Dan Fogelman breaks down Randall and Kevin's sibling rivalry, Jack and Rebecca's relationship

By Dan Snierson
Updated November 15, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us.]

There was plenty of confrontation. A little bit of temptation. And one dangerous revelation.

Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us transported us back to the mid-’90s, where things between Jack and Rebecca didn’t seem to be at their best —and the rivalry between Randall and Kevin was clearly at its worst. “The Best Washing Machine in the Whole World” explored another trying period for those married parents-of-three, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore); this time their spark seemed dampened by the workaday demands of life, and they were preoccupied with professional opportunity (Jack with a deal at the office, Rebecca with an interest in revisiting a singing career that should be promising, based on her/Moore’s pipes). The end of the episode, with Moore staring at the family washing machine, wistfully reflecting on the different cycles of their lives together — the shared laughs and suds — left viewers wondering where exactly this relationship is headed. (Before Jack winds up in an urn, that is.)

While Jack and Rebecca struggled to connect, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) landed a few punches on each other. The episode drilled down on their painful sibling rivalry as we watched the brothers — one trying to fit in, the other feeling left out — grow further apart: Kevin distanced himself from Randall by relocating to the basement, rudely dismissing a peace offering of Pop Tarts and Yoo-hoo from Randall, before Randall finally lashed back on the football field. And in present day, their competitiveness and jealousy-stained relationship was on full display — Beth invokes a Cain-and-Abel analogy — resulting in an awkward dinner during which Kevin learned that Randall had never watched The Manny.They took their beef to the streets, where the new Manny was spotted in billboard form (oh, hello, Morris Chestnut!), old wounds were reopened, and the brothers then threw down in front of passers-by, including a celebrity (oh, hi, Seth Meyers!), making for Kevin’s second viral meltdown. The only salve for these injuries was a candid-yet-contrite conversation in the car and a late-night rerun of The Manny in Randall’s basement, to which Kevin had been relocated, fittingly enough.

Speaking of pain, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) whipped up a batch of magic brownies to help William (Ron Cephas Jones) manage his debilitating chemo side effects. The final chunks of the wall between William and Beth came crumbling down as they recited a Dudley Randall poem… until William let slip that he had given that book of Randall’s poems to Rebecca, exposing Rebecca’s secret that she has known William for all these years and that she had lied to Randall. After William pleaded with Beth not to tell Randall — fearing that it would break his bond with his mother — Beth left an urgent voicemail for her. Cue: The red flare of bombs that are surely to come.

Toby (Chris Sullivan), meanwhile, dropped a bomb on Kate (Chrissy Metz): Frustrated with his ability to lose weight faster than she was, Kate ducked out of a overeaters anonymous meeting, but then made an apology drop-by, only to discover that he had holed up and embarked on a binge of pizza, cookies, chips, and soda. After Toby explained that his desire to stick to a weight-loss regimen was fading, they struggled to make it through dinner together, as he made his way through a gooey sundae. It came at her suggestion, but with a side of regret.

Let’s grab our woobie and some adult brownies, work on a ponzu scheme, sneak down into the basement, and dial This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, who is ready to talk all about “The Best Washing Machine in the Whole World.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Randall/Kevin divide ran deep, and Kevin was pretty cruel to him growing up. After their midtown Manhattan throwdown, they came to better place, and Randall admitted that Mom did favor him. Yes, Kevin invited him to watch TV, and when Randall noted that earlier that night was the the first time in 36 years that he claimed him as his brother, Kevin says, “Well, then that really sucks,” but he never fully apologizes to Randall. Shall we call this a step in the right direction, though? And does Kevin need to crash another memorial service to further unblock himself?

DAN FOGELMAN: Yeah, I think it is a step in the right direction. It’s a complicated brother relationship of these two alpha males who grew up in the same house at the same time at the same age. So there’s no one particular incident that broke them, nor is there one particular conversation that can fix it overnight. Not that it’s inherently broken, but we’ve hinted at it from the beginning: In the second episode, Kevin says, “I was not a very good brother to you, was I?” Randall says, “No, you weren’t.” So I think it’s going to be a series-long arc for them in a way as they find their new normal.

