This Is Us fall finale: Sterling K. Brown on the Deja decision and 'killing' Kevin
Well, the next Pearson family get-together should be eventful. If, you know, Kevin gets out of jail in time.
Titled “Number Three,” the fall finale of This Is Us (and the final installment of the Big Three trilogy of episodes) ended with a criminal cliffhanger of sorts — Kevin (Justin Hartley) was arrested for DUI with a stowaway Pearson, Tess (Eris Baker), in his backseat — but throughout the hour, it was a showcase for the brainy, anxious family man named Randall. Teenage Randall (Niles Fitch) tried to find his place in the world as he considered colleges; his father Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) was thinking something covered in Ivy, while he was more intrigued by Howard University and the chance to connect with his African-American heritage. In the present day, Randall found himself with an agonizing decision when Deja’s mother, Shauna (Joy Brunson), got out of jail earlier than he thought she would, and after threats of lawsuits, he opted to let Deja (Lyric Ross) — that guarded foster child who entered his heart much faster than he imagined — reunite with her mom. (Perhaps you’re still wiping away tears from her farewell to Randall in the driveway; that’s okay, Randall surely still is.) And Randall saw the day get even more upsetting and challenging, as the family received a call from the police telling them Kevin — who showed up at his house in rough shape and then vanished — was now in custody (with Tess!), prompting Randall to say, “I’ll kill him!” to which Beth responded, “Not if I don’t kill him first.”
Let’s use our one call to ring the Emmy-winning actor who shone brightly in the final hour of This Is Us in 2017, Sterling K. Brown.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Brothers — what are you gonna do?
STERLING K. BROWN: Yeah, I’m going to kill him. But only metaphorically speaking. My six-year-old son was watching a part of that episode with me. He said, “Are you really going to kill your brother?” I said, “No, man, I’m not really going to kill him, but he made me so angry by endangering my child that those words just came out. If anybody ever placed you in harm’s danger, I think that’s the only time that I could actually rationalize those kinds of words coming out of my mouth.”
Now has Kevin bottomed out?
Yes. I would say that this is Kevin’s low point. Listen, if he hadn’t got pulled over for a DUI, with his niece in the car, we could’ve said that losing the necklace was sufficient itself. But he gets hit with the news about his sister’s miscarriage. He winds up leaving the house inebriated, not present enough to recognize that my daughter was in the car with him. I don’t know, maybe I cut him some slack for that; maybe I don’t cut him some slack for that. But you have two brothers historically who have had a contentious relationship, who have constantly been working their way back towards one another. I don’t think Randall wants to throw all of that away, but it’s not going to be the easiest thing for him to do.
Randall and Kevin have been through some serious ups and downs over the years and they had that major breakthrough in “Jack Pearson’s Son.” How is he going to process it when he learns his brother has fallen prey to addiction? His first reaction after the phone call is straight anger, but there is so much more to that story.
I can tell you that is something that we address directly when we come back from our break. And it’s complicated because it has to do with the nature of why Kevin thinks he’s an addict, and it has to do with whether or not Randall validates his brother’s perspective, because when you think about the nature of memory, everyone tends to highlight those things that reaffirm their own perspective of truth. And Kevin, Kate, and Randall all have their own different versions of what their childhoods were that shaped who they are, and then they have very different ideas of how other people perceive themselves. That’s about all I can say, except for the fact that we deal with it head on in the next episode…. In 2018, you see Randall working very hard to extend graciousness to his brother because his brother was present for him at one of the lowest points of his life, and now he wants to reciprocate that. But it’s hard to do that when you endanger somebody’s child.
Should this family have been paying closer attention to the signs of addiction given everything they’ve been through with Jack? I mean, Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) was a nurse, and then you’ve got Kate (Chrissy Metz), who has twintuition with Kevin, and then Randall asks him if it’s a little early to be drinking. as he’s looking rough. I know they’re distracted with a lot of other drama, but…
Everybody has life to deal with, in varying forms. I know Kate, in particular, because of their twinning ways, her and her brother, she really feels like, “I should’ve seen this one coming.” And it’s interesting too, because I have a real strong relation to Kevin in that when you’re out in the spotlight and everything seems as if you should not have any problems, people aren’t apt to pick up on the fact that not all that glitters is gold. And so Kevin is experiencing a professional boon, doing films with Stallone and Ron Howard, and everything seems to be on the upside that it’s probably easy to dismiss: I still have struggles. I still have things that I’m working on. So yeah, the family probably could’ve been a bit more attuned.
