This Is Us producer breaks down fall finale, what's next
'The people in his life are going to be very aware that he has a problem and needs help,' says Isaac Aptaker of Kevin
Good things come in threes. Stooges. Little pigs. Wise men. Members of Canadian prog-rock power trio Rush. Bad things come in threes, too. Take, for example, the misfortunes that struck the trio of Pearson siblings in This Is Us‘ Big Three trilogy of episodes. First came Kevin’s calamity, as he descended into a vortex of alcohol and pills. Then came Kate’s catastrophe, as she suffered a miscarriage right when she started embracing pregnant life. And finally, on Tuesday night, came Randall’s ridiculously rough ride.
The season 2 fall finale of the NBC family drama, titled “Number Three,” featured our resident perfectionist, played by Sterling K. Brown, enduring a day of emotional overmuch: Not only was he seeking to comfort Kate on the phone and trying to manage his vodka-swilling brother who showed up at his doorstep, Randall wrestled with the painful decision to bid farewell to Deja (Lyric Ross), the guarded foster child who initially recoiled at his approach but over the last few weeks had grown to groan at his humor and embrace life as a Pearson. Released from prison earlier than expected, Deja’s mother, Shauna (Joy Brunson), showed up at the Pearsons, ready to fight hard to reunite with her daughter, and when Deja’s social worker, Linda (Debra Jo Rupp) toed the same line with Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), the couple threatened legal action to fight to keep Deja. Ultimately, though, Randall released his grip after reflecting on a conversation he had with William (Ron Cephas Jones), who’d poignantly explained to him why he did not overstep the boundaries Rebecca had set up and reenter 9-year-old’s Randall’s life.
Back in the past, teenage Randall (Niles Fitch) persuaded his Ivy-focused father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) to take him on a visit to Howard University, where the adopted African-American son was immediately activated by a culture he’d largely not experienced. It was also in our nation’s capital that Randall connected with his roots in a different way — connecting profoundly with his father at the Vietnam War memorial, where Jack opened up in ways that he hadn’t, even to his wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore). “Number Three” concluded with the ’90s-era of the family assembled together in the living room, but it was a house divided in the present: a disillusioned Tess (Eris Baker) ran away from home and hid in the backseat of Kevin’s car, and soon after, a surprised and intoxicated Kevin (Justin Hartley) was pulled over and arrested for DUI. How did Randall and Beth, in a panic over their missing daughter, handle this news? The phrase “I’ll kill him!” was uttered.
Time to think of our best dad jokes, tilt the speaker blasting Beyoncé toward the nearest houseplant, eat some Pac-Dots, and ask This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker a few pressing questions about “Number Three.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In this final episode of the Big Three trilogy, we dug deeper into Randall. Teenage Randall revealed to his father that he was feeling out of sorts, and that everything was going to be more complicated for him, and they bonded as Jack revealed that he struggled with similar feelings after Vietnam. We also saw adult Randall come to terms with the undeniable powerful bond between parent and child, which prompted him to drop potential legal action and allow Deja to return to Shauna. In telling these two chapters of Randall’s life, what did you set out to accomplish?
ISAAC APTAKER: When we started talking about the college stories and where our Big Three would want to go, our writer Kay Oyegun came in with the idea that Randall would potentially be very interested in Howard [University], and we thought that that was such a rich story: that a black kid who was raised in a very, very white world with a few notable exceptions, being Yvette (Ryan Michelle Bathe) and her son, would be very interested in seeking out the total opposite and immersing himself in this culture that he never fully got to be a part of because of his adopted family.
And then in terms of what Randall’s going through with Deja and Shauna, last season was so much about coming to terms with the fact that Rebecca had prevented him from getting to know his biological father until very late in his life, and we thought, “What if we put Randall in a very similar situation where all of the sudden, he’s faced with a dilemma where he is potentially preventing a girl from being back with her biological mother, and this thing that was done to him that he had no control over, he’s now the one making the decision?”
The bond between Jack and Randall deepens in this episode, culminating with that conversation at the memorial. It seemed further proof that Randall’s relationship with Jack will end as the least fraught of the Big Three. He seems to carry around the least amount of guilt in the present day, so is it fair to say that he’ll be the most at peace when the time arrives?