We’ve seen Jack and Rebecca at a rocky point before. But there’s distance in her eyes, in the car after the game, in the bedroom scene, down by the washing machine. Not to mention, that first forgotten kiss in 15 years. Is this rough patch more concerning than the other one?

Yeah. I’ve been really interested to see how people are going to respond to this episode. It’s a nuanced look at a marriage that has been going for quite some time. At their earlier rough patch, it was marked by Jack’s drinking and a promise that he kept. “I’m not going to be drinking anymore” was enough to kind of trudge through the rough patch. This is slightly different. This is accumulation of nobody doing anything wrong, but the distance that can grow in a marriage as you start having teenagers and looking forward to the next chapter in your life. You see the end of adolescence coming, which is part of the reason I thought it was so important to introduce these older teens now. There’s a lot going on that goes on in a lot of marriages. There’s no one particular thing that’s broken or wrong. There is a distance. So, yeah, I think it’s a different kind of rough patch. And, in a way, because it’s less easily fixable, it’s a little more daunting, I think.

Both Jack and Rebecca are receiving attention from the opposite sex that’s charged: Jack with Heather (Megan West), assistant to Miguel (Jon Huertas), and Rebecca with Ben (Sam Trammell), her former bandmate. How much danger will these situations pose? And are their professional interests — Jack at the office, Rebecca rediscovering music — just as dangerous in allowing them to drift apart from each other?

I think it’s all of those things. They’re purposely placed in this episode in the place where they come in this episode. A big story line is obviously Rebecca, who we’ve now fully framed as this woman who had this professional dream that she put aside in the early ’80s to raise three kids, and suddenly is having a window into something else. And the strain that professionally that can put on a marriage, and hopes and dreams and shared goals, but then at the same point, yes, there are these other figures that are creeping into their life. It points at the bigger question of the show, which is we know Jack died, but we don’t know when Jack died. We don’t know what the state of the marriage was when he died. That’s something that’s going to be played out and questioned and then eventually answered. It’s part of the journey for both of them.

[To read what Moore and Ventimiglia had to say about Jack and Rebecca’s relationship, click here.]

Beth and William finally have a breakthrough moment, enhanced by some special brownies, only to have the good feelings killed by William slipping up and revealing that he has known Rebecca all these years. This obviously puts Beth in a horrendous position. How tortured will she be by this decision of whether or not to tell Randall, and is it just a matter of time before it makes it way to Randall?

It’s a matter of time. The clock is ticking very quickly. If you’ve been watching the show and watching particularly the marriage between Beth and Randall, I think you know this isn’t something she’s going to keep from her husband for very long. And if Rebecca doesn’t do the right thing and come forward, Beth is going to do something if it comes to that. So that question is going to be getting answered very quickly.

NEXT: Fogelman talks Toby’s dark side, Seth Meyers’ cameo[pagebreak]

William begs Beth not to tell Randall, noting that it will destroy his relationship with Rebecca. In this episode, we also learn that the reason that Randall ate up his mother’s affection like Pac-Man is because he didn’t get it from the one person he really wanted it from, so he found it elsewhere. To have that relationship also be damaged seems extra poignant.

I think so. When Randall says that to his brother, “I turn to my mother for attention because you didn’t give me it,” I think that’s partially true, but also, we can’t quite therapize ourselves. Clearly, as we explore their relationship, Randall and Rebecca’s, in the past and in the present, they’re extremely close. How that came to be and where that came from could be analyzed if we’re sending Randall into analysis. But, yeah, it’s a big part. Rebecca’s secret and storyline is a big part of our next batch of episodes, obviously. He’s a guy framed by this origin story of this abandonment and simultaneously by this survivor’s guilt of the fact that he has wound up with the world’s best parents too, and has no one to feel abandoned by, because he’s been so loved. And that’s very complicated for him. Those are all things that we start exploring in the next few episodes in a really, really deep and emotional way.