Let’s back up into the past. Jack and Randall’s relationship goes a level deeper in this episode. Present day Randall seems like the member of the Big Three least saddled with guilt over his father’s death, and though he’s clearly had some issues with his father in the past — I’m thinking of that conversation at the restaurant when Jack and Rebecca explain that they’re taking a breather — this moment between them at the Vietnam Memorial only appears to reinforce the idea of their strong connection. As at peace as you can be with the parting of a parent, is Randall the one of the three headed there the most, based on what we just saw with that connection?
Absolutely. First, that scene was so great and I actually just texted Milo to tell him how beautiful his work was in it. For those two people to be able to find this unique point of connection — an older white man and a young black boy both feeling out of place, Randall’s due to his race, and Jack’s due to his status as a veteran and reintroducing himself to polite society and how he went back and forth in terms of finding his place and losing it, and finding it and understanding that that was the dance of life. That was what he signed up for after leaving the war and he recognized that you, my son, are going to have to go through a very similar sort of thing, and while it’s not exactly the same, I do have empathy for you.
What I love about that in terms of our show, it doesn’t make us more separate. It shows us just how much we have in common when it seems like we shouldn’t. When it seems like you can’t possibly understand what I’m going through, he says, “Well I may not understand it exactly, but I do have something that’s analogous that allows me to understand enough to say, “I’m sorry, and I’m here for you to support you in whatever way that I can.”
He seems the most at peace and maybe one of the reasons why he feels like he’s at peace is because he got everything that he wanted from his dad while he was alive. I don’t think he felt lacking in the relationship. I feel like everything that needed to be said or done, the love that needed to be affirmed was affirmed, and so the baggage of it isn’t as heavy as it might be for his brother or sister.
This episode also explores the idea of what is the best environment for Déjà. Linda tried to explain to Randall that this isn’t an exact science. Do you think we see enough growth in Shauna to think that she’s a more capable mother this time around? Objectively, where is the best place for Déjà?
That’s a wonderful question. There are arguments for either side, but what there is no argument for — from my perspective as the person who plays Randall — is that you have a mother who desperately wants to be with her child and is actively making strides to provide a home for her, and you have a daughter who wants to be with her mom, and if both parties want to be reunited, and the social worker is witnessing the necessary steps to make that possible, then who are Beth and Randall to insert themselves into two people that were together before, and wish to be together again?
I think that’s the bottom line. There could be an argument made for, “But Shauna can’t give them what Beth and Randall can give them,” but she can give her everything that she has and she’s her mother.
When Déjà is saying goodbye, she tells Randall, “You know I don’t want you to think that just because I want to go home doesn’t mean that I don’t like living with you.” Even though he says, “I know that. You don’t have to worry about that” — and even though she calls him her foster dad during the science presentation — how validating and important was it for Randall to hear her say that in the driveway?
It meant the world to him because he loves her. He said this from the beginning — he recognizes seeds of himself within her and I think what he relates to in Déjà, besides just who she is as an individual, is the enormity of her potential, and that’s something that people were able to recognize within him as a young man, and his parents were able to guide him in such a way that he was able to realize his potential.
She is bright and curious, and she has shown a willingness to try new things, and expand her horizons even though there was resistance in the beginning. But gradually, slowly but surely, she’s opening herself up to this family, to the point where she could actually make that statement. I think that means everything to him. He and Beth collectively are in this place where at the end of the episode while they’re experiencing loss, they also recognize that we don’t want to hoard what we have, and we have the potential to be of service to another child, and we also have the potential to have our lives enriched by another child, but you have to stay open. And so her being able to share that with Randall shows to him that, “All right, you know, I may not have gotten it exactly right or wrong, but I’m doing something right, and I would like to do that something again.”
There’s good closure in the driveway goodbye, but is that not the final goodbye? Could Déjà make a return?
I’m sure she could. I have not shot anything with her as of yet. I’m crossing my fingers.
There’s a quick scene with the young boy having trouble being placed in the foster care system. How soon will this boy enter Randall and Beth’s life, and what can you tease about him?
This is one of my favorite journeys. There’s a significant payoff to this story line, and I can tell you that you’ll see it manifest in our Super Bowl episode, and that’s the only thing that I can say about it without Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] getting really pissed off at me.
