'There are five big mysteries at the end,' says Dan Fogelman
SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details about Jack’s death from the season 2 premiere of This Is Us, titled “A Father’s Advice.”
This Is Us returned to the air on Tuesday night, immediately giving viewers plenty to buzz about — adoption! alcoholism! auditions! — but it was the final sequence of the season 2 premiere that truly fired conversations and imaginations. Yes, the show’s most famous mystery, also known as How Does Jack Die?, was finally fitted with that “huge piece of the puzzle” that creator Dan Fogelman promised to deliver, and when it snapped into place, devastation and heartbreak ensued.
Near the end of the episode, Rebecca (Mandy Moore) showed up at Miguel’s apartment, ready to fix her broken marriage to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia). He was embarrassed to tell her that he was actually drunk at that moment, that he had been for weeks, and that he’d been hiding his alcoholism from her for a while. When he closed the door on her, the screen went to black, but she staved off any commercial break: She knocked on the door, he opened it, and she switched into hero-wife mode, instructing him, “Get in the car, Jack.” Inside the car, she told him that, “In a few months from now, everything will be back to normal.” And then we ominously switched to, say, a few months from now, and Rebecca was still behind the wheel, but now she was driving numbly, wearing a Steelers jersey, with a bag (presumably of Jack’s possessions) in the backseat.
Over at Miguel’s place, teenage Kate (Hannah Zeile) was crying and distraught, holding a dog (The family’s? Someone else’s?), saying that she had to find Kevin (Logan Shroyer), who was elsewhere, in a romantic embrace with Sophie, sporting a cast on his leg. Next to Kate, Randall (Niles Fitch) was sobbing, being comforted by… a red-headed girl? Miguel (Jon Huertas) looked heartbroken as well. And then came the image that will haunt: Rebecca pulled the car up to the Pearsons’ mailbox, and broke out into an anguished cry, as the shot elevated to revealed their home, freshly burned down, two fire officials examining the ruins. Cut to black. This time for real.
You have questions. Lots of them. Probably too many. It’s time to stub out our fake cigarettes and summon the man who marshaled this fire, This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: That was quite a wallop. What kind of statement did you want to make with that scene? For fans who were a bit frustrated with the how-Jack-dies mystery and hungry for information, you just delivered a meal for them.
DAN FOGELMAN: It’s funny, though, because this was part of the plan from the inception. When you’re making a television show, you don’t even know that it’s going to get picked up, let alone become this giant thing that gets out of control, nor what people are going to respond to. So we had a plan from day 1. I delivered the script for the pilot, and I also had a pitch for the next four seasons of the show. It wasn’t like I went through every episode, but I said, “Here’s how Jack dies. Here’s how we’re going to reveal how Jack dies. Here’s when we’re going to reveal it.” And this was all very much part of the plan. It happened to be that in the midst of making this television show, a lot of attention went to that — not unexpectedly once it became big. So I knew, “Oh, coming back we’re going to have this big thing that’s going to mollify people a little bit. And then we’ll answer it in the second season.” But we didn’t really have to adjust our plan very much because, whether by luck — or if you hate it, some people would say bad luck — this was the plan, and we’re just executing it.
How did you decide how much of Jack’s death day you wanted to show in this episode?
When I pitched the show originally, I said, “Jack’s death is going to be a big mystery in the first season.” And I said, “Here’s how he dies. Here’s what happens to his family.” And I said, “In the first episode of the second season, it will be, for lack of a better example, a Breaking Bad set of imagery that shows you the day/night that he died. And then the second season, in terms of that story line, will very much be a journey getting to that day and night.” So that was the plan from the moment I turned in the first script.
In deciding how much of the house to show, did you ever second-guess at all and say, “I should pull back and maybe not show as much there as I had planned?” Or did you wind up showing more details than you had initially planned to?
I had this image that was like, “Mandy will be driving, blank-faced, and we won’t know what’s happening. And then we’ll shoot through the car door one way, and she will be looking at something, and we don’t know what she’s looking at, and then she’ll start screaming and we’ll raise up and we’ll show the house.” Whether right, wrong, or other, this was exactly what we wanted to do.
There are so many clues planted in this scene. For starters, Rebecca is wearing a Steelers jersey. We don’t know what their relationship was like when he died, but maybe this is an optimistic sign — and a thread to the early days of their relationship — and that things were better when he passed?
There’s multiple questions, right? First and foremost is the question of: What state was their marriage in when this happened? Secondly, there are a zillion clues that are all over. Our hardcore dramedy fans can study the last two minutes of the show like a Zapruder film. And they won’t be disappointed. We’ve carefully constructed this, so, yes, I think it’s a hopeful sign. But then the look on her face is concerning because she seems blank. But what Mandy channels in that final shot is raw grief. You don’t have that kind of grief with someone you’re in a broken marriage with, necessarily. But you might. There’s a lot of questions to be answered. But yeah, we can look at all of those details. But the Steelers jersey is one. The Steelers jersey is a clue.