Slowly, with a mixture of dread and intrigue, we continue to collect those precious puzzle pieces of Jack’s demise. Think back to our first few journeys into This Is Us, when we didn’t even know whether heart-of-gold patriarch Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) — the man who could weave a most magical tale about a ratty t-shirt — was alive or dead. It would turn out to be the latter, his ashes left to rest in an urn on Kate’s mantel. And for weeks after that revelation, we still did not know even approximately when he died. Finally, we were dished the detail that he died in the ‘90s as we caught a fleeting glimpse of the Big Three in their teenage years, mourning him at his funeral.
In Tuesday’s episode — which also saw Randall quit his job and finally forgive Rebecca, and Kevin (Justin Hartley) pull off the re-opening night of his play, which drew interest from (cameo alert!) Ron Howard for a movie that would send him away from Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) in New York — we did not learn the most coveted piece of information: How did Jack die? But it did feel like the puzzle box was nudged opened again. And we might have just seen him on the last day that he was alive.
It has been made clear that Kate’s connection to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) was something special and fraught — she is the keeper of his ashes, and it was her memory of the funeral that we had accessed — so it made sense that the next revelation about his demise would be moored to her. Emboldened by heartfelt advice proffered by her brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz) finally began to open up to her fiancé, Toby (Chris Sullivan), about her father’s death, taking a deep breath and telling him, “It’s my fault… I’m the reason he’s dead.”
Before we could race through all the implications of what that might mean, the episode segued into the last scene of the night, which time-tripped us back into the era in which Jack meets his maker. To recap, Jack and Rebecca’s marriage was rocky at best: She was hitting the road with her ex-semi-boyfriend, Ben (Sam Trammell) to chase her music dreams, he was hitting the bottle to mute his feelings (and was being chased by Heather at the office). Jack lingered at a retirement party for a co-worker that he did not feel strongly about instead of racing home to say goodbye to Rebecca before she departed. Then, sitting around later that night at home, he decided to go to Joe’s Tavern for the company afterparty that Heather (Megan West) told him about earlier, and he put himself in temptation’s way or at least adjacent to it, accepting her offer of a drink. But when Jack was more directly propositioned by her — she sensed that he was a bit broken — he snapped back to “Jack,” and told her she had crossed the line. He dialed Kate from the pay phone outside, telling his daughter that she’d been right about the strain that she noticed in her parents’ marriage, and that he was determined to fix this situation. He hung up, dropped his keys on the ground (Drunk? Sure seemed like it), got in his car, and drove off, presumably headed toward Rebecca’s two-hour-away gig —toward redemption or toward disaster — as Sufjan Stevens was heard singing “Every road leads to an end” in “Death With Dignity.”
So many questions, almost as many emotions. Let’s locate the nearest pay phone and ring up the man who plays dead with the best of them, Milo Ventimiglia.
[Click here to sneak a peek at a script page from the This Is Us season finale, complete with annotation from the writers.]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Jack’s relationship with Rebecca is as unstable as we’ve seen it, certainly since episode 2. There’s almost that moment of connection in the kitchen, and then she has to leave. Jack doesn’t say a proper goodbye; it’s only when Kate prods him to go outside does he do so, and it’s too late. When he complains that her gig is two hours away, she points out that her gig is only two hours away. Why is it so difficult for him to try to mend fences here? Is pride getting in the way a little bit, or is he just hurt that she would put her career (for once) ahead of him and the family, and family is so important to him — the most important thing?
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: I feel as though there are a lot of things happening here. There is, of course, Rebecca deciding to do something that’s going to pull her away, even for a short period of time. It really shows how fragile Jack is with needing his family. His family is what holds him together. His family is what keeps him in line, keeps him intact, and I think that initial threat is now being realized, she’s going on tour. Now, at the same time, the thing that she worried about in episode 15, she said, “I can’t leave now, we’ve got the kids, and they’ve got all these things, and they’re teenagers and they need us.” Even the argument they had where they were talking about the kids — everything revolves around the family structure, and Jack is now the one that is responsible for them. If Rebecca is on tour and, yeah, they’re teenagers, but they still need guidance around, so Jack has to shoulder everything. So, there is this sense of responsibility without partnership that I know that Jack is feeling.
What was the spark that moves Jack into action to fix his marriage? Did it suddenly hit him that he was risking his marriage and family by being in this situation with Heather at the bar, or did Kate’s words of concern just finally sink in with him?
The threat of infidelity wasn’t on his end. It’s never been on his end, every step of the way. And I know that was a worry for a lot of fans. People would walk up to me on the street and say, “Oh, please tell me Jack doesn’t cheat!” This is a couple that loves one another; they just find themselves in disrepair. They both need to take that moment for themselves to decide, “What is it we need to do? How is it we need to communicate?”
