This Is Us producer on Rebecca vs. the adoption judge — and plans for Jack's ashes

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Spoiler alert: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “The Most Disappointed Man.”

This Is Us delved into the world of adoption on Tuesday, and, as it turns out, the journey to bring Randall into the Pearson family wasn’t quite as simple as chanting: “First came/Me/Then Dad said/Wee!’”

“The Most Disappointed Man” laid out the challenge of two white parents in Pittsburgh circa 1980 trying to dot the I’s and cross the T’s on the legal guardianship for their African-American son: Randall had been abandoned by William (Jermel Nakia) at a fire station and then dropped off at the hospital before finding a new home with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) — who lost one of their triplets during birth — thus (re-)forming the Big Three. Given they’d been caring for Randall for a good year, the social worker assured the earnest couple this would be a painless rubber-stamp situation, but that proved to be far from the case when they found themselves in front of an African-American judge (Delroy Lindo), who believed this child needed to be raised by parents of his race (and would use the n-word in talking about racism from his own childhood to demonstrate his point). Whereas Jack had stepped up before in the relationship, persuading his grieving wife in the hospital that Randall was meant to be part of their family, now it was Rebecca’s turn to lead the charge, insisting to the judge in his chambers that they were up to the task, and then fired off a determined letter to him that came complete with mic drop: “We will keep coming until you do your job.” (As eloquent and forceful as it was, it didn’t wind up changing his mind, but it was powerful enough for him to decide to recuse himself from the case, paving the way for another judge to officially certify this adoption.)

Our courtroom time didn’t end there, as young William — beaten down by life after losing his mom, girlfriend, and Randall, and arrested for drugs — gave the judge (Sam Anderson) a defeated, nihilistic earful: “I’m the most disappointed man you’ve ever met in your whole damn life, so if you want to lock me up, lock me up, put me inside, because there is nothing out here for me anymore.” In return, he received not jail time but a surprising break from a world-weary judge who had doled out too much punishment in his tenure and was willing to take a chance on him; he delivered an I-want-you-to-picture-my-ugly-mug-every-time-you-think-about-making-a-bad-decision speech that apparently reset William’s course in life. And in the present-day justice system, Shauna (Joy Brunson), the incarcerated mother of Deja (Lyric Ross), disappointed her daughter for cancelling a prison visit, leading grown-up Randall (Sterling K. Brown) to square off with her, the two of them separated by a wall of glass and off-base assumptions about the other. After some soul searching, Randall realized the value of a biological connection between a parent and child — like one he had experienced with the terminally ill William (Ron Cephas Jones) in the last chapter of his life — and facilitated a call between Shauna and Deja.

Elsewhere in the episode, Kevin (Justin Hartley) accelerated his decline into a haze of pills, booze, and self-loathing. He hastily purchased three rings to propose to Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge), only to show up at her doorstep for a decidedly unromantic monologue, rationalizing that he would be nothing but a disappointment to her, and, for shattering her heart for a second time, he wound up with a door shut in his face. Toby (Chris Sullivan) fared much better on the engagement front, giving Kate (Chrissy Metz) a proper sweatshirt-shedding proposal after the two had considered a quickie courthouse wedding. Before wedding bells start ringing, let’s pick up the toys, slip into $200 worth of hoodies, sip on some matcha tea, and summon This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker to talk about “The Most Disappointed Man.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The journey for Jack and Rebecca to legally adopt Randall proved to be more challenging than they thought — and brought to light issues of transracial adoption back then. We’ve seen Rebecca and Jack work hard to treat Randall just like Kevin and Kate. And that episode with Yvette (Ryan Michelle Bathe) telling Rebecca to get Randall a proper barber and Rebecca asking her about sunscreen has added resonance now. Are we seeing the groundwork being laid for this couple’s fraught journey to provide the right guidance for Randall — and realizing that their hands are full, maybe more than they even realized?
ISAAC APTAKER: You’re seeing that Jack and Rebecca decided to adopt Randall — they fell in love with him at the hospital — but they were not experts in transracial adoption. Every scene in this episode [shows] this was not a super common thing in 1980 Pittsburgh. So it’s not like they did all the homework and had weeks and weeks to think about this. No, they fell in love with a baby and brought him home, and then dove in headfirst into these complicated waters. So, yes, absolutely, this shows the beginning of that epiphany for Rebecca and Jack.

