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March 15, 2017 at 09:23 AM EDT

Randall’s telling Beth that he wanted to adopt a child was a nice life-coming-full-circle moment.
Seeing the kids and what their launch pads are going to be moving forward, and echoing what Jack says: Sometimes they’re going to do things that exceed even our wildest dreams. And knock you off your feet. He was adopted, he had a great upbringing. He got a chance to get to know his biological father, for a few months at the end of his life, but what a beautiful thing to be able to do that for someone else, for a child that doesn’t have a home or a family.

We didn’t get the answer to how Jack dies in this episode—

But now the show seems to tilt itself to a new related question, which is: Where were Jack and Rebecca in their marriage — if they were in marriage — when he died? And we also wonder: Did the status of that have any impact and is that related to his death?
I may have just shot myself in the foot teasing it out, and the audience not getting the answer that they were looking for. I’ll have to hold strong with that answer until Dan wants to tell that story. But I’ve been saying, and I feel very strongly about this lately: Everybody’s concerned with the death, how it happened, when it happened. I think people should be more concerned with his life. How did this man live his life? How did he embrace his family, even in disrepair? How did he fight for his family when it looked like things were broken and going away? “How did this man live his life?” is more important than when he died, in my mind.

So you liked the way the show repositioned the question?
I love it. I think it was completely accurate — and necessary. It’s the family album, and you’re not flipping to that last page. You’re just picking up in the middle of the book.

Don’t you think some fans will be disappointed that they didn’t get that how-Jack-dies answer?
Oh, totally. The only question I’ve gotten from friends and people on the street: “How does he die? When does he die? Tell me it doesn’t happen right then — we just got over William.” And I’m like, “Wow, you already gotten over William? Man. I haven’t gotten over William.”

It’s a redirect, but in a way that expands what the show is. This show has never been anything that someone can forecast. Fogelman and crew have such a unique way to approach anything that we’ve dealt with from a different angle, and it makes the show unique and it makes the stories engaging.

Sterling and I had a conversation on Friday where he’s like, “Mi, I got to make sure how I feel about this episode is in line with how you feel about this. I don’t know that I cried, but man, it hurt! It hurt. It felt like you’re watching this train going to the end of the rails, and you know it’s going to go off the rails, and you’re just going, ‘No, please don’t, please don’t, please don’t,’ but then it just happens.” And I said the same thing, I said, “I know, Sterling. I’ve had the hardest time talking about it.” I think people were expecting this massive shut-yourself-in-a-hole-and-cry-for-a-week experience of an episode, but it’s different than that. But it doesn’t make it any lighter or any less relevant to the lives of these characters, you know? It’s stressful, and painful, and it’s just sad. It’s just heartbreakingly sad when you see this couple, and you see them come together, the moment they meet — and then you see the moment they split up.

Jack doesn’t know this, obviously, but it’s a bit of a race against time for them to mend the relationship. We know he dies sometime in this time period, so the question is: Can they repair in time?
Yeah. Very true, so, not to worry about his death, but worry about how this man lived.

Rebecca talks about how Jack is in love with the idealized version of her, and the image that he’s conjured up in his head may be not who she is right now. A lot of the audience is in love with the idealized version of Jack, who they conjure up as Super Dad. Do you think this episode was a bit of a shock to the system for them, because it really shows some new sides of Jack, and really humanizes him? There’s some ugliness there, too.
Absolutely. As much as people have talked to me and said that Jack is that perfect man, I constantly tried to tell them, “He’s human. He is not infallible. He will make mistakes.” He is a man doing his best, and I think it’s good for people to see the side that just is ugly, you know? Getting drunk and getting in a car. Getting further drunk and beating a guy who doesn’t deserve that. Yelling at his wife in a moment that, of course, he’s fighting for his stance in the argument, but that doesn’t make it right. I mean, I wonder if people will accept him even more, knowing that he’s not perfect, even though they believe him to be perfect. He’s a man doing his best.

Let’s go back to the ‘70s: Ditched date, aborted heist — I did not have Jack and Rebecca meeting that way on my This Is Us Meet Cute Bingo Card. What was your reaction to that?
I didn’t know the details, but I knew that the day that they met went back to him wearing the Florida T-shirt — it was underneath his shirt; he was wearing the same magic shirt that he gave to Kate. But I didn’t know that it was at the end of the night where she’d been on a blind date and left, and he was going to rob a bar, and then he skipped out on a blind date. But I did know that their first meeting was around him hearing her sing and then locking eyes while she was still onstage. Production-wise, we’re talking about episode 2, the necklace she wears. It was always about: What is that song that she’s singing when they meet?

