‘This Is Us’ Boss on Revealing Jack’s Death and ‘Inarguably Our Saddest Episode’ Still to Come

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “That’ll Be The Day,” the Jan. 23 episode of “This Is Us.”

After a season and a half slow burn of teasing out exactly how Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) died, “This Is Us” finally revealed the answer.

While cleaning up from a Super Bowl party, Jack flipped the switch on a slow cooker that was easily two decades old and had been faulty since he and his wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore) had been gifted the culinary device when they were newlyweds. The slow cooker ignited, catching the edge of a dish towel, which then erupted in flames and began to take down the rest of the kitchen — from curtains to framed photos of the family to the wall with pencil marks denoting the Big Three’s growth over the years.

But that’s not all “That’ll Be The Day” did to toy with audience’s emotions. Kate (Chrissy Metz) adopted a dog for Toby (Chris Sullivan), proving she will work through even more of her issues surrounding her father’s death; Kevin (Justin Hartley) followed in his father’s footsteps by trying to lose himself in a construction project to keep his hands free of drinks or drugs and worked on making his amends; and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) threw himself head-first into fixing up the building he and his wife, Beth (Susan Kelachi Watson), just purchased.

On the heels of the big episode, Variety spoke with “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman about whether or not learning the how and why of Jack’s death is a turning point for the narrative, what struggles still lie ahead for the Pearson family, and if the question of Jack’s brother will be answered this season — or at all.

We still haven’t technically seen Jack die or how the kids got out of the house, so how much are those elements sprinkled in over the rest of the season?

Not throughout the rest of the season. This was always kind of the plan — to build to a big episode where we show that storyline. And so I think people can safely assume they’re going to get that [in the next episode].

So many of the characters’ issues are rooted in the fact that they haven’t grieved properly. Is the next episode then the moment everyone — audience included — has that moment of grieving?

[The next episode] is about the pickup of where we left this week’s episode, so it would be a lot to ask these characters to deal with grief and everything all in one episode of television. But it’s safe to say that’s very much what the rest of the season is about. [It’s] about this defining moment in their lives and the aftermath and how people respond in the face of tragedy — and then setting the stage for the next chapter in their lives.

Where does this resolution about how Jack’s life ends leave the story about his brother and whether the family even knows he had a brother?

It starts coming soon. There’s been a lot of talk about Jack and how Jack dies, and interestingly, Jack is the character you could argue that people know the least about. You’ve gotten to watch other characters in their past, and they’ve spoken their truths all the time, but Jack’s past is all a little bit muddied. [This] is intentional, and there’s a lot to learn to inform the kind of father he became. It will be interesting in a way — and this is speaking in a meta sense — but our past storylines with the little kids technically can become our present day storylines if you go deep enough into Jack’s past. So the same way our past stories inform our present stories, our past past stories can inform our past stories, if that makes sense. It’s all a little theoretical and a long way of saying there’s a lot more to learn about Jack, and it’s coming sooner than some might expect.

How important do you feel it is to provide a balance of what we see the characters struggling with so it’s not all about Jack and so they can evolve as time goes on?

It’s a big deal, striking that balance. Certain characters on our show are better at it than others. Randall, as a grown man in the present day, seems to have a pretty healthy relationship with his grief and the way he looks back and sees his father. Kevin, in Season 1, did — but we started to learn in Season 2 that his issues go far deeper. And Kate was the one who had the hardest time with it. And so that’s not going to go away, but what [the next episode] is about in a big way is a very sad, beautiful, ultimately thrilling and heartbreaking episode of television — but it’s also about the bigger picture of what this show is about. It’s probably inarguably our saddest episode. There’s reward and beauty in this entire thing we’re all doing together, and I think it’s an important part of what we’re doing.

Do you feel like Rebecca is the healthiest one for the way she processed and was able to move on with her life, and if so, does that make it harder to write her, given that there could be less conflict?

