This Is Us creator breaks down Jack's flashbacks, alcoholism
Dan Fogelman also weighs in on Kate and Rebecca in Tuesday's episode: 'It’s a lifetime relationship filled with issues and regret'
This Is Us
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SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us, titled “A Manny-Splendored Thing.”
One week after firing up fans with a fire (or rather, a burned-down house) as a tantalizing if heartbreaking clue in the “How Does Jack Die?” mystery, This Is Us took a much different tack in the second episode of the second season — but it was one also not lacking in raw emotion. If Rebecca (Mandy Moore) took the reins for Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) last week, they were back in familiar hands this week, though perhaps in an unfamiliar way for the Pearson patriarch. Jack finally began taking action for his drinking problem, telling Rebecca he can’t do it like last time — stuffing it down and trying to punch away his addiction while haunted by Vietnam flashbacks (which depicted him carrying an M-16, not a socket wrench, as he’d let on) — and confessing his addiction to teen Kate and that he needed the Big Three to get through this. And then he stepped up, literally, to attend an AA meeting.
Meanwhile, in both past and present, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Rebecca fell into the same fraught trap they always do, as Kate had a singing slot at the talent show (she pulled out) and her first big I’m-doing-this-at-37 gig (she pulled it off), at which Toby (Chris Sullivan) declared his allegiance to Team Kate and won over a skeptical Rebecca in the process. Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) persuaded an (overly?) cautious Randall (Sterling K. Brown) to take a risk by taking in a foster child, while she herself learned from Kevin that Randall took a big one in chasing after her, with Kevin (Justin Hartley) Cyrano-ing in the wings. Also, the episode featured a shirtless, diapered Kevin crawling around the stage in an attempt to be bigger Man(ny), if you’re into that sort of thing.
It’s time to call in the man who will tenderly hold our faces in his hands twice while Clooney-ing the hell out of this Q&A about the events in “A Manny-Splendored Thing,” This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was a key episode in our starting to unpack Jack. And with his admission to Rebecca that he can’t do it like the last time and to Kate that he needs his children’s help — as well as Jack agreeing to finally seek help at AA — he’s in a way agreeing to be unpacked. How difficult will this journey be for him, in that it doesn’t seem in his nature to ask for help — he’s the one helping everyone else?
DAN FOGELMAN: This is a different side of Jack than we’ve ever seen. Jack is the leader and the patriarchal figure for this family, so to be in a place where he’s vulnerable or to be in a place where he’s weak is new for Jack. And I think what we’ll be exploring in ensuing episodes is how new it is for this family to have Jack not just be a person that they go to but to be a person who requires them, is a different color on this entire family.
In the late-eighties, when his drinking started to spiral out of control, Rebecca told him to be a man and fix it. We never saw what he did — just assumed he did. Now it’s clear he was battling many demons at the time. What toll did that take on him, trying to tackle it alone? And what is the constellation of issues that he battling, whether it’s PTSD from Vietnam, or issue with his alcoholic father and childhood?
It’s a combination of factors. Alcoholism or any kind of addiction is a very complicated thing, and you can’t necessarily pinpoint one reason why someone has an addiction problem with drugs or alcohol or anything. For Jack — and we’ve met with and spoken with a lot of people — we’ve tried to treat Jack’s stuff with responsibility. For Jack, there’s multiple factors in play here. Clearly he has a biological predilection toward something in his DNA that comes from his father. He clearly had a bad childhood, which we’ve only touched the surface of. Clearly there’s a new piece of the puzzle toward Jack being added on here, which is Vietnam. And the fact that you’re flashing to something when he’s hitting that punching bag that doesn’t quite match up with what he’s told his family about his experience in Vietnam is a place that we’re certainly going to be exploring not just this season but as the series continues.
How connected is his alcohol problem to the fire that may have claimed his life?
As people have theorized that his problems with alcohol might have contributed to something that happened with the fire, I think by the time we get to the fire, people will know whether or not that was right, but I can’t say right now.
