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January 17, 2017 at 10:00 PM EST

[Spoiler alert: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, “The Big Day.”]

Before the Big Three arrived into this world, there was a time when Rebecca was pregnant with triplets. Highly pregnant. Like, none of her shoes fit her swollen feet. And she was overwhelmed and distressed that there was too much work to get done on the new house. And her husband, Jack, was doing a finely choreographed delicate dance of trying to help her while staying out of the line of ire, never mentioning that she had forgotten that today was, in fact, his birthday.

This was the day that was explored in depth on Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us. The NBC family dramedy strayed from its usual present-day-stories-informed-by-flashbacks formula and focused solely on the past — in particular, the hours leading up to the birth of Kate, Kevin, and Randall. “The Big Day” didn’t just show us how Rebecca (Mandy Moore) wasn’t feeling the wondrous glow of pregnancy, or how Jack and Rebecca came to be hands-full parents, it also provided context and connective tissue for events of the pilot (ah, so that’s why she gave him that cupcake muffin for his birthday).

In addition, we saw a new, poignant, shaky side of Dr. K (Gerald McRaney), a proud widower still struggling to say goodbye to the love of his life who answered that fateful-in-a-good-way page at the grave, and, well, the first side of fireman Joe (Brian Oblak), who found little Randall at the firehouse doorstep where young William left him — and who almost wound up as Randall’s adoptive dad as he looked to heal his decaying marriage. (Guessing you didn’t have “cigarette-offering fireman from the pilot” and “significant flashback story” on your This Is Us bingo card.)

In the end, Dr. K accepted a much-needed dinner invitation from a lady friend, the fireman’s wife said no to the baby but yes to starting over with her husband, and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) chose a cranky birthday-forgetting wife over golf with Miguel (Jon Huertas) and the jaded dad club, only to arrive home and learn that Rebecca (Mandy Moore) ultimately came through with some not-quite-fitting lingerie and Twinkie-cream-iced muffins, and the episode closed out with the couple reliving the beginning of that magical, messy day with their young children via some Super 8 camera footage that Jack had shot.

Want a little more insight into “The Big Day”? Let’s whip up a fancy chocolate almond cake, fire up Ordinary People, thank Jack for bathroom sex at Froggy’s, and dial up the moving matriarch of this family to talk all about the heartfelt curveball pilot-prequel episode.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: [Creator] Dan Fogelman said that he always had this idea to visit the very specific time period in this episode once the show got established. Had you heard him talk about this, and was this on your wish list, too?

MANDY MOORE: I heard him talk about it, but once the season got up and rolling, he threw an overwhelming amount of information [at us]. Any time any of us as a cast saw him, we would corner him — and still do —and ask questions, like, “What’s happening? What’s the next episode like? Where are you in the season? What are your ideas?” I remember him telling Milo and [me] about this, maybe the fourth or fifth episode in, but kind of forgot about it until it got a little bit closer, and then we heard that the rest of the cast wasn’t in this episode, and it was going through this 24-hour period. I wouldn’t say that it was on my wish list because I hadn’t even thought of it, but thank goodness for Dan Fogelman’s genius brain. It’s such a cool idea, you know? And I think it continues to show the flexibility and that there really are no rules with the trajectory of a show like this. We can go back and forth and concentrate on one character and see what their life was at a certain point in time. It’s inspiring because it makes you realize that there are endless options.

Did you re-watch the pilot as research for this episode to get back into that mind-frame? And if so, what struck you?

Nope. I definitely did not. I probably should have. There was so much more information here that we obviously didn’t know about when we were shooting the pilot, so I just didn’t feel like it was necessary to go back. There was so much more sketched out in terms of who this woman was and where she was at this point in her life — and pregnancy and all of that.

A lot of new, contextual information is given to us. What was your favorite revelation during these 24 hours? 

I love that it’s revealed that Rebecca is terrified of becoming a mother, and she’s terrified to ruin the perfect lives these children deserve to have. She really puts so much stock in Jack, and he’s already the perfect husband, and she knows he’s going to be the perfect father. It was so fascinating to me that this woman who I feel like is so instinctively maternal — and I’m inspired by that aspect of who she is — was terrified the day before she was about to give birth and had no idea whether those motherly instincts were ever going to kick in. And I loved that she was a crabby crabapple and completely forgot Jack’s birthday and was having an emotional meltdown. All of that adds so much more color, because the way that I played it in the pilot — and every bit of information we had at that point in time — pointed to her being prepared in her heart and her mind. She just, to me, felt like a woman who was on the precipice of so much change, but she was embracing it and she was more prepared for it than anybody. So, the idea that that wasn’t the case was a lot of information, and I really loved that.

Rebecca gives that speech to the unborn Big Three about being nervous to meet them: “I’m terrified I’m going to make the wrong decision. I will protect you fiercely, and you need to take the good with the bad when it comes to me.” These words obviously take on extra resonance given how we’ve seen her handle the situation with William, trying to fiercely protect Randall by hiding the truth from him. Were you thinking about that while filming it?

I did a little bit, but then also, to me, it was like she had absolutely no idea what was to come, and the real hardship and challenges that she was going to face. But I guess that underlying characteristic that maybe took on even more resonance once the kids were born. I don’t think she knew that she had that kind of strength in her. But yeah, I did think about that, absolutely, with William and protecting them fiercely. She is the ultimate mama bear.

And then you see her in the cabin — granted, it’s through Randall’s heightened, mushroom shake head-trip — and see how obsessive and paranoid she was in making sure these kids were safe.

Yeah. And taken care of and acknowledged. I think about that often. I know women do it all the time now and did then, but the idea of having three children and pretty much taking care of them on your own — I mean, Jack was around, but as the kids got older, so much of the responsibility was left on her shoulders and she did it with no help. I can’t imagine how overwhelmed this woman was, in everything.

NEXT: Moore on Rebecca’s treatment of Jack: “I watched it and I’m like, ‘Jesus, I really am a monster!'”

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