The one thing that I realized Jack isn’t doing is communicating. He’s not exactly telling her how he feels. The only time he does tell her how he feels is in a heated moment of an argument, so it doesn’t feel like it was the threat of infidelity, so much as it was he removed himself from a bad situation, a dangerous situation, and the first thing that Jack always goes to is his family. They’re his first, they’re his only. So picking the phone up and talking to Kate, I think there’s a realization, whether Jack wants to or not, he misses his wife. Whether he’s mad at her or feels abandoned, he misses his wife. She’s his world, you know? So I really, truly believe that it comes from this deep inherent need for Rebecca that Jack decides to make sure the kids are okay, and then let Kate know that [their] conversation had an impact on him. That’s got to be something that he has to factor in as the kids get older — as he’s giving to them in raising them, they’re giving it right back to him. It’s got to be a great sense of pride, I mean, even down to that very first episode where William says to Randall, “Your father must be very proud of you.” I think moments like that reflect so well.
That makes sense about the infidelity, but he does put himself in a bad situation where he knows that Heather is interested in him — and he still goes to the bar.
Yes, he’s not making the most sound decision, but he’s not making decisions based on chasing something. He’s listening to his kid, “Dad, don’t stay home sad all night.” So, it turns out there’s a retirement party. Maybe Jack doesn’t care for Pench, but he doesn’t say that he doesn’t really like him, so he goes because he’s trying to be social. And by the way, there is a lot of stuff that landed on an editing-room floor, in how that sitting next to Heather ended up happening. It wasn’t by Jack sitting down or engaging in conversation. I, as playing Jack, am very mindful of a beautiful young girl coming on to me, and Jack is not there for that. But of course, we have to understand that that is a threat by Jack pursuing it.
There’s an element of poor choices and/or self-sabotage here.
Exactly. And we could even go back to: instigated by his drinking. Yeah, that does not do him any favors.
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Right before this scene, we discover that the reason that present-day Kate has been so blunt and tortured about Jack’s death is because, as she tells Toby, it’s her fault, and she’s the “reason” he’s dead. Is however he dies actually her fault, or is it just something that she feels a tremendous amount of guilt about?
The whole family structure is tied to Jack’s death. I wonder if every kid would feel the same. I know Kate is more vocal about it, but I wonder if Randall or Kevin feel the same about their father and about the distance, if they’re as impacted.
And whether that they share some of that guilt too?
I know that Kate is the most vocal about it and shares the deepest ties with Jack with regards to his past, but I wonder if all the kids aren’t attached to his death in that way.
We then go into the last scene which shows Jack — who’s off the wagon again during another rough spot in their marriage — dropping his keys and driving a little drunk. That was your read, too?
Oh, yeah. He’s drunk.
If he makes what could be an ill-fated trip to see Rebecca because Kate’s words inspired him to do, it seems that these two scenes are related, and that’s why she feels the guilt. How related are these two things, and does the finale give us at least some form of resolution on that question?
People want to know what happens with Jack. This may be the time when they find out.
Jack’s return to drinking is ominous, whether or not we just witnessed what could be his last ride alive. Can you at least say if his return to drinking will carry deep consequences?
You never necessarily see the positivity in hitting your bottom of a drinking bender, but I think this is something that definitely could turn Jack around if he makes it. … His need or desire to take a break and do something for himself is ultimately putting him in a bad position, hopping in a car after drinking. Jack is always conflicted. He’s conflicted by his wife leaving, yet he’s making the poor choice of going to a bar or going to a drink to get away, to numb the words that he can’t say to his wife. But it’s almost like that drink is a bit of a truth serum and a relaxer to the way that he thinks, “I’m going to go get my wife back.” And it’s a poor decision on his part that may lead to his death.
We’ve seen Jack determined to fix his marriage before — and he did. In episode 2, he turned it around. Is this time more dire, though? Is he in danger of running out of time, as we, the audience, know he dies in this time period?
I know the audience knows he’s running out of time, but Jack doesn’t know that he’s running out of time. Jack has just made a poor decision to hop into a car drunk to go find his wife and talk to his wife and be with his wife. Jack doesn’t know about his ticking clock. Jack leads with his heart. If he feels something, he says it. If he wants something, he does it. Jack wants his wife, he feels like he needs to have his wife, so nothing is going to stop him in that quest. Nothing’s going to slow him down. And then there’s this thing that is ultimately possibly going to do him in.
In your head, you might have had an idea about how Jack might have died. How different was what [series creator] Dan Fogelman decided from what you were thinking?
