EP Ken Olin takes you inside 'Career Days'

By Dan Snierson
November 01, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, “Career Days.”

First the good news: Every Pearson family member who was alive at the end of episode 5 of This Is Us is still alive at the end of episode 6. (Of course, our deepest and most heartfelt condolences go out to the family of Frank, random man to whose memorial service Olivia took Kevin for a mock-mourning session.)

Tuesday’s installment of the NBC dramedy showed us a world of possibilities and risks for our various family members, as Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) ultimately decided to file away his big dreams of starting his own construction company and ride Miguel’s corporate coattails so that young Randall (Lonnie Chavis) can attend a school for gifted children. Older Randall (Sterling K. Brown) attempted to get in touch with his artistic side, and it was — hold on, let us crunch the numbers here — a public disaster during Career Day at his daughters’ school.

Meanwhile, Kate (Chrissy Metz) scored a shiny new job as an event coordinator from a woman (guest star Jami Gertz) whom she didn’t stalk, but it took a rough turn when she found out that the new boss mostly wanted her to look after her unruly daughter with weight issues. And when Kate set both daughter and mother straight, we learned that she possesses serious regrets about her own fractured relationship with her mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore).

And speaking of fractured — or just plain shattered — relationships, we discovered through a teary, unexpected moment of grief exchanged between Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Frank’s widow that Jack died “a long time ago.” Although he threw away all the model B-52 bombers that he built with his dad — the more time they took, the more time he could spend with his dad before attention would be diverted elsewhere — he revealed that he just couldn’t take off the necklace that his dad gave him. Which now makes for two very important necklace stories in this family.

RELATED: This Is Us: Before They Were Stars

Before all the good cheese is gone, let’s ring up This Is Us executive producer/director Ken Olin, who is here to break down “Career Days” and offer a few hints about what’s to come.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I guess my first question is… Thank you for not killing anyone else in the Pearson family this week?

KEN OLIN: Yes, I know. [Laughs.] It’s funny, Tim Busfield is directing down the line, and he was just saying, “Oh, I was so glad after watching episode 6 that William’s alive!” It’s hard. No, we didn’t kill anybody else off.

Did you want to give viewers a bit of a breather and pace out the big, emotional gut punches?

How people respond to these things, it’s all in relationship to how invested they are in the characters, because I don’t think that we’re doing anything that is so extreme, really, for life. In life, you lose people, people are divorced, relationships fall apart, and your parents or your grandparents pass away, I think something about the way that the show has connected with the audience, the audience feels so invested in them, so it’s shocking when someone is lost, but then you realize, “Wait a minute, over the course of 20 years, these things happen.”

I don’t think the intention has ever been to just keep shocking the audience. A couple weeks ago, people were asking, “Are you going to do this major twist every week?” I don’t think that’s the intention. I think the intention is to be fully invested in the lives of these characters and then fully invested when their lives go in unexpected directions. So we’re going to continue to focus on events in these character’s lives that are really significant and really resonate emotionally for them.

This episode did feel a little lighter in tone.


Although we did deal with some death, actually: Olivia took Kevin on a date to mourn someone that neither of them knew. Kevin had a breakthrough moment of depth with the painting scene last week, and here he had another one, this time in the arms of a widow who was a stranger, to whom he revealed another little piece of the Jack-is-dead puzzle that is” a long time ago”…. What would you want to say about the “How”? I understand that’s not coming down until a little later down the road.

Well, I would say we definitely know how, but… it’s a surprise. It’s a really dramatic surprise that really impacts the kids…. And I don’t think that we will answer that question for a little while.

Olivia [Janet Montgomery] kisses Kevin, but then she pulls back from him, telling him that he can use their temporary connection because now he knows what loss feels like and that he can’t have her anymore. We don’t get the sense that this romantic connection is over. Fair to say?

Fair to say. It’s not over. No. It’s not over. Nothing’s over from this episode.

In a way, we did see even another death or at least the delay of a dream — Jack’s plans for his own company, Big Three Homes. He decides to put that on hold to help Randall achieve his own aspirations. How much will that deferment take its toll on the family — and his relationship with Rebecca? What’s interesting is the audience is perhaps expecting her to be the one saying, “You have to delay your plans,” but she’s actually quite supportive of his ambition, and says that Randall can go to a different school.

