'It’s a slow thaw between them,' says Dan Fogelman
This post contains plot details about the Nov. 29 episode of This Is Us, “The Trip.”
Thanksgiving is famous for its abundance of leftovers, and this week’s episode of This Is Us dished out plenty of emotions left over from the foundation-rattling events of the T-Day installment — and served up a whole bunch of new ones, too.
The drama resumed with Randall (Sterling K. Brown) reeling from the discovery of a letter at William’s apartment that revealed that his mother had known him all along and kept it hidden Randall, costing him 36 years of getting to know his (now-terminally ill) biological father. Maddest at Rebecca (Mandy Moore), then William (Ron Cephas Jones), then Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) — and making a list that he was definitely going to be checking twice: “I want her to hurt as much as I do,” he said of his mother — Randall retreated to the family cabin with his siblings. There, he questioned his whole childhood, accidentally consumed a magic mushroom smoothie, had an instructive chat with his dead dead, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), and came to several realizations, including the incredibly mature and compassionate one that he shared with Rebecca at the end of the episode: It must have been incredibly lonely for her to keep that secret for that long.
We also saw learned more about that fateful letter to William — and journeyed back to the second poignant meeting, between adoptive mother and biological father, which only ratcheted up the heartbreak: Turns out that Rebecca had visited William again, learned that he had been clean for five years and gotten a job through his friend from NA (that presumably will be this guy), and decided to let him meet young Randall (Lonnie Chavis), who had been approaching African-American men around town in search of a tongue-tying trait that could lead him to find his father. Alas, when William showed too much eagerness at the prospect of a reunion with his son, Rebecca went into paranoid-protective mode and fled his apartment, later explaining via letter how this connection could not be (“I’m sorry for the pain it may cause, but you cannot meet Randall. This is for the best for him, because he has an extraordinary father who gives him everything he needs. I hope you take comfort in knowing just how loved Randall is.”) With William’s “Poems For My Son” collection shelved, Jack would continue to literally shoulder the paternal responsibility for and curiosity of Randall, who was given a commanding mentor at the dojo, Ray (Aaron D. Spears).
Meanwhile, in the present day, Randall’s siblings were chopping through their own issues. Kevin invited costar-and-girlfriend-in-the-making Olivia to the sibling getaway, and she showed up (good sign) with other people from the play (bad sign), and proceeded to flirt with her ex in front of Kevin (really bad sign), and level Kate by saying that she was afraid deep down that gastric bypass surgery wouldn’t change what she didn’t like about herself (just plain rude). Kevin (Justin Hartley) ultimately lashed back at Olivia (Janet Montgomery) with a you-and-your-empty-human-shell-are-sabotaging-everything speech that sent her packing and him into the arms of the Epcot-loving Sloane (Milana Vayntrub). Oh, and when a shaky Kate (Chrissy Metz) reached out to her now-ex Toby (Chris Sullivan) for emotional support about this weekend getaway-gone-wrong, he tried to be supportive, but once he confirmed that she still considered them to be broken up, he hung a Do Not Cry Here sign on his shoulder.
What’s that? No, you’re not hallucinating. That really is This Is Us creator/sensei Dan Fogelman, and he’s here to take you inside “The Trip.” Don’t be a full metal jackass — keep reading.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You and the writers knew that Randall was going to find out the secret about William and Rebecca for some time. What kind of discussions did you guys have about how Randall should process that hurt? And how did you guys arrive at the idea that he would come to understand what Rebecca went through via that hallucination scene? He showed a tremendous amount of compassion and grace for his mother at the end of the episode by saying that must have been very lonely for her to carry that secret.
DAN FOGELMAN: It was a long process. This episode was in formative stages for maybe our longest time in the [writers’] room. All of our actors had, at varying times, lamented that they don’t always get to act in scenes with all the other actors because of our varying time frames. I believe Sterling had had a conversation with Don Todd, one of our writers, and said, “I wish I could act with Milo. I’ll never get to act with Milo.” That became something we started talking about, and I think the room had started talking about, “What if he had some kind of dream?” And that evolved into this kind of mushroom trip that would allow him to get advice from his father at the time when he needs it the most — after he’s found out this story and secret about his mother.
