This Is Us producer breaks down Jack and Rebecca's fight, tension with Ben
There was cause for concern nearly everywhere on Tuesday’s installment of NBC’s This Is Us. Beth’s mother broke her hip. William’s health was breaking down. Randall himself seemed headed for a breakdown. Kevin was stressed that he would tank on the opening night of his play. Jack and Rebecca’s relationship took a turn — a hard one — for the worse. (And what about Toby and Kate? Don’t get us started, because, well… there wasn’t much to get started on. They actually became a force of calm and reason — that is, once Kate was kicked out of her weight-loss immersion camp.)
“Jack Pearson’s Son” opened with things seeming stable between Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), especially after that uncomfortable ending to last week’s episode, in which Rebecca told Jack during their sweet romantic reconnection at their old apartment that she wanted to go on tour with Ben’s band. But as Jack attended a Valentine’s Day gig for the band with Miguel (Jon Huertas), he saw the way they connected onstage, and, in his mind, it validated his jealousy when Ben (Sam Trammell) let it slip after the show that he and Rebecca used to date. That led to the cancellation of the traditional bacon cheeseburger date, a confrontation that included Jack accusing Rebecca of lying and Rebecca explaining that he would have “spun out” and blurting out that she “needed to have something for myself without you getting in the way,” (that’s going to leave an emotional mark), and ultimately Jack retreating to the restaurant to not just consume the cheeseburger but also some forbidden drinks.
In Pearson present day, the responsibilities and pressures and anxieties (including a terminally ill biological father that just fired his nurse!) were piling up on Randall (Sterling K. Brown), causing the perfection-seeking family man and corporate star to be reduced to a man unable to function, frozen in tears. Collapsed on the floor of his office, he would be comforted by the sibling who teased and ignored him in his youth: Kevin (Justin Hartley). Seconds from going on stage — and emboldened by advice from, of all people, stepdad Miguel (Jon Huertas) — the former star of The Manny bolted from the theater (if you thought Sloane was pissed before, imagine her now) and finally showed up for his brother, another step in repairing a historically fraught relationship.
And given that we’re talking relationships, albeit a different kind, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) took theirs in a strange, new direction: normalcy. Toby cautioned that after all of the collapsing and surgeries and surgeries that were postponed and breakups and makeups and expulsions from weight-loss immersion camps, perhaps it was time to pump the brakes and try to get to know each other better — and for her to be able to talk about Jack’s death — before they got married, possibly (but probably not) in a water park.
Let’s dive back into the action with a man who has never played tennis with Salmon Rushdie, Ken Olin, the This Is Us executive producer who directed “Jack Pearson’s Son.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: If we were a little worried after Rebecca told Jack that she wanted to go on tour, now it seems we have true cause for concern. Sacrifices made for love are now being thrown back in each other’s face. How much of a wedge will the tour with Ben drive between Jack and Rebecca in these last few episodes? And how ominous is that final moment with Jack downing a drink, a problem that he told Rebecca he would fix — and did?
I think that the question is not necessarily how much of a wedge her going on tour will drive between the two of them, as much as the issues that are presented in episode 15 — his jealousy and his difficulty with her leaving, her need for independence and her need to be able to get back to her creative self. Those are the issues that drive a wedge that never really were resolved. She put some of that behind her. She was willing to make that sacrifice, but I think for a lot of women who are really creative, when they make those sacrifices for their marriages and children, it doesn’t mean that those desires go away. And the thing that’s probably the most ominous is when she says to him, “I thought that I could have this without you getting in the way.” And what she means by that is, “I thought that I could have this for myself without the issues that you have and your dependency on me and your fears about losing me getting in the way.” So, it’s certainly something that will have to be dealt with in the final episodes of the season, because before we even deal with her being away for that amount of time, she will have to deal with how much that threatens him — and how much she resents some of the sacrifices that she’s made.
[As for] the drinking, that’s another thing that will be dealt with by the end of the season — whether or not the drinking is in fact a symptom of a disease, that we’re dealing with real alcoholism. Or we are dealing with some fundamental weakness on Jack’s part, meaning some of the fears or insecurities that he has, that he uses alcohol to self-medicate? But it certainly is a significant issue. This is a person that hasn’t been drinking for six, seven years, and he clearly makes a choice because of the things that are happening with Rebecca that he needs to have a drink in order to soothe his anxiety.
We saw another side of Jack in the second episode, when he was drinking too much. In this episode, an unpleasant jealous, insecure side reared its ugly head. Are we going to start to see more flaws in the Super Dad/Super Jack portrait moving forward?
We’re going to see some things coming up. In the character that Milo created, the thing that we really tried to depict is that flawlessness, that Super Dad, is also in some ways a veneer that covers a person who has some real insecurities, some real damage. We’ve seen that as a child he was the son of an alcoholic, and we’ve seen that every once in a while, we’d get glimpses of his anger. And then Rebecca represents, in his mind, a kind of salvation for him. He is deeply in love with her, and she makes him reach for his best self. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all those issues and all those demons don’t exist anymore. To the world, many people think, “Oh, this is a perfect Dad. It’s a superhero.” One of the things that we’re going to see is it’s not the same thing as being married to him and being really intimate with him, which Rebecca is. And there’s certain limitations he has that run directly contrary to some of the things that she needs in life, and that once she begins to express those things — and once she begins to demand some of those things for herself — he’s not as capable of keeping those demons at bay.
