Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger break down the events of Tuesday's episode, 'Deja Vu'

By Dan Snierson
October 10, 2017 at 10:01 PM EDT
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SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details about Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “Deja Vu.”

Now it’s not Kate but Kevin who’s having a hard time talking about Jack.

On Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us, Kevin (Justin Hartley) was the next Big Three member struggling under the weight of his inability (or unwillingness) to process the grief about the death of his father 20 years ago. As Kevin suddenly found himself knee-deep (sorry) in a shiny, Ron Howard-directed war movie, acting opposite heavyweight actor (and former Milo Ventimiglia co-star) Sylvester Stallone, his past began creeping up. Stallone — tipped off by Kate (Chrissy Metz) about the fate of his biggest fan, Jack (Ventimiglia) — tried to engage Kevin about that tragedy, only to see Kevin shut it down like Rocky on a side of beef in a Philadelphia meat factory. (He also may have called Kate “sad and damaged” when she challenged him on his emotional constipation when it came to their dad.)

But when Kevin was filming a key sequence in which his character had to rescue his father figure in the trenches, he was flooded by memories of Jack and of the day he died — and fell on hard times in the literal sense. He re-injured his “bad knee,” as Kate referred to it — the one we saw in a cast during the season premiere’s flashback to the day of Jack’s death. Before the credits rolled, we saw Kevin making up with his twin sister and trying to placate her by saying that, sure, maybe one day he’d be ready to talk about Dad. But not now. Then he opened a bottle of pills and popped one to dull the pain.

Why can’t Kevin talk about Jack? What’s going on with that old injury? Is he about to head down a destructive path of addiction? Will Stallone return for more frittatas? Will the dog that Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) adopted eat those as well? Did Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) bite off more than they can chew by not adopting and taking in this foster teen instead? Did Jack (who’s now completing his steps in an AA program) and Rebecca (who offered up the verb of the season) just take a huge step in reestablishing their communication? Let’s take a deep breath without holding it for the rest of our lives and try Jack Pearson-ing This Is Us executive producers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (who co-wrote the episode) into giving us some insight.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This episode could have been called “Jack Pearson’s Son Part 2.“Last season, he showed a side of him that was like Jack by ditching his play and running to Randall in a time of need. In this episode, Jack shares in AA that he doesn’t want his kids to end up as cavemen like him, who are weighed down by something that they’ve kept bottled up. And here we see that Kevin has been stuffing down his feelings about Jack’s death and the grief that’s festering inside of him. Can you shed any light on what Kevin’s feeling and repressing? Is it guilt? Regret? Anger at Jack for not being around? What is the cocktail of emotions that he’s feeling?
ELIZABETH BERGER:
I think it is just that. It is a very complex cocktail of grief, potentially some guilt — just unresolved pain. Last season we saw Kate really delve into that sadness. And Kevin has not quite gotten there. He’s earlier in his journey in grieving his dad’s death. So all of those emotions are something we’re going to be unpacking throughout the season.
ISAAC APTAKER: I love that you picked up on that it could be called “Jack Pearson’s Son 2,” because that was really intentional. When we were talking about this story, we said, “Last season we had this episode that showed how Kevin inherited all these really admirable qualities from Jack and he decides to leave his play and be there for his brother. And this year, we did an episode where we showed that he also inherited some of the less-than-perfect traits, and paired it with Jack and Rebecca on this struggle where he’s really having such a difficult time being open and honest with his wife, and feeling the hard feelings, just like Kevin can’t crack himself open about Jack’s death.”

How dark will Kevin’s journey turn this season? Justin indicated that his self-questioning leads to a crisis of self. What exactly should fans brace for?
BERGER: They should brace for Justin to give a heartbreakingly beautiful, nuanced performance. You got to see a hint of just how many layers are within Kevin last season, and you’re going to get even more this season. He’s giving an extraordinary performance with some tricky stuff.
APTAKER: Our grips and our sound guys are the hardest ones to make cry, and on Friday night, he had all of them going. [Laughter]
BERGER: That’s how you know that he’s doing the right things.

