptaker tells Variety.

Ahead of “Vegas, Baby,” the Feb. 27 return episode of “This Is Us,” Variety looks back with Aptaker on crafting the emotional moments of saying goodbye to Jack, as well as the future with him — and the rest of the Pearson clan, which will once again include Deja (Lyric Ross).

“Super Bowl Sunday” was an episode the audience had been waiting for for a season and a half. After you gave those all-important answers about Jack’s fate, what were the most important elements in crafting the follow-up episodes?

One of our writers pitched early in the year that we would do a car episode and we didn’t have the idea to pair it up with the funeral until deeper in the season. Part of it was, we’ve seen a lot of funeral episodes [and] there are a lot of tropes there — there are a lot of things that feel familiar about it — and for us, after how intense and how sad [episode] 14 was, we did want to find a through-line for 15 that, while still being incredibly sad and grieving Jack and honoring him and all of that, has this optimism to it and has these lighter moments for the family that are so important to the fabric of the show. The car has really become an iconic part of our show — it’s so distinctive — so we wanted to show these moments of lighter times in the car combined with the remaining members of the family in it. It had a power to it. There’s optimism in going back to all of the beautiful times they had in the car together, and then there’s that image of Rebecca stepping into the driver’s seat — the literal and metaphorical driver’s seat for her family — felt like the perfect beginning to the new chapter of the family.

A few weeks ago, Dan Fogelman teased the “saddest episode still to come.” Can you confirm he was talking about one of these? What is the emotion level going forward? 

I’m not sure that we can top that in terms of sadness, but we’re going to be on TV for awhile, and we have yet to write Season 3! There’s going to be a lot more uplift and a lot more tears going forward. It was important for us to come back with a lighter episode [now, though]. We’ve been so, so heavy! I know a lot of people watch the show to be able to cry, but we also really do try to celebrate life’s more joyful moments and lighter moments. So we’re coming back after 14 and 15, which were really a two-part story that was incredibly tragic and exploring the immediate grief that comes over a family after a tragic death like that and were just so heavy, with something that’s a little bit lighter. We’re re-joining the family in a happier time in their lives — Toby and Kate are getting ready to get married and start this really exciting new chapter. So we’re going to Vegas for our first episode back, for Toby and Kate’s bachelor and bachelorette parties. It’s really, really fun. I think it’s been too long since we’ve seen our characters having fun and enjoying each other. The rest of this season, it’s really about building up to Kate and Toby’s wedding.

That’s the present-day story, but is the anniversary story with Jack and Rebecca equally light?

It is. Those three 10-, 11-year-old kids are beyond adorable in the episode, and it’s one of those happy Pearson memories that makes this family so special.

After scattering Jack’s ashes and agreeing to go to the Springsteen concert, the kids seemed on the path to healing, but as we know, there are a lot of things still unresolved in present day. What is the family dynamic like in those flashbacks in upcoming episodes?

What I think is going to be so exciting when we go after the time immediately after his death is it’s totally unexplored stuff for us, and it’s perhaps the most seminal time in the Big Three’s life. How do they react? Jack’s death was the defining event for this family, and how Kevin, Kate, and Randall react to it sets them on the course for the rest of their lives and sets them on track to be the adults we meet in the pilot. So we’re now going to finally tell the story of, for Kate, when does the overeating really start [and], for Kevin, when does he make this pivot to decide he wants to be an actor and leave his family to move to Los Angeles and then marry Sophie pretty abruptly? And then for Randall, this kid was on such a path and such an all-star and is now facing a giant curveball, and he’s going to be completely torn between wanting to be there for Rebecca and be there for himself.

Is there any residual guilt, even if illogical, on Rebecca’s part for still using that slow cooker or not insisting Jack get further checked out?

The guilt I think is more for Kate because Kate really blames herself for being the one who asked him to go back in and get that dog. In the funeral episode we see Rebecca’s guilt that she wasn’t by his side, but I don’t think she’s going back and playing the “what could I have done” game as much. Kate has this tangible moment — she feels if she hadn’t asked about the dog her father would still be with her today.

Where does Rebecca’s relationship with Miguel (Jon Huertas) fit in?

Going forward as the Big Three post-Jack are looking forward and the rest of their lives are being determined and they’re in this pivotal year, Miguel is the man who tries to step in and help Rebecca manage the Big Three as she’s putting her life back together. What that looks like does lead to the future as we know it for them — but how exactly that plays out and how it leads to that moment we saw in the Halloween flashback episode, where he reaches out to her after many years, is going to be a big Season 3 story.

Looking at present day, Kate (Chrissy Metz) is planning a wedding around the time of the 20-year anniversary of her dad’s death.

That’s huge. We spoke to a lot of women who had lost fathers, specifically, and a lot of what kept coming up was imagining the wedding. That was a big thing. The father at a wedding is so ingrained in traditions — you have the dance, you have the father walking you down the aisle, and so imagining what that day looks like without that man there constantly comes up. So for Kate, that’s the biggest hurdle. Not Toby. She has no doubts there. But it’s about “what does this day look like without my dad?”

Where does Deja coming back into Randall’s (Sterling K. Brown) family’s life fit in?

We pick up right with that in episode 16. Randall and Beth are on their way to Vegas and having the discussion of “We don’t have custody of Deja anymore, but she did show up on our door. What’s our obligation here? We don’t have any legal obligation, but as humans, how involved should we be?” That’s their moral, parental dilemma they’re having as they set out for this goofy weekend of bachelor and bachelorette antics.

Is she staying for the rest of the season?

I will just say whenever that girl is on screen, she is so fantastic and giving such an incredible performance. I’m not saying whose house she’s living in, but we do have a lot more of her coming up. Are we going into her world? Are we revisiting her in Randall’s world? With our show jumping through time, the possibilities are endless.

Speaking of the future, the show revealed a glimpse with adult Tess (Iantha Richardson) and Randall. How common will glimpses into the future now become?

One of the rules of the show in the writers’ room is that nothing is off the table. We’re always encouraging our writers to pitch us any crazy idea — anywhere in the spectrum of time. People should brace themselves for anything in terms of where we can jump. I think Sterling’s prosthetics looked pretty nice, and he was happy to sit in the chair and put them on, so you should definitely expect more of that time period in the future.

Will glimpses into the future soon include Kate and Kevin (Justin Hartley)?

I’m very excited to see where everyone ended up in that time period. It is the kind of thing where we’re not going to reveal it all at once. We love our present-day stuff and we love our past stuff and these episodes are 41 minutes that just fly by, so it is the kind of thing that we’re going to be doling out slowly, but I think whenever we catch up with someone and see where they are in the future, it’s so exciting and so poignant, so it’s the kind of the thing we’ll be unfolding all of the time.

A good portion of the audience is dissecting the show looking for clues about big reveals about the characters. How closely do you pay attention to theories?

It’s certainly part of the fun for the show, and we are mindful of it and want people to have fun in watching the show. We try to keep our heads down and not get too bogged down with Twitter because there’s so much noise and it is easy to get swept away with fan theories and what people like and dislike and then it starts to affect the work. But the big mystery of this season was how do we get to this scorched house that we opened the season with? And there’s still a lot of stories left to be told about this family and a lot we don’t know about Jack. Particularly in season 3, there are many more mysteries. For the people that do watch the show for the puzzle of it all, there will be a lot more for them then. A lot of excitement for us with season 3 is we get to fill in a lot of the blanks. Because we’ve now moved past the death we can get to “How do we get past that very, very sad place for the family to where we re-met them and they’re all very different people?”

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

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