Let’s talk about the conversation Ben and Jack had at the bar. Was his mentioning to Jack that he used to date Rebecca designed on any level to get under Jack’s skin, or was it just an awkward stumble into a minefield?
I think it’s a little early to tell. We’re going to find out a little more about the way Ben operates in the last three episodes of the season. I don’t think he’s a bad guy at all, but I don’t know that he’s a particularly good guy or a responsible guy. He’s a very interesting character because at the end of the season people are going to have to draw their own conclusions about what motivates him, and what motivates him in terms of his relationship with Rebecca.
They are duetting on that Etta James song with lyrics like “If you ever change your mind about leavin’/leavin’ me behind/Oh, oh, bring it to me Bring your sweet lovin’.” When Jack notices their intense eye contact, Miguel assures him that they’re just playing it up for the crowd.
Is it more than that? Even if Ben isn’t nefariously plotting something, it just seems that there’s more than a musical connection there.
You’ll just have to wait and see. I mean, the only thing I can tell you is that as it plays out — and as it will play out over the final episode of the season — there will be enough information for people to draw their own conclusions about that. But it’s like anything in terms of relationships; part of it has to do with who’s perceiving it and why are they perceiving it a certain way. And we’re going to get enough information by the end of the season that people will have to draw their own conclusions about whatever their chemistry is. What is Ben thinking? What is Rebecca thinking? Where is this a product of Jack’s insecurities and where is he really perceiving something accurately?
NEXT PAGE: Toby and Kate’s decision to slow things down will ‘take us in a whole different direction’
What can you hint about the direction and intensity of this story line in the rest of the season?
It starts to ramp up. [Episode] 16 is a very special, very unique episode that doesn’t really have anything to do with their story line. And then in 17 and 18, it becomes certainly not only a more significant story, but it becomes really significant in terms of Jack and Rebecca’s relationship. And then by the end of the season, it reaches a pretty critical mass. And it will take us to the end of the season, and the events that take place in the finale definitely are the things that are going to carry over in terms of next year, and where we’ll pick them up and how they’re doing.
What kind of talk did you guys have with Sam about the type of role he was taking on? Did he have to sign a waiver releasing you from responsibility for any physical harm that comes to the man who plays someone who comes in between Rebecca and Jack?
(Laughs) No! You know what? Why would he tell him that? We wanted him to play the part! Sam’s great. He’s very interesting. There’s a part of him that’s so available, which I love in terms of this part. He’s so available and very present, and there’s a little bit of Sam that’s inscrutable and it’s all the questions that you’re asking. Those are the questions — I love the ambiguity, where he is. He can do certain things that are unexpected, and yet you go, “That’s definitely in keeping with the character. I didn’t see it coming.” So, I’m not sure what people are going to do about Sam and this relationship with Rebecca, but no, we didn’t ask him to sign a waiver.
He can just talk to Jon, who has some experience there.
This was the first time we saw Toby and Kate act somewhat practically, with Toby suggesting they slow things down. There have been so many melodramatic twists in their relationship arc. Can they be successful at operating at this lower, quieter frequency?
It’s a good question. One of the things that Chrissy, Chris, and I [thought] was so fun was, I said, “The thing that’s so interesting in this episode is, everybody else in this episode is definitely reaching serious crisis points. Everybody is getting to a crisis point, and for some reason all of a sudden, these two characters reach a level of real temperance and real maturity.” That’s certainly Dan’s brilliance, which is, “Yeah, but that’s life too.” You’d say, “If everybody else is falling apart, these two people are absolutely going to implode,” and it’s actually the opposite. It’s a testament to how good their chemistry is and how well they work together…. And then at the end of the season, we’ll see where they are and get a glimpse of that. It’s going to take us in a whole different direction in terms of their relationship. I don’t know whether they’re going to be able to maintain that kind of maturity or not, but I certainly believed it when I saw it, like, “Okay, that’s cool. After all the things that they went through, they got to a pretty calm and very solid place.” And you’re looking at these other characters who seem to have the most solidity in their lives, and they seem to be coming apart. So, that’s the fun of it.
Toby is interested in finding out more about how Kate’s father died and why she has trouble talking about it. We wait for Kate to answer, but she has trouble, saying she’s been blocked on this, before he saves her by saying, “How about this? Whenever you’re ready.” That conversation felt very meta. Was any part of it a wink — almost toying with the audience, which has been voraciously awaiting some answers? Or was it a way to signal to the audience — as [series creator] Dan Fogelman has said in interviews — that the audience will have to wait a while for those answers, and Kate, like the show, will do it when ready?
