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This Is Us creator on Thanksgiving episode, Randall's confrontation

‘You feel his entire world spinning on its axis,’ says Dan Fogelman

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Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us, “Pilgrim Rick.”]

Thanksgiving is traditionally a time for family members to come together to share a warm, hearty, joyous meal. Or, you know, dish out a healthy serving of confrontation and awkwardness.

The Thanksgiving episode of This Is Us brought all the feels — and the family together — for an ultra-charged installment of the NBC drama, mixing moments of warmth and tradition and togetherness and romance and humor with heartbreak and betrayal and confrontation. (Also, there were furnace-roasted cheese dogs.) “Pilgrim Rick” presented us with two decidedly different but interconnected Thanksgivings: In the past, things did not go as planned as the Pearsons embarked on a six-hour road trip to spend T-Day with Rebecca’s mother, someone we will soon spend some time with, and someone who sounds rather intimidating, overbearing, and esteem-shattering. (It also sounds like Grandma and Grandpa need some some photo-taking etiquette lessons, based on Randall’s poignant comment that they always ask him to step out of frame so they can snap a twins-only shot.)

The Big Five never made it to their destination; the car broke down, forcing a 3.4-mile walk to a gas station and an overnight stay at the Pinewood Lodge, where Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) transformed some seriously slim pickings into a new, touching, lo-fi holiday tradition involving a Pilgrim hat, Police Academy 3, an unspooling sweater, and the aforementioned hot dogs. Yes, Jack SuperDadded his way into legend again.

In the present day, things were a little less charmed. Kate (Chrissy Metz) decided that her differences with Toby (Chris Sullivan) over their eating (and Toby’s overeating) were too great to overcome; she reluctantly informed him that not only would he not be coming home with her for Thanksgiving, but that he wouldn’t be coming home with her at all anymore. However, instead of arriving at Randall’s in gloom, especially after a close call in the turbulent skies, she came in bloom: She optimistically announced to all that she was going to have gastric bypass surgery.

Meanwhile, Kevin (Justin Hartley) persuaded his jaded costar Olivia (Janet Montgomery) to spend Thanksgiving with the Pearsons, despite her traumatic family memories of the holiday. Kevin even served up the perfect slice of pie, but when Olivia saw the way that he denied Miguel (Jon Huertas) the chance to play Pilgrim Rick, she called an audible, and an Uber. Instead, what arrived was a lovely, the-pieces-of-life-will-slip-through-your-fingers-before-you-know-it-so-thank-that-boy-for-that-pie speech from William (Ron Cephas) that sent her right back into the house and into the arms of Kevin, who redeemed himself by handing over the family reins — and hat — to Miguel.

But it was Randall (Sterling K. Brown) who wound up at the epicenter of drama. The little boy who went from hating Thanksgiving to always wanting to recreate that snug-as-a-bug-in-a-bed-with-Mom-and-Dad vibe after their Pinewood awakening had all the ingredients in place for a holiday to remember. But when he went the extra mile — or several dozen — back to William’s apartment to retrieve some musical memories, he happened upon something undeniably damning: a letter from Rebecca (Mandy Moore) to William, complete with a picture of little Randall. Finally, he had discovered the truth that Rebecca had been hiding for more than three decades: She had known about Randall’s father, and had even known him personally. All. These. Years.

And when Randall returned home and the family began the meal by taking turns passing a ball of yarn and revealing what they were thankful for, down went the ball and out came his knife. Reeling from shock/disbelief/hurt, he tried his best to ask Rebecca why she sent that letter, only to cut her off and dismiss her tears with a “I can’t even look at you,” before exiting the room.

While we try to find the name of a good therapist who makes house calls on Thanksgiving, why don’t you pass the ciabatta bread and check out this Q&A about “Pilgrim Rick” with a man would never brag for hours about his expensive CD player, This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How could you do this to Randall on Thanksgiving? That’s his favorite holiday!

DAN FOGELMAN: I know. I love what Randall plays in the episode, which is this boyish enthusiasm for Thanksgiving that nears the enthusiasm he finds in the past story, but then makes it the worst possible time for him to have this bombshell that’s defined his entire life journey dropped on him, so there’s great stakes to it. I showed our crew this morning the episode during lunch — which is hard when you have 200 hungry people sitting and eating food — and during the final scene, you could hear a pin drop. Nobody was moving, nobody was clinking their spoons, nobody was going back for seconds. Everybody had been on set and knew the outcome, but you really could hear a pin drop. It was a very cool experience.

