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
In this episode, like you said, we found out only that he’s dead, not the how or when. What can you hint about when we’ll receive more intel about those things?
We spread it out for quite a while. Next week’s episode, one of the Big Three talks about the loss of their father. In terms of information, you’re going to get hints over the course of the first season of when he died. But this is the big piece of information — that in the present day, he’s no longer alive. The when he died of it all will be revealed in the course of two episodes of the show. It’s not going to be something that there’s an immediate answer for. I think the bigger question that’s going to start looming is, we’re going to be watching the evolution of a marriage between Mandy and Milo’s characters, and I think you want to focus on that, and the journey of this family in the marriage, and enjoy that story without worrying when he’s going to die. And then at a certain point, it starts becoming a prominent part of our storytelling, probably more in the second season of our show.
There is still much story to tell here about Jack and Rebecca and the family. With that death revelation, is the next step to show us more of each of the Big Three’s connection with Jack and how he has impacted their lives? What does this allow you to do?
Our stories don’t change too much with this information that Jack is dead. Jack hasn’t existed in the present-day stories yet, and now you know why. And in terms of the past stories, two episodes from now, the kids will be in a different time frame. The kids will be 13 years old; it’s five years past where we’ve been in the 1988 period, and Jack will be very alive and well, so we know he’s good there. [Laughs.] I think anybody who has lost a parent at any time in their life, a lot of these episodes are reflecting back to before they lost a parent, so the past stories aren’t really that affected by it, because you’re looking back on stories that have involved you, and your family, and your parents. And as long as Jack’s alive, it doesn’t really affect what stories we’re telling. Because he’s obviously an incredible dad. He has a very special episode next week. Jack and little Randall have a very special story that I love. He’s a superhero dad, and he’s the type of dad that no matter what age he might die at, we tend to make martyrs of because he deserved it a little bit. So it’s more of the present-day stories. We have these kids who have lost somebody that was very close to them. It clearly has had a massive effect on Kate; we’ll start learning the effect it has had on the other children, and that’s where we’ll focus, if ever, on what the loss of not having a father around will affect.
We also learned that Rebecca wasn’t interested in having kids — at least not right away. She clearly had musical aspirations, which were put on hold to have kids. How much of a source of tension will that be for Jack and Rebecca — among the many tensions on their marriage — moving forward?
I think you feel it, right? Now, after watching the fifth episode, I think it’s an interesting exercise sometimes for people — not that people should do this — but hypothetically to look at the second episode of the show again, which was in 1988, after we left them in the pilot. And you see there’s a distance in their marriage that has grown in the interim years that they’ve worked on repairing, clearly, in subsequent episodes in that time period. We tend to think of our parents as these creatures who only exist to give birth to us and be our parents, and this episode is very much about the fact that at one point, our parents were very young people with hopes and dreams, some of which worked out, some of which didn’t. And I think that’s a really interesting way to look at a parent and to be able to dramatize on our television show.
We start introducing in the back half of our season a lot more of a later time period, in 1993, when the kids are a little bit older. And it’s a part of the marriage where now that the kids are old enough to almost babysit themselves for lack of a better word, and be self-functional aside from needing rides and parenting. Rebecca contemplates getting back into music, something she’s put aside for almost 13 years. So it’s a story line that comes back upon itself. I thought it was a really interesting thing to show a parent not just before they had children, but to show a completely different side of a parent. We’ve only known Rebecca as a mother. We met her giving birth to triplets. We’ve seen her in the show either pregnant or mothering 8-year-olds, and being a stay-at-home mom. But there was this artistic, free-spirited, doing-shots-in-bed, 29-year-old woman who existed before the Big Three came into the world. And it’s not like that person just goes away because there’s three kids running around in the house. And that’s something later on their lives, when the kids are about 13 years old, we see them start going back to, and it causes a great deal of conflict in both the home and in the marriage.
