[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!'”
This episode brings us back to the hours before the pilot, and then meets up and overlaps with the pilot. We see added moments from the events of the pilot, like in this episode when, after losing one of the triplets during childbirth, Rebecca says, “I felt like we were meant to have three,” and Jack says, “What if we still are?”
That was not in the pilot, but what was shot during the pilot but never aired was when he comes in and tells me [what happened], and I say, “That’s not true, that’s not true.” That was literally something added at the last second while we were shooting the pilot. They didn’t tell us to do anything, or what to say necessarily, but [directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra] told Milo to come in and tell me about the baby. And they ended up just using a moment of it, without the audio or dialogue in a montage for the pilot episode. So when Dan was writing this episode and looking back at some of the bits and pieces of footage that weren’t used in the pilot, that was one of them that he always had in his brain, even though he didn’t know what was said. He’s like, “I remember shooting that,” and so he had to go back and watch it, and decipher what we were saying. And then they ended up using it. And then, like you said, they added on that extra part of him coming in and saying, “We should have three, and I have this idea.”
What was the biggest challenge in recreating moments like that and the feel from the pilot? Or did it just come naturally?
To be quite honest, I think it’s always a challenge in and of itself to put yourself back anywhere in a frame of mind to match the tone of something that’s already been done. But because at that point in time we were 12 episodes in, I feel like we instinctively know these characters and these people, and the choices they’ve made. We’ve seen all the different colors of their life thus far within the 12-episode scope. It wasn’t as hard as drawing from nothing, when we did the pilot. But they always have their challenges because I thought for sure, “Here’s a woman wracked with just absolute utter grief in that moment of just having lost a child and still in the hospital, and still recovering. And so I kind of got myself there like super, super emotional and Ken [Olin, the episode’s director] was like, “No, pull it back, pull it back.” [Laughs.] He’s like, “You’d be a little bit more exhausted and a bit more out of it and you’re on medication.” So I thought that I would have to just completely be there and he wanted me to pull it back a bit. So, we found a happy medium.
Were there trippy little moments of déjà vu though as you were back in that hospital bed for you?
It was trippier shooting the other side of what we didn’t see in the pilot of me getting ready with the lingerie and the cupcakes. It was definitely weirder. First of all, which you could never tell in this episode, but the way that our bedroom is configured in the house is diametrically opposite to what the bedroom was in the pilot. I just remember thinking, like, “I don’t know how this is going to match! I don’t know how this is going to match!” I have bangs that are growing out and we’re going to need to clip them back so it looks like my hair did in the pilot. And I was really, really freaked out about the bedroom and the way the bathroom’s situated, and how I come out. But they managed to make it pretty seamless, which I was impressed by. But it was déjà vu, like, “Wow! Here we were like nine, ten months ago shooting this, and we’ve come so far.”
It was fun to watch how stressed and overwhelmed and tired and irritable, and highly pregnant Rebecca was in this episode. She obviously forgets Jack’s birthday, and she’s pretty tough on him. Did you guys have to calibrate that? Were there moments where she was even tougher on him and you were like, “I don’t know. That feels like she’s a little too mean?”
Nope. I think that’s a testament to the writing, too. It just is always there on the page. But if anything, I think it was delicious fun to get to see that color of Rebecca and to yell at Jack and get frustrated with him. And like we were just saying before, that revelation of like, “Wow, this woman she was ready to get these babies out of her! She was over it. She was over everything.” which I find funny.
Even though he’s being put through the gauntlet, through the torture chamber here, he’s just still so into her and in love with her, and all he wants to do is get back to her.
I know! I know! I watched it, and I’m like, “Jesus, I really am a monster!” Poor guy. I forgot his birthday, I kicked him out of the house and he goes to try and hang out with Miguel and play golf, and all he wants to do was come back and be there for me. He’s so beyond understanding and perfect. Obviously, I think Rebecca comes to that realization in the episode as well, like, “Oof. I have it so good. I am the luckiest woman.”
But in her defense, she showed some ingenuity in terms of going out and trying to create the birthday cake at the liquor store.
Oh, yeah. But I think in her mind she had no choice. It was like, “Our lives are about to change in every way imaginable, and I cannot leave this part of our lives on this note.”
Absolutely. It all hinges on a banana muffin.
All of that is so great. All those little details — I had no idea when we shot the pilot it’s like, “I just assumed I’d baked a dozen cupcakes and here was one of them for him.” That whole backstory is so interesting.