Yeah, it’s a great thing about the way that they’re writing Rebecca and Jack. It’s complicated. It’s always complicated. The fundamental thing that we discovered and that we’ve been exploring more and more is that they come from very different backgrounds, and you’ll see more of that as it comes along. It’s not predictable in terms of their response to things. What you do know is that Jack is such a believer, and he’s so fundamentally idealistic and romantic, and… she has a very complex way of looking at things in a very unsettled way, but it’s not predictable. And always you come back to: They really and truly love each other. Maybe they see things the same way ultimately, but they come from a very different point of view.

That’s what was unpredictable: She wants to take a more, let’s say, enlightened, intellectual approach to what’s going on with Randall, and he’s wary of it right away, and he closes off to it, and then he gets there. But in some way they keep coming back to how deeply they love each other. And where this will evolve — it gets complicated, and in any relationship over time it gets complicated, and either you know how to work your way through it and communicate with each other and you go forward, or it gets to a point where they can’t. And I think that remains to be seen. We keep touching on those things, which is so cool. Touching on ways in which they have trouble communicating with each other, and then we get to a place where they just get past it, and they don’t get past it in just some silly way like “Oh, they like sleeping with each other.” They get past it because they really love each other. But we keep coming up against those things, just touching on the thing with Randall and his different approach and her different approach. I think the economic thing like that’s just touched on in a lighter way is he gives up this dream—

And she puts her music dreams on hold to have the family.

Yep. There’s more to that story… And what I love about that also is some of these scenes are so a part of being at that stage in your life where your kids are younger, you’re not really fully middle-age, you still have these dreams, you still have so much youth, and yet there are certain practical things to being an adult that you keep confronting. That’s certainly what they’re both dealing with: “Okay, how do we become grown-ups?” And yet, for her, she feels that clearly with the music of what she’s given up, and he feels that he doesn’t have the liberty to just pursue whatever risks he wants to take, but it’s nice. In that episode, we take a lighter approach to it, certainly than in the second episode where you really feel, “Oh boy, there’s real constraints coming down on them.” And I think we’re going to continue to always explore that balance. And it’s interesting because unlike in the things I’ve seen, we don’t do it chronologically. It’s like, “Wait a minute, they were suffering through this when the kids were 8. Then they were when the kids were 13 or 14. And then we go back, and wait, this was happening when they were 3.” It’s amazing because Dan sees the world like that to some extent; these things they reverberate. You don’t just get out of a cycle. You just don’t get out of a way of thinking or being. It’s not that simple. It doesn’t just grow in a line.

NEXT: “There’s going to be a price paid for that.”[pagebreak]

The concept of treating your kids equally is one that seems like the right thing to do, but is flawed in some ways. Randall is special and needs a certain kind of attention. It’s heartbreaking to see him say that he was purposely getting Bs because if he’d get As, his siblings would hate him because he would get ice cream and they would not. And that scene at the end when Jack drops Randall off at the school is so sweet with their tie connection, but it is burnished as a bittersweet moment when adult Randall tells his family: “Dad put on a tie because he had to, I put one on because I like to.” What was your favorite element of that story line?

That’s a great moment… What I love about that is it’s just something to discuss. It’s what we all have to discuss with our kids. And then you add the fact that he’s adopted and how important it is that he feel equally loved. That’s a thing that is so beautiful is like how in these episodes you think, “Wait a minute, there’s Kevin, who feels [neglected], for good reason” — what we saw in the fourth episode, where he feels he doesn’t get attention paid to him because they’re so busy paying attention to his sister who’s overweight and his brother, who is adopted — and then you come to this where it’s like, “Well, we do have to acknowledge that maybe he is different.” But they’re all different; maybe it isn’t about all being the same. Maybe it’s about them all being different. But at the same time, there’s a price that’s paid for that, and we’re going to see that going forward. What it always comes back to, and what I love about this, is our characters are limited. These characters they’re flawed, and we see the way they’re flawed, whether Jack just refuses to see certain things, or Rebecca has these fears that make her behave in ways that sometimes seem rigid, and yet, they’re really trying to be good people.