I find Rebecca, as we meet her in the present day, that there’s a sadness to the character in the way she carries herself and the way Mandy plays her. I’ve always felt a little sad for older Rebecca. She’s experienced great loss; she’s been the quote-unquote bad guy of her family for a while. And I think, for me, potentially the most interesting period for the character of Rebecca we haven’t even gotten to yet, which is the year or two after Jack dies. You had the greatest love story in the history of love stories, you’ve lost your husband, and you’re now solely responsible for the care of three teenagers who are on the verge of breaking. I’m a couple of episodes ahead, but I just think Mandy has been so underappreciated [and] as we head into this next chapter, she has to kind of step forth and become the hero of this family in a very quiet way. It’s a stunning performance you’ll see in these upcoming episodes from her, and I think it’s the most interesting part of her evolution — not this young woman who’s on the cusp of motherhood, not the mother and the aspiring singer, but the woman who’s had this moment pulled out from under her and how she has to pull herself back up.

Is Kevin truly on the right path to recovery? Do you consider making his amends a turning point for him, or is he trying so hard to distract himself that he’s going to miss more problems?

He’s started clearing the part of the hurdle where he has to fix things. I think this program that he’s embarked on — and that we’ll see more of in the Super Bowl episode and in subsequent episodes of him in present day — is helping him get past confronting some of the demons and the things he’s been hiding from. But anyone who’s built the way Kevin’s built or who’s experienced the things he’s experienced, it’s not a perfect line graph just always trending upwards, but at least Kevin has started the process.

Like Kevin, Randall, too, has been throwing himself into projects. Is he using those things to force down a deeper darkness within himself? He had such a serious breakdown last year, experienced a terrible loss, but he’s been focused on being so upbeat lately.

If you take a season of these shows as a year or two of our lives and you put the highs and lows on a piece of paper, 10 highs and lows from each couple of years of your life, you’d see the crescendos and the dips, and so in that regard, some of Randall’s anxiety and the way he masks his anxiety, he’s had a really good year. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to stay that way forever, but it doesn’t mean necessarily that Kevin is going to find him shaking on the floor either.

But you don’t consider some of Randall’s recent behaviors manic?

I wouldn’t describe it as manic. I would say that he’s experienced a lot in a short term, and so you continue to see Randall throw himself at things — whether it be this apartment building and the way he chose to fix it or even the foster system and the way he brought the foster child in. He continues to have Beth to provide the balance for him when he feels like he’s veering. But yeah, I think any fan of the show would always be worried about Randall whenever his behavior is even slightly heightened because he has an A-type personality, and he’s got some anxiety issues, and you don’t want to see him back on that floor.

Speaking of foster care, what does that journey look like for Randall and Beth coming up?

Obviously we saw the family wanted to get back on the list to foster, and we’ve seen glimpses of a little boy — and then we also know that Deja left them into a situation where they’re not sure of how it will be with her mother. All of that is kind of out there for later this season or future seasons.

How will Kate handle having that dog in the house and planning her wedding without her dad to walk her down the aisle? Are these things triggers for her or ways for her to heal?

The present day dog felt like a healing thing — a step in the right direction — for Kate. We know that somehow the dog from her past is involved in something with regards to something, based on the way she’s behaving. But the fact that she’s able to move forward despite her reservations, I think that’s a positive sign. The upcoming wedding at some point can become a huge, scary trigger that hopefully she’ll be able to overcome. I think for a lot of people these pinnacle moments, when you’ve dealt with a loss, can often be very bittersweet because the person you wish could be there is not there. You can kind of push through that and overcome that or you can almost be taken down by that, but either way, there’s an interesting story to be told there.

The show has seen such success — from critical acclaim to awards and high ratings — and often such success can open the door for similar shows in theme or design. But if “This Is Us” is paving the way for more character-driven stories about families in today’s television landscape, what are the series you feel paved the way for “This Is Us”?

I always loved when the half-hour television shows in the ’80s and the ’90s — whether it be “Family Ties” or “Cheers” or even moments in “Everybody Loves Raymond” — that I grew up on would get really serious, that would get to a vulnerable place that moved you and when you found yourself surprised by something [they did]. I think a touchstone for me was also “The West Wing,” which even though it was a workplace show, the people on that show were kind of a family. And the tone of the show and the way they played with time — an episode I reference all the time is [the one where] Leo’s character is going through alcoholism and they go into a past story of how he met Martin Sheen’s character, and at the end of the episode, he gives him the gift of the napkin that he’s kept all these years. I found myself so moved by that because of the way they played with time and the way that you cared about those characters. So I think stuff like that influences it all.

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

 

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