Rebecca could probably use a hug right about now. Or two. You know what? Just go ahead and make that all the hugs in the world.
The Pearson matriarch suffered the surprising and jarring loss of her husband, Jack, in Sunday’s episode of This Is Us, and then there she was, struggling mightily through the grieving gauntlet in Tuesday’s installment of the NBC family drama, titled “The Car.” (Now you know why Mandy Moore called it “rip-your-heart-out sad” and “more gut-wrenching” than “Super Bowl Sunday.”) Haunted by guilt over not being in the hospital room with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) when he died from cardiac arrest soon after he’d cheated a fiery death, Rebecca (Moore) worked hard to stay close to the urn on the day of the funeral to make up for it. And in a moment of I can’t-be-responsible-for-this-family doubt, she received some necessary tough (but also gentle) love from Dr. K. (Gerald McRaney), who reminded her that she had made one of the sweetest damn pitchers of lemonade from the sourest of lemons before, and she could do it again.
With renewed and determined spirit, Rebecca took her family to Jack’s special tree to spread his ashes. To remind Kate (Hannah Zeile) that it wasn’t her fault Jack went back into the house to retrieve the family dog (plus family photos and other small but special items). To instruct young Randall (Niles Fitch) and Kevin (Logan Shroyer) to be not men of the house but 17-year-old boys. And to promise to Jack’s tree that they were going to be “okay.” (Yes, it was the same word Jack used when explaining to the car salesman that he needed this Grand Wagoneer because “I want my family to be okay.”) There was hope from this horror, and she steered this family car across the shoddy bridge that she’d previously been frightened to cross with her eyes open, headed to a Bruce Springsteen concert with Jack’s tickets, pushing herself and the Big Three through darkness on the edge of town.
Let’s take a very long sip of water, cue up any Springsteen song besides “I’m On Fire,” and speak to the actress coming off of two standout performances in three days.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s the best metaphor to describe what Rebecca has been through over these last two episodes?
MANDY MOORE: Oh my gosh! I don’t know. As Mandy, I’m worried about my emotional well-being. [Laughs.] No. I feel very drained emotionally. Like, any sort of emotion has just been vacuum-sucked out of me for the last two months. But I’ve loved the challenge of showing up to work every day and figuring out where it’s all going to come from. But poor Rebecca — man, she really has been through the ringer. It’s such a huge loss that it speaks to this great sadness that present-day Rebecca continues to walk around with. This is a hole that will never get filled.
It’s heartbreaking to see her carrying around so much guilt about not being in the room when Jack expired, which is why she’s concerned with being near his urn at all times. Not that it would have made any difference in a catastrophic situation like Jack suffered. How might that guilt manifest in the days and weeks to come?
That’s a very good question. I’m not sure. I’m just as curious as to see what happens in the days and weeks to come — and the years to come — because they haven’t been portrayed on screen yet. There’s that whole ten-year chunk of time that we have yet to see how all of this manifests itself and unfolds for Rebecca and the kids. I’m sure that it is something that does not go away quickly. It does not recede quickly.
At the same time she’s dealing with that, Kate is also wracked with guilt. When she presses her mom to essentially confirm that the reason Jack died is because he went back for the dog, Rebecca keeps numbly repeating, “I don’t know.” It’s a brutal moment, as everyone’s in raw pain. What is Rebecca thinking right then? Does she not have the emotional fortitude to absolve her there? She probably has anger that Jack did go back in for the dog, though not necessarily directed at Kate. And what changed between then and the second conversation later, in which Rebecca stepped up and reassured Kate that it wasn’t her fault? Was she embracing a “What would Jack do?” approach?
I think it’s a little bit of the all-of-the-above. I don’t think she has the emotional fortitude to get into it at that point. And I also think there’s just brutal honesty there — “I don’t know” — and we’re never going to have that answer. He did go back in for the dog; he went back in and somehow amassed photo albums and video tapes and my moon necklace. Somehow he found the time to go and gather all of that, in 30 seconds or a minute. But again, most importantly, we’re never going to have those answers, so it doesn’t seem helpful to wallow in that.
But I think in between that scene and just the immediate aftermath of losing him and a week later, is the stepping up and the “What would Jack do?” of it all. But also, like, “That was your father. There was no stopping him. He was always going to go back in. He was a grown adult and a grown man and he made that choice for himself, and no one was going to tell him otherwise. You know that and I know that, and I swear on my bones, I will be here to remind you of that in your weaker moments for the rest of my life, if I have to.” I think she’s very convicted in that belief.
