Good things come in threes. Stooges. Little pigs. Wise men. Members of Canadian prog-rock power trio Rush. Bad things come in threes, too. Take, for example, the misfortunes that struck the trio of Pearson siblings in This Is Us‘ Big Three trilogy of episodes. First came Kevin’s calamity, as he descended into a vortex of alcohol and pills. Then came Kate’s catastrophe, as she suffered a miscarriage right when she started embracing pregnant life. And finally, on Tuesday night, came Randall’s ridiculously rough ride.
The season 2 fall finale of the NBC family drama, titled “Number Three,” featured our resident perfectionist, played by Sterling K. Brown, enduring a day of emotional overmuch: Not only was he seeking to comfort Kate on the phone and trying to manage his vodka-swilling brother who showed up at his doorstep, Randall wrestled with the painful decision to bid farewell to Deja (Lyric Ross), the guarded foster child who initially recoiled at his approach but over the last few weeks had grown to groan at his humor and embrace life as a Pearson. Released from prison earlier than expected, Deja’s mother, Shauna (Joy Brunson), showed up at the Pearsons, ready to fight hard to reunite with her daughter, and when Deja’s social worker, Linda (Debra Jo Rupp) toed the same line with Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), the couple threatened legal action to fight to keep Deja. Ultimately, though, Randall released his grip after reflecting on a conversation he had with William (Ron Cephas Jones), who’d poignantly explained to him why he did not overstep the boundaries Rebecca had set up and reenter 9-year-old’s Randall’s life.
Back in the past, teenage Randall (Niles Fitch) persuaded his Ivy-focused father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) to take him on a visit to Howard University, where the adopted African-American son was immediately activated by a culture he’d largely not experienced. It was also in our nation’s capital that Randall connected with his roots in a different way — connecting profoundly with his father at the Vietnam War memorial, where Jack opened up in ways that he hadn’t, even to his wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore). “Number Three” concluded with the ’90s-era of the family assembled together in the living room, but it was a house divided in the present: a disillusioned Tess (Eris Baker) ran away from home and hid in the backseat of Kevin’s car, and soon after, a surprised and intoxicated Kevin (Justin Hartley) was pulled over and arrested for DUI. How did Randall and Beth, in a panic over their missing daughter, handle this news? The phrase “I’ll kill him!” was uttered.
Time to think of our best dad jokes, tilt the speaker blasting Beyoncé toward the nearest houseplant, eat some Pac-Dots, and ask This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker a few pressing questions about “Number Three.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In this final episode of the Big Three trilogy, we dug deeper into Randall. Teenage Randall revealed to his father that he was feeling out of sorts, and that everything was going to be more complicated for him, and they bonded as Jack revealed that he struggled with similar feelings after Vietnam. We also saw adult Randall come to terms with the undeniable powerful bond between parent and child, which prompted him to drop potential legal action and allow Deja to return to Shauna. In telling these two chapters of Randall’s life, what did you set out to accomplish?
ISAAC APTAKER: When we started talking about the college stories and where our Big Three would want to go, our writer Kay Oyegun came in with the idea that Randall would potentially be very interested in Howard [University], and we thought that that was such a rich story: that a black kid who was raised in a very, very white world with a few notable exceptions, being Yvette (Ryan Michelle Bathe) and her son, would be very interested in seeking out the total opposite and immersing himself in this culture that he never fully got to be a part of because of his adopted family.
And then in terms of what Randall’s going through with Deja and Shauna, last season was so much about coming to terms with the fact that Rebecca had prevented him from getting to know his biological father until very late in his life, and we thought, “What if we put Randall in a very similar situation where all of the sudden, he’s faced with a dilemma where he is potentially preventing a girl from being back with her biological mother, and this thing that was done to him that he had no control over, he’s now the one making the decision?”
The bond between Jack and Randall deepens in this episode, culminating with that conversation at the memorial. It seemed further proof that Randall’s relationship with Jack will end as the least fraught of the Big Three. He seems to carry around the least amount of guilt in the present day, so is it fair to say that he’ll be the most at peace when the time arrives?
I think that is safe to say. As we’ve seen, Kevin has a ton of unresolved baggage — he’s been drowning in the painkillers — and Kate feels a tremendous amount of responsibility for the death of her father. Of course, it’s still a tragedy, and he still grieves, and there’s still a lot there, but he definitely seems like he has the most closure and he’s the most at peace with it. And that does have a lot to do with the really beautiful relationship that he has with his father. There’s not a lot of angst there, there’s not a lot of drama there.
Jack’s conversation with Randall at the memorial felt like a precious download of information, even if he was vague on the details. He mentioned that he hadn’t even told Rebecca about what exactly happened in Vietnam. Is there more to come on that, perhaps in a moment with Rebecca? Or is there an intimacy in that moment that he felt he could only share with Randall, and that’s one of the reasons that it’s so special?
There’s definitely much more to come in terms of Jack and his Vietnam, but what’s special about the moment, it’s one of the first times that Jack is really talking to Randall like a man instead of a child, and confiding in him in a way that he hasn’t even necessarily confided in his own wife. It’s a very mature father-son moment. We’ve seen him calming Randall with his anxiety and taking him to the dojo, and making him go to the private school. We’ve seen much more father doing parenting to a younger child, but that moment on the bench is really him relating to Randall, much more man to man.
As you mention with the visit to the dojo (where Jack brought Randall to give him a strong African-American role model), Jack and Rebecca were such loving parents and they provided everything they could for him. But they couldn’t provide everything for Randall, in terms of his African-American heritage, as the first judge made clear in the recent adoption episode. Jack sees that different world at Howard, and he challenges Randall about not being introduced to Randall’s friends at Howard. How do you think that impacts him?
It was so important to us that we filmed the episode at Howard because we really wanted to capture the visual storytelling of seeing Jack surrounded by people who are a different race than him, which is an experience that Randall [lived] probably 95 percent of life in, from childhood. So, for Jack, he really is able to understand for the first time in a more visceral level — of course, it’s different but with the race flipped — what it feels like just to not look like everyone around you.