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You have now witnessed the death of Jack Pearson — and the unsettling shock and grief of Rebecca Pearson.
For more than a year, This Is Us has teased the mystery of how the Pearson patriarch came to perish, dropping clues about the details of his demise into episodes here and there. The final images of the season 2 premiere provided the harrowing hint that it involved a tragedy of flames: His loving wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), pulled her car up to the smoldering remains of the Pearson home and wailed into the night.
On Super Bowl Sunday, we learned much more about the pain that Rebecca was vocalizing. The post-game episode followed through on last week’s fire-heading-up-the-stairs cliffhanger. Yes, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) did wind up saving his family from the raging blaze — and even ventured back into the flames to retrieve Kate’s dog and the family’s treasured possessions. But while he appeared to emerge relatively unscathed — to the point where he was joking around with Rebecca at the hospital — deadly damage was done: The amount of smoke he inhaled put so much pressure on his lungs, it triggered a “catastrophic” cardiac arrest that killed him, all while Rebecca was making hotel arrangements and getting a candy bar from the vending machine. When the doctor informed her of the news, she slipped into denial, biting into her candy bar, insisting that he must have mistaken her for someone else, demanding that he leave her alone, and then collapsing in a teary mess when she sees his body in the hospital bed, void of life. There was little time to process what had just tragically transpired, as she numbly collected his belongings and headed to Miguel’s place to break the news to her children — and break their hearts.
While you work through your grief over Jack, take a moment to read what the woman who impressively walked through literal and figurative fire on Sunday night had to share about that brutally emotional episode.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m sorry for your loss. Can I get you something? Perhaps a candy bar? Maybe some homemade lasagna?
MANDY MOORE: All of the above, please! All the comfort foods at this point in time.
Is there relief now that it’s out there in the world? Does it feel like a burden has been lifted in any way?
Yes. I feel like we’re not the keepers of this massive secret. It’s entirely a relief at this point. I’m ready to just move on. We’ve known for so long, and I really always just sort of had this peace of mind of, “People are going to know, and it’s going to be absolutely heartbreaking to discover the simplicity surrounding his passing.” It’s not some great cinematic death on camera. I’m sure most people were thinking that he passed away in the house and saving the dog, and those were all very good guesses, but I love that it happened so quietly. I love that it also just allows us now to move on and really start to pick up the pieces of the family’s life — how they move forward and how this just exponentially changes the dynamic in the family and how this mother tries to retain some semblance of control in keeping the family together. Where we move forward — the years that we haven’t seen at all on camera, the immediate aftermath after Jack passes away to when we see them in 2008, that episode earlier this season around Halloween. There’s 10 years there to explore, and I think they’re going to be really crucial, formative years for this family.
You’ve known that Jack was marked for death since the series began. And then you found out it was a fire. And then you found out that he wouldn’t actually die in the fire. What was your first thought when you learned that death would come suddenly and unexpectedly like that?
I thought it was perfect. I thought it was really fitting and human and real and grounded. I love that it wasn’t some television or movie cinematic death; it unfolded in a very real way. And it’s very unexpected and, in that sense, exponentially more tragic. It just came out of the blue. I loved it. When Dan first told us, I was like, “Whoa. Oh my god. It’s going to gut people even more.”
We talked about how hard the season 1 finale was to shoot, with the big fight that led to the temporary separation, and you and Milo kept your directors chairs away from each other during shooting. Was this one challenging for different reasons? And what was the vibe of this shoot? Were you huddled close together?
We were huddled very close together when we were shooting the fire sequence. Because we were freezing. It was just frigid, and we were outside for three nights. It’s 40 degrees, and we’re in jeans and sneakers and pajamas, so that really was not a ton of fun. You’d look around at all of the crew members bundled up in huge puffy coats and hats and gloves, and you’re like, “Damn it, I’m cold!” [Laughs.] But we were supposed to be in Pittsburgh, so it definitely helped in that sense. We were huddled close together for that stuff, but then, as the episode went on — and certainly for the rest of the episode, in the hospital and all of that sequence — I just really kept my head down and kept to myself and listened to sad music and didn’t talk to anybody and was just really quiet. I feel like I sort of had to remain in that state for, like, a month, which sucked. I was like, “I feel emotionally tapped out. I don’t think that my tear ducts have any more tears.” This episode definitely put me through the wringer, emotionally. I was like, “I need a vacation. I need a break from crying!”