The episode offers us two different Thanksgivings. The one in the past is a Thanksgiving that goes off the rails —and off the road — but it turns into the perfect underdog holiday, while the present-day Thanksgiving has a lot of pieces in place but is shattered at the end. It was cool to see how the past one informed the present one with the odd traditions that live on, but did its sweetness also help counterbalance the devastating blow that the present-day Thanksgiving packs at the end?

Yeah, I think so. It’s always a challenge when you sit down to do the holiday episode for any TV show, because it’s all been done before. When we came up with this idea, Isaac [Aptaker] and Elizabeth [Berger], who wrote the episode, and myself, we were talking about the idea of seeing this unusual Thanksgiving in present day and then learning how that Thanksgiving came to be in the past. And I said, “Wow, that’s excellent, because no one else can quite do that show the same way that we can, because of the way that we play with time.” So that became really exciting. And then secondarily, from the moment I saw the first cut of this episode, I’ve been so proud of it because my favorite thing, whether it be TV or film or a book, is the stuff that can merge the weighty with the comedic and the light. And I feel like the episode has such a great tone to it, because it’s got such a heavy ending and there’s such weighty moments, whether it be William giving that monologue on the front stoop to Olivia, but then it also has this incredibly fun, light kind of joie to it. And it all happens in the same 42 minutes of television, so when I first saw the first cut, I said, “Wow, that’s like a perfect episode of television.” Because I really laughed and I really smiled and really enjoyed it, but, I mean, there are gut-shot moments and then there are impactful acting moments, and it’s all really seamless. Isaac and Elizabeth did an incredible job on it.

Randall is in the process of discovering that those around him that he trusts have either lied to him or not been entirely truthful. Let’s start with the most guilty party: Rebecca. How would you characterize his anger level at his mother? He says at the end that he can’t even look at her.

And as we get into next week, the anger level will really be ratcheted up. Sterling played it so beautifully — more than anger he’s stunned, and you feel his entire world spinning on its axis. I think anger comes with processing. Right now is disbelief and emotion in all the visceral, weird, ugly ways. There’s this moment at his hottest at the end of this scene, he’s almost laughing through it with a smile, because you don’t just play anger or sadness or disbelief — it’s all these things coming out. By the time we get to next week, whatever the scale of anger is, he’s ratcheted it up high. But it takes this moment of this episode to get him to even process.

And how will he handle William? Rebecca laid down the boundaries with him, but he’s still complicit, and he’ll have to shoulder some responsibility here — even if he was looking to protect Randall’s relationship with his mother.

The first scene of next week’s episode gives the answer to exactly that. If you’re rating on an anger scale — “Where is Randall toward varying characters that have maybe misled him or not been completely truthful to him?” — he basically breaks down his scale of anger, to answer your question very clearly. [Laughs.] It’s fair to say that the carnal, original sin he views as being Rebecca’s. Everybody else is complicit, and it’s not that he’s letting everybody off the hook, but where he’s focusing is on his mother.

Even Beth knew the secret, but at least she was trying to give Rebecca the chance to make it right.

Exactly. And William was following a kind of mandate. And honestly that’s how it should be. We’ve established by episode 8 here that Randall and his mother have this incredibly close bond, and they have both it present day as adults, and they had it when he was a younger boy. So it’s not that she’s been most in the wrong, it’s also that their relationship is so close that it’s such a betrayal.

Ending the episode in the past with the family all happy together, instead of in the present, with the Randall-Rebecca confrontation was unexpected. You’d expect it to be flipped.

In the script, the final scene of the show was the yarn scene at the table where Randall drops the yarn and dresses down his mother, and the little scene with young Randall telling his mother that he hoped all Thanksgivings would be like this happened before that. And it felt so beautiful and heartbreaking and everything to have that as the button to their break, so it ends both more hopeful, but also more heartbreaking. It was certainly less conventional… In a typical TV show — not that we’re doing avant-garde theatre here — but in a typical show, you would probably end on the big cliffhanger with him storming out and the single tear coming down Mandy’s eye. But there’s something more heartbreaking about seeing this secret that was kept and when they were beautiful and before all was broken, and ending on that.

NEXT: “For maybe the first time, you are really in Miguel’s shoes…”[pagebreak]

Kate chooses herself — and her health — over Toby at this point. Is gastric bypass the right choice for her? And based on what we’ve seen so far, can we assume that Toby won’t go down without a fight?

That scene with them and their break-up to me is one of the most powerful things we’ve done. Chrissy is so beautiful in that scene. Her performance blurs lines between watching a television show and acting, and just watching someone like you’re watching something out of real life. It feels very much like the experience I’ve had, and hopefully we’ve all had, of either breaking up with someone you don’t want to break up with, or being broken up with. I think it would be pretty disappointing after all we’ve invested in Kate and Toby if that was just the final ending for them.

