This spring, “This is Us” concluded the saga of the Pearson family with a series of emotional goodbyes. And the second-to-last episode, “The Train,” showed the final journey for the family matriarch Rebecca (Mandy Moore) with an emotional episode dedicated to her passing on into the afterlife, one that takes the form of her entering the last carriage in a train. Speaking to Variety, Moore revealed that the first time she read the script for this farewell she was so moved she became physically ill.
“As soon as I finished the script, I got sick, which is true,” Moore said. “I’ve never had that reaction. I guess, if you are so overcome with emotion, sometimes that’s your body’s response, and I think that was just my response. I was like, ‘This is the end,’ I couldn’t help myself. Each time that I read it subsequently, I think I read it three or four times again, I was still so overcome. I remember feeling really fearful of the daunting task of actually filming it.”
Despite her concerns about the emotional labor it would take to send the character she spent years protecting and nurturing off into the great unknown, Moore knew she was in good hands. Plus, they did plenty of prep work. The conductor on this episode was longtime “This Is Us” director Ken Olin.
“We really did discuss it beforehand, to make sure we were on the same page,” Moore continued. “Because everyone’s interpretation of the afterlife and making this transition in life, everyone is going to come to it from a different place, and I wanted to make sure that we were very much aligned.”
Moore and Olin, sat down for Variety’s “Making a Scene,” presented by HBO, to discuss all the heart (and all the tears) that went into filming Rebecca’s journey and how they considered closing the book on the beloved character’s storyline.
First up, the easter egg-filled bar scene decorated with notable props from throughout the show’s history, including the Pearson wall growth chart, Lundy mug, another cup with the “world’s best dad” moniker and Milo Ventimiglia’s face on it, a bowl of lemons and so much more. According to Olin, show creator Dan Fogelman had the props department lay out a litany of Pearson memorabilia so they could dress the set inside Rebecca’s mind. One memory that didn’t make the cut? “I don’t think anybody saw it, but there was the Taboo game from earlier this season that Rebecca and Miguel play on Thanksgiving with the family, and there’s that awkward moment,” Moore revealed.
However, Olin said was pivotal to find the balance between nodding to the show’s history without causing it to overwhelm the scene. “It was very important to me not to dwell on things and become very self-referential,” Olin said. “It was meant to be experienced more as observed, rather than any sort of celebration of how fabulous we had been for six years.
Serving Rebecca at the bar is Dr. Nathan Katowsky (Gerald McRaney), the doctor who delivered her children in the pilot episode. Olin described McRaney as an extremely relaxed, confidant and prepared performer who helped to elevate the scene. Moore told Variety that she has always loved working with McRaney, and got emotional describing the full circle significance of having him be the person to guide Rebecca into the afterlife.
“I just thought it was so fitting that he was there to usher her into this next chapter of her life, and also was the one to give her sort of permission to move forward,” Moore said. “It’s the first time she’s really clocking, ‘Oh, this is ultimately going to end, and I know where this is leading.’ It makes me emotional to think about, to tell her that she was an incredible mother and did such a good job, cause he was there at the start of it. That’s the part of the script that really got me, and I was so moved by him being the person to tell her that. To tell her that she did a good job.”
Among the stars that reappeared to give Rebecca the “This is Your Life” treatment was Ron Cephas Jones who played William. Jones acted as a guide through the train journey, and by the end delivers what Olin considers to be the message of this six season series. Consoling Rebecca before she crosses over into the big bed of heaven he drops this theory. “I always felt it a bit lazy to just think of the world as sad, because so much of it is. Because everything ends. Everything dies. But if you step back, if you step back and look at the whole picture, if you’re brave enough to allow yourself the gift of a really wide perspective, if you do that, you’ll see that the end is not sad, Rebecca. It’s just the start of the next incredibly beautiful thing.”
Delivering that line wasn’t going to be easy, “You needed it to be done with the appropriate amount of gravitas,” Olin explained. “Both Dan and myself, if there’s anything that we’re a little allergic to it’s self-seriousness. So how do you do that in a way that feels honest and feels truthful and feels sincere but doesn’t feel overly momentous or doesn’t feel pompous. And there’s nothing about Ron Cephas Jones that’s pompous or stuffy.”
Even the word choice “lazy” had intent. “Lazy [was] such an interesting word and such a surprising word,” Olin explained. “It’s a graphic word and so contrary to the poetry of the scene. It’s a brilliant counterpoint to Rebecca at that moment. There’s Mandy just so full and so lyrical and so present and so full of feeling and loss and the beauty of what her life was, bringing all of that and turning to someone and going, ‘You know that’s actually lazy.’ That’s the brilliance of Dan’s writing… he’s got you open so he can deliver the message and you’re open for it.”
“This is Us” is available to stream on Hulu and Peacock. Watch the full “Making a Scene” video above.