This Is Us creator on Jack's death, Kate's breakthrough
[SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us, “Three Sentences”]
Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us centered on a birthday. But it also gave us a death day.
As in, a funeral. As in, his funeral.
Yes, we finally learned the approximate age of the Big Three when their father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), met his maker, as a few fleeting glimpses of his funeral flashed across our screen, a memorial photo of a mustachioed Jack (presumably from an earlier era) next to an urn, a moon-necklace-wearing Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and his teenage kids standing in somber attendance. This revelation was brought to you via a breakthrough moment by Kate (Chrissy Metz), who decided to put a pin in her gastric bypass plan and try an alternative method to losing weight: She shipped off to the Adirondacks for a weight-loss immersion camp, and during a let-it-all-out, free-to-be-me drum circle moment, she uncorked a guttural scream — and about two decades of pent-up anger —as the childhood moments of her relationship with her father, including those funeral flashbacks, flooded her brain. (Another line in the Jack portrait was drawn; many more pencil strokes to come.)
It was a dark, somber, and intriguing ending to an episode that was a bit lighter in tone than recent previous installments. Even in Kate’s story. She made the acquaintance of the camp’s horse stable employee and reverse psychologist Duke (Adam Bartley), who boldly made known his intentions to win her over romantically. This prompted her to mention that she was engaged, but in a way that hinted at possibility, or at least tension — and made you think that Toby (Chris Sullivan) had better watch his back.
If Jack’s funeral may have provided the episode’s biggest gut punch, the biggest curveball came courtesy of not Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — who spent a lovely and surprisingly upbeat afternoon with William (Ron Cephas Jones) going shopping for shades and egg cream — but Kevin (Justin Hartley), who had been left sifting through the rubble of failed mini-relationships with two women, Sloane (Milana Vayntrub) and Olivia (Janet Montgomery). With the help of romantic spirit guide Toby, Kevin was struck by the epiphany that his true love was actually… his childhood love, Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge). Did we mention that Sophie is also his ex-wife from whom he was divorced 12 years ago? No, we didn’t, because this was all unknown before he showed up at her door with a Jerry Maguire-esque, three-sentence-if-we’re-counting-parentheses speech.
And as for our adventures into the past, the Big Three, hitting the big 1-0, decided that they wanted to forgo the usual joint birthday celebration and have their own parties. Kate tried to entertain via Madonna, Kevin drew in Sophie (and Kate’s other friends) with a Princess Bride theme, and Randall drew a heart-achingly small crowd with his magic bash. Meanwhile, running around the house to the different parties, Jack planted the seed in Rebecca’s mind for having a fourth kid, which they decided was probably one too many by the end of the chaotic celebratory day, which finished off with the kids reuniting for the family tradition of Pin the Tail on the Donkey,
Before you take off your party hats, let’s throw on a pair of shades, sip on an egg cream, grab some drum sticks, and ask series creator Dan Fogelman a few pressing questions about “Three Sentences.” You don’t see it, but this is happening.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: And so the next piece of the Jack-is-dead puzzle was revealed. We now know that they were in their teenage years when tragedy struck. How did you decide for storytelling purposes that that was the right age? Was it old enough so the kids would have plenty of memories but young enough to impact them at a key phase of maturity and leave a hole?
DAN FOGELMAN: Yeah. I’ve always known when Jack died. The how is going to take much longer to reveal. To me, even when you’re watching the pilot, long before you knew Jack may not be in the picture in the present day, this family always felt loving and good but broken. You’ve got kids battling severe issues, whether it be Randall and his anxiety, and Kate with many things of self-confidence and weight, and Kevin has gone off to Los Angeles, and clearly there’s strained relationships with Rebecca. There feels like there was a break somewhere, and it always felt to me, as I thought about this family, that something formative happened to them in those prominent late teenage years, when you’re really becoming an adult, and getting boyfriends and girlfriends, and forming as a human being in full.
Kate clearly has a lot of emotions bottled up, and there was certainly a cathartic release during that drum circle. What hath been loosened?
A lot. And it’s going to take a long time. It’s certainly going to take the rest of our season for her to even be opened up enough to really talk about it, and it’s going to take even longer for the audience to get the story of what happened in full. I think you get the sense, watching the episode and watching the show that, listen, something happened. And it’s something that broke this family apart, not irreparably. They all love each other. The Big Three is amazing together. But there’s stuff here, and I think a lot of it is held with Jack.
