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This Is Us creator breaks down Jack's flashbacks, alcoholism

Dan Fogelman also weighs in on Kate and Rebecca in Tuesday’s episode: ‘It’s a lifetime relationship filled with issues and regret’

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SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us, titled “A Manny-Splendored Thing.” 

One week after firing up fans with a fire (or rather, a burned-down house) as a tantalizing if heartbreaking clue in the “How Does Jack Die?” mysteryThis Is Us took a much different tack in the second episode of the second season — but it was one also not lacking in raw emotion. If Rebecca (Mandy Moore) took the reins for Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) last week, they were back in familiar hands this week, though perhaps in an unfamiliar way for the Pearson patriarch. Jack finally began taking action for his drinking problem, telling Rebecca he can’t do it like last time — stuffing it down and trying to punch away his addiction while haunted by Vietnam flashbacks (which depicted him carrying an M-16, not a socket wrench, as he’d let on) — and confessing his addiction to teen Kate and that he needed the Big Three to get through this. And then he stepped up, literally, to attend an AA meeting.

Meanwhile, in both past and present, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Rebecca fell into the same fraught trap they always do, as Kate had a singing slot at the talent show (she pulled out) and her first big I’m-doing-this-at-37 gig (she pulled it off), at which Toby (Chris Sullivan) declared his allegiance to Team Kate and won over a skeptical Rebecca in the process. Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) persuaded an (overly?) cautious Randall (Sterling K. Brown) to take a risk by taking in a foster child, while she herself learned from Kevin that Randall took a big one in chasing after her, with Kevin (Justin Hartley) Cyrano-ing in the wings. Also, the episode featured a shirtless, diapered Kevin crawling around the stage in an attempt to be bigger Man(ny), if you’re into that sort of thing.

It’s time to call in the man who will tenderly hold our faces in his hands twice while Clooney-ing the hell out of this Q&A about the events in “A Manny-Splendored Thing,” This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was a key episode in our starting to unpack Jack. And with his admission to Rebecca that he can’t do it like the last time and to Kate that he needs his children’s help — as well as Jack agreeing to finally seek help at AA — he’s in a way agreeing to be unpacked. How difficult will this journey be for him, in that it doesn’t seem in his nature to ask for help — he’s the one helping everyone else?
DAN FOGELMAN: This is a different side of Jack than we’ve ever seen. Jack is the leader and the patriarchal figure for this family, so to be in a place where he’s vulnerable or to be in a place where he’s weak is new for Jack. And I think what we’ll be exploring in ensuing episodes is how new it is for this family to have Jack not just be a person that they go to but to be a person who requires them, is a different color on this entire family.

In the late-eighties, when his drinking started to spiral out of control, Rebecca told him to be a man and fix it. We never saw what he did — just assumed he did. Now it’s clear he was battling many demons at the time. What toll did that take on him, trying to tackle it alone? And what is the constellation of issues that he battling, whether it’s PTSD from Vietnam, or issue with his alcoholic father and childhood?
It’s a combination of factors. Alcoholism or any kind of addiction is a very complicated thing, and you can’t necessarily pinpoint one reason why someone has an addiction problem with drugs or alcohol or anything. For Jack — and we’ve met with and spoken with a lot of people — we’ve tried to treat Jack’s stuff with responsibility. For Jack, there’s multiple factors in play here. Clearly he has a biological predilection toward something in his DNA that comes from his father. He clearly had a bad childhood, which we’ve only touched the surface of. Clearly there’s a new piece of the puzzle toward Jack being added on here, which is Vietnam. And the fact that you’re flashing to something when he’s hitting that punching bag that doesn’t quite match up with what he’s told his family about his experience in Vietnam is a place that we’re certainly going to be exploring not just this season but as the series continues.

How connected is his alcohol problem to the fire that may have claimed his life?
As people have theorized that his problems with alcohol might have contributed to something that happened with the fire, I think by the time we get to the fire, people will know whether or not that was right, but I can’t say right now.

Mrs. Peabody asked him how he returned from Vietnam so nice considering how most of the young men who came back lost their minds. He brushed it off, saying he was just a mechanic. But clearly he wasn’t just a mechanic as that flashback shows. This seems like a huge revelation: Jack is in the thick of war, carrying a machine gun. Was he much more than a mechanic? And how much emotional trauma is he hiding from Vietnam?
The casual fan of the show might just think as they’re watching the “Landslide” montage with Jack, “Oh, wow, some of what happened to Jack in Vietnam clearly had a bigger effect on his life and history than we realized.” I think the closer fans would say, “Huh, this is very different than what he had [said] on the show his experience in Vietnam was.’ And it’s something where if you’re watching like that, it’s intentional. We’ve certainly been watching — and everybody should be watching — Ken Burns’ documentary on PBS right now; it’s insanely good. We’ll certainly get deeper into it as we go. Obviously all war is horrific and tricky, but Vietnam was a very tricky war at a very tricky time, and the things that people experienced are often buried within families for many years is something we’ve found. Jack has clearly has packed a lot of stuff down and part of his journey, through the steps of AA moving forward, is going to have to, as he says in the next episode, sit in some of the stuff that he’s avoided for so long. Which is a scary thing for Jack.

Should we brace for more Vietnam flashbacks in the next few weeks? What will we learn from his time over there?
We’re going to learn a lot. It’s going to be a slow build. In terms of the Jack story line, this season is very much focused on how we get to what happened at the end of episode 1 — that fire. How did Jack die? And how does he deal with his treatment of alcoholism and how does it affect his relationships with his family and the Rebecca. That’s the focus of the season. But you can’t explore this man without understanding what happened to him, very specifically in Vietnam, so that’s going to be a longer story that we’ll slowly start embarking on this season — and really will be a bigger part of the future of the show.

NEXT PAGE: Fogelman on the Kate-Rebecca relationship: ‘You don’t have an issue, and then vocalize it, and then it goes away’

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