The first one to walk was the last to break.
Last season on This Is Us, viewers watched Kate (Chrissy Metz) start to unblock years of pent-up emotion and guilt over Jack’s death while she was in a drum circle at a weight-loss immersion camp. A few episodes later, her brother, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), suffered a massive anxiety attack, collapsing under the competitive pressure of his job and the stresses of caring for his terminally ill biological father, leaving him sobbing in the arms of his brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley). Tuesday’s episode of the NBC family drama, the first in a trio of Big Three-centric installments that will showcase a different member of the Big Three, was Kevin’s time to be cracked wide open — last year’s Manny meltdown was just a preview — as two decades of stuffed-down grief about his father’s death and myriad other unprocessed feelings bubbled up in ugly fashion to the surface.
In the past, “Number One” unspooled the story of how a cocksure high school football star suffered a catastrophic knee injury in a game (thus explaining why his leg was in a cast when The Fire happened) while fleshing out the strained relationship with his AA-focused father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia). In the present day, the re-injured Kevin — clouded in a fog of pills and alcohol to mask grief about his father’s death and emotional pain that he couldn’t quite define — returned to his high school to receive a distinguished alumni award. He drank his way through the day, whiffing on his speech but receiving a standing ovation for it nonetheless, bedding an old classmate-turned-doctor and stealing a sheet from her prescription pad so he could re-medicate, subsequently crying out for help on her lawn, and finally showing up at Randall’s house, ready to be saved by the brother who he once raced to rescue. There, though, he received horrible news: Kate, ever-so-cautious Kate, who was encouraged by her fiancé, Toby (Chris Sullivan), to allow herself to celebrate being pregnant — had just lost her baby.
Looks like the Pearsons are going to be punching their way through a lot of pain this month. To help guide you through all the drama of “Number One,” let’s call to the podium This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was the episode that broke Kevin down, and gave us more insight into his fraught relationship with his father, who ultimately saw him as his No. 1. What did you set out to explore with Kevin in this episode?
ISAAC APTAKER: It’s what we’ve been building to all season. He’s been running from all of these emotions surrounding his father and his father’s death. There’s just this general feeling of not quite being deserving of this big extraordinary life he’s lived. And this is when all of that catches up with him, and he really has to stop running and admit that he has a pretty serious problem and needs help.
What was the biggest challenge in creating Kevin’s addiction arc? Was it about how to avoid the pitfalls of the Hollywood star hooked on pills story line that we’ve seen before — and how to make the audience invest in someone who seemingly has received all the breaks in the world but is not happy with that?
That’s exactly it. It was both of those things. When we were shooting, we were trying to be so mindful of how many times we end a scene or end an episode with Kevin popping a pill or taking a drink of alcohol. It does have such that TV trope of [hums dramatically] “Dun-dun-dun” to it. But as we started out cracking Kevin’s arc for this season, addiction and specifically co-addiction have touched so many people’s lives, especially nowadays. So it felt like something that would be very real for Kevin — especially for Kevin, a guy whose Achilles heel is his inability to feel the hard feelings. Of course his drug of choice would be painkillers.
In terms of that, it’s hard to feel for this handsome movie-star guy. I don’t feel that way because of Justin’s performance. He brings out the pain and humanizes Kevin so much. Yes, of course, on paper he’s perhaps the least relatable of our guys, and he’s had the least amount of struggle. But then, when you see him up on screen, and Justin brings him to life, I feel for him just as much as anyone else on our show. And I think tonight’s a real showcase for that.
When Kevin gives us a play-by-play call of his life on the football field, it really fleshes out the idea that he feels that time and again, he did not live up to the ideals that his dad would have wanted for him, only to be rewarded with more good fortune. How much of his addiction spiral and torching of his relationship with Sophie was him attempting to punish himself for his shortcomings — and that he’s been desperate for someone to call him out instead of reward him?
That scene where he’s accepting the award is just that. All he wants is for someone to say, “You don’t deserve this. You’re a mess. Look at you.” And everyone in that room just takes it as, “Oh, the movie star is being humble! He’s throwing the praise on to these other people. What a guy!” And they love him even more. And that scene on the football field, which is my favorite scene in the episode, K.J. Steinberg, who wrote the episode, just absolutely crushed that monologue and then Justin and Ken [Olin, who directed the episode] brought it to life. There’s one shot there where he’s sitting down on the grass, and there’s a very dark background behind him that looks like a movie poster the way they did it. It’s so cool.
