'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.
“Whose dog is that?” is another mystery. Last season, we learned that Jack wanted a fourth kid, or a dog, but Rebecca said no…
There are five big mysteries, as I see it, at the end. Clearly, the house is a big mystery. Was he in the house? Was he out of the house? What exactly transpired on that night? They’re staying at Miguel’s. That’s interesting. He’s distraught. You’ve got Kate holding a little dog that we’ve never seen before. What is that dog? Where did that come from? You’ve got Randall seemingly being comforted in profile by a red-headed girl we’ve never seen. Who is that person? What is going on? And then you’ve got…
Kevin’s cast. And you’ve got Kate, who clearly in the episode, Kevin says to Toby, “She was the one who told me my father died.” And then in that flashback, she said, “We have to find Kevin. He has to hear it from me.” And you see Kevin in a cast, making out with Sophie., and you’re saying, “What’s with the broken leg?” So there’s a lot to unpack.
Like what’s in Rebecca’s back seat. The watch. The keys. The notebook. It didn’t look burned.
It didn’t look burned.
I can’t give away a lot… but what can I say is: What you’re watching is something that happened on that night. So every single thing you’re seeing — when we eventually get to that night, and it will be somewhere in this season — will be from what you saw the last minute and a half of the show.
Any red herrings in this sequence?
No. There’s no fake-outs here. And there’s no fake-outs in last season. Kate said she feels responsible for her father’s death. That’s a big thing that people have latched onto. We’ve not done anything by accident. This has always been the plan, so everything we’ve constructed has been for this.
How long will people have to wait for the next clue? And will it be a series of clues presented over this season?
I think that it’s fair to say you’re not going to learn everything about Jack’s death next week, but you’re not going to wait until the season finale, either. It’ll be somewhere in between.
Peeling an onion is the best way to describe it. It was clear from go to me, as an audience member, not a writer, that Jack didn’t die peacefully in his bed at 90 years old. Something happened to this man and this family that broke them for a little while, and we’ve shown a big piece of that tonight. In order to fully understand that year of their life, you don’t just do it one episode. You have to understand where they’re all at that time period, what had happened in the marriage, what was happening with those kids, what was happening with those kids vis a vis their father, before they lost him, that frames these 37-year-old people we’re seeing. Once we’ve done that, then we’ll see everything we need to know about Jack. And it will be this season.
With the temporary split in the season 1 finale, the new question became, as you mentioned: What is the state of their marriage when he dies? We already saw the beginnings of a reconciliation of sorts in this episode. Should we not assume that it necessarily is going to stick — that it will be a process for them?
We have a journey to go on and it’s a big journey. If you’re a fan of the show, I think your inner radar says Jack’s not going to die with him and Rebecca hating each other. As a fan of the show, intrinsically you know that. But we could be misleading people.
You have said that you’re always approaching this show and this couple through an optimistic lens. Rebecca’s move to repair the relationship happened faster than we might have thought it was going to happen. I’m sure you talked about having it happen a couple episodes later. Why here? And might you be setting up a twist and sending them down a harder road than it might appear to be?
There’s going to be a journey. I will tell you, there’s going to be surprising things that happen this year. Whether it’s Jack or Rebecca or it’s other characters, the stories you think you’re watching after the first episode are not going to be the stories you’re watching by the end of the season. But, I have said pretty openly, Beth and Randall will go through trials and tribulations, but they’re always going to be together. Rebecca and Jack have a marriage that’s fraught with more stuff. But to me, the moment that I found least viable, even though it was the intended moment, was Rebecca letting Jack leave the home. It was always my intention that that couldn’t last for too long, because these two people don’t [work] that way. But when you bring somebody home in that state and their marriage has not been repaired yet, that’s not going to be an easy fix. You’re not going to snap your fingers next week and they’re going to be back to, like, mustache Jack and bob-haircut Rebecca at the happiest times of their lives in this period and everything is forgiven. They’ve got some stuff to do.
The theme of this show with marriage is Rebecca showing up — you can’t encapsulate it any clearer. In the same episode, we have Sterling making this beautiful speech to Susan [Kelechi Watson], saying, “This is not what we do. We make our decisions together.” And you’ve got Rebecca saying, “You are my husband, I’m your wife, and if you have a problem, we’ll fix it together.” And that is the mantra by which the show operates. It’s a little old school, and it may even be a little outdated, but it’s how we operate — that these people are going to try to fix something, that may be unfixable.
We know that Kate (Chrissy Metz) feels guilty and responsible for Jack’s death, but we still don’t know why. Did you plant any clues in that scene?
No. That’s not something we’re abandoning, and it’s a big part of all of it. I don’t think tonight necessarily addressed that.
Rebecca says “Get in the car, Jack,” which is the new take-charge catchphrase for this show. Is she going to have more agency in the relationship and take the reins more moving forward? Jack is so desperately in need of help right now.
I think so. Rebecca’s character has an internal sadness at times that’s not as likable as Jack’s gung-ho, I’m-going-to-fix-everything alpha male superhero. I find Rebecca’s character, long before tonight, intrinsically heroic and beautiful. She’s not always the hero of the story but she’s doing the dirty work of keeping this family together, and I think that’s all from the mother’s role. This episode gave her a showcase to step forward and be the active hero, that she’s the superhero in this moment. But that’s not to say that patterns don’t get reestablished as well. She shows a lot this year. As an actress, Mandy has a lot to do this year. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a character that goes through more than Rebecca goes through this season. Because you’re exploring her both as an older woman, particularly involving some mother-daughter relationship things that we really focus on in ensuing episodes, as well as [through] loss and marriage.