Going back to the idea of no fault, we’ve seen more of Toby’s dark — and human side — in recent weeks. Now we learn that he likes to binge. Clearly this relationship is up against a major obstacle with Kate trying to lose the weight and make healthy choices. How at fault is Toby here? He did persuade Kate that he was committed to losing the weight when she warned him that she can’t fall for a fat person. Then again, he does try to decline the dessert menu at first in solidarity. Or is just that these two lifestyles may be incompatible?

It’s possible. Our view of the world on this show is we don’t set out to be saccharine or sentimental or sweet. We take a positive view of people. The show has an optimistic sensibility. That being said, we don’t set out to create perfect people. These characters are very flawed. They make really bad decisions at times. Our take often is that they’re not making them to be malicious, but we’re human, and we fail a lot more than we succeed. So we have these two lovely people who clearly have deep affection and even love for one another, but are their vices and flaws compatible with one another? That remains to be seen. Toby is clearly a great guy, but there’s a darkness underneath in certain places.

His choice to start eating again — it’s not necessarily a great decision for Kate, and you dislike the decision on his part, but he also takes great pains to make sure she’s okay with it. She allows it. At the same point, you wish Kate would just say, if it was going to bother her, “No, absolutely not, we’re over.” That’s not how people operate. We fail. We make bad character decisions as people. So I think that’s the push and pull of them. Next week, that obstacle for them really comes to a major head.

The Seth Meyers cameo was fun — and came out of nowhere. How did that happen? Was he a big fan of the show?

We went to New York to shoot Randall and Kevin fighting on the New York streets. We said if they were in the vicinity of 30 Rock, it would be funny as sometimes happens when you’re walking through New York when you’re just randomly walking out on the street and there’s somebody from the entertainment community. We reached out to Seth to see if he would be willing to do it. We wanted a little comedic punch to the end of a very, very heavy scene, and he was willing to do it. Sterling and Justin flew out to New York, and we shot it with Seth. It was great.

This episode was initially going to feature the Big Three as 13-year-olds, but it ended up showing them a few years older. (Logan Shroyer plays Kevin, Niles Fitch plays Randall, and Hannah Zeile plays Kate.) Why the switch? Did you want even greater contrast from the 8-year-old versions of the Big Three — and to show the end of an innocence?

Yeah. There were a bunch of both technical and logistical reasons that we made the switch. We wanted to show, as you said, a greater distance between not just the 8-year-old kids, but also Jack and Rebecca’s marriage when they had the 8- and 10-year-old kids versus when they had them now. It occurred to me after casting kids who were a little bit younger that in future seasons, we want our same actors to be able to age up without bumping into the ages of the older-aged kids where they started. It winds up getting confusing, and we realized that would be problematic.

And for me, I just felt particularly for this story and then where we’re going in the back of the season, that Randall and Kevin’s story felt so much more raw and powerful when you’re seeing their formative relationship as young teens versus as more adolescent. There was something more visceral about it. So we made the switch. It didn’t really evolve the content very much other than adjusting language for slightly older kids, because the Rebecca-and-Jack story was always meant to be the same. We have so many timelines in this story, and we will be ending the season very much in this time frame. I didn’t want to do an interim timeframe of 13-year-olds and then add 15-year-olds and start making people’s brains explode.

You’ve mentioned seeing more time periods. Is there talk of seeing them at say, 19-year-olds?

For the rest of the season we’re playing in a few different time periods — some of which are really exciting and do what our fifth episode did, which is early stages of pregnancy and early marriage for Jack and Rebecca. But for the most part we’ve now established, outside of glimpses here and there, our core kid ages that will be in the rest of the season. We’ll have those 9-year-olds and we’ll have those 15-year-olds, and then we’ll be doing a lot before the kids were even born.

Please tell me we’re going to be seeing the new Manny in a scene with Kevin.

You never know. We’ve got to make a deal with Morris Chestnut.

Episode Recaps

This Is Us - Season 3

This Is Us

NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.

  • TV Show
  • 5
  • Tuesdays at 09:00 PM
  • Dan Fogelman
  • NBC
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