All season, we were going to build toward the moment where teen Kevin hurts his leg and that’s the seminal moment for his life, and it’s also one of the big clues leading up to the reveal of when the fire is. That was something we knew was coming and we knew we wanted it in this episode. And then it was K.J. who threw out the idea that he’s back at high school, so what if he goes back to the field, and we do this thing that we don’t usually do on the show, where the past and the present are speaking to each other in a very direct way. He’s actually talking about what we’re seeing in the past, doing the play-by-play of his injury and then going into his whole life and whole career of these ups and downs. So from that desire to have this episode include the breaking of the leg and wanting the link, we came up with it.
The episode builds to two emotionally powerful moments: Jack giving his necklace to his teenage son after he blew out his knee, and Kevin crying out in pain on Charlotte’s lawn. Let’s start with the first, in the hospital. That scene takes on added resonance for the audience, knowing this necklace belonged to his brother — and then earlier in this episode, we see Jack on his knees, struggling to not turn back to the bottle. How hard was it for Kevin to process the image of Jack praying for strength? Was that something he only could only start to understand when he too found himself in a place of weakness in the hospital bed, when everything seemed a bit hopeless?
It’s so hard for teen Kevin to see his father like that, to see his dad as a vulnerable person. His dad is everything, he’s always been the rock of the family and kind of a superhero, so when you see someone that you’ve built up to this mythic status humanized and vulnerable, I think it’s really, really difficult to reconcile those two versions of that man. That look — it’s almost like confusion and disgust on Kevin’s face as a teenager when he sees his dad like that. This is not the man that I know. He’s on his knees, praying for strength, so that’s a really, really hard thing for any teen, but particularly for Kevin to wrap his head around about his dad…. As an adult, he winds up on his knees later in the episode, also asking for help. And there’s genetic ties to addiction, there’s an inextricable link about their inability to feel the harder feelings so it really all comes full circle there.
He does see his dad in a vulnerable place, but then the next day, Kevin hasn’t changed the way he interacts with his dad, because his worldview hasn’t changed yet. It’s only when the injury happens, when he’s in his own moment of helplessness, that he can start to connect again.
What’s so beautiful about that necklace moment for me is that even though Kevin has been so rough on Jack — so hard on him over the course of the episode — Jack instantly drops everything and rushes there and is willing to forgive everything and be there for Kevin in his moment of need. I still think that Kevin has a lot of work to do, and to come to terms with his father’s addiction and see his father’s vulnerabilities. I don’t think it’s magically fixed in that moment. But I think that’s the beginning of Kevin’s wake-up call of, “Wow, I’ve been really awful to this guy who is always there for me and is going to be there for me, no matter what.”
Young Kevin always felt neglected, that Jack and Rebecca’s attention was on Randall or even Kate. What did that mean to Kevin in the hospital to hear Jack talk about his birth being a transformative moment, and it was then that realized that Kevin was his “purpose”?
That’s so important to hear. Especially in the moment like that where Kevin is feeling really vulnerable and raw and wondering what his future is. To have his dad, who’s also really his superhero, tell him that he’s already fulfilled this huge purpose just being born, is really very impactful to Kevin. We’ve seen them at each other’s throats, it was important for us to have a really, really good moment, especially knowing that with the introduction of Kevin’s cast that we’re now heading toward the last days of Jack. So to give our audience and those two actors the chance to do a scene that really, really redeemed them — and showed that there is a lot of repair that’s happening in that relationship — was important.
I wonder if Kevin asked himself, “Does my dad just value me because he’s such a huge football fan and I’m the golden boy?” It must feel redeeming for him to see his dad completely double down on his investment in him after the injury and say, “You have something else great in you, you’re much more than just a football stud.”
There’s always that wonder when you’re good at something that your parents love, whether it’s football, or for Kate and Rebecca, it’s singing. Are they more excited because they’re living vicariously through me and have bragging rights? Or is it proud of me no matter what because I’m their kid?