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This Is Us postmortem: Creator Dan Fogelman breaks down The Pool

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Paul Drinkwater/NBC

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us, titled “The Pool.”

While trying to enjoy a nice day at the pool on Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, the Pearson family wound up wading into some deep waters. For young Kevin (Parker Bates), it was literal. He felt abandoned by his parents after he paddled into the adult end of the pool and almost didn’t make it back safely. Randall (Lonnie Chavis) was becoming curious about his background, venturing to the other side of the pool, where the other African-American kids were playing with their families —and where Rebecca (Mandy Moore) would ultimately receive some unsolicited but needed advice (from guest-star Ryan Michelle Bathe, who’s married to Sterling K. Brown) about Randall’s hair. Meanwhile, Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicsak) was shamed by the other kids for dancing around in a bikini, injuring her self-confidence, which prompted Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) to cheer her up with an unexpectedly magical T-shirt story. (Somebody give that guy a World’s Greatest Dad T-shirt. Or even a mug.)

And those pool stories informed present-day drama: After Randall (Brown) apologized to the neighborhood security guard for his racially motivated vetting of biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones), he found himself defensive about having raised his kids in a white neighborhood — and that William (who said he was a junkie at the time of the firehouse visit) was clean enough to focus on civil rights activism during some of Randall’s formative years, when a little boy had questions about his father. And then came what Randall wasn’t expecting from William: No judgment, all affirmation — plus, an apology, a touch of the knee, the use of the word “son.” (“You are doing everything right, son.”) Free free to quickly brush away a tear and clear your throat in a manly way before we mention some other key elements of the episode: Arriving in New York, Kevin (Justin Hartley) immediately found himself in over his head, in the deep end of the theater world by having an audition-from-hell for an Off-Broadway play (only to land the part thanks to his Manny fame), and Kate put her insecurities on the showroom floor when she discovered that Toby’s (Chris Sullivan) ex-wife was svelte and attractive, which, funny story, led to her taking a job at Josie’s boutique before she discovered from Toby that thin isn’t necessarily beautiful. Want to go deeper into “The Pool”? Let’s snag not one but five pool chairs and wave over the lifeguard, a.k.a. This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman.(To read the cast’s thoughts on the episode, click here.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is an ambitious episode in that you are juggling so many story lines, but it’s rewarding to get actual stories in the past. Will this be something we’ll see even more of in the future, where an episode explores a relevant story for each of the Big Three as kids, in addition to their present-day adventures?

DAN FOGELMAN: Yeah, I think it’s definitely something that we’re going to be doing in episodes in the future, where each of the kids has a little story that is reflecting on their present-day story. The difficulty is within an hour of storytelling, you can only really do the stories when all of the kids are in the same location, otherwise we’re suddenly telling 15 different stories in the course of 42 minutes of television. So the pool is obviously a very natural place to be able to do little stories of all the people, because they’re all in the same area. For a future story, we’re talking about examining what birthday parties are like in this house for the three kids, in terms of: How do you do a birthday party when three kids all share the same birthday without it getting out of control and ridiculously expensive and too many kids? So, that feels like another area to give each of the kids their own little story that’s reflecting on their present-day adult story, too. 

From the moment Randall apologizes for William’s run-in with the neighborhood security guard, Randall is defensive with William about his upbringing and the life he’s created for his family —and he seems to assign judgment from William that wasn’t there ultimately. Did you set out to explore the idea of Randall realizing that actually he is enough to William while solidifying their father-son bond?

Race obviously plays a big part in Randall’s life and his story, and we haven’t explored it in depth yet, but I was thinking initially: It’s an interesting thing for a guy to be suddenly confronted by this living issue in his life and now William is living in his home, so he’s feeling his eyes on him in a way that might not be necessarily happening, because he’s reflecting what’s going on in his own brain. That was kind of the starting place for the entire thing. They’ve lived these two very different lives — William’s life and Randall’s life have been very different — and I think when you get to the end of the episode, you realize that a lot of what Randall has actually been acting out against isn’t quite the racial aspect of the story, but it’s the fact that he learned early in the story that his father was out and healthy around the very same time that he was struggling with these issues as a little boy. And I think that’s where his story is stemming from and not just, “I was a black child raised by a white family and that was very difficult for me and you did that to me.” So they’re both having almost two different stories that are internal versus the one that you actually think is happening.

Randall perks up when he asks what year William was involved in that protest, so he’s doing some math in his head about figuring out where William was.

