Death is inevitable. It happens to the best of us. Even to a Super Dad like Jack Pearson. That grim truth was first confirmed in the fifth episode of NBC family dramedy This Is Us, as we learned that the reason that we’d only been seeing the gold-hearted patriarch played convincingly by Milo Ventimiglia in scenes from the past is because he now rests in a golden urn in Kate’s living room, where she watches Steelers games with her father in spirit. When did tragedy strike? How did it strike? The answer to that second question still remains at large — and will for some time — but the answer to the first (hinted at back in episode 6 when Kevin said that his father had died “a long time ago”) started to come into focus at the end of Tuesday’s episode.
As Kate (Chrissy Metz) gave herself over to a drum circle at an “immersive weight-loss experience” in the Adirondacks — where she had ventured in search of an alternative to gastric bypass surgery — she suddenly tapped into something significant and traumatic from her past, evidenced by a rush of charged memories with Jack from her adolescence. That includes flashes of his funeral, where we saw Pearson matriarch Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and — wait for it, at first it’s just the shoes — the teenage incarnations of the Big Three, whom we glimpsed from the side, mourning their father, the camera lingering on Kate for a moment before the credits rolled.
The episode did feature Jack in the living flesh, too, as we watched Rebecca and him try to manage a near-impossible feat in the past: Throwing three parties at the same time in the same house for three kids who were turning 10 and no longer interested in a joint birthday bash. And so we had a Princess Bride-themed celebration for Kevin (Parker Bates), a Madonna party for Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicsak), and a prestidigitation spectacle for Randall (Lonnie Chavis). As Kate’s friends, including BFF Sophie, ditched her celebration for Kevin’s in the adjacent room, Jack valiantly tried to cheer up Kate, asking her to mentor him through the hand choreography to “Vogue.” A sweet moment veered into heartbreak territory: She was literally just going through motions, and asked him softly if she could just be alone.
Now might be a good time to strike a pose and check out this Q&A with Ventimiglia, who explains what it was like to attend his own funeral — and what to expect from Jack moving forward (or is that backward?) in time.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This episode contained a key piece of the puzzle about Jack’s death — that the Big Three were teenagers at the time. What was your reaction to that revelation when you read the script?
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: When I read it, I didn’t know how it was going to be shot. And I understood that it was all supposed to be cloaked in a little bit of mystery of when and how and why. I was surprised to see that they did reveal the age of the kids.
You knew this was coming, but what did it feel like when you actually saw it? There’s a real sadness and mystery to it. It’s almost through a haze.
I think the thing for me that resonated the most was just the pain of others. I can’t look at it as Jack’s loss of life just because, well, I’m Jack. So, I was looking at it through the lens and the scope of Kate, of Chrissy, of Hannah (Zeile, who plays teenage Kate), of Mackenzie, and understanding that at 36, Kate is still feeling the tremors of her father’s passing. And we understood that from the episode of the football game, and she was watching the game with her father. It was a very sacred thing, her relationship with her dad.
We see it a lot in the stuff that Mackenzie and [I] play. We’re definitely going to explore that more with Hannah. But it’s this idea that she is still hanging onto a deep, deep pain of her father’s passing, and what that does to her. How does that and how has that impacted her? So, for me I’m excited to figure out: What are those moments, father to daughter, that she’s really hanging onto and sharing and learning from or heartbroken over?
Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] said that while all the kids are greatly impacted by Jack’s death, Kate is the one most impacted. What can you say about that?
Jack lives for his family. He lives for his kids. I think the idea as well that is going to start to become more apparent is that Jack’s wife and kids hold him together. They really hold him together. I think it’s only been hinted on in small doses that you know that he had a really horrible upbringing. You met his dad…. I’m looking forward to exploring more of that. Jack is held together by his kids and we’ve seen moments with 8-year-old Kate at the pool and now, having the moment at the birthday party where Jack tries to cheer Kate up, and it just doesn’t quite work anymore.
What did you think about the choice to make them teenagers when Jack died? They’re old enough that they’ll have a lot of memories and bonds formed, but young enough that it’s still a formative time in their lives when they’re starting mature relationships. Did that feel like the biggest impact zone to you?
It felt like the right time. I definitely trust Dan’s decision to say, “These are the stories, and this is the time when we’re telling these stories.” And I think it was a pivotal time in any kid’s life. You’re just about to finally gain that confidence as a young adult, get out of your teens, and then all of a sudden Dad dies. Or just before that, your father passes, and maybe if your father was your strength, how does that cripple you to a degree where maybe you have to support your siblings a little more? Or you have to stand up for yourself a little more? Or maybe in some cases, maybe like Kate, it holds her back, or it adds a level of, “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, and maybe I’m going to turn toward food or not take care of myself,” or something like that. So I think it was a great idea, especially leading into more stories for the Pearsons to have Jack’s death be in that teenage [era].
NEXT PAGE: Ventimiglia on what it was like to watch his own funeral: “Surreal”