The thing with Randall is, they’re trying to figure out the right thing to do. They want to do the right thing and be good people, and yet they’re still limited by their own experiences and perceptions, and nobody knows the right thing. They don’t know the answer, and they keep trying to work their way through it. I guess that’s the thing people love and want from this show is really decent people who are trying to be decent people, that they are limited too. They have their flaws and they’re struggling to do the right thing, and Randall is such a perfect example of that. That’s a perfect example of, “What is the right thing to do with this kid? How to make him feel really loved? And also, how to give him the opportunity to be extraordinary?” It’s just complicated.

The re-entry of William in Randall’s life continues to shape his identity, or cause him to question it. This week, we saw him question the hard-numbers path he took instead of an artistic one, when he sees William playing the piano and singing. And then he tries to go down that path quite awkwardly in public before coming to terms with who he is and his hard-to-explain job. When William offered to teach him the piano — which he was excited about —Randall ultimately declines because it’s not healthy to introduce that dynamic. Was that a bit of soft knock at William… or just an evolved Randall?

It’s just one of those things where Randall has certain ways he still believes are the right ways and the wrong ways to do things, and he doesn’t want to introduce a dynamic where there could be frustration, and he might behave badly. It’s just one of those ways that Randall probably over-analyzes certain things so that they fit into a system that works for him. I think that’s more where we always go with him, is that he may have read something about that or heard something about that that it’s not a good idea to introduce that dynamic into this dynamic, and so he’s chosen to have his own teacher. I didn’t think it was so much a knock at his father, as much it was just Randall being kind of uptight and doing things the way that he likes to do things.

By the book.

Yeah. It’s just one of those odd things, and I think that’s what’s so fun about him. He has these just odd ways of looking at things, and fundamentally, is so unartistic. It sort of fed into what we’ve been saying all along like, “I have a passion for piano and I’m going to do it the way that it said in this one book that you should always study with this kind of…”

Is part of Randall’s struggle moving forward his continuing to try to get in touch with his biological background while at the same time being proud, thankful, and unapologetic about what he was given by Jack?

Information is introduced in upcoming episodes that changes the way that Randall sees both his mother and his father, and that dynamic, and it has a lot to do with reconciling his relationship with Rebecca, actually. We’ve always seen that there’s a very special relationship between Rebecca and Randall, which one of the things I love so much is that we set up that she had trouble bonding with him. That was difficult for her, and of course, Jack in his way just absolutely [was] from day one, “We adopted him, I love him every bit as much as I love my other two kids, done, end of conversation.” And of course, she has a much more complex way of dealing with everything, in her head more, and she struggles with things. And I think that what happened is once she got over that, once she bonded with him, of her three children, Randall, was the closest to being her soulmate of the kids. You know how that just happens, and that becomes more central to who Randall is now.

With Jack, I think that was very clear. He felt loved. He was closer to his mom, and she became very, very close to him, which is so great, given what we saw in the third episode: “Oh, they became soulmates.” They’re just really close. For Randall it also becomes him continuing to explore his relationship with William, which is so complicated. From his dad, he got the tie. That was what he needed, that approval, and his dad helped him be a man, and that’s what he needed from him.

We saw Kate get a new job as an event coordinator, but she wasn’t hired for her organizational skills; Marin wanted her to babysit her boss’s daughter, who is struggling with her weight. Kate ultimately encourages the bratty girl to connect with he mother, and learn from her experience, as she barely talks to her mother now, and regrets it. What can you hint about what will see in Kate’s relationship with her mother? We’ve seen that Rebecca managing her food, making her more aware of her issues. But then we see Rebecca being very lovely and supportive with her, saying things like, “If I’m pretty then you’re pretty because you look like just like me.” And we see Kate lash out when she notices that her mom is wearing a size S and she’s wearing an XL. Is there blame to go around on both sides?