Exactly. In the initial scene, William’s talking about bussing, so our read is that by the time you get to the next scene Randall is feeling judged for the way he lives his life or for the racial makeup of his neighborhood and family. But really in that opening scene, William has revealed some new information to him on where he was during a crucial time in Randall’s life. So there’s multiple things going on — he is feeling a kind of judgment from William, but he’s also battling something else, which is what always causes us to act out.

In the end, he gets the apology that he wanted, but wasn’t expecting at that moment. Does this accelerate the bonding process? And do their different backgrounds put them in any more conflict in coming weeks?

There’s definitely still more conflict in the coming weeks, just because of the nature of their very different lives; you don’t just wash away all the problems of an event, of a feeling of abandonment overnight. But I think this is a huge step forward in kind of the arc of this series. They’ve gotten to know each other. In the previous episode Randall allowed himself to fall a little bit, and in this episode, we’re kind of getting in an unexpected moment and way, the apology that he’s probably been craving his entire life. And now it’s time to start watching these guys enjoy each other a little bit as opposed to hold onto baggage and start to get to know each other more. So the next batch of stories, that’s where a lot of that comes. He starts becoming a more natural part of the family, as opposed to somebody who every episode needs to explore some heavier stuff. I think we have a couple of episodes that are a little bit lighter with the two of them.

Race can be a tricky thing for any show to tackle. This episode showed Jack and Rebecca a little out of their element raising an African-American child. For example, when they aren’t sure if he truly needed to wear sunscreen like his white siblings, and then with the mother of Randall’s new friend giving Rebecca the name of a barber who can cut Randall’s hair. What were those discussions like in the writers’ room, and about finding that right balance of humor and honesty?

We just wanted to treat it real. The initial story came from a friend of mine, a white guy in L.A.; he and his wife have a daughter from Ethiopia. She was at a mall one day with her daughter and this African-American woman came up to her and handed her a note and it said, “Your daughter’s hair needs moisture.” And it was always one of my favorite stories because — they didn’t develop a life-long friendship necessarily like these characters are eventually going to do — she was not offended by it. She was grateful for the help for something that she wasn’t super aware of, and they were very early in their adoption of their first child. So that’s where that started from. If we can find the reality of it, there’s humor in the fact that it’s not 2016 Hollywood. This is 1980s Pennsylvania; it’s not super common at that time for this to be going on. And there will be informational challenges for this couple who don’t have an Internet to look things up on. [Laughs.]

I think we try not to shy from the race stuff. Our writers’ room has lots of debate and good discussions about what the line was here. We didn’t want to tread into afterschool special territory, but we also didn’t want to do something that felt familiar. What’s most interesting about this story is for Randall particularly, it’s a completely internal story for him. There’s this [incident] with the security guard that sets him off. One of my favorite scenes we’ve done so far is that scene, when he’s at the Snow White play and there’s no dialogue, and Sterling’s such a beautiful actor, he’s just looking around. That story is not a story about white people behaving badly or black people behaving badly; it’s not even a story about race in as much as it’s a story about this character trying to take stock of decisions he’s making and what they look like in the eyes of somebody else. Any race of person at anytime in their life can be having a moment like that. I think that’s what’s really interesting about this story: It’s about race and it’s not all about race, and I think that was the line we tried to tread.

NEXT: “It only adds more fuel to the fire that’s slowly going to burn and eventually explode.”[pagebreak]

The revelation that Randall has been keeping a tally of men he meets that could be his dad is very poignant, and indicative that he’s begun this lifelong mission to find out more about where he comes from, which Rebecca has hidden from him. Obviously, this will eventually come to a head in the present-day, but how dangerous is that for Rebecca in future episodes in the past? 

It is. This is the starting point for the family. In this story, it’s kind of the first time they’re seeing their little son really seek something out in a way that’s not just asking a question of his parents, but he’s seeking something out enough that he’s keeping it privately — that he’s not advertising to his parents that he wants to go to this pool, but it’s something that’s important enough that he’s hiding it from his parents and trying to do it. So I think, yes, this is the first time we see that, and it’s going to become a bigger job for the young man as he gets older and we move into future episodes, which puts more stress on Mandy’s character because she is hiding some of the keys to him having exactly that information. And obviously, as you paint the portrait of a young boy, eventually a young man, slightly obsessed with knowing, and in the present day it only adds more fuel to the fire that’s slowly going to burn and eventually explode.

The story for Kate is a bit heartbreaking and bittersweet, as we see her losing some innocence and self-confidence, and becoming aware of body issues for the first time. At the same time, it brings us one of the sweetest moments in the series, where we see Jack tell her that story and boost her spirits. Can you talk about making that scene? And how rocky does her adolescent journey get?