Mrs. Peabody asked him how he returned from Vietnam so nice considering how most of the young men who came back lost their minds. He brushed it off, saying he was just a mechanic. But clearly he wasn’t just a mechanic as that flashback shows. This seems like a huge revelation: Jack is in the thick of war, carrying a machine gun. Was he much more than a mechanic? And how much emotional trauma is he hiding from Vietnam?
The casual fan of the show might just think as they’re watching the “Landslide” montage with Jack, “Oh, wow, some of what happened to Jack in Vietnam clearly had a bigger effect on his life and history than we realized.” I think the closer fans would say, “Huh, this is very different than what he had [said] on the show his experience in Vietnam was.’ And it’s something where if you’re watching like that, it’s intentional. We’ve certainly been watching — and everybody should be watching — Ken Burns’ documentary on PBS right now; it’s insanely good. We’ll certainly get deeper into it as we go. Obviously all war is horrific and tricky, but Vietnam was a very tricky war at a very tricky time, and the things that people experienced are often buried within families for many years is something we’ve found. Jack has clearly has packed a lot of stuff down and part of his journey, through the steps of AA moving forward, is going to have to, as he says in the next episode, sit in some of the stuff that he’s avoided for so long. Which is a scary thing for Jack.
Should we brace for more Vietnam flashbacks in the next few weeks? What will we learn from his time over there?
We’re going to learn a lot. It’s going to be a slow build. In terms of the Jack story line, this season is very much focused on how we get to what happened at the end of episode 1 — that fire. How did Jack die? And how does he deal with his treatment of alcoholism and how does it affect his relationships with his family and the Rebecca. That’s the focus of the season. But you can’t explore this man without understanding what happened to him, very specifically in Vietnam, so that’s going to be a longer story that we’ll slowly start embarking on this season — and really will be a bigger part of the future of the show.
NEXT PAGE: Fogelman on the Kate-Rebecca relationship: ‘You don’t have an issue, and then vocalize it, and then it goes away’
When Jack tries to comfort eight-year-old Kate over the issues with Rebecca, she ends up trying to comfort him. It’s a sweet scene. You can’t have a younger Pearson family member hold an older Pearson family member’s face to comfort them. That’s just not playing fair with people’s tear ducts.
I know. It’s so sweet. Our young actors are very sweet within it. It’s interesting, a lot of families have expressions that they use, or gestures that they use, or a handshake. We’ve always had Jack comforting his children, particularly Randall, by putting his hands on their face. When that originally was brought up in our writers’ room, I say, “Oh, god! That’s going to be good!” And then seeing the episode for the first time where you see both versions of little Kate do that to him in the course of the episode, I thought it was wildly powerful — and surprisingly powerful — because you’re not expecting it. There’s that moment where teen Kate grabs him at the end of the episode, and the way it happens, you’re almost not ready for it. It kind of catches you off guard and your breath catches for a second. And it’s because the actors are so good and these people care so much about Jack. Yeah, it’s one of our most powerful moments.
Later he comes to her and tells Kate that he wants to be honest, and he’s going to need them to get through this. How significant are those words in Jack’s story this season? That’s a big thing to say.
How does his struggle with alcohol impact them?
It’s a big one. Part one of that scene is a little bit of completion of this story of the episode. I don’t think Jack and Rebecca are the kind of parents who are going to put the bulk of Jack’s battle in the hands of their 16, 17-year-old kids. That’s a lot to ask. As it relates to this story, it’s the admission to this kid that, I’m not Superman, I’m more Clark Kent. That’s the beginning of the completion of his story in this episode so that he can make the next step moving forward. It’s not necessarily a huge part moving forward of our teenage stories helping their father battle it. But I would say in a surprising way, especially a few episodes down the road, you really start getting a sense of how particularly it affects Kevin, who as a teenager has this vision of his father and he’s having a slightly harder time dealing with the flawed Jack, as opposed to the one he’s built up.
It seems that the next points of exploration will involve the kids’ relationships with each parent in this time period, leading up to the state of their relationship with Jack at the time of his death. Kate holds some resentment toward her mother, as she says to Jack, “Did the queen admit you back into her castle?” And Randall, who eavesdropped on the big fight, is upset with Jack. Kevin has a broken leg that is unexplained and wasn’t around while two of the other Big Three mourned. Does what we saw of Kevin factor into what his relationship with Jack was when Jack died? What can you tease about the Big Three’s different relationships with their parents around the time of Jack’s death?
