As you may have noticed, Jack is going through a hard time right now — and, unfortunately, based on what we know is coming, it’s going to get much worse. But he’s not the only Pearson on This Is Us who’ll be doing a fair amount of soul-searching in season 2. Kevin (Justin Hartley) — the absurdly handsome actor, the charmed dude who just seems to snap his fingers and make things happen — is about to undergo some serious self-questioning right as his career kicks into another gear.
The arc kicks off in Tuesday night’s episode of the NBC family dramedy, as we return to the set of the Ron Howard-directed war movie in which Kevin stars opposite Sylvester Stallone. As it turns out, the action-movie hero carried special status around the Pearson household. “Watching those movies was something that Kevin and Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) did with their dad (Milo Ventimiglia), and that’s one of the things that they looked forward to,” Hartley tells EW. “Rocky was Jack’s favorite movie, and Sylvester Stallone was Jack’s favorite actor. So to be there with him is like, ‘Wouldn’t it really be great to be like, ‘Holy sh–, Dad, come to work with me today! You’ll never believe who the f— I’m working with!’? And he’s not able to do that. So, instead of expressing that, Kevin does what he does and he suppresses everything. And then it comes to a head pretty quickly.”
We saw hints of Kevin’s inner turmoil dating back to the pilot when he had his existential meltdown with the two women at his place in private, and then a little later in the episode, he did it in public on the stage of his sitcom The Manny. (There were other indicators, such as his opening up to the widow at the memorial service that he crashed.) Now we’ll begin to peel back more layers that will reveal a fraught core. “Everyone’s like, ‘Everything comes so easy to Kevin,’ and Kevin’s heard that a few too many times,” says Hartley. “He’s starting to realize, ‘Things do come easy to me.’ He wants to be an actor, he’s an actor. He wants to get this girl, he gets this girl. And I think he’s starting to question his own legitimacy, like, ‘Why do things come so easy to me’ I’m not really special at anything. Things just happen and everything breaks my way.’ And diving into that — that’s a very scary thing when you don’t have the answers.”
In questioning his charmed place in the world, Kevin enters unstable territory. “It leads him down a dark path,” says Hartley. “One of the wonderful things about Kevin that I’ve always liked is he’s very self-aware. He gets it, but now instead of getting it and appreciating it, he’s getting it and questioning it, and he’s wondering, why does everyone think he’s so special when the truth of the matter is, at the end of the day, he hasn’t done anything extraordinary? That’s a dark and lonely place for a person to go… We get to see him fall apart a little bit, and go into a depression.”
His relationship with his ex-wife and current girlfriend Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) also may face challenges, as he made a romantic stand for her toward the end of last season, assuring her that his heart was with her in New York. Then, of course, Howard came calling, and he jetted back to L.A., placing himself in danger of repeating the old patterns that severed their relationship years ago. “It’s obvious that these two love each other, and she’s an amazing woman and a strong woman, and she’s going to give him all of her support,” he says. “But that is a tough order to ask someone to jump right back into the thing that destroyed it to begin with. It’s nearly identical, and he’s basically saying to her, ‘I know it’s the same, I’m acknowledging that it is the same, I’m a different man,’ and he’s asking her to believe it. That is a lot to ask of someone. I truly do believe that Kevin is a better man and is more equipped and has the tools now to deal with things that are going to come his way. But it’s a totally different level, so who knows?”
Given that season 2 will explore the time period around Jack’s death, an air of gravitas looms larger than it did in season 1. Season 2 is “definitely darker, and it’s definitely heavier,” says Hartley. “But at the same time, the laughs are going to be a lot louder, too.”
And the volume knob on the relationship between the Big Three — past and present — with each other, as well as their parents, will be turned up as well as we approach D-Day, with teenage Kevin (Logan Shroyer) in a cast. Which is why Hartley feels that the long, slow build-up to the revelation about Jack’s demise was necessary. “You’re going to be so grateful that that portion of the story was told, once you find out, because the payoff is unbelievable,” he assures. “It’s well worth it. I’m privy to the fact that there are so many little pieces of the story that has yet to be told, and believe me, you want them all. You want all the little nuggets before you get to this final conclusion of how he died.”
Tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT, you just might collect another one
To see what This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman had to say about Jack’s alcoholism and Vietnam flashbacks, click here. To read a Q&A with Milo Ventimiglia about the huge clue about Jack’s death in the season premiere, head here.