Speaking of Pearson children, we tend to view Randall’s kids as drama free, so it comes as a bit of shock when Tess tells Kevin that she hates her home. She seemed very welcoming to Déjà and genuinely sad when she left. What can you hint at on why she’s so unhappy that we’ll find out? Is it a lack of attention, as there’s been so much activity in that house over the last year with the new family members arriving in the form of William, or in Déjà?
Yeah, there’s been a lot of things happening. New people introduced, et cetera. The only thing that’s constant in life is change, but for children, stability is incredibly stabilizing, for lack of a better word. Routine gives us comfort, and Randall’s constantly shifting routine on his daughters, especially his older daughter who’s conscious to it. At a certain age, we’re pretty good at going with the flow, and then at a certain point we’re like, “All right, now I’m ready for things to just kind of remain the same.” I think Tess is in that place where she’s like, “All right, can we just have something stay the same, for a little while, please? Without you dealing with something else?” So I think it’s of that nature.
Which scene from the episode was toughest for you to crack or calibrate?
Probably the goodbye. And what I can say, thankfully, and I appreciate it when [Ken Olin, who directed the episode] said that there’s a couple of takes where I was, like, bawling — bawling uncontrollably because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Déjà — and he’s like, “You can’t leave her with that. Like, you have to keep that to yourself.” And I was like, “You’re right. I have to keep that to myself.” And so just finding the right calibration on that and being present for her and giving her the fondest farewell possible and wishing her well, while silently grieving her loss. That was probably the toughest in that I just had to pull back; it wasn’t a question of having to dial it up. I feel like me, as an actor in general, is about turning it down. I try to give you everything that I can, and you’re like, “All right man, just ease back. You can give us a little bit less.” I’m like, “Okay. I’ll give you a little less.”
The episode gave us a key moment that we never saw before, which was William explaining to Randall how he almost came back into his life. How many complex emotions, Sterling, is Randall processing hearing that story knowing that his father found him again and could’ve tried to be in his life, but decided not to, ultimately out of deference to Rebecca? There’s something really noble in William’s decision, but also incredibly heartbreaking — even frustrating — that he actually could’ve made that contact, but actively decided not to. Say, as if he’d been in the cab and run out of money, and he just was never able to find Rebecca.
It’s a lot. He got hit with so much at Thanksgiving last year that he’s like, “Whoa! What the what?” The fact that Rebecca knew and then that Rebecca covered up the fact that she knew, and then that William also covered it up, and then he just kind of put it all together. So William lays out what could have been. Except for the fact that was it his place? He asked Rebecca, and she said, “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea,” and then he saw those bikes, and he saw nine years of a life that he had nothing to do with, and he says this thing at the end of the scene, “Who am I to insert myself into your life against your mother’s wishes?” So Randall’s left with, “Man, now you could have, but you didn’t. I understand that mom didn’t want it and now here I am, the present day. Here I am with an opportunity or the possibility of breaking a mother and a child up, and who am I to do that? She had 11, 12 years with this woman, before I even came into the scene for the past few months. Do I have that right?” And ultimately he says no.
The final moment of the episode is framed as a very peaceful one with everyone gathered in the living room. Jack smiles at Rebecca and everyone’s together, but Randall’s game of Pac-Man ends and the screen reads game over. We get this sort of ominous sense of dread, that this is a lovely scene, but that the end is nigh for Jack. So, how nigh is it? How should we read that ending?
Before the season is over, we see how Jack dies. So I can say it will be within the next eight episodes of This Is Us…. What I love about the show, in this particular regard, is that we’re able to take the mundane, the routine, the ordinary, and are able to create something that is epic, and larger than just life itself. And life is big, and it has all these different twists and turns, and this Pac-Man analogy that sort of echoes throughout the course of the episode and Randall talking to Beth about life. His life is a game of Pac-Man and the game doesn’t change. Players may change, but the outcome is always the same, and then we just do it all over again. You can take that and mean it like, I have my family just like my dad had his family, and then my children will have their families, and we’ll keep on keeping on, and that’s a positive sort of thing. And then there’s this idea like, “What is there to be done differently?” All you have to do is enter into the game and do your best recognizing that the outcome is what it is. You just try to get a high score. You know there’s no beating the ghosts. You’re never going to conquer them. You can only coexist with them for as long a time as possible before they ultimately catch up to you.
This Is Us returns to NBC on Jan. 2. To see what executive producer Isaac Aptaker revealed about the fall finale and what’s ahead, click here.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.