This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman breaks down Rebecca's secret
SPOILER ALERT: This story contains key plot points from “Kyle,” Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us.
But the third episode of the NBC family dramedy certainly wasn’t without eyebrow-raising revelation and heartbreak: Turns out that Rebecca (Mandy Moore) not only knew Randall’s biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), she even had a secret “deal” with him: Present-day Rebecca popped into William’s room at Randall’s house for a private chat, which began with a simple “You look well,” and quickly became more complicated and fraught.
Flashback to 1979: First noticing William lingering nearby as she was leaving the hospital with Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Kate (Chrissy Metz), Rebecca had an intuition that he might indeed be Randall’s father, and, unbeknownst to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), she embarked on a stealth mission to find the man called “Shakespeare.” After she tracked him down at his apartment, she gleaned some information as to how William had come to abandon Randall at the fire station. The episode provided further illumination with its bold, left-turn opening: a beautiful, heart-rending montage that showed young William (Jermel Nakia) devolve from eager-eyed poet to happily-in-love poet to drug-addled broken soul with a baby in his lap.
Although Rebecca appeared to make a sweet, if timid, connection with William — she confessed that she was having trouble bonding with her nonbiological son named Kyle — she denied William’s earnest, sheepish request to check in on his son from time to time, insisting that she needed to establish her (and Jack’s) boundaries as the parents, perhaps worried that this child would ultimately be taken from her. But she did take his advice and change Kyle’s name to something non-K — he was his own person, explained William — settling on Randall; he would be named after the poet Dudley Randall, whose collection Poem Counterpoem was gifted to her by William. “Maybe you’ll see fit to give it to him someday,” William said hopefully, and Poem Counterpoem did become a staple of Randall’s book shelf.
And who will give him the truth about William? Secrets are rarely brought up and simply buried again, so you might want to brace for some serious family tension in the future. In the meantime, see what creator Dan Fogelman had to share about the standout third episode, titled “Kyle.” (And click here for the cast’s thoughts on the episode.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What reactions did you get from Mandy and Ron when you first told them about that story?
DAN FOGELMAN: They were into it. It was our first thing we did when Mandy was [playing the older version of Rebecca]. When older Rebecca goes and dresses him down, I wanted to make sure that all felt right, and you could hear a pin drop with our crew. Nobody was talking. You were afraid to breathe on the set. You knew there was something here, and you almost feel like these characters were real, so it was very intense. We did two takes, and [directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra] knew we had it.
This development means that Randall has something of a false narrative about William. William didn’t just abandon him; he actually wanted to be a part of his life. When is he going to get that story?
That’s maybe our biggest story pulling us through our first season — at least the first half of our first season. It’s exactly that: Randall has a false narrative of his existence. For a kid like Randall, it’s a huge formative part of his existence. In the fourth episode, you see that. You see little Randall marking little slashes in a notebook, and what he reveals as a grown man is that as a little boy he was growing up in a very white neighborhood, and whenever he saw a black person he marked it down, and wondered if that could be his father. So he has this false narrative that’s defined him. And in later episodes, actually at 8 years old, he starts questioning, as one would, and it causes Rebecca to go further than we’ve seen her in the third episode and track down — years later — and find William in much different shape, which scares her even more. It’s very complicated, and when the truth comes out to Randall, it’s going to be a big part of our first season of the show.
You introduced Chekhov’s gun in the form of a secret. It has to be fired.
You feel the clock ticking. In the first season, there’s a lot of tension, and that moment’s a big moment for us later down the road. And especially for Randall, who has the closest relationship with his mother in the present day and a close relationship with her as a little boy. [That] one of the defining things of his life has been held from him by her is very complicated.
When Randall tracked William down at his apartment in the first episode, William said that he was so high that he didn’t even remember leaving him at the fire station — but he liked fire stations, so it sounded like something he would do. In this episode, though, we see him outside the hospital looking to see who took in Randall, and he had that conversation with Rebecca at the apartment. So how truthful was William being with Randall when he told him that fire station story? Was he just trying to protect the secret?
That’s a good question. It’s a loaded question. That gets explored as we move forward a little bit. I think the truth is probably somewhere in between. At this point it’s been 30-plus years — his memory is hazy. A lot of the scenes we saw tonight between him and Rebecca are the things he remembers more than the details of the fire station and that first day, watching at the hospital. You’ve also got to remember that those early moments before a couple weeks have passed are a real life low point for William and something we’re going to possible explore as we move forward in the series. I mean, he’s just lost somebody very, very recently. So I don’t think his memory is completely correct. I think what he’s saying to Randall in this episode is a half-truth, just to protect the secret.
