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?
On a scale of “They’re done” to “Who doesn’t like a third chance?”, where do Kevin and Sophie stand?
We’re very aware that their story is unresolved, and they had that very shocking breakup on the front steps. And for a relationship that spans so many decades and is so deep, that there is a final chapter there that has not yet been told. At the same time, Kevin has a lot to do before I could ever recommend, were Sophie my friend or my sister, that she take him back.
Alexandra Breckenridge, who was made a series regular this season, is pregnant in real life. How might that impact how you are telling that story in the second half of the season? How much will we get to see her?
She’s due very, very soon. It’s definitely doable now, due to some very creative framing and very expensive but beautiful-looking digital effect that they can use to take out the pregnancy. We’ve been able to work around it, so nothing’s off the table with her.
Let’s go to the powerhouse moment on Charlotte’s lawn near the end of the episode. His first attempt to call out for help was his whimpering into the night when no one could hear him. How did you decide to make that the moment that would break Kevin — the word pathetic comes to mind to describe him there — and what were the different ways that you discussed to “break” him?
We knew it was always going to be the necklace. And we had a couple of different versions of how he actually would come to lose the necklace. Because the house burned down, this probably isn’t a family with a lot of artifacts and a lot of mementos. So this necklace takes on an added significance in how rare it is; it’s his only real physical manifestation of his father. So we knew when he lost that, that would be his “Oh my god,” his low point. And we came up with the idea of Charlotte [Stefanie Black] early on in the episode, and it’s very dark — it’s one of the darkest things I think anyone on our show has ever done. He sleeps with a woman to basically steal her prescription pad. But what would really get through to this character and be the wake-up call is losing that one artifact from his father.
That may be the darkest moment, but we were worried that it was going to get even darker when the homecoming coordinator student shows up on the field and says, “Do you wanna party?” Then we cut to him in bed with someone and we think, “Oh, no…”
It could have gotten a lot worse, I know. [Laughs.]
We’re actually relieved to see that he’s just using this doctor for a prescription pad.
Which says a lot about how far Kevin has fallen that we’re relieved that he’s sleeping with an adult to get her prescription pad instead of sleeping with a high school student.
Poor Kevin. Just when he finally reaches out for help — and we think maybe we’re going to get a mirror of the scene from “Jack Pearson’s Son,” where Kevin will be crying in Randall’s shoulders this time — he learns that Kate is in even worse shape: she’s lost the baby. How will he react to this news? Is he in danger of stuffing down his feelings and plea for help because his sister is in a huge time of need?
That’s yet another wakeup call to Kevin of how absent he’s been to other people around him. I mean, we’ve seen how much he’s hurt Sophie. But I don’t think Kevin even realizes how disconnected he’s been from his family and especially his twin sister. So when that bomb is dropped on him, it’s another, “Oh my god, I’ve been in this hole of a downward spiral, and I haven’t even realized that other things are going on in the world and with the people that I love.”
What can you tease about what happens next to him — and how he’s going to prioritize his own care?
We certainly hope that he’s able to see that as another “Oh, wow, I need to fix myself, I haven’t been there” and ask Randall for the help that he came to his house to get. But at the same time, that’s a big bomb to be dropped, and Kevin is not in a great state of mind to receive news like that.
Are Randall’s hands about to be more full than they’ve ever been?
You’ll see what’s going on in Randall’s story in two weeks. All of our Big Three have had an incredibly trying couple of days in this weekend before Thanksgiving that these episodes are all set on.
Can you hint at how Kate react to this tragedy of losing a child?
That’s next week’s episode. [It’s] a special hour of television. This is one of those issues where once you started talking about it, every single person in our writers’ room either had experienced a miscarriage or a sibling or an incredibly close friend who experienced a miscarriage, and yet it’s something that you so rarely see dealt with on network television. We just tried to do an incredibly honest story of what it’s like for a couple experiencing this really, really difficult time.
She kept the pregnancy a secret for a while because she didn’t want to get her up hopes or anyone else’s hopes. She dealt with a different dynamic in Toby, who was so excited, and then she started to let herself invest in it just a little bit, and now it’s gone. How will that impact her?
That’s really tough. She was really, really reluctant to tell anyone. She didn’t want to let herself get excited. She was being as protective as possible in terms of getting invested in this pregnancy. And Toby was the one who broke her open and said, “No, this is exciting. We have to believe in this, and we have to get psyched about it.” So, for now, to have to go the other way, there’s certainly a lot of resentment she’s probably going to be feeling toward Toby, about “How could you do this? How could you get me excited and now it’s gone?”
While we knew that Kate’s pregnancy was positioned as high-risk, the tragedy in this story line is happening a lot faster than we would have expected. And we find out this information in someone else’s story line. It’s a surprising and powerful moment at end of this episode, but how did you decide to reveal that there? Were you worried about taking away such a dramatic reveal in Kate’s story next week?
It’s really an unusual way of telling the story. It speaks to what we’re trying to do with these three episodes, where the whole idea is you think you’re watching one thing, and then you don’t realize that the way that someone else is experiencing the same exact period of time completely different. So, it was important to us to connect the episodes. Each one is framed with the home video of the Big Three, and it’s about how you can become so fixated on what’s happening in your life that you miss what’s happening around you. So if you go back into Kevin’s story, there’s that moment where Toby is trying to call him, and he totally misses it. So you’ll see next week what’s been going on in California and what was happening when those phone calls were placed. You’ll literally be on the other side on the phone, and see how these days are connected to each other.
What is your one-sentence tease for “Number Two”?
It’s a beautiful depiction of how a relationship can survive and really, really be tested.
To see why Justin Hartley wonders if Kevin has even hit rock-bottom, click here.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.