I never had an idea. I honestly don’t dream that far in the distance of what could happen with characters I play. Years ago, everybody asked me, “Where do you think Jess went?” I’m like, “I have no f—ing clue. [Laughs).] I have no idea. He left somewhere.” Also, I know that whatever I dream up is not going to be near as great as what Fogelman and crew can come up with. They’re the inventors, I’m just the tool of the instrument.
People were pretty torn up about William at the end of “Memphis”—
This doesn’t bode well when it comes time to find out about Jack. This is going to be brutal, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. I mean, even me, like William’s death, William’s passing in that whole episode just crushed me. Crushed me, you know? And I feel that William and Jack are of the same beloved nature that people are truly going to grieve — not mourn — grieve their loss.
Everyone’s talking so much about how Jack died; it’s the missing puzzle piece. Were you surprised to see so much intrigue about it, and how it’s become such a burning question for fans?
I think it just lends itself to how smart audiences are, how involved they get in their programs. I appreciate it, I love it, it doesn’t surprise me, knowing fan fiction and that people will write their own scripts for any of their favorite shows. I think it’s great. It inspires a mind to be creative, and then it leads to discussion after people find out. When people truly, really find out how it is that Jack died, then they’re going to go back and wonder, “Well, how did he get there? How did he get to that point in this life or that place in his life, that event in his life, and all of a sudden he is dead?” And then they’ll cross-reference it: “Well, it should’ve happened this way! There were all these indications.” I think it’s a very clever, engaged audience, and I appreciate it.
Do you worry at all that fans are obsessing too much over it and that the show is drawing it out so much that it could be a point of distraction, where you want it to be something they’re interested in, but not something that overshadows the show? Or is the audience is playing right into Fogelman’s hands?
[Laughs.] Dan is a humble, kind, terribly intelligent, funny, fun man. Look, coming into the end of a season, people expect big. They expect big questions with huge reveals, they want things to happen, and that’s part of the nature of television, you know? You want storytelling that is going to continue to engage you. It’s different than a death the middle of episode 10, where you’re kind of going “Wait, oh, oh, oh. We’ve got eight more episodes until something really happens!”
I have been feeling lately that audiences just need to wait for it. It will happen when Dan wants to tell that story, It is a little bit of a distraction, but it’s an active, intelligent audience. Everybody is really wanting to know and trying to know, and they’re thinking about it and coming up with different, creative ways. It’s going to happen when it’s supposed to happen, but also it’s got to be a large impact that drives these kids and Rebecca into the second part of their life. But where does Jack go once that happens? Fogelman [and I] have talked quite a bit about story lines and whatnot and different things to see of Jack and Rebecca, and Jack on his own or just Jack and his kids, but it doesn’t end. That’s just one happening in his life.
Will we learn more details about Jack’s death in the finale?
Again, everybody’s been waiting to see what happens with Jack. This may be the time when we see it. We’ll see what happens.
There’s this moment of wish fulfillment in the episode when we see Randall’s dream, in which he finds Jack and William laughing it up on the couch, bonding over him. What was it like to shoot your first — and who knows, perhaps only — scene with Ron? Was that something you had been itching to do?
I’m dying to work with anyone, anyone on the cast that I don’t get a chance to work with because of Jack’s death. The laughter was real. I think Ron and I just kept looking at each other and smiling and just smiling. And the fact that it was a scene about Jack and William laughing, it was real. It was very real. We were enjoying it. We were absolutely enjoying it. And it was short; I think it took us 20 minutes to film, it was really, really fast. It went by too fast. Like William, I was trying to hang onto the moment as long as I could.
How cosmically cruel is it for Randall to now have mourned the loss of two dads?
[Laughs.] I mean, Kate even says it in a driveway in that tear-filled speech. She’s apologizing that he had to go through it twice; once was bad enough, I’m sure. I feel for the man, and especially just because everything that he’s been going through for the last several episodes leading up to William’s death and his own kind of physical demise because of the stress-related breakdown he had. Randall’s in a tough spot, but the good news is that Randall’s a very, very strong man. I think he gets a lot of that; it was just how he came out, how he was born, and then some of it in his raising, you know? He has direction, so I don’t worry about Randall.
Can you give us your one-sentence tease for the finale?
Papa Pearson is very concerned for the audience right now.
To find out more finale hints from Ventimiglia — and how he said the last episode will “change the game,” click here.
To read a Q&A with Chrissy Metz about Kate’s “I’m the reason he’s dead” confession, click here.
To read a Q&A with Sterling K. Brown about Randall quitting his job and making peace with Rebecca, click here.
For more This Is Us scoop, follow @dansnierson on Twitter.