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SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details about Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “Deja Vu.”
Now it’s not Kate but Kevin who’s having a hard time talking about Jack.
On Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us, Kevin (Justin Hartley) was the next Big Three member struggling under the weight of his inability (or unwillingness) to process the grief about the death of his father 20 years ago. As Kevin suddenly found himself knee-deep (sorry) in a shiny, Ron Howard-directed war movie, acting opposite heavyweight actor (and former Milo Ventimiglia co-star) Sylvester Stallone, his past began creeping up. Stallone — tipped off by Kate (Chrissy Metz) about the fate of his biggest fan, Jack (Ventimiglia) — tried to engage Kevin about that tragedy, only to see Kevin shut it down like Rocky on a side of beef in a Philadelphia meat factory. (He also may have called Kate “sad and damaged” when she challenged him on his emotional constipation when it came to their dad.)
But when Kevin was filming a key sequence in which his character had to rescue his father figure in the trenches, he was flooded by memories of Jack and of the day he died — and fell on hard times in the literal sense. He re-injured his “bad knee,” as Kate referred to it — the one we saw in a cast during the season premiere’s flashback to the day of Jack’s death. Before the credits rolled, we saw Kevin making up with his twin sister and trying to placate her by saying that, sure, maybe one day he’d be ready to talk about Dad. But not now. Then he opened a bottle of pills and popped one to dull the pain.
Why can’t Kevin talk about Jack? What’s going on with that old injury? Is he about to head down a destructive path of addiction? Will Stallone return for more frittatas? Will the dog that Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) adopted eat those as well? Did Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) bite off more than they can chew by not adopting and taking in this foster teen instead? Did Jack (who’s now completing his steps in an AA program) and Rebecca (who offered up the verb of the season) just take a huge step in reestablishing their communication? Let’s take a deep breath without holding it for the rest of our lives and try Jack Pearson-ing This Is Us executive producers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (who co-wrote the episode) into giving us some insight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This episode could have been called “Jack Pearson’s Son Part 2.“Last season, he showed a side of him that was like Jack by ditching his play and running to Randall in a time of need. In this episode, Jack shares in AA that he doesn’t want his kids to end up as cavemen like him, who are weighed down by something that they’ve kept bottled up. And here we see that Kevin has been stuffing down his feelings about Jack’s death and the grief that’s festering inside of him. Can you shed any light on what Kevin’s feeling and repressing? Is it guilt? Regret? Anger at Jack for not being around? What is the cocktail of emotions that he’s feeling?
ELIZABETH BERGER: I think it is just that. It is a very complex cocktail of grief, potentially some guilt — just unresolved pain. Last season we saw Kate really delve into that sadness. And Kevin has not quite gotten there. He’s earlier in his journey in grieving his dad’s death. So all of those emotions are something we’re going to be unpacking throughout the season.
ISAAC APTAKER: I love that you picked up on that it could be called “Jack Pearson’s Son 2,” because that was really intentional. When we were talking about this story, we said, “Last season we had this episode that showed how Kevin inherited all these really admirable qualities from Jack and he decides to leave his play and be there for his brother. And this year, we did an episode where we showed that he also inherited some of the less-than-perfect traits, and paired it with Jack and Rebecca on this struggle where he’s really having such a difficult time being open and honest with his wife, and feeling the hard feelings, just like Kevin can’t crack himself open about Jack’s death.”
How dark will Kevin’s journey turn this season? Justin indicated that his self-questioning leads to a crisis of self. What exactly should fans brace for?
BERGER: They should brace for Justin to give a heartbreakingly beautiful, nuanced performance. You got to see a hint of just how many layers are within Kevin last season, and you’re going to get even more this season. He’s giving an extraordinary performance with some tricky stuff.
APTAKER: Our grips and our sound guys are the hardest ones to make cry, and on Friday night, he had all of them going. [Laughter]
BERGER: That’s how you know that he’s doing the right things.
We know something happened to Kevin’s knee/leg from the shot of the cast in the season premiere. When he hurts himself again filming the movie, an old injury appears to flare up, when Kate references his bad knee — a wink to the cast we saw on the night that Jack died — and says, “You gotta keep an eye on that.” Then we see him popping a pill. How much has this plagued him over the years? And what can you hint about the original trauma that put him in the cast?
APTAKER: Obviously, Kevin is a very in-shape guy and you’ve seen him running with his brother and what not, so it’s not the kind of thing where he’s been physically impaired over the years. But we had talks with several doctors about this who said a lot of things that we didn’t understand. [Laughs] When he does that big stunt and is distracted with the emotions of his father that this scene with Stallone is bringing up, and then he lands wrong on the knee, it’s already vulnerable to re-injury. In terms of the rest of the year, this is a starting arc for Kevin with his knee. This is not something like, “Next week he’s going to be back on his feet and totally fine.” This is a bigger story here.
Are you going to be a story of an addiction as well? The pills seem to intimate that.
BERGER: I think that’s one that you’ll have to stay tuned for.
APTAKER: If he takes that pill, as [Kate] says, “You’re just like Dad.” There’s one way to interpret that, with the addiction and Jack’s alcoholism. Another way to interpret that is: “He’s just like you, he has such a hard time talking about the hard stuff.” So, you’ll have to wait and see how that goes.
If he is on pills, will we get a Kevin hallucination scene that allows Milo and Justin to share a scene together, à la the Randall-Jack mushroom smoothie scene?
BERGER: We are definitely always looking to do those because it is very frustrating that we have these great actors that aren’t in scenes together. So I will say, you will see some really fun combinations this season that we have not yet seen.
APTAKER: Whenever an actor comes to the writers’ room, that’s the first thing out of their mouths: “So, when can I work with so-and-so?” “How can we figure out a way to make these two characters cross?” It’s like, “Guys, you’re all in different times!”
How does all of this impact Kevin’s movie moving forward?
APTAKER: This is Kevin’s first movie and it’s his big break, and it’s what all last season was building to. He’s really, really determined not to screw it up and not to let anything get in the way of him finishing this movie. So the knee thing is going to be tricky for him because it’s not a one-and-done; it picks right where we left off next week and it is definitely going to be an obstacle to him finishing this movie.
BERGER: And I think especially because he is someone that has suffered career setbacks in the past with The Manny, with missing his own opening, you’re really going to see him doubling down on not screwing this up.
Will we Stallone again? Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] said it was initially designed as a one-episode guest spot. But it feels like you’d definitely need him back.
APTAKER: He shows up on set. And obviously all of our expectations are sky-high and then he over-delivers. He’s exactly like the magnanimous movie star we were all hoping for — the actors, too. We were all just so starstruck and giddy that Sylvester Stallone had walked onto our little television set.
BERGER: We don’t know yet when he’ll back but we would have him anytime.
APTAKER: He’s a little busy.
BERGER: What was fun about having Stallone was that Milo played his son in Rocky Balboa. It made it interesting to us.
APTAKER: It helped us get Stallone.
BERGER: That was cool to bring them back full circle.
NEXT PAGE: The producers on the foster teen, the dog, and what to expect next week