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Rebecca made a half-attempt to tell Jack about her interactions with William, but then made a decision not to. We talked about the inevitability of Randall finding out that secret, but how should Jack feel that she hid that from him for all those years? Maybe a little betrayed? Did she not tell her own husband because she was worried that he was soft-hearted and he might feel differently?
It’s something we get to deeper in the season. But I think it’s fair to say that Rebecca knows her husband, and a lot of what she does as a mother is protect this family and potentially, in her eyes, from their own goodness. I don’t think there’s that much of a decision at the beginning here, but down the road, it’s something she even potentially sees even this early — there’s a potential for them to fall in love with a child who they then might be vulnerable with. She’s married to this very good man and especially as we get deeper into the series, it’s a very complicated dynamic as she struggles with what to tell both her son and her husband about what she knows that they don’t, and how vulnerable that makes her as a mother who has now obviously fallen in love with her child. This is not the last interaction in the past between William and Rebecca.
NEXT: “Maybe in the future we’ll tell a whole arc exploring young William and where his life took him.”[pagebreak]
We understand Rebecca’s instinct to do what she did — the mother trying to protect and hold on to her child, and keeping that secret for all those years — given her tenuous connection to Randall. It carries deep consequences for Randall, though, and he might not see her actions in the same light as she does. How gray is what she did? How do you view her actions?
This is something we always talk about with our show. We have these very good people, and it’s our view as writers and producers and actors, we take a positive view of people and family. But very good people can make very flawed decisions. We’re in a gray area here. What Rebecca does in this episode feels pretty not-gray to me. She feels vulnerable, and you understand why she’s doing what she’s doing. The gray area comes with regards to what she doesn’t tell first her husband and eventually her son. And I think it’s one of those things she does to protect at first, and then it’s one of those secrets that suddenly is her cross to bear, because it’s gone too far. And then at a certain point, you’re protecting everybody, or so you think. The situation becomes more complicated as the kids get older; in later episodes when we start dealing with a young boy having questions about his biological parents, and Rebecca knowing something that the rest of them don’t, then it becomes something that gets brought up again for her.
Can you talk about that opening montage? It’s beautiful and devastating—
We found that actor (Jermel Nakia), and I was like, ‘Oh my god! It’s crazy!’… We have a lot of monologues and speeches in the show — it’s what I do, right? [Laughs.] We have the ability to really tell stories visually in this show and play with time. And it’s something that you’ll start seeing a ton of as we move forward — three, four, five, six, all the episodes have them. We just did one which I’m super proud of where you travel through the house over the years in these long shots. And you see the house evolving, and you’re hearing the voices in the house. And then the end of the episode reverses it, and you see the other side of the path of this family. We do a lot of stuff like that, with music and imagery. It’s a technique Breaking Bad has used to a certain extent. But there’s that romantic melancholy that creeps into ours. John and Glenn [Requa and Ficarra, who are executive producers of the show alongside Fogelman] directed that opening sequence — it’s so beautiful.
You see the deterioration of this guy right down to the writing in his journal. And at first you think the woman he was with was good for him, but maybe she ended up destroying him. Could you talk a little bit about what you wanted to communicate in that scene?
It’s just that life in snapshots kind of thing. Maybe in the future, we’ll tell a whole arc exploring young William and where his life took him. But sometimes as a storyteller, you don’t have that flexibility to focus on that for that long. But if you pick the right snapshots of your life, you can tell a really beautiful story, really simply. That movie Up did a beautiful job with it, obviously, which told the history of this couple just with imagery and song. So, that was a little bit of the intent. This was a really complicated story of this man and his deterioration and his relationship with this woman. Can we tell that whole story in six shots, essentially? And I think the guys did a really effective job on it. They picked that old folk song [“Blues Run The Game” by Jackson C. Frank], and it’s so beautiful.
Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) receives that unexpected, big monologue near the end of episode 2. And then in episode 3, you open on a young William. It’s a bit of a surprising move.
We’re trying to do two things. I believe that a big network audience can respond to what’s going to become the challenge of this show, which is yes, you’re not just getting X, Y, and Z every week. And my job is tonally to keep it in that romantic, comedic, melancholy space. So even when we’re challenging expectations or pushing the envelope a little with our structure or how we’re starting episodes or ending them, we’re still keeping everybody in a very comfortable space with these characters. We’re not always all of a sudden doing a really awful episode about everybody hating each other… We’re keeping it in the same tonal space but challenging ourselves structurally and saying, “Hey, you barely know William right now. We’re going to start with an opening format that’s just him and a woman without any dialogue.” And I suspect if we execute it right, which the directors did, I believe that the audience will stay with it because it’s well-done… Hopefully it continues breeding confidence. Because I think with confidence comes better storytelling. It’s when you start getting scared and tight that you start making mistakes.
To read what Mandy Moore and her castmates had to say about episode 3, click here.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.