Spoiler alert: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “Brothers.”
This Is Us fans undoubtedly had two words to say after this week’s episode of This Is Us: “Oh! Brother!”
The revelation that emerged in “Brothers” — or, rather, popped up in the back seat — was that Jack Pearson had a brother, one with whom he served in Vietnam. Brothers loomed in the forefront of this episode as Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) packed up his two sons Kevin (Parker Bates) and Randall (Lonnie Chavis) for a camping trip, driven to help them find common ground on the ground. (He would try unsuccessfully to get Kevin to articulate exactly why he wasn’t more accepting of Randall, though Kevin ultimately warmed up after he discovered Randall’s poignant instructions to himself to try not to alienate his brother.) And at the end of the episode, we saw why this all mattered so much to our patriarch: As Jack lay awake in the middle of the night after returning home from the trip — one he did not cut short after Rebecca (Mandy Moore) called to inform him that his alcoholic, abusive father (Peter Onorati) lay on his deathbed — he was consumed by a feeling that prompted him to sneak out of bed, open up that metal box of memories, and stare at a picture from Vietnam. There was Jack, and there was his brother.
Elsewhere, in the present day, hurting-in-all-kinds-of-ways Kevin (Justin Hartley) continued to spiral while keeping things locked up (like father, like son). Desperate to get a Vicodin prescription re-re-filled and chasing away his problems with alcohol, he even missed his big moment on the auction block for a charity event arranged by his not-pleased girlfriend, Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge). Meanwhile, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) was working as hard as Jack to bond with his foster child: He brought Deja (Lyric Ross) to the auction, because(/even though) she was crushing on Kevin, and he would learn that he should be a little more hands-off with Deja, literally, as his touch on shrimp-eating etiquette literally triggered memories of abuse. And as for the other member of the Big Three, a very guarded Kate (Chrissy Metz) revealed to Toby (Chris Sullivan) that she was pregnant, denied him office desk sex, dinged him for being too excited, and then ultimately let him off the leash to outlandishly celebrate the news in a coffee shop to the music of Hootie & The Blowfish.
Now that the news has been delivered — and Jack’s family twist is bouncing around your head — let’s bring in two men who would gladly loan you their Gameboys, This Is Us executive producers (and directors of this episode) John Requa and Glenn Ficarra.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So Jack has a brother, Nicky, who we assume died in Vietnam. Why has he hidden this information from Rebecca and the rest of his family? How did his death impact Jack?
GLENN FICARRA: Jack, as we’re showing this season, has an ability to emotionally compartmentalize things, and his relationship with his father and brother, those are definitely related. He has a tendency to keep in a secret, which is manifesting itself in his son, Kevin.
Jack’s Vietnam mystery deepens a bit here. After seeing images of him hopping out a helicopter with an M-16 earlier this season, we get the sense that there’s a lot more to his story than just being a mechanic. Will we find out this season how Jack lost Nicky in Vietnam — and what unprocessed emotions he is carrying from that?
JOHN REQUA: We can’t get into the details, but clearly this looms large in the person that he is. The big thing is that he keeps secrets, that he has compartmentalized and hidden away this part of his life, which obviously was his brother, and it was a big part. Obviously a major thing happened, some trauma of some sort. And that’s what Kevin is doing. That’s what we’re trying to say with this episode. This life of keeping secrets and evasiveness is exactly the sort of behavior that Kevin is exhibiting. We’re trying to draw the parallels between the good and the bad of Jack, and how it manifests in his children.
Then you also follow Randall, who is manifesting the good Jack in a complete way, and his dogged determination to make this relationship with Deja work, and to try to influence her life in a positive way. And that’s the good side of Jack. You live on through your children, and I think that he is living on through his children, but the unfortunate truth is, not only the good survives. That’s what we’re seeing in Randall. And it also explains why at the beginning of the episode, Jack is almost a little possessed by his desire for Kevin and Randall to work out their relationship problems, and it’s not until the end of the episode you’re like, “Oh, geez, so that’s why it’s so important to him.”
The dynamic we saw in flashbacks is one of Jack taking care of his younger brother while his father was off drinking. Rebecca said that he beat the odds to become a fantastic father, considering how he grew up. But can we argue that because of the way he grew up — he had to learn responsibility for his brother at an early age — this helped make him into the man he is today? Sure, Jack learned to numb feelings with alcohol like his dad, but he also used him as a reverse role model: Be the dad that his father wasn’t.
FICARRA: [He’s] definitely that way because of his father. The question about Nicky is whether [Jack] is the dad he is because he was trained that way or the dad he is because he has regrets. Time will tell.
You wonder if Jack’s dad, on his deathbed, might mention Jack’s secret about his brother to Rebecca when she visits his dad at the nursing home. And technically we never saw Jack’s dad die. Even though Jack effectively was done with him, telling Rebecca that in his mind that he died a long time ago, might we see another deathbed scene? Is that in play?
REQUA: There was a little bit more dialogue that was trimmed out. There was a desire to leave it a little bit more ambiguous. He represents, in the microcosm of the episode, the Kevin path. So Jack has two sides to his personality, the secret keeper in his alcoholism and the fact that he has his brother in Vietnam, and the ebullient, generous, loving father side. Randall is running the good path and Kevin is falling down the path that represents the dark side of his father. And the end of that path is Stanley in that nursing home, dying alone.
