The show's creator says, 'A character could die tomorrow... it doesn't mean the actor leaves the show'
SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, “The Game Plan.”
Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us registered high on the Kleenex scale once again — Milo Ventimiglia gave it five out of five boxes — as fans learned something that they had been hoping wasn’t true but also had been dreading in the pits of their stomach: Jack is dead. The beloved Pearson patriarch is still here, in spirit and in ashes, resting peacefully in an urn displayed in Kate’s living room. (When and how exactly he came to depart this world still have not been revealed; feel free to wildly speculate.) Alas, that wasn’t the only grim revelation: The series — which has whisked us back to various eras of the Pearson family — gave us our first-ever flash forward, using it to show Randall in the (near? distant?) future grieving William by packing his clothes into a box and then giving in to the tears as he poignantly cradled his hat.
In other notable news, we learned that Rebecca (Mandy Moore) was not nearly as eager as Jack (Ventimiglia) to have children (but the future Mr. Rebecca, Miguel, had a few with Shelly), and that she wanted to focus on pursuing a music career (turns out Moore can handle a tune!), which she clearly put on hold when she did wind up having kids. (They were conceived on Super Bowl Sunday, by the way.) And speaking of kids, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) had a close call on starting their own Big Three; they spent most of their 800-thread-count NYC night away from their two kids freaking out about Beth possibly being pregnant before making peace with it, embracing it, and celebrating in relief when her pregnancy test came back negative. And back in New Jersey — unlikely babysitting tandem: William and Kevin — the former Manny/au pair whiffed on explaining the miracle of life and death to his nieces, Tess (Eris Baker) and Annie (Faithe Herman), only to redeem himself later by delivering an epic speech that explained the everlasting, connected, messy nature of our lives through a Pollock-ish piece that he painted to express how he felt about the Off-Broadway play that was deeply challenging him.
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What does it all mean for Team Pearson? Let’s Hail Mary some burning questions to creator Dan Fogelman.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You took Jack and William from us in one episode. Do you have stock in the major tissue companies? That’s a bit cruel, don’t you think?
DAN FOGELMAN: [Laughs.] Well, I felt like Walking Dead did it, so we have to do it, too. The William part of it is meant to be this almost metaphysical glimpse at a hypothetical future. Ron Cephas Jones, the actor, is very much alive in episode 6, for instance, in present day. But we have this ominous thing looming in some kind of distant or near-distant future. And with Jack, what’s great about this show is, if a character is to die, we chose to do it in this episode, or to say it in this episode, because the ending of this episode is very much about how when people die, they don’t have to necessarily leave us and leave the big, giant painting that is our life, and that’s the message there. So I thought that was an appropriate episode to announce details that we as writers have known for quite a while, and Milo has known as an actor for quite a while: that Jack is not alive in the present day. It felt important to thematically link it to the theme of the episode as well, because logistically, on our show, a character could die tomorrow, but it doesn’t meant the actor leaves the show, because the character very much remains a part of the story.
The original version of the pilot had a line in it that revealed that Jack was dead, but you decided to take it out. Was that decision based on the fact that such a revelation would have much more emotional resonance if it were deployed once we were invested in the characters and after the cliffhanger of episode 2? And was it initially put there to act as another red herring for the twist in the pilot?
It was the original, original construct of the script. I’d always thought about the pilot as I was thinking about the whole series, and I always knew that Jack was not alive in the present day in the back of my mind. The reason I put it in the pilot script, right before the twist, I thought it was another opportunity to throw the scent off for anybody that might be starting to get it. But more than that, it’s a father-son story for Randall and his biological father in that episode, so it felt important to reference his father. After we completed the pilot, I realized that people weren’t having a massive reaction to that bit of information. Because at that point in the pilot, you don’t know that Jack is Randall’s father. So it was not like it was any big piece of information. It was really more only on second viewing, and most people were missing it, because it’s only once you connect in the pilot that Jack is Randall’s father than if you heard afterward that “My father’s no longer alive,” you’d go, “Oh, s—.” But bigger than that, yeah, it felt like I wanted to spread out the information in the course of the season. And not drag it out too long where it started getting frustrating, but also not give away at the opening.
The biggest reason I pulled it out was at the end of the second episode, Miguel [Jon Huertas] is showing up at that door, and I wanted people to have the reaction that people had, which is: “What the hell?” And I thought by announcing that Jack was no longer alive, it would ease that in a way that was not good for the show. So, we’ll see. The interesting part about revealing that Jack is no longer alive is there’s still a tremendous amount of details that we don’t know. We don’t know when he died. We don’t know if he died as an old man or if he died as a young man. We don’t know if his marriage to Mandy’s character survived or not. There’s a lot of questions still looming, but it felt like at a certain point we needed to answer this one early.
What was Milo’s reaction when you told him that Jack was dead?
He was cool with anything, as long as I let him have a mustache.
The urn story sweetly illustrated Kate’s continuing connection to her dad. What were the different ways — if any — you talked about revealing Jack’s death before deciding on the urn? And how did you settle on that?
It was pretty early that we decided on it. I always had in the back of my mind this general idea of a family tradition that would be the episode where we revealed it, and revealed it via Kate. I forget exactly how we landed on football and an urn with ashes. It came up organically in the writers’ room, and I don’t remember exactly how we got there.
NEXT: Fogelman on Rebecca’s reluctance to have children