We’d been talking for quite some time about, “What’s the path of Randall processing and then forgiving his mother?” I felt a secret buried for 36 years doesn’t feel like a piece of information you get, register, become wounded by, and then just go right toward forgiveness. It requires a bigger journey than that. So our step here in this episode was one of processing and seeing it from a different perspective, and then at least opening the door that at some point in their future there will be something akin to a chance at forgiveness.
At the end of the episode, you can see the relief on her face when he says what he says. But then he still warns her that he’s holding onto that hurt and that all is not forgiven. This is going to take time. What can you hint about their next interaction at Christmas?
It feels like it’s something that’s going to spread out a little longer than maybe we had intended, because it feels very false to resolve them over an episode or two. It feels like a movie or a TV show, and I think this is the kind of thing that estranges a family for a moment, and then hopefully at least in our show, it’s something they can come back from. I think Randall is a good enough man and Rebecca is a good enough mother that they can, but I don’t think in real life things like this get apologized for and forgiven. It’s a slow thaw between them. And we see the first step tonight, and then you’ll see the next steps next week. And at some point, we could either break them or have some real moment of forgiveness, but I think we’re probably going to spread that out for a bit.
Going back to the hallucination, how long had you guys been thinking about different ways to allow Milo and Sterling or Justin or Chrissy to share a scene together? Like you said, those actors have expressed a desire for that to happen, and that was the big limitation of the show set-up. Do you remember other discussions and different ways you guys have talked about how to overcome that?
We’ve played with some stuff in the dream space, and we will continue to. It’s interesting, because I don’t even notice it as much as the actors do, because I’ve see Milo and Mandy engage with Kevin and Rebecca and Randall as kids. To me, they’re acting together in that way, but you forget that, “Oh, our actor, Sterling, has not worked with our actor, Milo. I kind of remember going into the writers’ room one day and they were like, “We have something we want to pitch you —a version of how we think this cabin story should go — and it’s a little crazy but bear with us: Randall accidentally takes mushrooms and has an entire story with Jack.” I remember the writers were all excited by it but pitching it slightly tentatively, because if I found this thing they were excited about too crazy, it could go away. But I really liked it.
So, in the dream space, we might see more of these combinations.
Yeah. That’s the most common place where characters who are not in the same timeline story line interact. Six Feet Under had the device of the ghost dad. There’s varying ways to do it. I don’t think it’s something we’re going to go to very often for quite some time, but there are ways to have those characters interact. Obviously, with Rebecca, their age makeup allows Mandy the actress to engage with her grown children, but it’s still not quite the same as Rebecca as we come to know and love her. It’s a different version of Rebecca. So it’s another thing you’d like to see possible. That’s a big part of this story too. It’s Sterling, the actor, looking at Mandy as young Rebecca and interacting with her in a way that he hasn’t in the show, even though we’ve seen him interact with old Rebecca.
NEXT: Fogelman on Rebecca: “I think she knows what the outcome would be the second she told Jack”[pagebreak]
If we can understand — though maybe not agree with — Rebecca’s decision to hide this information from Randall, it’s equally hard on some levels to see that she hid it from her own husband, someone who was bending over backward — and to the ground, in push-up after push-up — to do everything he could to help fill the hole in Randall. Why did she keep it from him? Was she so worried that Jack would overrule her and make that connection happen that she just couldn’t take that chance? How would he react to this revelation if he were alive today?
My take on them always is that she knows how gigantic Jack’s heart is and how pure his goodness and desire to do the right thing is. So I think she knows what the outcome would be the second she told Jack. It’s not that he would overrule her; it’s that he would be saying to do the right thing, and she truly doesn’t agree that that’s necessarily the right thing for them and their family. While she’s also being selfish, she’s uneasy as well, and it’s self-serving, but it’s also protective and Mama Bear-ish. So I think at the same time she’s very much not doing the right thing by Jack from hiding from it, but I believe in her heart she believes she’s doing the right thing for him, even though he wouldn’t agree that it is the right thing. We don’t go too deep into it, and I don’t know that the story necessarily dictates or needs it, but the rules of adoption — everything was very different back then. She met this guy as a drug addict who had left a baby on a fire station doorstep. You can’t forget that, you know? And you can’t forget that she had a conversation with him back then saying, “This is the deal. And I will take your child and make him my own, but you can’t come back for him. I need to know that you won’t.”
