'Our biggest challenge was to make a very, very sad subject as uplifting as possible,' says Elizabeth Berger
Chrissy Metz warned that Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us would reveal Kate “at her most vulnerable.” Indeed, the fragile-yet-tenacious Pearson daughter — who has been hobbled by guilt over her father’s death; who has been a mission to lose weight; who has been searching for what to do with her life before recently settling on singing; who has found love, lost it, and regained it; who has cautiously been warming to the excitement of being pregnant, with the help of her uber-enthusiastic fiancé, Toby (Chris Sullivan) — was cracked wide open in “Number Two.”
Kate spent the majority of “Number Two” in the throes of various stages of grief (denial, anger, acceptance) as she tried to cope with the heartbreak of miscarriage. It put her at odds with some she was close to; she discounted the pain that her partner was in at first, asserting that this was her miscarriage, not his. And it bonded her with someone with whom she wasn’t as close: her mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore). In a flashback, we saw Rebecca lament to her teenage daughter that their relationship never reached the level it should have, but she wasn’t giving up. And in the present, after Kate told her mother about the news and hung up, Rebecca made good on that promise, showing up at her front door and taking her into her arms; healing on multiple levels began. Enough so that at the end of the episode, Kate assured Toby, “We will not let this break us.”
Let’s grab the bag of yellow onions that is rightfully ours, pour a healthy version of a shamrock shake, and dial This Is Us executive producers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, who will break down the events of “Number Two” — and what to expect in “Number Three.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to tell a story about miscarriage? Was it something traumatic that was so common yet people are reluctant to talk about?
ELIZABETH BERGER: That’s exactly it. When we started talking about the subject in our room, pretty much everyone had been touched by it in a personal way. Some more directly than others. But we started having the conversation, and we started realizing that this is a thing that happens to so many people and for whatever reason isn’t being discussed. And this couple of Kate and Toby felt like they could handle it and they could get through it. It just felt like the right place to take the story.
Was the story of Kate’s pregnancy designed to be a miscarriage from the very start? Or was there ever any talk of letting her have the baby?
ISAAC APTAKER: No, this was always the plan.
BERGER: And the plan was that this was one chapter in this couple’s journey — it’s not the entire plan.
What was Chrissy’s reaction when you first told her?
BERGER: [Laughs.] Isaac and I sat down with Chrissy and Chris, and we pitched them their arcs for the season, and my reaction was probably worse than Chrissy’s. I felt so guilty for doing this to this character that we love so much, so it was probably the most emotional pitching session that we’ve ever had. But Chrissy really, really understood it for the character, and she was emotional, too, because she feels things very deeply. But she was totally on board.
APTAKER: I think she was excited to tell a story that a lot of women out there are going to connect to and haven’t necessarily seen told in this way before.
You decided to reveal Kate’s trauma at the end of the previous episode. We talked about why you introduced it that way last week, with the goal of interconnecting these episodes. But given that the audience would begin this episode already knowing the news, how did that set up the dramatic stakes of “Number Two” for you? Did you set out to tell a story about how Kate might try to process grief, and how all of this might impact her relationship with Toby and her mother?
APTAKER: Exactly. Because you find out at the end of Kevin’s story, this wasn’t going to be an episode where halfway through they find out. It felt unnecessarily cruel to do that to the audience and to the character. So we knew that very quickly by the end of that first scene, they were also going to be experiencing this. But this is really about how a couple with an incredibly strong foundation is able to persevere and rise above a really, really tragic day.
The fight between Kate and Toby raises interesting questions, where she winds up minimizing the pain Toby is in when he tries to get her to open up to him and acknowledge his end of the pain. What kind of debates in the writers’ room did you have on this issue, and where did you want to net out?
APTAKER: [Deep breath] It got pretty intense because we have men and women in our room, and everybody has a different opinion on it. But we have had people in our room who have experienced this very personally and were able to articulate what it’s like on both sides of the gender equation. Based on that, they’re both completely right, and there’s a lot of emotion. They’re saying things they don’t totally mean, but they’re both completely right in that fight, which is what I think makes it so compelling — and what made it such a long, drawn-out debate to get the scene right.
BERGER: Obviously people act imperfectly when they’re fighting, and they don’t always say exactly what they mean. And when we see Rebecca and Kate together later, and Kate says, “I feel like I took this from him, ” that is the true feeling that she wasn’t yet able to express to Toby. So, first you’re getting the emotional, heated, messy version of what’s going on inside of her, and then you’re getting the real, deeper thing that’s going on.
Looking across the episode, what was the scene that was toughest to break in the writers’ room?
