The man who plays Jack goes deep on the events of 'Moonshadow'

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March 15, 2017 at 09:23 AM EDT

[Spoiler alert: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s season finale of This Is Us, titled “Moonshadow.”]

When the hotly-awaited, heavily-anticipated season finale of This Is Us arrived on Tuesday night, it began by answering one question that had loomed and gloomed over the past week: Did Jack die while driving to Rebecca’s gig under the influence?

It turns out that he did not. So, how exactly did the gold-hearted family man meet his maker? Sorry, we did not learn how he left the planet (see you next season!), but he did make quite an exit at the end of the episode: He delivered a heartfelt we’re-down-but-not-out romantic speech to Rebecca (Mandy Moore) in the face of darkness, and then left through the front door of the Pearson house with just a duffel bag full of clothes in hand.

“Moonshadow” showed viewers a flip side — a human side, an unpretty side — to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), who was wallowing in an alcohol-fueled spiral: He bloodied up Rebecca’s bandmate/ex-boyfriend Ben (Sam Trammell) before her big gig, which Rebecca decided to cancel, especially after Ben had misread the situation and tried to kiss her moments before Jack arrived. And after Rebecca drove her sloshed, embarrassed husband back to Pittsburgh, he found himself in a brutal fight of a different kind: The couple turned up the volume and unloaded years of pent-up frustrations and anger and sacrifices and resentments on each other before Rebecca suggested that they separate, or at least get “some air” while they sorted through the freshly tumbled rubble of their relationship.

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Jack may have walked out that door without protest, but he was far from giving up on the relationship that sustained him. “You’re not just my great love story, Rebecca, you were my big break,” he told her before nodding to the wedding vows that Rebecca read to him many years before. “And our love story, I know it may not feel like it right now, but baby… I promise you, it’s just getting started.”

“Moonshadow” also showed us how it all started, affording us a peek into 1972, when 28-year-old Vietnam vet Jack had dreams of opening his own auto body shop but was saddled with the realities of living at home with an alcoholic father and having no money. The desperate son scored a big pay day at a poker game, only to be forcefully removed of his winnings, prompting him to seek revenge by plotting to steal the money from the cash register at the bar that hosted the game. And just as he was about to spring into illicit action, his life changed: Rebecca, who had excused herself from a blind date mid-dinner to find a stage to sing on that night, locked electric eyes with him on the stage in front of him. And the rest was history. Or the future.

What is Jack and Rebecca’s future? What did that fight do to their foundation? How much hope should we have for this marriage — and what state will it be in when Jack dies in this time period? Let’s slide a tall, sobering glass of water across the kitchen table to the man who plays Papa Pearson, Milo Ventimiglia, and get some answers.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After watching the finale, I imagine some fans aren’t okay right now. How are you holding up?
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: I’m actually really good. This now prolongs that question of “How is Jack going die?” because that is not satisfied. But I feel that this last episode has showed a different side of the show, but it was a side that was necessary to show. With the light, you got to have the dark. With the good, you got to have the bad. With the happiness of Jack and Rebecca, you’re absolutely going to see the breakdown — the complete and total breakdown — of the relationship.

This was the bleakest side of the Jack-Rebecca marriage we’ve seen. What was your mindset in tackling that fight scene — much of which was going to be filmed in one take — and the morning-after scene?
I was excited. I knew that it would be a lot of heavy lifting for Mandy and I. We’d have to really roll our sleeves up on this one and play some notes to the character that we weren’t used to.

Dan had scripted that fight scene as a oner. He wanted it to run almost like a scene or a moment in a play. So we prepped it that way and performed it that way. I mean, there were some really vicious takes, and there were some takes that didn’t quite make it to where we needed to go, but at the end of the day, how it lived in the episode was as I believe Dan wanted it. After it had been filmed, he called me up and was just like, “I can’t — you know — you and Mandy, wow.” He kept saying how pleased he was and how happy he was, and how that might have been the best thing he’d ever been a part of — and that was a very good feeling to know that Dan — who created these characters and wrote this moment with [executive producers] Isaac [Aptaker] and Elizabeth [Berger] — was personally satisfied with what we had done with [director] Ken Olin, with Yasu [Tanida, the director of photography], with the crew. It was a very all-hands-on-deck episode, where everybody stepped up knowing that this was the topper to the season.

Mandy said there was an uncomfortable vibe on the set.

She said you two purposely kept your distance, literally and figuratively. What was that like?
In the Pearson home, we have this back room — a den, if you want to call it that — and that’s where she and I usually keep our chairs. Wherever we happen to film, we’re always right next to each other. That day, we walked in, and we didn’t really talk to one another, let alone make eye contact with one another in the morning getting ready going through hair and makeup. And then when we stepped onto set, I saw our chairs in the room, and I walked in the back, and I picked up the chair and I walked out. And in a way, I needed to establish that we aren’t necessarily together, and create some distance between she and I, when we’re usually pretty close and pretty chatty when it comes to the work in a work day.

But I had to separate us from that, and I think she knew that. And I moved my chair up into the upstairs portion of the set, and when the cameras were setting up, I remember just walking around the upstairs, thinking about Jack’s world and what we’d built over the last seven months of the show, and 18 episodes, and how that one moment, that argument was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was walking around looking at his bedroom, Kate’s bedroom, Kevin and Randall’s bedrooms, just thinking, like, “Wow, his world is crumbling.” And he can’t take it back — his mistakes, anything…

It’s one of those things that even though in the scene Mandy and I weren’t communicating, we weren’t talking, we were doing everything we needed to for the work, I couldn’t wait until a scene was done, so that I could just go over and give her a hug, and be like, “Oh my god! That one moment when you did this, that was amazing!” Or just talk about it, you know? Finishing that brutal moment between Jack and Rebecca, I could get back to my friend Mandy and have a conversation, and smile and laugh about what we had just done because it was very powerful work that we don’t get to do all the time in the context of an argument for Jack and Rebecca.

NEXT PAGE: Did Jack or Rebecca cross a line? And is Jack an alcoholic?

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