We never quite get resolution on why Kevin is having a hard time accepting Randall. Jack tries to press him and he keeps saying, “I don’t know.” Is Kevin’s current-day spiral into pills and alcohol mirroring that inability and still haunting him, as he tells Randall?
REQUA: This inability that Kevin did not communicate his issues and problems started when he was a child, and it continues. He clearly says it when he’s outside the bathroom and Randall is trying to build the courage to go in. He says — and I’m paraphrasing — “I minimize things. I push things down.” And there’s all this volcanic emotion beneath the surface that’s just waiting to come out, and he’s been pushing down for a long time. He’s been doing it his whole life. He has problems with Randall and we’ve explored it in other episodes, and he’s just incapable, even as a child, and that’s Jack. And it’s frustrating for Jack on two levels. Jack recognizes that that’s him that’s not communicating by not telling him what the problems are… His frustration with young Kevin is that he’s keeping secrets and he’s not dealing with his emotions, like he does, and also he’s not having a relationship with this brother which is so important to Jack, and we learn at the end of the episode why that’s important. Because we see that Jack basically was the father to his little brother.
FICARRA: Ultimately that mirror of Jack — the reason that Jack is acting the way he is in this episode — is because of his history with his brother. And the way that Kevin interacts with Randall is also a reflection of that and that’s the beauty of the show — we are the product of our pasts, no matter how small the decisions that are made. It all ripples forward.
How far will Kevin spiral before he faces his blocked emotions? It’s starting to look like his relationship with Sophie will be in jeopardy again.
REQUA: She — and I think his relationship with his family as well — represents the stakes. That’s what he has to lose.
FICARRA: He’s lost Sophie before. Are we seeing a repeat of behavior that added up to that? And what’s he going to do about it this time?
Kate finally let Toby in on her pregnancy, but she still didn’t want to get her hopes up. She ultimately allows Toby a pass to tell everyone in the coffee shop. These two are clearly approaching this in two very different ways that are in step with their personalities. How will that impact their journey through pregnancy? Is he in danger of getting too ahead of himself, and is she playing it too safe?
FICARRA: Absolutely. They’re just two ways of thinking, and I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong in that, although I do believe that living your life thinking the other shoe is going to drop is never a good thing. [Laughs] Because you not only have a sh–ty future once something bad happens, you have a sh–ty present waiting for it to happen. At least Toby can have a little fun. But setting the bar low is a defense mechanism, and Kate has it. She’s convinced that life is against her in many ways, and that’s something that she needs to mature out of. And Toby can be impetuous, but it’s kind of the thing she needs to remind herself that she can be too down and too expectant of failure…. It’s always their dynamic. In some ways it’s helpful, and in some ways it can cause friction. We’re the products of habits and defense mechanisms we’ve honed over the years to keep ourselves safe and quote-unquote happy, and sometimes they are more destructive than that.
I’m guessing there are probably all sorts of outtakes from Toby’s colorful coffee-house choreographed flashdance. What ended up on the cutting room floor?
FICARRA: Like, a ton. We could do a whole episode.
REQUA: Tyler Bensinger wrote a really great scene with several moves, so we shot all that. And then we said, “Okay, we got all that in the can. Let’s just play.” We had prepped Chris [Sullivan] that this was happening, and he came on the location scout, which was rare, and got a sense of the space and what he could do there and we just started riffing. And in fact, that Flashdance thing was something that Glenn and Chris cooked up themselves — and surprised me. We do this a lot on set: Glenn will come back [behind the camera] and I will go, “What’s going to happen?” And he goes, “Well, just watch!” [Laughs]
FICARRA: And vice versa. John had the idea of taking Chris to the location scout a week before so he could see the space and work something up because Chris is a super talented song-and-dance man. He’s a Broadway guy and he has an incredible voice and he’s a dancer, and he loves to perform. So, we knew he’d drink it up and just let him run. There’s a thing where he uses coffee cans as maracas that’s funny.
REQUA: There’s a scene that absolutely killed me and I really was lobbying hard to get it in there, but I could never convince Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator]. He goes up to someone for a hug and they’re terrified of him and they run away. And I just thought it was so funny but we never got it in there. I mean, it could have been a half-hour long. There was so much stuff.
FICARRA: There was a thing where we greased the floor and he kind of did a knee-slide across the room. And then there’s one where he jumps on a pole and then gets scared to come down. We blocked out enough time where we could have a lot of fun with it, and sadly the episode is so rich with other stuff that we had to cut it down.
Deja opened up to Randall in a big way in the bathroom, admitting she was abused. But it can be two steps forward, one or two steps back in these situations; there’s no straight line of growth. In attempting to earn her trust, is Randall still trying to find the right mix of when he needs to, say, wait her out in the bathroom and when he’s actually pressing too hard — because he’s someone who’s been pressing hard his whole life?
FICARRA: Right. Randall’s struggle, he is earnest and he strives for perfection, and the thing that Deja brings to this equation is something where he learns he has to temper his behavior. He’s self-aware enough but he also can be impetuous. But she is almost the perfect vessel for him to understand — he wants to bond with her but he’s aware that if he pushes too hard it’s not going to work. And he’s willing to let Kevin take the lead and be his way in because he wants the best for her. But he gets in his own way sometimes.
Can you give us a one-sentence tease for next week’s episode?
REQUA: It takes place in the year 3000.
FICARRA: And Nicky returns as a cyborg.
Want more info on Jack’s death? Milo Ventimiglia offers up hints here.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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