We know something happened to Kevin’s knee/leg from the shot of the cast in the season premiere. When he hurts himself again filming the movie, an old injury appears to flare up, when Kate references his bad knee — a wink to the cast we saw on the night that Jack died — and says, “You gotta keep an eye on that.” Then we see him popping a pill. How much has this plagued him over the years? And what can you hint about the original trauma that put him in the cast?
APTAKER: Obviously, Kevin is a very in-shape guy and you’ve seen him running with his brother and what not, so it’s not the kind of thing where he’s been physically impaired over the years. But we had talks with several doctors about this who said a lot of things that we didn’t understand. [Laughs] When he does that big stunt and is distracted with the emotions of his father that this scene with Stallone is bringing up, and then he lands wrong on the knee, it’s already vulnerable to re-injury. In terms of the rest of the year, this is a starting arc for Kevin with his knee. This is not something like, “Next week he’s going to be back on his feet and totally fine.” This is a bigger story here.

Are you going to be a story of an addiction as well? The pills seem to intimate that.
BERGER: I think that’s one that you’ll have to stay tuned for.
APTAKER: If he takes that pill, as [Kate] says, “You’re just like Dad.” There’s one way to interpret that, with the addiction and Jack’s alcoholism. Another way to interpret that is: “He’s just like you, he has such a hard time talking about the hard stuff.” So, you’ll have to wait and see how that goes.

If he is on pills, will we get a Kevin hallucination scene that allows Milo and Justin to share a scene together, à la the Randall-Jack mushroom smoothie scene?
BERGER: We are definitely always looking to do those because it is very frustrating that we have these great actors that aren’t in scenes together. So I will say, you will see some really fun combinations this season that we have not yet seen.
APTAKER: Whenever an actor comes to the writers’ room, that’s the first thing out of their mouths: “So, when can I work with so-and-so?” “How can we figure out a way to make these two characters cross?” It’s like, “Guys, you’re all in different times!”

How does all of this impact Kevin’s movie moving forward? 
APTAKER: This is Kevin’s first movie and it’s his big break, and it’s what all last season was building to. He’s really, really determined not to screw it up and not to let anything get in the way of him finishing this movie. So the knee thing is going to be tricky for him because it’s not a one-and-done; it picks right where we left off next week and it is definitely going to be an obstacle to him finishing this movie.
BERGER: And I think especially because he is someone that has suffered career setbacks in the past with The Manny, with missing his own opening, you’re really going to see him doubling down on not screwing this up.

Will we Stallone again? Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] said it was initially designed as a one-episode guest spot. But it feels like you’d definitely need him back.
APTAKER: He shows up on set. And obviously all of our expectations are sky-high and then he over-delivers. He’s exactly like the magnanimous movie star we were all hoping for — the actors, too. We were all just so starstruck and giddy that Sylvester Stallone had walked onto our little television set.
BERGER: We don’t know yet when he’ll back but we would have him anytime.
APTAKER: He’s a little busy.
BERGER: What was fun about having Stallone was that Milo played his son in Rocky Balboa. It made it interesting to us.
APTAKER: It helped us get Stallone.
BERGER: That was cool to bring them back full circle.

NEXT PAGE: The producers on the foster teen, the dog, and what to expect next week

Kevin was a high school football player who dreamed of playing for the Steelers when he was younger. A little while after Jack dies, he decided to pursue acting, and short of a Mr. T impression, we haven’t seen much of his interest in acting. Is that mystery cast the literal and figurative break that changed everything in terms of setting his life on a different course?
APTAKER: It’s safe to say that if you’re a teenage football star and you have a big injury like that, that’s going to really pivot your life and change the course of things. So, something in the time of that injury really made Kevin have to reevaluate what his passion was.
BERGER: And we can say that is also part of why he has to make sure that this movie goes great, as someone that has already changed paths because of his knee. So the idea that he was able to do that, he was actually able to transition into being wildly successful in something else, and he can’t let that slip away from him.

Randall, Kevin, and Kate seem to have processed — or not processed — Jack’s death in different ways. Does each kid’s interpretation of what happened on that night — or leading up to that night — lead them down distinctively different paths? Do they each see the events of that night a little differently?
BERGER: Yes. They each have their very specific experiences from that night…. And I think you can definitely feel it in all of our adult siblings. Especially last season, you felt Kate’s grief very palpably. And now you’re seeing her move through her healing process. Kevin obviously has internalized a lot, and now he’s beginning that process of bringing it all up to the surface. And Randall seems to have the healthiest relationship with Jack’s death of all three siblings. And you’re going to see that that definitely correlates to what took place in the past.