It gets rocky. We’re not just talking about body image issues; it’s a character who in the present day is struggling with self-worth and self-belief. A big part of what we’re going to get in the child’s background is how that was formed. She obviously has this loving family and these loving parents, but where did this all stem from? So, we start getting more and more of a sense of it as we get deeper into the season. That scene with Jack at the pool — [writer-producer] Don Todd wrote that monologue and it’s one of my favorite things we’ve done so far — but it’s a really important scene to the series because there’s something very special about the bond between Kate and Jack that’s really, really defining for her, and it becomes a huge part of Kate’s story and journey as we move forward…

And Jack’s part in this story, I love how loaded the ending is. It’s such a beautiful speech he gives to her — and Milo is so good — and he loves his daughter so much, but at the end he says, “I want you to know that you don’t have to put on the T-shirt and cover yourself up if you don’t want to because I see you as a princess no matter what” — which is this beautiful sentiment for a dad to say — and then she takes the very T-shirt that she’s given and says, “Thanks, but I’m going to wear it anyway.” And for the first time in her life, she covers herself up and it’s kind of heartbreaking. So it’s all so real and complicated. I just love that moment so much.

Jack is rebuilding her confidence, while Rebecca — who thinks she should have been wearing a shirt, and has been managing her diet — has maybe been contributing to the seeds of Kate’s insecurities. Is that something you will show more of?

Yeah, it’s a very common dynamic when you talk to people who’ve battled weight, and particularly women, that it’s a struggle for them and their mothers, particularly if they have a mother who — and I watched it growing up myself — it’s a very complicated dynamic where you don’t want to say too much, you don’t want to say too little. A parent is always trying to find the line and just wants the kids to be happy and healthy. It’s just a very complicated thing, so yes. 

After Toby’s finest romantic gesture yet — playing limo driver and arranging a nursing home gig for Kate — Kate gave into her insecurities, stalking and befriending Toby’s ex-wife, Josie (Natalia Cigliuti), and even taking that job at her shop. When Kate told Toby what she did, it allowed us to see some darkness for Toby; he’s been covering with humor a bit for the fact that this woman destroyed him. How much more of that side do we see from Toby? And how much more self-sabotage will we see from Kate in this relationship?

Kate’s issues, as she says, don’t go away overnight. She’s a complicated person who is at a crossroads in her life. Toby feels like he’s gotten past the crossroads of his life. He feels like he hit his crossroads, as you learn at the end of this episode, about a year ago. And while he certainly, as we all do, has his things and his issues, he feels like he’s in a much happier place in the present day than Kate is currently in the present day. What I love about that scene — and we didn’t originally have it in, and then I thought Chris Sullivan just nailed it — is he’s been this kind of larger-than-life, everybody loves Toby, but he’s been just perfect. People talk about the reveals in this show — Miguel at the door and you’re in a different time period — but to me that’s such an interesting reveal of the character. This guy has been the funny kind of fat guy his entire run on the show, and then finally has had it with putting up with some of the odd behavior of his girlfriend and lets you know what also is going on in his world. She hasn’t, as he says, cornered the market on problems. And I think it’s such an important moment for Toby that takes him from being this amazingly perfect romantic anti-hero to a fully fleshed-out human all of the sudden. When you get into the next episode, he’s back to the best version of Toby, but you view him differently now, and it’s a very interesting prism to view him through — he’s a guy who’s real and not just this court jester all the time saying the charming, winning things. I think it’s a really cool layer for him and it sets us up for Kate and Toby to explore some real heavy stuff in upcoming episodes.

Kevin has the world’s worst audition, but the power of The Manny lands him the part — maybe not his talent. First question: Is he in for a world of hurt? 

Yes.

And Olivia (Janet Montgomery) does not respect him for his résumé, but she seems to be drawn to him. Should we brace for some fireworks —and/or sparks — between them?

Yes on both counts. Kevin is in way over his head right now, and the next few episodes are really going to be exploring that. Olivia becomes a really big part of his story. She’s both the most appealing and the scariest woman to possibly enter someone’s life in Kevin’s position right now, so there’s huge fireworks. But also you can’t quite trust anything she’s doing because for her art comes first always. And for Kevin, who’s been the Manny for the last five years, she becomes a symbol of everything that makes him feel like he’s in over his head; she is the figurehead for that.

And a Trump pageant joke, which I know you filmed a while ago, but very timely.

I hope. [Laughs.] We debated if we should take it out at one point, but then we figured we were okay. 

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