Yeah. I would say what Dan said. (Laughs) It’s always good to agree with Dan when it comes to the vision of the show. Yes, I think we’re probably going to have to wait a while and she’ll tell us when she’s ready. But I guarantee you that it’s earned, that when we find out what it is, it won’t feel as if, “Really? That’s what this was all about?” It’s complicated, and it really explains a lot about Kate’s relationship with her father…. As Dan has said about some other things that we’ve done and choices we’ve made, I think we’re a little better than that. I mean, I do think this is a question that is there and it’s been raised. But it’s also organic to the characters. It’s organic to the situation that they’re in. It’s organic that her fiancé would want the answers. And it is truthful to who Kate is, that she wouldn’t be able to talk about it at this point, which then fits into them needing to take some time, that they don’t know each other well enough.
Kate decides to knock on Duke’s cabin door, but not for the reason you fear; she tells him off. Were there ever any discussions about playing that out a little more, and she does go into his cabin with more romantic curiosity, but then gets cold feet and bolts? Did you tinker with different possibilities?
No. One of the things the writers, Dan, all of us have been really successful at, and one of the reasons why I think people continue to embrace the show is, I don’t think we really believe in that kind of chump bait. Yes, there is that possibility, and it’s fun for the audience to go, “Wait, am I seeing this correctly?” But we don’t go further than what is truthful. There was a definite editorial decision made at the end of [episode] 14 about, “How far does she go? How far do we tease this before we’ve gone past the point, where the audience will go, ‘See, now you just — it was a sucker punch.'” I think we went to a point where it is truthful. She would look at this person, and that question is in her head, but not go past the point… That’s just a delicate dance, and it has to do with taste. We want to key up a possibility and raise a question, but don’t want to go past the point of raising the question to a place where [the audience says], “Okay, now you just suckered us.” That I think audiences could resent.
NEXT PAGE: Olin on Randall’s mental health — and that Kevin-Randall scene
Kevin, who is battling a case of nerves on the opening night of his play, is given advice by an unlikely person in Miguel: What would Jack do? In a big, emotional moment near the end of the episode, he leaves the play just as it’s about to start to be there for a sibling in need. That would seem to help to repair a relationship that had a certain degree of estrangement, and from that flashback, he’s making amends for a time when he did not help when they were teens. What do you remember about filming that scene when Kevin finds Randall in the office and comforts him?
What I remember most about it, honestly, was that at the end of that day how exhausted Sterling was. I think he really paid a real price to contain that kind of emotion. The way that his character is so frozen, the energy that that took from Sterling was enormous. That’s what I remember most at the end of the day — how spent he was. To me, it was so moving what they did, and it’s filled with so much love. The two of them and their relationship and the way we feel about the characters in the show, that was a big part of that day. But I remember looking at Sterling and realizing, “Oh wow, that was so exhausting for him to hold that much in.” He’s holding so much in that he can’t move. That was an enormous accomplishment — and a real feat for him as an actor.
In this episode, we learned that Randall has had trouble with anxiety since he was a child, and certainly battled some severe stress in high school. In episode 2, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) alluded to him being paralyzed on the ground. With all of the stresses piling on him, and him now collapsing in tears several times, how worried about Randall should we be?
At the end of [episode] 15, I hope as much as anybody would be worried about him, we were going for seeing how much the relationship between the two brothers has grown, and that Kevin has reached a point in his life. And that is as important as anything. This relationship has grown. People do grow in their lives, and Kevin and Randall have grown…. Kevin realizes and takes responsibility for how fragile his brother is. It’s more important than “Is he going to be okay?” It’s more [that] he’s fragile, his brother recognizes he’s fragile, and his brother makes a sacrifice and is capable of taking care of him for the first time in their lives. And that’s a story we’ve been telling over the course of the season.
Kevin also deepened his relationship with another Pearson family member: Dan predicted that this episode will be the one that helps turn the tide in Miguel’s favor? Kevin obviously has had a rough relationship with his stepdad, slightly starting to mend it by letting him wear the Pilgrim Rick hat, but is this the more critical step?
I think it may turn the tide for Miguel. That’s the hope. It’ll probably take time. But I think it does. But you know what is great about Jon Huertas? He just keeps his head down and plays the role. That’s all you can do.
How did the Katie Couric dream sequence come about? And can we spend more time in Kevin’s nightmares in the future?
I guess the writers just came up with that, and we called Katie and she was willing to do it, which was great. She’s terrific. She’s really fun, and she’s a real trouper. And she’s very good at playing herself…. You know, that’d be fun [to go into the nightmares]. We’ve been in Sterling’s nightmare once, and now Kevin’s, so I would imagine we’ll do that. But what I love is we do it occasionally, we don’t overdo it, it’s not a gimmick of the show. But I would imagine that we’ll go other times. It can be effective.
What kind of repercussions will Kevin experience in his career for walking out on the play? Is there a scene coming up in which he will run into Morris Chestnut and pitch him a double Manny situation?
Well, I’m not going to tell you what happens, but definitely we’re going to deal with it. And it will certainly be dealt with in the last two episodes of the season. The ramifications of Kevin leaving the show will definitely be played out, and it’s going to be played out in ways that are expected — and maybe some ways that aren’t expected.
To read what Sam Trammell, a.k.a. Ben, had to say about playing the man in the middle of a Jack-Rebecca conflict, click here.
And for more This Is Us intel, follow @dansnierson.
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.