Jack, now in AA, and Rebecca are having a hard time connecting with each other. Finally they do, and he tells Rebecca, “There’s a lot of stuff that I buried away, I’ll tell you eventually, I’m working on it.” How much of that stuff will Rebecca — and the audience — learn before Jack’s time is up? Because you get that sinking feeling that not all of it will be shared before he dies.
APTAKER: Jack is a complicated guy. We’ve only seen hints of what his life was like before Rebecca, and it wasn’t pretty. And there’s definitely a lot more there to explore, both in what he reveals to Rebecca and what she finds out over the course of their marriage. But also given the way we tell the show, there’s a lot more for us to share with our audience outside of just [Jack] revealing it to [Rebecca].
BERGER: I really love that this episode ends on a note of healing between them, because we’ve been watching them in this time period for some time going through such a difficult time, and it feels so beautiful and filled with relief when we see them laughing together and connecting. Now the question is: How much of that healing gets to take place while Jack still has time?

We know the clock is ticking. We know they had a moment of healing here. How bumpy is the road moving forward?
BERGER: I feel like their relationship is really deepening throughout the rest of their time together, and obviously that doesn’t mean that there won’t be bumps, but I think there’s been a real turning point in their relationship in terms of the way they communicate with each other. It’s very obvious that these are two people that, as much as they loved each other, kept a lot from each other, and they have reached a point where they realized that is not sustainable for maintaining their relationship. You’re really going to see them work very hard to do better at opening up and sharing with each other.

You solved the first part of the dog mystery by showing Jack and Rebecca adopting the dog that was eating their burgers. How heavily does this dog factor into the overall mystery of that night of Jack’s death?
APTAKER: I don’t think there’s an episode just devoted to the dog. [Laughs.] But the dog is going to become part of our family, and in our first episode back, we showed you that there are those three big elements that need to fall into place — the leg, the girlfriend, and the dog. So the first box has been checked as we move toward that night that we flashed to.

Randall and Beth take in Deja (Lyric Ross), a teen who’s a victim of abuse and who has a lot of anger. Did Randall and Beth bite off more than they can chew? Does their struggle to figure out how to best help Deja put them on different pages again?
APTAKER: When it comes to fostering a kid, they’re definitely learning as they go. Randall went to all the meetings and did all the informational sessions and read all the blogs, but that has not necessarily prepared for him or Beth at all for the reality of what it’s like having this girl in their house with her history — and some of the very specific issues that he has. This girl that we found to play Deja, Lyric Ross, is so incredible. She flew out here from Chicago and it’s her first time ever in Los Angeles. I think she had done one guest spot on Chicago Fire. She was so incredible, and is giving these incredibly sophisticated performances that feel like she’s been doing it for years. So the level of stories we’re able to tell with her has really exceeded all of our expectations — and definitely stuff that feels very outside of this safe little world of Randall and Beth’s home.
BERGER: I think Randall actually sums it up very well when he says, “Nothing in my life has been as hard as people say it’s going to be, and I think this might be the thing that’s actually that hard.” This is the sort of thing that could test even the strongest of couples, and that is what Beth and Randall are. But they’re going to treat it the way they treat everything that arises, which is with a lot of love and care for each other. But there will be some frustrations.

The decision to foster a child was a big curveball from Beth, where initially we thought that they would go the baby adoption route, as per Randall’s pay-it-forward dream. What intrigued the writers about the possibilities of going that route? 
BERGER: We really wanted to find an entry point for Beth into making this decision. We wanted to have a very strong, unique feeling about it, and not just be following Randall, and we thought that was a really interesting way to do it. That this isn’t just going to be replicating Randall’s exact story the way he originally imagined. He is going to have to bend his dream to match her dream, so we were very excited to give her a really strong attitude on it.

Finally, what is your one-sentence tease for next week’s episode?
APTAKER: Grandma’s back!
BERGER: Chicken pox! Which makes it sound much more lighthearted than it actually is. [Laughter] That sounds like a relaxing sitcom, but hopefully it’s a little bit more than that.

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