There’s still — and there’s going to be for some time — a lot of unanswered questions. What was going on in their marriage whenever this happened? How did it happen? Those questions aren’t going to be answered for some time. It’s something that, like many of the great tragedies in our lives, might not be talked about all the time or easy to talk about. What I’ve referenced in our writers’ room a lot is my mom died very suddenly and very tragically. I’m not saying that’s what happened to Jack, but I’m just saying it was obviously a very affecting thing in my life, and the hinge upon which my life hinges. It was the moment at 31 years old — there’s a “before that” and there’s an “after that” for me — and I think that’s what this was for them. For me, personally — and all I go by is my own experience — I have a hard time even to this day talking about the how and the when of it. It’s not something I’m real capable of getting into, and I went briefly to therapy. It’s just something that’s kind of locked unhealthily away. I think that’s the case with a lot of the family, and we’ve seen that, hopefully. We’re not just pulling this out of our ass in the 13th episode. We’ve seen this in bits and pieces with this family. So, there’s a long journey for the audience to go on, still.
NEXT PAGE: Fogelman on when viewers will get more answers about Jack’s death
You’ve said the how is going to be doled out slowly and probably into next season. But what can you say of the impact of the how?
Well, it’s full-reaching. We’ve seen it in bits and pieces in the course of the show. In Randall, you have a character who, as Sterling plays him, is the coolest, best guy in the world, but is prone to anxiety attacks. Kate has moved across the country, lived in her brother’s shadow, battles weight and confidence problems. Kevin clearly harbors huge baggage toward his mother, toward Miguel. Kate harbors stuff toward her mother. Randall is super-protective. This is all part and parcel of whatever happened there around 16, 17 years old.
Can you speak to the emotional part of it? How devastating and tragic was his actual death?
It’s a complicated thing. By the end of the season, you’re going to know a lot of the details of the how and the ramifications of it. In terms of the detail of how he died, was it illness? Was it something tragic? Was it something else? You’re not going to know that for a little bit because we want to show that in the show. So that’s going to take a minute.
There’s going to be a couple moments in the back part of this season, and the next season, and the third season and beyond, where people are going to need a moment… There’s a lot being said about the crying in the show. Hopefully we haven’t done too much sad crying. I think it’s kind of a cathartic breaking open people with feeling, but there’s also sadness in life, and our theory is that the human spirit perseveres and that things happen. But the back half of the season — it’s heavy, and it’s not just heavy on an emotional level. It’s dark, and there’s some darkness that creeps into the show because that’s what happens in life. We’re not trying to be edgy or cool, but perfect people act imperfectly. A wonderful marriage faces serious tests. People get sick and die. So we can’t just do a show where every week is this kind of emotional but very safe release. We also have to dive into the heavy stuff. So [in] the back half of the season, people are going to have to put on their seat belts a little bit. I just wrote the finale today and… it’s a doozy. [Laughs.]
The revelation that they were teenagers when Jack died was hinted at in episode 6, and explains why Kevin had such a strong reaction to the widow revealing that her son was only 15. He talked about the impact of his dad’s death, which he said was “a long time ago,” and cried in her arms.
Exactly. He was relating to something in himself. We cut out a line that was in there where he had said that he was basically his same age. And I felt it was a little too early. We also hadn’t really introduced the older kids yet, so I thought it would it feel like if you introduce the older kids already knowing that all of a sudden, you’re ahead of it. It’s going to be looming. That age is a big part of our series moving forward.
Obviously all three of the kids are affected differently by his death, but who of the Big Three is most impacted at that critical time?
As you’ll learn in the series, and there are reasons for it, it was Kate. These kids all worshipped Jack, obviously. Nobody recovered from this, but the person, for multiple reasons, holding onto it most tightly is Kate.
In other eyebrow-raising news, Kevin chose neither Olivia nor Sloane, but Sophie, from whom he was divorced 12-years ago. And it seemed he let her down on some level. Are we now in a love quadrangle? Because this is getting messy.
[laughs] Justin’s so handsome that I feel like a love triangle is not nearly enough for him. Kevin’s romantic story will turn very much to Sophie for the rest of the season.
What can you hint about their failed marriage? It seems that there might be some embers still there.
They have a big episode next week [which will now air on Feb. 7], and a lot is revealed about the context for them. With all the things we’re talking about, he clearly got married very young, he clearly got married to his high school sweetheart. She was probably very much a part of his life when things went on, so there’s a lot to be explored there in terms of both what happened, what he might have done and what went wrong, what went right, all of it.
Sophie abandons Kate for Kevin at the birthday party. Is there a weird, competitive dynamic that continues with those three throughout the years?
Definitely down the line. It’s not a huge focus of where we’re going right now, but I would say: If you think about somebody who has a best friend who marries their brother and something falls apart, somebody might be losing not just a husband but a best friend in that moment. So there’s stuff long down the road to explore there, potentially.
Obviously Jack’s death has impacted Kevin, but how many of Kevin’s issues are embedded in that failed marriage, too?
A lot. You’re going to learn a lot about Kevin as we proceed. A lot about how a Hollywood playboy becomes a Hollywood playboy. I think you’re going to like a lot about him with her.