He saw his dad make the wrong decisions like clockwork, and he’s on the precipice of his life going in a very bad direction. That fortuitous moment with Rebecca saved him from a different life.
I mean, the moment in the car with Darryl [Jeremy Luke], where he’s saying, “No, I’ve been doing it the wrong way. I’m going to go the other way with my life. I’m going to take the life that I was supposed to have instead of waiting for it to come to me.” It’s a shift in the dial for Jack, but hearing Rebecca and seeing her, just leaning on a cigarette dispenser, listening to her — it saved his life.

We don’t see him notice the two guys that pounded on him the night before, walking to the bar, but I bet right after that, he had a conversation with Darryl, where Darryl said, “Buddy, I don’t know what just happened, but those guys walked in!” I can see Jeremy Luke, his version of Darryl, saying, “Oh my God! Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap!” That was a lot of fun to reunite with him [his former co-star on Mob City] as well.

He says that he’s been doing the right thing and it hasn’t paid off, as if doing the right thing is a means to an end — as if you get some reward — as opposed to it is the end. We associate Jack with being the good guy it because that’s who he is, not because he expects great reward.
I agree with you. I don’t think Jack looks for the reward, but he’s got to catch a break at some point. Jack putting time and effort into little nickel-and-dime jobs so that he and his oldest friend getting back from Vietnam can have a decent job — something that they own, that they can build and grow — and it gets taken away, and he’s always done the right thing. You’ve got to question your approach, and at a certain point, I’m sure even the best of us have been in a position where you put out the good and you expect good back. That’s the only expectation. It’s God’s law to a degree, you know? If you’re good, someone will be good to you. If you’re bad, they’ll be bad to you. If you are someone who is just a good guy, you expect goodness back. You just keep expecting people to match you with that, and be decent. But when it doesn’t come back your way, you’ve got to wonder, why the f— am I doing all this? Seriously, why am I doing all this, you know? It’s got to just shake your whole system, and I know it rattles Jack.

And he’s coming back from the Vietnam War, so we know there’s got to be some amount of trauma there, even if he’s not showing it on the surface.
The unanswered question of what really happened in Vietnam with Mrs. Peabody, because he’s there, he’s happy, he’s fixing her car. Jack is looking forward. He’s not worrying about his past, but when she says to him, “How did you come back so well-adjusted? Most of the boys that come back aren’t like you,” he kind of brushes it off politely saying, well, he was just a mechanic. Maybe they just had it easier. But I know he didn’t have it easier. He’s in a war zone. You see bad things, you know? I guarantee he’s got friends’ names — very good friends’ names — on the wall in D.C. I know it.

But Jack doesn’t make it anyone else’s problem. That’s the nice thing about Jack. That’s why I really think this man with this golden heart is able to accomplish. He doesn’t make his problems or his history or anything that had been wrong in his life anyone else’s problem. And I think that’s a very powerful position for a man like that to be in, where he’s protecting people even from his wrongs, and I love that about him.

Great point. Did you talk to Dan about exploring more of that? Will we maybe even get a flashback to Vietnam in season 2?
Yeah. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but Dan and I have definitely talked about seeing that era of Jack’s younger years, and especially now that you have the introduction of a character like Darryl, that he was the guy that he grew up with, went to high school together, went to the war together. What was that existence like? And the nice thing about the show, it’s not always about Jack and Rebecca, it’s not always about how they are linked together. It’s about them as individuals. You want to know about Kevin and his drive toward being accepted in his business. You want to know about Kate and her individual struggles in life, in love. And same thing with Randall: He has the spinning cyclone around him, but at the same time, how does he personally exist in this space? So I think exploring Jack’s individuality even before Rebecca, before the family and the Vietnam era, is totally likely to happen.

Finally, when you think of this finale and the way this season closed out, what’s the one word or thought, or image that springs to mind?
The first thing that comes to mind is that I imagine that people are dying to know more. We’ve only given them a sip of water when there’s an entire ocean to know about this family. Here comes some fan fiction!

To read what creator Dan Fogelman had to say about the finale, click here. Mandy Moore’s thoughts are right here. And for more This Is Us scoop, follow @dansnierson on Twitter.

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