You’ve really hit it. As much attention goes to Jack‘s death and the how-he-died, and the soap-opera element of the entire thing, the show is about character and about relationships primarily. And that stuff only works if you care about the character stuff. So we’ve talked about the equally big questions to “How did Jack die?” is “What is the state of his marriage with Rebecca when it happened?” And the same goes for his kids. We’ve made great pains to say that Kate holds a degree of responsibility for what happened to Jack that she’s first starting to shed and let go a little bit. So where were they at? How does that affect the characters? And the same goes for Kevin and Randall. Where was this family? Where were these characters with regards to Jack, with regards to Rebecca at the time of the incident? Kevin we know moved all the way to Los Angeles not too long after this all happened. What was the state of this family, and it could be surprising — it could be that they were Waltons and everything was hunky dory and then a bad thing happened. Or were they, as most families are, in a slightly more complicated, unresolved place. Was that in various states of resolution with both parents when stuff happened? That’s what this season is about very much.
These problems with Kate and Rebecca run incredibly deep. Maybe Kate never moved on from where her relationship with her mother was when Jack died; that’s something we’ll find out. But certainly then and now, Kate feels overshadowed or criticized by her mother at every turn. To me, the telling line is when Rebecca says, “What did I do?” And Kate says, “You existed.” And then of course, the follow-up: “You wanted me to be the you that you never became.” How do you solve a problem when it’s on a cellular level like that?
Well, you don’t. And that is our journey in our own families. I wrote this script with Bekah Brunstetter, one of our great writers, and she had very much written the first pass at the script. I was very excited by it and very proud of her because I thought it captured something cellular that exists in various states and various degrees between many if not all mothers and daughters. Not everybody’s is loaded, some get along perfectly, but there’s a cellular relationship that you don’t just fight and make up and then never have the same fight again. You don’t have an issue, and then vocalize it, and then it goes away. It’s a lifetime relationship filled with issues and regret. And nobody’s necessarily right, and nobody’s necessarily wrong, and everybody’s apologetic, and wishes they had said something different or done something different but it’s not all correctable. For me, at least, that’s what family is — the ability to have these deep-seated issues of longing and regret and pain, and at the end of the day, put your hand on your daughter’s shoulder, and silently forgive one another. And then do it all again next holiday when you see each other. [Laughs] I think that’s what we captured there. Mandy and Chrissy are so beautiful in that scene because Kate’s hitting her mother and she doesn’t want to hit her, she doesn’t want to be in this conversation, she doesn’t want to be there, and every time she jabs her, she’s apologizing. To me, it’s so human and it’s so real the way they both play it. And the wound of Rebecca, even then in the wound, redoing some of the very things that trigger Kate. It’s an unrelenting relationship, the mother-daughter relationship. Both good and bad, and I think we captured a small moment of that here.
“Landslide” was a powerful choice and there’s a lot of emotional heavy lifting done just by the content of song. Whose idea was that? Did it have personal meaning to Chrissy? Was she intimidated taking on such an iconic song by a legendary artist?
I never talked to Chrissy about if she was intimidated. Chrissy continues to stun me by just her evolution and her confidence, and she’s doing things for the first time and is just nailing it each and every time. I don’t think Chrissy ever gets intimidated — or if she does, she doesn’t show it to us. I believe, and I could be wrong, when we started embarking on a singing quest with Chrissy, we just said, “Send us a bunch of songs that you love to sing, that you feel are in your wheelhouse,” and I think I had looked at that list early on, because this was going to be our first really long — since “Time After Time” — showcase for Chrissy. And obviously “Landslide” stuck out, and I knew we were going to montage Jack with the punching bag, and I could start seeing it in my head already. And Chrissy worked with our composer Sid [Khosla] and they composed this stripped-down version of it, and that’s how it happened.