It’s an unexpected decision to have the judge recuse himself from the case after Rebecca writes him that impassioned letter. It allows him to not stand in the way of Jack and Rebecca’s mission to adopt Randall but not to waver from his belief system. How did you come up with that solution in the writers’ room? Was there talk initially of having the judge reverse his decision after reading Rebecca’s letter but it just felt too unrealistic or too Hollywood?
Exactly right. We were very, very conscious of not giving the neat and tidy Hollywood ending, and it rang false to all of us that Rebecca could send this one letter — however beautifully written — and completely change the deep-seated beliefs of this judge. But at the same time, he was not at all a villain, just a person with very, very different beliefs. And thus in this one particular instance with this family, who clearly have so much love and are going to do their absolute best to do right by their adopted son, he was willing to, at the very least, step aside. So it felt to us like the most grounded way of letting this adoption go through.

We hear him say the n-word while making a point about how Randall won’t have the tools he needs in life if he is raised by a white family. Did it just feel authentic to use the n-word in the situation? And was it important for Rebecca and Jack to hear the ugliness of that word so that they understood the importance of what was at stake — and what was he was talking about?
Exactly. It felt like — talking about the reality of the situation — that he wouldn’t need to use a euphemism; he would probably just say the actual word to them. And yes, conversely the impact would land on them much more if they heard him use the actual word.

It’s not often you hear that word on a broadcast network in prime time. The Carmichael Show produced a great episode about it this summer. What was the network’s reaction when you told them that you wanted to use this word?
They totally got it. With The Carmichael Show — and I thought it was such a smart episode that they did so well — NBC is so great about understanding the context that things are in, and not just in blindly following a set of standards and practices. So I think because of the way the word was used, and the importance of it in the scene and the story we were telling, they completely got what we were trying to do, and did not have a problem with it.

Rebecca takes the lead with the judge in his chambers, and Jack is not really speaking. And then she’s the one who writes the letter. We’ve seen Jack be so proactive in willing the Big Three into existence, but here he takes a back seat and Rebecca is driving the family. Why was this the moment that you wanted to show her strength and leadership with Randall?
Yes, there’s a little bit more of Rebecca stepping into the spotlight. It felt like, especially concerning Randall, we told the story earlier this year about how Jack was the one who pushed her at the hospital to bring him home. And we told the story at the dojo that Jack was the one that was really eager to help Randall explore his racial identity. It was important to us that we show that Rebecca was very much active in that as well, falling in love with Randall and needing him to be a part of the family. So we had seen Jack make that push at the hospital, and it was important to show Rebecca — having spent a year with this kid and absolutely falling in love with him as her son — being the one to really make sure that he was hers for good.

And what did he whisper in Rebecca’s ear?
Oh, I can’t tell you that.

Not even a hint?
Not even a hint.

But that will come into play a little later?
Perhaps.

This episode answered a question that we hadn’t thought to ask: What was William doing right before Randall changed his life and knocked on his door? The judge wanted him to remember his ugly mug — which isn’t so ugly by the way…
I know, right? I was like, “This guy’s pretty handsome. We should apologize to Sam.”

The judge wanted to keep William from making bad decisions, and it worked. We see him walk away from trouble on the street corner. I’m sure the writers talked about different ways that William cleaned up his life. How did you arrive at the idea that it would be a talk with a judge that would send him down the right path?
You think of the judge because you see so much in movies and TV as being this all-powerful figure. And, of course, judges have a lot of power. But at the same time, there are regulations to their sentencing and what they can and they can’t do. So that is what’s so interesting about that monologue is that you have a judge who’s saying, “I’m sick and tired of having to throw the book at people that I would love to help. And I’m going to really, really stick my neck out for you, and do everything in my power to make an exception, because you got through to me in my courtroom.” So that really resonates with William. This is a man who hasn’t had a lot of people look out for him in his life, and I think he really felt an obligation to try to do right by that judge.

NEXT PAGE: Has Kevin hit rock bottom? Are Toby and Kate walking down the aisle later this season?

