Dan Snierson
January 16, 2018 at 10:00 PM EST

There are no batteries in the smoke detector. Be alarmed. This is not a fire drill.

Stomachs across the nation dropped in unison during the final moment of Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us. A relatively lighter episode — tinged with romantic mystery! — concluded with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) cozying up on the sofa. He dropped the bomb that he wanted to pursue that long-deferred dream of starting his own construction company. After initially expressing reluctance that this was not the best time, what with a triple college tuition bill on the way, Rebecca quipped: “Well, I guess that’s… going to make it pretty exciting, isn’t it?” But as the camera pulled back, we learned the reason Rebecca told Jack to remind her to buy batteries: there was the smoke detector, with its dangling wire, and no power attached. Put that clue together with the burned-out Pearson house that Rebecca grieved in front of at the end of the season 2 premiere, and you’ve got that special sinking feeling.

“Clooney” was an episode that sought to cover all sorts of ground, some of it quirky. As the title suggests, it unspooled the origin story of Clooney the cat, William’s storied stray feline that defied all odds (and obstacles) to scamper into the life of William (Ron Cephas Jones) — and, ultimately, to scurry into a new boy’s life. Still detached from the career he left behind in the season 1 finale — much to the rolling-eyed chagrin of his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) — Randall (Sterling K. Brown) embarked on a wild muse chase before solving the sketch-y riddle of William’s mystery lady, who turned out to be a Billie Holiday mural. Then came Randall’s time to surprise. He told Beth, who was frustrated with parts of her own job, that he had found his purpose: They should rehabilitate the dilapidated building where William lived and turn it into something for the community good.

Speaking of questions answered, fresh-out-of-rehab Kevin (Justin Hartley) went to stay with Rebecca (Mandy Moore) for a little mother-son repair, only to be frustrated by the omnipresence of Miguel (Jon Huertas). After an awkward, bratty confrontation, Kevin apologized and learned that Miguel was not actually in love with his mother while she was with his father — and that Miguel made Rebecca happy — or as happy as she could be after losing Jack. In addition, Kate (Chrissy Metz) helped Madison (Caitlin Thompson) come to terms with — or at least, start to come to terms with — with her eating disorder, something Kate suffered from, too, in the time leading up to Jack’s death. What else? Oh, right: Young Randall breathed deeply at the mall and approached the red-headed girl, Allison (Isabel Marcus), of whom we sneaked a peek in the season 2 premiere.

Let’s exchange these organic bananas and raw cashews for some Skittles and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, knock on some random doors, gaze deep into our Magic 8 Ball, and ask some questions that will also be answered by This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Well, that was a not-nice way to end the episode.
ISAAC APTAKER: We’re trying to brace people and help people prepare. I think I told you that this was one where the impact of it sneaks up on you. It’s a way of showing that there’s so much going on in these characters’ lives right now, and there’s so much that they’re dealing with. It’s so easy to make a simple mistake. Of course, looking back, we all know what that leads to, but life is hectic. Sometimes you forget to get batteries.

Words to live by. The implications of that scene are clear, obviously. We are closer than ever to learning the truth about Jack’s passing. You’ve set up various puzzle pieces at the beginning of the season, the dog, the cast on Kevin’s leg, the redheaded girlfriend of Randall. We just met the redhead. Plus, Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] has said that viewers wouldn’t have to wait until the season finale for Jack’s death, so we have to ask: How close are we?
Without giving away exactly what episode we’re going to see the death, we are very close. We’re not pulling any punches. This isn’t like, “Oh, they’re going to get batteries next week,” and everyone will be on Twitter cursing us. [Laughs.] You are watching the events that lead to this man’s untimely death.

We’ve known that a fire seems to be the cause of Jack’s death, or at least factors heavily into it. Here, we see the smoke alarm that did not receive these batteries. On several occasions, we’ve seen the house’s circuit breaker fail. Fair to say that those are related, that there may be some sort of electrical fire?
It’s entirely possible. But then again, it’s sort of saying like how throughout our show to explore the way that life is totally unexpected, and we don’t necessarily see where the curveballs are coming from, yes, certainly it could be that electrical fire. Also, there’s lots of different ways that a house can catch on fire. It’s the kind of thing where you don’t really realize what’s important until you have all the information and can reflect on it, much like actual life.

Jack finally decided to stop deferring his dream to start this construction company and Rebecca, after the initial hesitation, kind of bought into the adventure in a fun way. Why must you be a dream killer?
[Laughs.] For us, since season 1, we’ve known that Jack would sort of have these dreams deferred and really put a lot of his own personal ambitions on hold to support to his family, and particularly to send Randall to that private school. If you remember that season 1 episode where he’s toying with the idea of not taking the promotion and doing what he loves. Totally putting his death aside, it felt like a natural time for him to start thinking, “The kids are grown. I’ve launched them. We’re going to be empty nesters. Why not now to dive into this passion I’ve always had?” Much like Rebecca last year with the singing, it sort of felt like Jack’s turn to maybe give a shot at what he never really got to pursue.