NEXT PAGE: Fogelman on Jack’s alcoholism — and the twist in Randall’s adoption story
Jack confesses to Rebecca that not only is he drunk while they are talking at the door, but that he’s been hiding his drinking problem from her. How much of his story in the next few episodes is about attacking his alcoholism?
It’s very much a part of Jack’s story. It’s pulling back the layer of the onion on top of Jack, this guy who as Milo said, he’s a superhero who’s so good, but when somebody is that good and perfect, you have to ask: What formed them? And that’s a big part of what we’re doing this season. The next episode picks up in the car on the way back home as he talks to Rebecca both about what he’s going through now, but also what he went through the first time, in episode 2 of our entire series, when he said he would clean up his drinking. What was it like for him back then versus how is he going to handle it now? And what is at the core of his problem? We get into all of that with Jack in episode 2.
The adoption story took an interesting turn with both Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) shifting their points-of-view, and Beth pushing them to adopt someone older who society has forgotten about. Will they start tackling the issue from the same side, or will we still find them at odds?
Next week, in our second episode, there’s a little more discord in a way that you might not expect — characters going the opposite way. Eventually, they embark on this big story. I’m very excited about it. We have a young actor or actress — I won’t give away gender — joining our cast. It’s a very exciting story of a certain specific thing in fostering an older child that hasn’t necessarily been explored that much on a mainstream television show — and all of the things that come with it. And we get to some really interesting, surprising places in the course of the season. It’s not the dream scenario — Randall has in his mind’s eye that you adopt a child and then you have the perfect family instantly without chaos or drama. It’s just slightly different. And they’re going to go through all of that together.
We saw Kate step up to the plate and wind up happy for being rejected for all the right reasons in her audition. What can you tease about her journey moving forward?
Her journey, also like Randall and Beth’s — it’s not going where you think it’s going, in terms of the singing. We thought that that was the best way to do it. I had that idea for this scene that you saw in my head for a while, which is like at 37 years old, you don’t decide that you want to be a singer, walk into your first audition and become Adele. That’s not how life works. We’re doing a TV show, and that obviously would be extremely fulfilling to our audience, but that’s not how life operates. So we thought it would be interesting to almost sell like that what it’s going to be, and then give her the victory in the smallest way, which is a victory of self-worth and self-confidence — even if it means rejection and heartbreak and starting from the bottom, I am going to figure out my path. And do it. It was exciting to me in the first five minutes after the show ended, before the chaos began, to see people really responding to that. Because I thought that was just a launching-off point. Anything that Chrissy does is so tactile for people. They latch onto that journey. A woman saying, “It wasn’t my age, it was my lack of ability, and I’m going to start from the bottom and do this,” in her own small, small way is really exciting. It’s also exciting for me knowing for me what’s coming ahead. Tonight she got cut off; next week Chrissy really belts and shows what she can do. I’ve shown my own family a clip of it and without any context, they started crying because it’s very powerful.
Was that something you were looking for when casting that role?
No. Even Mandy singing — I thought that Rebecca was an artist in some shape or form, I thought that’s where it came from for Kevin, and I thought that Kate held a little bit of artistry inside of her, but I didn’t know about singing. And then when Mandy was our Rebecca, and then when I learned that Chrissy could sing, that was something that quickly evolved with the actors. That was one piece that evolved a little bit with the casting.
Kevin (Justin Hartley) tells Toby (Chris Sullivan) that he’s not a great actor. Is this the launch pad for a story where we’ll explore more of his self-doubt?
Even our male actors who were just nominated for Emmys, Sterling and Milo, the way they talk about what Justin is doing this season makes me love everybody so much. But it’s actually very truthful. Kevin’s been this very breezy character. He’s obviously super incredibly handsome and is an actor and movie star, and his issues aren’t necessarily real-world issues because he’s living this heightened reality of a movie star. He’s getting into the weeds this year in a lot of different ways as he explores himself internally. What you start seeing tonight, which is just a small story about his relationship with his sister, but that moment where he says “I’m not really that great of an actor,” that’s a hint of what’s to come of self-doubt, and a little bit of self-loathing from this guy who seems to have everything — but has a lot of questions.
You used a codename for the burned-down house. What was it?
The code name was the marble. We called the fire the marble. We called it the marble, and all of our boards we would not put the word fire in writing. In script. In emails. In anything we would refer to it as the marble. It was a bunch of dorky dramedy writers trying to figure out how to keep this Lost-style secret, and one of our writers said Beyoncé referred to her Lemonade album as The Marble, so that stuck.
What was the craziest security measure that you took in this process?
There were multiple. The network itself came to my edit bay to view the ending of the episode because I was getting too anxious to send it out via DVD or the internet. We drove hours away from Los Angeles to film it with fake signs that didn’t say TIU. Honestly, it’s been quite an undertaking.
Theory: Is it possible that one of Randall’s fake cigarettes caused the fire?
I love it! … What causes the fire is going to be heartbreaking. The small movements of our lives, and how big they can become if little things break the right way or the wrong way — I’ve always been fascinated by [the fact that] you could have met your husband or your wife if you had just not gone that way at the bar that night, or the friend hadn’t wanted to set you up. The great things in your life, how easily that sliding door could have gone a different way, as well as the tragedy. That’s part of our story.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.