NEXT: Fogelman on William’s fate
The episode also gave us essentially our first flash forward and revealed that Randall was mourning William’s death. While not a shocker, given his diagnosis, it’s still a moment that stings and resonates. You said it’s slightly metaphysically hypothetical, but how did the decision to jump ahead and do that tease come about? And is that something the show will start experimenting with, traveling forward in time?
It is. … It’s an element we haven’t started weaving in incredibly, but we are doing more and more adventurous stuff with our storytelling and structure as we move forward a little bit. I always wanted this show to be really ambitious, and not just be the same show and the same structure every week, and it’s why we fly around in time in the past so much. But beyond just diving into the future, I always thought that if we could hook an audience in and get people onboard with the television show, there would be a handshake between us as writers and directors and actors and the audience saying we’re going to do some things that are going to be jarring at first, whether it’s jumping into the future or some of our other storytelling techniques we’re going to try in future episodes, and hopefully we will take the audience along for the ride.
Yeah, it was an adventurous and much-talked-about thing to pop into the future. There’s a lot of people who are going to watch it and think they missed William’s death. They’re going to quickly find out next week that William is alive and well. But we saw a peek or glimpse at something that seems like it’s going to occur at some point, and when that is and how that happens is up for debate. I like that the show can make people talk a little bit and not always be completely clear. What happened with Miguel? We waited five episodes to find out what happened with Jack. What did that mean, that flash forward with William? And I think it’s okay to provoke a little of that.
This episode had the show’s earliest flashbacks: Jack and Rebecca before they had kids, Rebecca as a kid, and Jack’s grandfather. Does that give you permission to go anywhere now and explore all sorts of nooks and crannies of the past?
It does. We need to be careful as writers — and I need to be careful — on trying to space out the flashbacks, flash forwards, our different unusual things in a way that’s still palatable and accessible. We’re not trying to do avant garde theater here, you know? I don’t mind challenging the audience, but also I want them to be able to sit with their husband or wife or their family and enjoy the show and not be distanced from it. It’s a fine line. … We have some big ambitious plans that I’ve been too much of a wimp to activate this early yet, but, yeah, we hope to keep pushing the conversation a little bit.
This show has been given us some powerhouse monologues. Kevin has a big one with his nieces. After a pretty horrific start, he recovers nicely. When he’s talking about the painting, he says: “Just because someone dies, just because you can’t see them or talk to them anymore, it doesn’t mean they’re not still in the painting, and I think that’s maybe the point of the whole thing. There’s no dying, there’s no you or me or them. It’s just us. And this sloppy, wild colorful magical thing that has no beginning, it has no end… it’s right here. I think it’s us.” Is that speech essentially the thesis or mission statement of the show laid out? And any stories behind the creation of that scene?
It is. Mission statement is a great word. If we were Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, that would definitely be on the cover page of the mission statement. The thought was: We were going to give our guy, the Manny — in this speech to two little girls trying to explain life and death to them and being outwitted — we wanted to try to put into words what we think this show is. There’s not a lot of inception to it, other than people for half a year have been asking me and the cast to do press for the show, where you need to talk about the show, where you need to explain what the show is about. That’s the main question: What’s this about? And it’s an impossible question, and it was especially impossible when we were not allowed to talk about the twist or wanting to give anything away. So, it gets you thinking a lot about what is the show. And then you do a lot of interviews with people who you’re going to hire, whether they be other writers or directors or actors, and you’re talking, trying to sound like a real artiste about what your show is. But I think it is the mission statement of our show. It’s very much what this show is. It is that the human experience — or the family experience, more specifically — is not limited to just the four people you share a house with. It extends far before you and far after you. And your story of your childhood is still very much informing the story of your adulthood raising children and vice versa. And it’s all this big giant thing. So, yeah, I think that was it. I always had in my idea, people started asking about the title of the show, and I always had in my head that around episode 5 or 6, we were going to explain the mission of the show and what it is, and give some basis for why it’s called This Is Us. So it’s not just the One Direction movie.
To hear Milo Ventimiglia’s thoughts on Jack’s fate and much more, click here.
To read what Ron Cephas Jones had to say about William’s future, click here.