NEXT: Moore reveals a Dr. K scene that made her cry
How many times did you cry watching episode 12?
Ummm… I cried twice. Both of them with Gerald McRaney.
We get to see more of Dr. K — and a very vulnerable side of him. Is one of them when he said to his dead wife, “I don’t know if I can do this without you”?
Yes. Of course. Pretty much anytime he’s on screen and he’s somewhat emotional, I get emotional as well. He’s just such a brilliant actor. But I loved the scene, the vulnerability and the fragility in his life at this juncture. Because in the pilot, he comes in and he’s spunky, and he’s got a bit of an attitude and a sense of humor, and you think that he has it all handled. And certainly this is a man who has his life’s affairs in order. And to come to find out that he is barely hanging on by a thread and is contemplating not working and doing God knows what with his life. Is he going to take his wife’s pills and overdose? Who knows what he’s talking about when he’s like, “I can’t do this anymore”? And to see that he is not what we imagined him to be in the pilot is pretty fantastic.
Were you worried that Dr. K was a goner when you read the fall finale?
Yes, I was, actually. [Laughs.] And even while we were shooting it, I was like, “Huh. I know he wakes up and sort of mutters a little bit, but does he really make it?” And I think I was the only person who was under the impression that there was some ambiguity there, and who knows? Everybody else was like, “Yeah! He lived,” and I’m like, “Are we sure?” But apparently, yes, he was alive and well after that surgery. So, I think that does give us a little bit more leeway if he wants to come back, but knowing Dan, it probably would take place like closer to back when the kids were babies.
How surprised were you that so much time was spent in this episode spotlighting a cameo character from the pilot, the fireman? That was a really intriguing, big move with a character we were not expecting to revisit.
Yeah. A character that has one line, although it is the most pinnacle moment in the pilot episode. Honestly, still every time I see him with a pack of cigarettes, I get that weird rush of adrenaline through my body, like, “Here it is! Here it is!” All credit to Dan — what a fascinating Sliding Doors moment to include him and seeing his character in this really defeated, loveless marriage on the rocks, and he is the one that finds baby Randall and at first wants to bring him home and see if that’s the saving grace for his marriage. It was such an interesting point that, like, “Wow, what if that had happened and we never met Randall and just raised the twins at home and didn’t have a third child or maybe had a child later in life?” Who knows? That potential I think is what makes this episode so fascinating and so interesting. If things had just gone a different direction, if Dr. K. hadn’t answered that page and gone in that day, and this fireman handed the baby off to someone else and they didn’t take it to the right hospital — all of these things could have exponentially changed the lives of all of these people involved.
It’s the power of the ripple. Randall [Sterling K. Brown] slowly moving to the path of forgiveness with Rebecca as we’re seeing. Dan describes the process as a “slow thaw.” What can you tease about Randall and Rebecca’s next interaction in the present day?
If I’m honest with you, at this point in time we haven’t addressed it yet. There was initially in the fall finale an interaction between us that they cut out because I think Dan felt like it wasn’t earned enough. But at this point 15, 16 episodes in, we haven’t. I’m assuming that in the next episode, it will be addressed. Or at least hinted at a little bit. Especially considering what’s to come for the rest of the season, to me it would be odd if Randall didn’t reach out to his mother, didn’t seek his mother’s advice and whatnot.
The moment you’re talking about is when Randall says, “I forgive you — it’s Christmas Eve,” right?
Sterling talked about that with us. What kind of feedback did you get on the street from the fallout of that revelation? Did people think that Randall went too easy on you? Or too hard on you? Was reaction split?
It was pretty split. A lot of women who didn’t understand and then a lot of others who did understand. And I can see both sides of the argument, but not being a mother myself, it’s hard to interject myself in that situation and figure out what would be best, for me. I mean, only a mother knows. It’s such a case-by-case situation, and I hope that people don’t continue to judge her too harshly. If anything, I think episode 9 really helped people understand and the way that Randall comes to understand she is human and she really was doing the very best that she could. It only came from love, and that’s as cut and dry as it is.
Final question: Is there another a particular pre-Big Three moment that you’d love to explore in the past, if you did another standalone episode? Which era intrigues you?
Well, hint, hint, I think there’s one coming before the end of the year, and it’s one that I’m really interested in. I want to know who Jack and Rebecca were before they met.