And in this moment of vulnerability, she goes back to him and finds him much more healed, and knows her son is asking questions, but he’s also getting a little manic about all the things he could do with his son, and he’s calling him “My boy.” And it’s all terrifying. It’s terrifying to her not just as a mother, but I think as a woman who loves Jack and is protective of Jack in that relationship with his son, and also as a beautiful and wonderful but flawed person who’s self-protecting as well. It’s very complicated. I think people are complicated, and I don’t think it’s all that cut and dry. She’s doing something that’s not great here, but hopefully you can also understand it, if not agree with it, and then you might agree with it, even if it makes you feel like, “Oh, that makes me a s—ty person for agreeing with it.
William’s excitement set off those alarm bells and caused her to flee. What do you think would have happened if she would have let him in?
I think it’s the sliding door unopened, and we’ll never completely know. Randall’s perspective as a grown man is, “That would have healed me so much. This abandonment that formed my life — I didn’t even need him to be a big part of my life necessarily, but just knowing that I wasn’t unwanted, that would have made all the difference.” So his perspective is that it might have changed an awful lot. If I was writing that version of the sliding doors — which would actually be a really interesting episode, by the way — I think it would have been a really complicated reality. Young William is clearly craving that, he’s in a place where he’s craving it, and what would have been both the legal, moral, and logistical reality of if he had come into their lives for this boy who’s still really young. He’s 9 years old. I don’t know what the reality would have been; I think that’s Rebecca’s point. If there’s a 10 percent chance of them losing their son or losing exactly what they have with their son, she can’t risk it. She loves him too much.
So do you think any of her paranoia is justified? Sounds like you would say a little.
I think a little to a lot, and maybe not the paranoia that he could take the child away from us, although that is a feasible possibility. But what they would gain in giving him this identity as a young boy, all the things that she fears — maybe selfishly, maybe rightfully — it’s not worth it for her.
The scene with Rebecca in the cabin where Jack tells Randall to look through the scene. What are we to read into her anxiety? On some level, it seems to be about protection and control — the three locks for the three kids, perhaps. But it also hints that Rebecca may be a little unbalanced. Is some of this unprocessed grief from losing the other baby?
I’ve never talked about this with Mandy, but I think there’s a melancholy towards Rebecca, always, that’s beautiful, and she’s the most winning, charming, greatest mother. But I think there’s a melancholy there that some could read as a moderate or slight depression. A young woman having triplets — it has taken a toll raising three kids in that environment, one of whom is not the same race and all the complications that come, some of which we’ve seen, some which we haven’t, on camera. I think losing a baby has taken a toll that’s not often discussed.
For me, beyond any kind of illness, I think of my mom when I write Rebecca a lot. My mom was this lovely, winning, beautiful person, but there was a degree of sadness sometimes to her. I think she carried a big load in our family worrying about things that the rest of us weren’t worrying about. My dad was working and not worrying about it. My sister and I were young. And then some of it maybe is self-imposed. She’s worrying about things that you don’t have to worry about that much or as much as she is or did. But for Rebecca, she’s got a lot on her plate, and I think it’s taking a toll. When you see that vision of her — which is also Randall’s vision — there’s a little bit of a frenzy to it, but it’s also metaphorical. She’s worrying about lunches every day and three kids and their varying sets of problems and all of this stuff, and she’s keeping all of that up. It could just be a kid at school who could lead one of her three kids down a bad path or a learning issue or her marriage or anything, but she’s the one tasked with worrying about all of this s—. Jack is this great guy, he’s solid, and he’s the best dad in the world, and he’s the hero. And she is in some way the less romantic hero. The mom who worries and the mom who takes care of the less fun stuff sometimes. I think that’s what those locks are.
