Inside the Pearsons’ Pittsburgh house on an L.A. soundstage, Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore are busy filming a scene for the eagerly awaited second season of NBC’s This Is Us, and, well, we’re not going to sugarcoat this: Things aren’t looking so good for Jack.
Ventimiglia’s beloved patriarch wakes up disoriented, his body encrusted with red vesicles and radiating pain. His three kids lie in bed with him, while his concerned wife, Rebecca (Moore), hovers nearby, telling him, “You’ve been passed out with a fever for hours.” After all of the theories about car crashes, plane crashes, heart attacks, and cirrhosis, could this be what dooms Jack?
“Funny enough, we were walking across the lot from the set to our trailers and there were a lot of tours,” Ventimiglia says during a break from filming that scene. Moore chimes in, “We saw the cameras and phones start to come out, and we ran the other way!” He continues: “Mandy and I both said, ‘Oh, we can see the theories now!!!'” Moore: “I was like, ‘He has some flesh-eating disease from a trip to the Amazon!'”
Fine — enough misdirect and torture. Jack doesn’t have an exotic illness; he has chicken pox. (Plus a problem with Rebecca’s mother, played by Elizabeth Perkins, whose unannounced visit is vexing the family.) All of which means the great How did he die? mystery will remain unsolved for now. But answers are coming, and not just to that question — to questions about Jack and Rebecca’s marriage, to others you haven’t thought to ask yet — because, as this time-tripping dramedy has demonstrated, its appeal transcends literal morbid curiosity. Yanking on both heartstrings and tissues from the box, This Is Us is an ever-surprising nonlinear family saga about a husband and wife who lose a triplet during childbirth and adopt a third baby at the hospital, as well as the journey of said Big Three — Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Kevin (Justin Hartley) — as children, teenagers, and thirtysomethings. Last we saw, that family was fracturing at its core: An ugly fight between Jack and Rebecca exposed a breakdown in communication and years of corrosive sacrifice, leading the couple to decide to (temporarily?) separate.
So what now? The first order of business for This Is Us, which averaged 15.4 million viewers and nabbed 10 Emmy nominations, is to prove that it isn’t merely a single-season sensation. “Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, this is just a one-off, and they can’t really continue with such deep story lines and intense, real raw emotions,'” says Metz. “But when we read the first script [of season 2], I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I hate to say ‘expectations’ because I don’t like to have them, but it’s going to exceed everybody’s expectations.” Seconds Hartley: “I guarantee that what you thought was heartbreaking in season 1, we’re doubling down on in season 2. The laughs will be a little louder, and the cries will be a little deeper.”
Indeed, things darken a bit as TIU sheds light on a tragic time in the family’s history. “We do have quite a bit of sad in this season, simply because of the nature of where the stories are,” says creator Dan Fogelman. “The show is not about Jack’s death, and if that’s all you care about, you’re missing the point. That being said, it is a hinge upon which this family swings, and this season explores that time period. It naturally gets a little heavier.”
And to fans frustrated by the lack of resolution in the season finale — “We can’t be mad at the audience for something we helped to create, right?” quips Brown — Fogelman promises that the season premiere contains a “huge piece of the puzzle.” (It was potent enough to be redacted from the script.) When the rest of the pieces snap into place later in the season, you are advised to steel yourself. “I think the best thing I can say,” offers Ventimiglia, “or the worst thing I can say — is: It’s going to be f—king painful.”
More immediate pain arrives in the form of this marriage in crisis, which now courts another mystery: What exactly was the state of Jack and Rebecca’s relationship when he died? Fogelman has some other questions for you to obsess over, too: “At what point did Miguel (Jon Huertas) and Rebecca get together? Did something weird happen? Did something great happen? Did it happen right after he died? How did Kate feel affected by her father’s death? What happened to this family after the father’s death in the immediate aftermath? There are so many questions left to be explored in this season and the next.”
This season also follows the now-37-year-old siblings pursuing the dreams they each revealed in the finale. Kate has her confidence tested as she attempts a singing career like her mother did and steadies her relationship with fiancé/new roommate Toby (Chris Sullivan). “So much of her life has been great moments and then right on down to the pit of despair,” says Metz. “It’s really about courage and consistency this year.” Randall and wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) find themselves on different pages about adopting a third child, although, as Brown notes, “he’s not trying to replicate what Jack and Rebecca had.” Then there’s Kevin, leaving his ex-wife/now girlfriend Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) in New York again to shoot Ron Howard’s WWII-era movie in L.A. Moreover, he spirals down a path of self-questioning, with Jack’s death still shadowing him. “He deals with his father’s passing in a different way than Kate does and Randall does,” says Hartley. “And in a strange and sort of unpredictable way, Sylvester Stallone has a big part in that.” (Yes, Jack’s favorite actor plays a surrogate father figure to Kevin’s character in the war film — that shouldn’t be loaded at all.)
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Meanwhile, the show will dig into the thorny present-day relationship between Rebecca and Kate. “They’re both oblivious to the pain they’re causing one another and where it emanates from,” says Moore, “but they can’t really help themselves.” We’ll also crack Jack open and examine his flaws — “He’s Superman, but now we’re going into the Clark Kent side underneath,” says Fogelman — while seeing if he can address his alcoholism. “There’s got to be a reason why Jack is the way that Jack is, why he loves his wife and his kids so much, why he fights for his family,” hints Ventimiglia. “The unpacking of Jack is understanding his past, understanding the thing that crossed his path in life that created the man that we know.” (Speaking of dead dads, the gentle spirit of Ron Cephas Jones’ William will live on via flashbacks.)
If you’re already beginning to tear up, Moore has an eco-friendly suggestion: “Let’s upgrade to something we can wash and use again. Do a washcloth. If there’s a runny nose, if you’ve got makeup streaming down your face, it’s perfect.” Hartley urges you to think even bigger. “Bath towels, buddy,” he warns. “Season 2 will be bath towels.”