This episode sets up Rebecca to take the reins as a parent. By the end of it, she’s willing herself and her family across that bridge that she was scared of and through the healing process. How does she “try” in the aftermath? We know that she isn’t entirely successful at helping some of her children heal, given what we know about her strained relationship with Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley). And there’s limited time before the kids leave the house. (Series creator) Dan Fogelman says that everything for this family hinges on this day, so what happens after the hinge?
I think Dan has more of an idea and he hasn’t necessarily shared with us. I can tell you that we’re putting a pin in this moment of time for the rest of this season. We’re going to go back in time a little bit and we’re going to stay more present-day, but we’re not going to revisit the immediate aftermath of this funeral in season 2.
Dan also said he was particularly proud of the ending of this funeral episode, that it felt “soaring,” sweeping,” and “strangely optimistic.” Was it a relief to end the episode on a more hopeful note, after two episodes of really raw, painful material? I don’t know if you filmed it out of sequence?
It was all out of sequence. Yes, it was very important to end on that note. Absolutely. I think people needed that respite, they needed that sense of relief. As did we. The Pearsons needed it too.
Which scene in this episode of grieving was particularly challenging to pull off?
It was really challenging to shoot that tree scene because of the location — both the scene with Milo and the scene with the kids. They were on two separate nights. But it was so loud — so much traffic — we were right by the Van Nuys airport. The planes were landing all the time. It was just so distracting, and I had to really work hard to get past that. Because in my mind I was like, “It’s going to be this quiet, beautiful, peaceful, tranquil spot,” and it really was anything but. So the fact that we were able to find a way to make that work was pretty, pretty impressive. I’m very impressed with the editing. And the sound that they were able to make that work.
Bruce Springsteen rarely licenses his music for TV shows.
What do you think Rebecca and Jack’s favorite Springsteen song would be?
You know what? Taylor [Goldsmith, Moore’s fiancé] and I got to go see his show in New York over the holidays, and we got to meet him! And I wanted to be like, “You’re in the next episode!” But then, you know, he was talking to Taylor. He knows Dawes! He was talking to Taylor about the band, which made my life. And made Taylor’s life. And I was like, “You know what? I’m going to just let them talk about music and not interject my show in there!” [Laughs.] But I so badly wanted to be like, “You’re a huge point in my story line in the next episode!” I don’t know what their favorite song would be. “Thunder Road?” I feel like just a total classic.
This episode also brought the return of Dr. K, who gave Rebecca that much-needed, heartfelt pep talk. First of all, tell us something surprising about Gerald McRaney.
I don’t know if it would be surprising — he’s just a consummate professional and gentleman. He always has just wonderful stories. Because he’s been doing this forever, he’s worked with everybody, he’s an incredible storyteller; there’s always that to look forward to… Man, it is such an honor to get in the ring with him. It’s like going toe-to-toe with the champ of all-time. He’s so stellar, and he brings it every single take, whether the camera’s on him or not, and it forces you to raise your game, to try to keep up with him. He’s so sweet. I hadn’t seen him since he won his Emmy [for his guest-starring work on This Is Us]. He’s like, “Did you hear? I referenced you and Milo in my speech!” And he repeated back what he said in his Emmy speech, and I was so blown away!
Dr. K feels almost like an on-Earth guardian angel — he’s always there in the right trying moments. In this episode, Rebecca was surprised to learn he was a stealth surrogate father figure to Jack, who had been going to see him occasionally and drawing strength from him. Will Dr. K continue to be a pillar for her to lean on, in the way he was for Jack?
I adore him and can only hope that Dan figures out a way to bring him back, although I know that his character’s quite old at this point in time. I don’t quite know how they would finagle it — maybe he visits Rebecca and the kids one more time somehow. I want to work with him all the time…. We have limited time with him [in that era]. But, you know, he could come back as a ghost, or in some sort of flashback.
Please don’t say that Dr. K is going to die soon!
I don’t know! He’s gotta be, what, in his late 80s, early 90s? Maybe Dr. K will outlive everybody.
To read what else Moore had to say about Jack’s death episode, click here.
To see why creator Dan Fogelman picked that ending for Jack, click here.
This Is Us returns to NBC with a new episode on Feb. 27.