Young William says he’s the most disappointed man you’ve ever met. But speaking of disappointment, Kevin’s up there, too.
I know, right? Great transition!

He is in a spiral of self-loathing, going so far as to sabotage his relationship with Sophie. “I’m saving 40 years of disappointment with me,” he told her. At some point, Jack tried to stop stuffing his feelings down and open up to Rebecca and to get help. How close are the floodgates to opening for Kevin? Have we hit rock bottom yet?
Yes, we are very, very close to rock bottom with him. These painkillers, he’s fallen in love with them because they allow him not to feel, and that’s episode 3 with Kate when Sylvester Stallone started to crack him open and he’s so, so scared of that, so he’s just running in the complete opposite direction by numbing himself. But he’s realizing that it’s starting to have a pretty intense impact on the relationships in his life. He’s just able to hide it from Kate in that scene. If he stayed there much longer, she would have realized something is up. And now with Sophie, this is really his way of saying, “I’ve already ruined your life once. I cheated on you and got divorced, and it took you a long time to bounce back from that again. And I can’t do that to you again.” And I so love in Justin’s performance there, you can tell he’s setting her free, and all you want him to do — and all he wants to do — is admit to her that he has a problem. But he can’t bear to bring her down into his spiral with him and mess up her life yet again. So he’s setting her free by breaking her heart, and it’s really painful.

She’s a nurse! He’s sweaty and erratic. Why isn’t she recognizing the signs of addiction here?
[Laughs.] I know! He took a red-eye and he’s been running around the city all day, and I think she can definitely sense that he’s off, but in that short interaction, where clearly he’s going through something, I don’t think she’s jumping to the place of, “Oh, you’re addicted to pills!” There’s a lot of extenuating circumstances there for why he’s acting so weird. And honestly, I do think she thinks that he’s potentially drunk in that scene. The last time she saw him, he went on a little bit of tear at her benefit.

Meanwhile, Randall is perhaps uniquely qualified to see both sides of the parenting coin, having benefitted from two people who stepped in when his biological father couldn’t do the job, but he also experienced the value of a connection with a biological child when he reconnected with William. As he says, “I think about William missing me, needing me.” Twenty-five percent of foster care situations have a goal of adoption. Did Randall and Beth perhaps fast-forward prematurely to that outcome because of Randall’s history?
Right. And also because of the connection. She hasn’t been there that long, but they’ve been through a lot with this girl. They’ve had some really loaded moments and they’re falling for her, and it’s scary to think that there’s this other person out there who she’s lived with for 12 years who wants her back. … He’s someone who all of last year struggled with not knowing his biological father, and now here he is in a situation where all of the sudden, he’s trying to decide whether to allow contact between Deja and her biological mother. And what’s so interesting to us and complicated about the foster-to-adopt system, and we had speakers come in when we were plotting out the season to talk to us, is the goal is reunification with the birth parents. So you have families opening their homes to foster kids and falling in love with them, but at the end of the day, that thing you’re trying to achieve is the birth parent completing their treatment plan and being able to regain custody of their child. So it’s just a really, really difficult position for Randall and Beth to be in, and they are all over the map in this episode. First, Beth is the more mature one and then she gets really fiery, and then Randall comes around, and I think that just speaks to how complicated this situation is when you’re entrusted with the responsibility of a young girl.

By giving Shauna his number to set up the call for Deja, did Randall just change their M.O. with Deja? He’s more open to facilitating a connection between them than he was at the beginning of the episode.
Yeah, I think he’s taking a half-step toward that…. He’s willing to allow contact and realizes: Who is he to prevent these two people from communicating? But I don’t think he’s necessarily ready to say that Shawna is a fit parent for Deja.

Toby and Kate have decided against a courthouse marriage and Toby wants to do it right for Kate, which included asking Jack’s ashes for its blessing. Can we expect to see a wedding later this season? Is that something you can commit to?
I can’t commit to later this season, but I can definitely commit to giving people a really big, satisfying Pearson wedding. The back half of the season will start to really build momentum and head toward that.

The urn is totally going to be at the wedding, walking her down the aisle, isn’t it?
[Laughs.] That’s something we talk about all the time! Can we do a father-daughter dance with an urn? Whether or not it’s through the urn, Jack will definitely be a huge part of this wedding.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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