NEXT: Should Randall have been left outside high on mushrooms with power tools and a ladder?[pagebreak]
Yes, Kevin and Kate have their own issues, but shouldn’t they have been a little more focused on Randall considering what he was going through in this episode? And should they have left him outside high on mushrooms with power tools and a ladder?
[Laughs.] It’s a fair point. I screened it for a lot of people, and occasionally people are like, “They just leave him there?” And I was like, “I don’t have any other footage. That’s what we did!” [Laughs.] They’ve taken away his car keys, and they’re keeping an eye on him. Hopefully we see shots of Kevin and Kate peeking out windows and watching him and saying they think he’s okay. And the guy who gives him the mushrooms says it’s all harmless stuff and he’ll be fine. But, yeah, they do kind of just leave him out there to trip his balls off.
You said that William’s pie speech to Olivia would be a breakthrough for Kevin and Olivia “in fits and starts.” It felt like this episode for them was a stop by the end, as she acted pretty horribly, and Kevin wound up sending her fleeing with his speech. Then we see the interest in Sloane after her Epcot confession, and they ended up in bed. Did we just see the formation of a romantic triangle?
It is a little bit, yeah. It’s where we’re heading. Clearly, Olivia had this breakthrough with Kevin last week, and then she’s just acting so terribly this entire episode. And it’s not until the end that Kevin basically calls her out, saying, “You felt something, and I see what you’re trying to do, and you’re trying to sabotage it because you’re so terrified of it.” She leaves, and this new love interest emerges who will become a bigger part of our series as we move forward. And Olivia’s not done either, so it’s fair to say there’s more to come on both those fronts.
Olivia was brutal with Kate — someone she really doesn’t know — in her assessment that Kate was worried she’d still be the same person with the same problems, even after the surgery. How much doubt will that place in Kate in her plan to get gastric bypass? And putting the rudeness and person delivering it aside, was there a truth in that speech that would have been more palatable to Kate if Toby had delivered it?
Yeah, I think so. That’s been Olivia’s calling card since the beginning. She is without filter. She is almost like an automaton of expressing the elephant in the room because she’s able to distance herself from the truth she may or may not be saying. I mean, this is a woman who takes a guy to a funeral to learn how to clock grief unprotected. She thinks she’s a truth-sayer. Whether she’s actually getting to truth or she’s just full of s— remains to be seen. I think this weird, in-this-scene vicious person is the first person to speak that directly to the possible core truth of Kate, which is: Is your deepest, darkest fear that you’ve been putting all of this energy and dreams on this version of yourself that is at a different weight, and is the deep, dark secret and deep, dark fear that you might get there and still feel the same inside as you do now? I think that’s an interesting thing for anybody who’s trying to make a change in their life, whether it be, “Is your big fear that you’re going to leave this job that you hate so much and start the new career that you’ve always dreamed of and you’re going to wake up a year from now as miserable in that job as you are in this one?” Or if you’re talking about: “I have to confront a family member, and once I do I’ll have this release and this closure.” And then you do it, and now what? I think that’s a big part of Kate’s story and journey here — that gets expressed by the weirdest person.
Where did the dojo idea come from? And can you stop making Jack into Superdad every week? It’s just too much to bear.
I know. [Laughs.] The dojo came from one of our writers; Aurin Squire found it in a video online. It was a real thing, and he sent it to all the writers, and we all watched it and said, “Wow, this is really, really powerful.“ In the video, I believe it was a young, black man who had lost his father, and it was his community and family stepping forth to show him that even though his father was no longer there, this community was here to put him on their back, and when one of them tires, the next man will. And we found it to be this really powerful thing that we always wanted to do in this episode. Milo did so many push-ups that day. Not only is a Jack a superhero in the show, but Milo is kind of a superhero in real life. [Laughs.] He did more pushups with a little boy on his back in one day than I’ve ever done in my entire life.
We’ve now seen pot brownies and mushroom smoothies. What is the next trippy edible experience for the Pearsons?
There’s no more. I’m shocked NBC has let us go this far, and I think this will do it for our trips for a while.
To read what Fogelman hinted about a new character that will make his first appearance on the show next week, click here.