Some of the most powerful moments in the episode are watching Rebecca attempt to process the news of Jack’s death. From taking the bite of the candy bar as the doctor tries to deliver the news, to telling him that he had the wrong person and ordering him to get away from her, to walking over to Jack’s hospital room and seeing his lifeless body and losing it, to steeling herself to tell her kids what happened and “ruin” the rest of their lives. What were the challenges in pulling off Rebecca’s shock and denial and grief and acceptance? It’s… a lot.
It’s a lot. But [series creator] Dan Fogelman is brilliant, and like we all say and give him his proper credit: so much of it is on the page. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility in delivering these moments because they are so integral to who Rebecca is for the rest of her life, at least who we see present day and all of the life that’s lived off camera that we haven’t seen yet — the last 20 years. I really took that to heart and really took that seriously, and just tried to do my best and honor the beautiful work that was on the page. That’s all I could do.
Milo told us that you were surprised that he was lying in the hospital bed when you filmed that moment, saying, “I think she thought she was walking into a blank room, and walking into me, not knowing that the shot was also picking up my reflection, dead-still.” What do you recall of that moment? How did Milo’s presence impact your performance?
I was jarred. I was fully expecting an empty bed, so it shook me even deeper.
Was there a particular moment that was especially difficult to pull off?
No, not really. Everything was just kind of there. I loved the candy bar thing because it was just such an interesting way to get that news. It’s so utterly unfathomable to her that as this doctor is saying what he’s saying, he might as well be speaking jibberish. And she genuinely is like, “I am so sorry. You are talking to the wrong person and this is not appropriate. It’s actually really unprofessional. You’re giving me the news that you should be giving to someone else.” And then it evolves into utter confusion. “Wait, you really don’t remember just talking to me in the room three or four minutes ago with my husband? He has the burn? He’s fine.” To: “You’re wildly inappropriate and you’re really bothering me and this is starting to upset me and I need to go talk to my husband because he’s not going to believe actually what you just told me.” I loved that sequence just in a sense that it felt so true to the different ways people process information and grieve — and just the shock of such an event.
Will Jack’s death hit Rebecca harder, given that she wasn’t there in the room, because she thought the danger had passed?
I don’t think that registers initially. It’s more of a question of, “How was that even a possibility?” It’s not until later that the sheer guilt of not having been there really sets in and haunts her. Or, at least, later in the moment.
And how will the shock of Jack’s death impact Rebecca and her solo parenting in the following days, weeks, months?
I don’t think I have all the answers. I know that this next episode that airs tomorrow I think, dare I say, is even harder to watch than [the Super Bowl episode]. We were talking about it the other day, and the reality is setting in a week later. This man is gone. This family is forever changed. This man who had such a major influence and impact on every member of this family and served such a great purpose in everyone’s life in such a major role. He was “Super Hero Dad,” “Super Hero Father,” and husband. The reality sinking in that this character is no longer on the show moving forward from this period in time is so sad. And I really think that Rebecca is grappling with how she’s so used to being a unit and a twosome, and he is the super parent, and he can do no wrong. I think she just feels like she’s a failure, and she doesn’t know how to do it on her own. These teenagers are out of control and dealing with grief in their own way; they’re bickering and fighting over little things, and one is really stepping up. They’re trying to really digest their grief and figure out how they both need to fulfill the role of man of the house now, but really they’re just 17-year-old boys, and they should just be boys and go out on dates and hang out with their friends and not feel that burden or responsibility. It’s going to be a lot, emotionally, to juggle for this family — in the immediate aftermath, at least.
As she says in the episode: she had to try. Jack didn’t.
Do you blame Crock-Pot just a little bit? Or George the neighbor? If fans have to direct their anger and grief over losing Jack, where should they focus it?
[Laughs.] Nowhere! I don’t think there should be anger or grief at all. It was a tragedy, a plain tragedy. I think, if anything, people should take note to unplug all of their appliances. We all know that: Don’t keep something plugged in even if it’s off. I think it’s the environmentally friendly thing to do as well.
To read why Ventimiglia thinks Jack’s death was “perfect,” click here.
The next episode of This Is Us airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.