NEXT PAGE: Fogelman on that Toby-Miguel joke — as well as a Handmaid’s Tale joke that’s coming up
Early in the episode, Toby jokes, “Miguel gets no love and I feel his pain. Two swarthy outsiders with exotic names.” How much of a wink at the audience was that about the two characters that they are most dubious about?
I guess it’s a little wink at the audience, especially as it relates to poor Miguel, who people have it out for, no matter what the poor guy does. It’s something that we’re going to explore in the future. We have all these characters who are attached to the Pearsons by marriage or by relationships. We’ve got Beth and Toby and Miguel. It’s a complicated family to walk into. And so we’re going to have great fun putting those people together in scenes. It’s a little bit of a wink at the audience, and I think people are so protective of the marriage of Jack and Rebecca, so that automatically creates being wary of Miguel. No matter what he ever does, he married his best friend’s wife and until people understand how that happened, they’re just not going to the let the guy completely off the hook. And then with Toby, what I’ve continued to find is, people are so protective of Kate as a character. They love Chrissy so much that the slightest — all of our characters are inherently doing good things, bad things, flawed things, acting out, but whenever Toby does it to Kate [laughs], people have a visceral response because they’re so protective of Kate because they like her so much. That’s interesting. I’m very excited for people to see Toby in the scene this week with Rebecca after Kate sings because I just think it’s such a hero, romantic lead performance right there, when he stands up for Kate.
Toby’s fierce love for Kate and his own insecurities manifest in different ways. In the first episode of the season, Toby came across as needy and self-concerned in his battle with Kevin to be Kate’s No. 1, like “I’m the guy she should be leaning on.” And in this episode, he acquits himself and is more likable because he’s not worrying about winning over Rebecca and gives his unequivocal “I’m Team Kate” speech. This one felt more rooted in his concern for her rather than where he ranked in Kate’s life.
That’s a valid point. I also think in a funny way as a society, we hope that our men can become a little bit more emotive and in touch with their feelings and be able to express themselves. Yet when an alpha male character or actor like Sully does such a thing, it can sometimes turn people away, and they actually prefer the strong silent type sometimes. In episode 1, I wouldn’t describe Toby as needy — I would think that if any of us were in the situation where our significant other were going first all the time to our brother instead of us, and almost overriding us, it would become a problematic thing. But we don’t necessarily love that vocalized all the time, but that is something that Toby does so well. So you can’t forget at the same time that he’s fiercely masculine and protective and also in the more romantic hero way as well, and you get to see a lot of that this week.
We rarely see Kevin have Randall’s back, though we did see him ditch his own play and race to Randall’s rescue. We know they fought tremendously as kids and teenagers. So for Randall to take this big risk and go after Beth in college— and apparently ask for Kevin’s Cyrano help is a vulnerable thing to do, considering their relationship. What happens after Jack’s death that might bring them to that point? Will we see the events leading to that moment? We know their relationship continues to be strained later on in life.
Yeah. I always thought that moment you’re referring to might have been simply vulnerability in the moment that he had no choice than to call his confident, cocksure brother. Not necessarily because they had bonded so intensely after Jack’s death. Nor because they had been so separated that it was a big deal. You can almost picture a young Randall sitting by the phone, knowing he has to do this, and he has no choice but to do the thing he wants to do least, which is pick up the phone and call Kevin for dating advice. [Laughs] That’s how I always picture that moment regardless of what the state of their relationship was at that time.
Given that you’ve predicted the Kardashians’ pregnancy cycles this season, is there anything you’ll be forecasting in episode 3?
I’ve been amazed by how much attention that’s gotten. It’s funny because I’m actually editing the fourth episode right now. And we must have shot it months ago. But there was a casual joke about one of the characters going off and not being able to stop binge-watching The Handmaid’s Tale. And it was before The Handmaid’s Tale beat us for all the Emmys. [Laughs] And it wasn’t meant to be meta or at all condescending but now I’m feeling the need to send it to my friend who produces The Handmaid’s Tale, Warren Littlefield, to show him, “We filmed this months ago and we had no idea that you guys were going to beat us for all the awards!”
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.