RELATED: This Is Us creator breaks down the biggest clue about Jack’s death

We see Jack tell the boys at the mall, “You got to own your choices. Choose them fully and don’t look back.” That line seems very on-brand for Jack. Take us inside Jack’s head to get from what was said at the mall and then what he told Rebecca on the couch. Was that just something that always nagged at Jack?
I think he’s the kind of guy where he made that decision to keep that job and send Randall to that private school. I don’t think Jack’s a man who wonders if he made the right choice a lot. He picks a path and just continues down it. Because he’s supporting three kids and he’s had his share of hardships, and he’s all about perseverance. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t sort of reassess at a certain point and make a new choice. He’s not the kind of guy that’s going to be like, “Oh, should I have quit and started my own company 10 years ago?” But definitely the kind of guy who’s going, “Maybe I should start my own company now and commit to that.”

So we saw at the end of this episode, he’s making a choice and committing to it and we’ll follow that up in our next episode, as he continues on with this idea of really, very late in life, pivoting and starting the business he always wanted.

That’s a great moment when they’re on the couch, when she says, “Do you think this is going to be a good idea?” He says, “Not really.” Then she says, “Well, I guess that’s going to be exciting.” There’s something really sweet, like they’re underdogs in this together, and we love that about Jack and Rebecca. Then we get the moment with Jack buying the suit with Kevin. These are really loaded moments — these emotional gut punches given that we know what’s about to happen. Should we brace for a few more of those wonderful, it’s-all-coming-together family moments before he passes?
Yes. Definitely. Now that we know we’re this close to the death, every time Jack has an interaction with one of his kids, that’s even the tiniest bit emotional, it has this added weight to it because we, as an audience, have this bird’s eye view and can see what’s coming.

We’re certainly very mindful of that whenever we’re crafting these moments, that a little goes a long way, because you know that the audience is sitting there going. “Ooh, is this the last time they talk?” And very soon it will be because like I said, we’re not pulling punches with that smoke detector — it’s coming.

Was Jack’s straightening Kevin’s tie a nod to not just the strengthening of their bond before he passes but also the scene in season 1 where Jack teaches Randall how to tie a tie, which stuck with him into adulthood?
Yeah. He and Kevin — and Kevin and Rebecca, too — have had such a volatile relationship, and we wanted to make sure that we really saw that certainly in Justin’s story, there’s a lot of love and affection he has looking back on his father. So we wanted to make sure that we showed some of those really powerful, wonderful father-son moments. It’s not all Kevin screaming about how Jack ignored him when he almost drowned in a swimming pool.

Questions about Miguel are answered in this episode, particularly about his love for Rebecca. He tells Kevin that he was absolutely not in love with his mom when she was married to his dad, and he sings their praises as this incomparable couple. Can we call this the next step in your rehabilitation of Miguel into a good guy given early skepticism about him as a replacement husband?
[Laughs.] Yeah, definitely. It’s a 12-step process. The first big moment for people was seeing that Facebook message, and just knowing a little bit more about the timeline, that there was a buffer of time. And then last week with the Others at the bar. It’s not hard because Jon is such a charming actor. It’s just like getting peoples’ heads around the idea that this man didn’t swoop in and steal America’s sweetheart from Jack. Last week did a lot, and then this week certainly drives it home when he really definitively says that, “Nothing shady here happened. Nothing shady even happened in my mind. I was such a fan of those two together and it was all on the up and up.”

It’s almost a little crushing to see the way Rebecca answers Kevin’s questions about whether she’s happy with Miguel. You get the sense that she’s forever scarred by Jack’s death, but she’s sort of moving on and sought this next chapter. However, she still clings to the old one by wearing the necklace. What does that say about her connection to the past — and how must that feel for Miguel to see her still wearing that necklace?
We joke about that a lot in the writers’ room how hard it is for Miguel. It’s not, like, ideal to have your wife walking around every day with a necklace of her former husband [laughs], but at the same time I think he totally understands, and I don’t think he would want her to take it off. He has such a love and a respect and loyalty to Jack, too. Yeah, that speech is very bittersweet. She lost her husband when she had a lot of years left. She was not an old woman at all. She did find love again, but it was a different kind of love. I think Mandy’s so beautiful in that scene and how she articulates how it wouldn’t be appropriate, it wouldn’t really be right for her with kids and having just lost Jack so tragically to find another passionate, fiery, young romance. But she took the time she needed and she found a different kind of companionship that works for her. I don’t know, I think it’s kind of a whatever-works situation. And there’s a lot of beauty in Rebecca and Miguel’s marriage too.

They do seem happy, but there’s just something about that idea of, “I know I’m not the love of your life.” It’s lightly devastating in a way.
It is. Even though I do believe that they truly are happy, there is a tinge of quiet devastation there. I mean, you’ve got two people who lost their most important person in Jack.

NEXT PAGE: Aptaker on Kate’s eating disorder — and what happens next week

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