BERGER: The fight scene was the most emotionally tolling scene, because it’s a couple that we love so much and that we’ve seen support each other through so much. It’s one of those fights where both people are making good points and nobody’s totally right and nobody’s totally wrong, so we wanted to navigate the dance of that fight very carefully. And we think that the two of them just were so extraordinary in that scene, so we’re really proud of how it turned out.
APTAKER: It just gets into really fraught territory where, yes, it is her body and it does her impact her differently. At the same time, his imagined future has also been totally destroyed and he’s crushed, too. So it’s very, very delicate relationship territory, that fight.
BERGER: Our biggest challenge was to make a very, very sad subject as uplifting as possible, and it’s a credit to the performances and the writers of this episode that we feel hopefully like we did it. And we hope that it’s an episode that people walk away from feeling hopeful — and feeling like this couple has many wonderful times ahead of them.
APTAKER: This show is definitely going to some real heavy places this season. The goal is never to be unrelentingly dark and tragic. Our hope is that this episode encourages people, particularly women, to be able to talk about this reality that affects so many people in a more open way.
The episode did contain some optimism in the repairing of Kate’s relationship with her mother. It was heartbreaking to hear Rebecca tell young Kate, “We never got there,” but they started to get there in the present with Rebecca greeting Kate with open arms at the door. Obviously, every relationship has progress and regression to old habits. How significant is this bonding moment, which seemed to be paved by Rebecca being the one person who would truly relate to this tragedy, based on what happened with Kyle?
BERGER: From the beginning of our season, starting in episode 2, we wanted to set up that this was a season that was somewhat about the repair of this relationship that’s always been so fraught. And honestly, that image of Rebecca showing up at Kate’s door is one of the first things that Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] had in his head in terms of this season. That’s something we always knew that we were driving to, so we tried to lay the groundwork for explaining what makes this relationship so complicated and so intense and so messy. For all of us, it’s such a catharsis when she finally shows up and Kate finally is able to fall into her mother’s arms. It felt really nice to get there after half a season’s worth of episodes.
APTAKER: That said, after we come back from the break, we’re kicking into wedding overdrive and that certainly brings up all kinds of new, fun things for a mother and a daughter. [Laughs.]… This is a huge repair for them, and like Elizabeth said, really speaks to what we set up in those early episodes, in that big fight they had. But our show, we try to be realistic and don’t believe you have one beautiful moment with a parent and then all is well forever, so there’s definitely more to do there.
Young Kate says that if she didn’t get into Berklee, it would ruin her, but she truly couldn’t deal with disappointing her mother. Later in the episode, Kate feels like she failed Toby. What is it about Kate that makes her assume a greater burden than just processing her own disappointment or grief?
BERGER: I think it’s someone who we’ve seen carries a tremendous amount of guilt in her body, from the trauma that she’s been through already, which might make her susceptible to feeling a little guiltier than other. And I think it’s also just a very human way that compassionate people feel in relations to people they love. It’s almost worse to let the people you love down than let yourself down, and Kate is definitely a person that walks around with that philosophy.
Both Kate and Kevin are in need of comfort/help right now. It seems that Kate is in slightly better shape to help Kevin, based on the way she comes out of the episode, but what would you say about their relationship in the coming episodes?
APTAKER: Kevin and Kate have both really missed out on pretty major things in each other’s lives. And for a duo that we’ve shown is almost magically connected in certain twin ways, they’ve been absent. They haven’t been there for each other. When they realize what they missed, that’s going to be a wake-up call and they’re going to realize that they need to do better.
You saw the sexual assault allegation that surfaced about Sylvester Stallone [which he denied]. I know you’ve said that you would have him back anytime, though it was a one-off guest spot. Have you had any discussions about this — and would you want him to come back given the allegation?
APTAKER: We’ve had no discussions, honestly. He’s not been part of the plan going forward before these allegations, so it hasn’t really affected our stories at all.
Next week is the final installment of the trilogy, as we focus on Randall (Sterling K. Brown). In the present, we last saw Randall with Kevin at his door. What can you hint about his story?
APTAKER: In the past, Randall and Jack head to Washington, D.C., to go on a college tour and learn some unexpected truths about each other. And in the present… something crazy and totally unexpected happens in Randall and Beth’s life, and to say any more would be ruining it.
“Number Three” is the fall finale as well. Do we end on a twist, cliffhanger, both, or other?
APTAKER: We definitely end on a cliffhanger.
BERGER: We also wanted to feel a completion to this trilogy of episodes that we just told, so hopefully by the time that the third one ends, all three will feel very of a piece and also feel like we’re propelling toward the second half of the season.
APTAKER: It’s that rare blend of everything feeling resolved — and yet completely up in the air. We need a word for that.
To read what Chrissy Metz had to say about Kate’s miscarriage, click here.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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