These questions are great by the way because actually they’re all part of the exploration. We don’t explore it for a little while, but we come around exactly to that issue, and that’s an issue which it will not go unexplored, and we will begin to get to it. It has everything to do with this identity of Kate, and what we were just saying about Randall with his mom, I think Kate with her dad. One of the great things is I think Kate’s father saw her the way Kevin sees her. One of the things I loved when I saw the pilot was Kevin never even questions and Justin does it brilliantly; he’s not self-conscious about his sister’s weight. He just isn’t. He loves her, that’s his sister, and there is no question we will explore that Rebecca was very aware of her daughter’s weight and was trying her best. And we hinted at it, and we saw it when Kate’s 8 in the second episode. It’s one of those things that as a mom, you suffer when your kids are suffering. And you see it in the third episode when they’re at the pool, the mom suffers.

For Jack, there’s a little bit of denial because he does that, and then there’s this other way that he so deeply loves his daughter, his kids, that he doesn’t see it that way. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to, but he doesn’t. What we’ll see in Kate’s relationship with Rebecca moving forward is that Rebecca really tries and struggles as she sees this problem evolving. I don’t think she knows exactly what to do, but she’s aware of it, and that will become something that’s explored in the middle of the season in a big way.

NEXT: “Believe me, we will explore Miguel and his wife’s marriage — and what happened.”[pagebreak]

We know Randall has a decent relationship with his mother, although that looming secret that Rebecca is hiding could threaten the very fabric of that. And now that we’re starting to know a little more about Kate and Rebecca. So is Kevin’s relationship something we’ll be tackling in the next few weeks or is that a little more down the road?

Yes, you begin to see that in the next episode. We hint at it. We begin to see not only how Kevin’s relationship with Rebecca affected Kevin, but how Randall’s relationship with Rebecca affected Kevin, and what we hinted at early on — the sense that he is not getting the attention that he needs or deserves — that we begin to see ways in which it’s really impacted Kevin and Randall’s relationship as adults. We really begin to look at the distance between the two of them.

If Kate’s relationship with Rebecca was strained, was Kevin’s dynamic with her more about his lack of a relationship, like we saw in “The Pool,” where he feels like he’s being neglected?

Yeah. Kevin then took care of himself. He seems and he appears so classically as a little bit of an unevolved kind of male. He was really good looking. He was successful. He became an actor. He doesn’t spend a lot of time in serious self-examination, but I think we begin to see that in fact that relationship with Rebecca — it’s not estranged, it’s just not particularly intimate or connected. They’re certainly not involved with each other the way that she’s more involved with Randall, which she lives not far from him, so she can be near her grandchildren. With Kate, that relationship, as a lot of I think mother/daughter’s relationship, it’s fraught. I think Kate and Rebecca communicate, but I think it’s fraught. And her relationship with Kevin, it’s not very involved, and I think we begin to see how that affected Kevin even more than we see how it affected Rebecca initially. I don’t think she’s as aware of how that impacted Kevin as he is.

In terms of that Miguel mystery, now we have a significant gap of unknown time between Jack’s death and when Rebecca and Miguel (Jon Huertas) got together…. 

The thing that really is so important to the show — which is, for some reason, just so poignant — is you watch a marriage and you see all of the things that are being done that are right and you see the things that are being done that are hurtful to each other, and you see the things you want them to be together, are they going to stay together, and you have freedom to do all of that. And every time you get to see something new, you go, “Oh, wow, that happened.” And believe me, we will explore Miguel and his wife’s marriage and what happened with them, what was happening with Jack and Rebecca at the time. And what’s so great is that stuff all feels as immediate as the stuff that’s taking place in 2016 and 2017. Because we really explore marriage. We explore a big part of marriage through Jack and Rebecca, and that’s just as important as exploring parenting or career or anything else.

That’s one of the things that’s kind of great is you go, “Well, I don’t like that, and I don’t like that Rebecca did that.” And then you go, “Well, wait a minute, I’m interested in what happened. Where did it happen? Did he die before? That’s the freedom that we have. We’ll get into all that stuff. We don’t leave those things unexplored. They’re not just done for the sake of okay, that shocked you. They’re done because… that’s how life is.

A previous version of this story included questions about a line of dialogue from an early version of “Career Days” which did not make it to air.

  • TV Show
  • 3
  • 45
  • Tuesdays at 9:00pm
run date
  • 09/20/16
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