In terms of the gastric bypass, obviously this has been a big part of her story; when we met this character, she’s at a crossroads in deciding to lose the weight, and it’s not happening on the scale and at the pace she wants it to, so she’s seeking answers, as we all do, and she’s kind of cleansing once again and trying to find the focus. The idea being — and she says it — it’s not just about the weight, it’s about a great deal of things, and until Kate really starts figuring some of those things out and attacking those things, she might not get as centered as she wants to be, as she finds that version of herself.

Kevin has had his emotional wall up, but it was rivaled by Olivia’s. What a great moment on the doorsteps between Olivia and William, who delivers one of the most emotional moments of the episode in the least expected place — and between two characters you wouldn’t have guessed. What did you like about planning that moment?

Well, I always love when characters who don’t necessarily belong in a scene together wind up finding themselves in a moment. Because that’s what happens in life — you’ll wind up in the strangest conversation with somebody at a drugstore or a family member that you’ve never spoken to before, and all of a sudden they say something very wise and meaningful. Ron is just a beautiful actor, so anytime you get to give him a long, well-written monologue that Isaac and Elizabeth wrote, it’s a treat.

We cut to Olivia once or twice, but it’s not even to cover any performance or switch up performance between cuts, it’s really just checking with her, but it’s really just one take from Ron. And it’s just beautiful. It’s such a knowing monologue, it’s such a written piece of dialogue and he makes it so effortless and so natural, and he takes his time with it, so you never for a second feel that you’re watching somebody acting. Another spot where I’m screening for the crew and you could hear a pin drop in the room listening to this man speak. … He’s such a beautiful actor that he can be talking about anything, and as long as you’re just staying on him, you’re riveted to whatever it is he’s saying.

How much of a breakthrough moment will that be for Kevin and Olivia moving forward?

It’s a breakthrough in fits and starts. We’ve established that Kevin is this well-meaning guy, who continually, to use the golden retriever analogy, he’s chasing his tail and is often trying really hard to do the right thing but often getting in his own way. Olivia is a very broken, high-intensity person, so there’s one version where this moment would crack her open, and there’s another version where she would immediately rebel and act out against the emotion she just experienced in this episode. And that’s more the path that we’re driving towards next week.

It was painful to watch Kevin rudely dismiss Miguel’s request to wear the Pilgrim Rick hat. Miguel came off as very deferential and respectful in this episode. When will we learn more about why he is so hostile to Miguel?

Yeah, it’s an important moment for Miguel. There’s always so much vitriol directed at this poor guy [laughing], because he’s the guy who married Rebecca after Jack is not there, and we don’t know exactly how and when and why that happened. This is the episode for maybe the first time, you are really in Miguel’s shoes, and you feel for Miguel, and he’s got that hound dog look as he’s trying to wear the hat, and it’s the first time I think that the audience, in their own way — they’ve always liked Miguel in terms of what he’s doing for this show or not liked him, which means they’re liking him — but here on a pure identification level, they’re identifying with and feeling for Miguel, and I think that’s a really important thing for us. Our greatest magic trick, one day long down the road from now, is going to be getting the audience invested in Miguel — and Miguel and Rebecca together. When many, many seasons from now, God willing, when we can have done that, I think that’s going to be a very exciting thing to have done as writers and directors and producers and actors.

And we will find out how much of Kevin’s hostility is justified — or not justified?

Different kids have different reactions to stepparents to begin with. Clearly, Kevin is probably the least-realized human being at this point of his life. Clearly, he has the sharpest bite toward Miguel, and Randall doesn’t hold that same bite, and Kate lies somewhere in the middle, and you’ll see more of that in upcoming episodes. So it tells you that potentially they would all hate him if something dark and depraved had happened to form that relationship. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, as you can tell from the different reactions to him, and that has to do with maturity and with where people were in their lives when those two got together, and what had happened to make that happen, so that’s all part of it.

And you gave him gout, by the way.

And we gave him gout. Poor Miguel.

This is a very important question: How much arguing in the writers’ room was there over which was the best Police Academy?

I don’t remember what that conversation was like. I think there was something about Police Academy 3 that just seemed extra random, like one of those VHS tapes you find in a motel where there’s not too many options. But it wasn’t the content as much as the number.

Is there an alternate universe where they actually watch 9 1/2 Weeks instead of Police Academy 3, and it sends this family down a very different road?

[Laughs.] It would have been a different episode. All of the kids are traumatized and sucking their thumbs at the end of the episode.