NEXT PAGE: Fogelman on “creepy” Duke and the possibility of Jack and Rebecca getting a dog
Speaking of possible romance, Duke has made his intentions clear. Is Kate less immune to his charms than she thinks?
Well, I think in this episode, Duke is meant to be nothing but creepy and make the audience unsettled. We’ll see if that evolves in the weeks to come.
How fun was it for you to write that first Duke-Toby scene? Because you know that’s coming.
It comes next week, and it’s… really fun. It’s really simple, and it’s a high point of the episode next week.
So, Toby and Kate broke up. They got back together. Then he had the heart attack. Then they basically got engaged. And now she’s going away for a month?
Everything about their relationship has been abnormal. But we deal with that a lot. It’s going to be a big thing of conversation moving forward, not necessarily in the next week or two, but after that, of saying, “Hey, everything we have done has been under the lens of massive life changes and heart attacks and proposals and weight loss. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and we’re suddenly getting married, and what are we going to do and how are we going to do all of this?”
This doesn’t feel healthy.
I think there’s something that’s both wildly charmed, and all you want is for them to be together. But I’ve been in those relationships where you’re like, “I also know this isn’t completely good…” Even though it is completely good. But there’s something about our pattern that’s strange. Will that create an opening for a guy like Duke if he reveals a softer underbelly? It remains to be seen.
Jack tries to open Rebecca’s mind to a fourth child or even a dog, which she initially resists. Then she starts to change her mind, and then after the party, they both change it back, as a Madonna/Princess Bride/magician party can do to you. Does this issue come back into their lives? And bark twice at least if they’ll revisit a dog.
The issue may come back, but in a different time period — actually earlier. It sounds mysterious but, no, I don’t think in this same timeline two years from now they are going to pick up having another kid. But maybe there’s stuff to be explored earlier in their marriage.
Did you just like the idea of, “You think their hands are full now? Try four!”
Yeah, and I have a buddy who had three kids in succession in New Jersey. He actually does what Randall does for a living, and he calls in and consults on the show. He once had a line — I think it’s an old joke, but he used it — I said, “What was it like when you had the third kid?” Because he had a 1-year-old, a 2-and-a-half-year-old, and a 4-year-old. And he said, “Imagine drowning and somebody throws you a baby.” [Laughs.] I always thought that was a great line. But in terms of having another baby, it could come up back earlier. In terms of them ever revisiting getting a dog, it actually could wind up becoming a very important part of the story, long down the road.
Great. So you thought, “Marley and Me made you cry? Watch this!”… Speaking of Randall, in a competition at work with Sanjay (Hari Dhillon), he is sidetracked by William wanting to spend this perfect day with him. Seeing them cruise around the parking lot as he learns to drive with the shades, the egg cream, the music, made you feel like a buddy comedy episode, complete with some poignant moments, would be a fun thing to do. Are William’s driving lessons leading up to the road trip episode?
Very possibly. In the last episode that William was in, he decided to go off the chemo, and going off the chemo naturally is going to lead to some really heavy stuff, and maybe the potential of exploring other options, but also exploring maybe getting sicker. There’s a couple ways that can go. It felt important to give those two — who have carried such weighty stuff — a story where you could enjoy them together. There’s actually something heartbreakingly and unsettlingly emotional about actually watching them in a light, fun story, because you can kind of feel the ticking clock underneath it all. It makes it kind of beautiful and scary all at once.
Congrats on the show’s renewal, by the way. Obviously this wasn’t going to be a borderline renewal, but it ended being for two seasons. So, what do 36 more episodes mean to the show? Does the show’s success make you think about expanding the master plan — or is it just a hard and fixed number of seasons for you?
It’s not hard and fixed. I kind of know in my brain what I want to do, but it’s not that laid out for a season. It’s more the arc of the show is laid out already, and however long we spread it out for, that’s what the arc of the show is going to be. It doesn’t really change anything for us, other than it’s so exciting for the cast and all the people who work on the show. Hundreds of people work on this show and they don’t know that they’re just going to have a job for a couple of years, so it’s a gift to be given it, because nobody gets that. So we can be able to say to people who work on the show, “You’re solid for years. You don’t have to worry about it right now.” On a human level, on a level that doesn’t affect what probably people are interested in about this show, that’s what makes it really cool for us. For me, it just means that I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I knew that already, so it just makes it official.
Does it allow you to think that certain storylines will be able to breathe a little longer?
I’ve always known what the plan for the show was, so the only way I would have gotten screwed up is if they suddenly told me, “You’re not making any more seasons.” I’m like, “S—, I had all these stories I wanted to tell!” In this case no, this is the amount of episodes we want to do, so we’re good.
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.