I think that is safe to say. As we’ve seen, Kevin has a ton of unresolved baggage — he’s been drowning in the painkillers — and Kate feels a tremendous amount of responsibility for the death of her father. Of course, it’s still a tragedy, and he still grieves, and there’s still a lot there, but he definitely seems like he has the most closure and he’s the most at peace with it. And that does have a lot to do with the really beautiful relationship that he has with his father. There’s not a lot of angst there, there’s not a lot of drama there.
Jack’s conversation with Randall at the memorial felt like a precious download of information, even if he was vague on the details. He mentioned that he hadn’t even told Rebecca about what exactly happened in Vietnam. Is there more to come on that, perhaps in a moment with Rebecca? Or is there an intimacy in that moment that he felt he could only share with Randall, and that’s one of the reasons that it’s so special?
There’s definitely much more to come in terms of Jack and his Vietnam, but what’s special about the moment, it’s one of the first times that Jack is really talking to Randall like a man instead of a child, and confiding in him in a way that he hasn’t even necessarily confided in his own wife. It’s a very mature father-son moment. We’ve seen him calming Randall with his anxiety and taking him to the dojo, and making him go to the private school. We’ve seen much more father doing parenting to a younger child, but that moment on the bench is really him relating to Randall, much more man to man.
As you mention with the visit to the dojo (where Jack brought Randall to give him a strong African-American role model), Jack and Rebecca were such loving parents and they provided everything they could for him. But they couldn’t provide everything for Randall, in terms of his African-American heritage, as the first judge made clear in the recent adoption episode. Jack sees that different world at Howard, and he challenges Randall about not being introduced to Randall’s friends at Howard. How do you think that impacts him?
It was so important to us that we filmed the episode at Howard because we really wanted to capture the visual storytelling of seeing Jack surrounded by people who are a different race than him, which is an experience that Randall [lived] probably 95 percent of life in, from childhood. So, for Jack, he really is able to understand for the first time in a more visceral level — of course, it’s different but with the race flipped — what it feels like just to not look like everyone around you.
This episode explores the idea of what is the best environment for Deja. We haven’t seen Shauna much, but when Randall spotted her showing her friend the clothes she bought for Deja, did he see enough to think that she’s a more capable mother this time around and that Deja is better off with her than with Randall and Beth? How did you settle on the balance of exactly how sympathetic and competent to make Shauna?
It comes down to the worldview of the show, and what we’re always trying to do is make nobody the pure villain and nobody the pure hero. But what’s so tough about this situation, because we tell the story solely from Beth and Randall’s point of view, is we have no more information about Shauna than they do, which is very, very little. We probably spent six minutes with the character over our whole series so far. So they have to make this incredibly difficult situation about whether to fight this — and fighting it, by the way, that’s a really messy process. It’s not like they can decide to keep Deja — they’d have to be brutal and lawyer up and really go after this woman. So based on such little information, they have to make this decision: Is going after Deja’s biological mother, after we’ve spent weeks with her and this woman has spent years with her, what’s actually best for this child? They don’t know if they’re making the right choice. They don’t have very much to go off of. But they go with the gut, and they decide that she has to go back with Shauna, and all they can do is hope that that’s the right call, and hope Shauna has done the growing and improving that she needs to do to be a good mother to Deja. But at the end of the day, they really are just hoping that they made the right choice.
As Linda says, this foster care business isn’t an exact science.
In their goodbye scene, Deja tells Randall, “I don’t want you to think that just because I want to go home that it doesn’t mean I don’t like living with you.” Even though he said, “I know that. You don’t have to worry about that” — and even though she calls him her foster dad during her science presentation — how important was it for him to hear her say that? Because it feels like he needed to hear that, even if he said he didn’t.
Of course. And the fact that Deja has the wisdom and wherewithal to know that this adult man needs to hear that from her, and that Lyric actually pulls that off without it feeling precocious is a testament to her. Her performance is so incredible in this episode. If you look back when she came in episode 3, she would barely speak, and she would flinch when Randall came into the room because she thought he was going to hit her. And now here we are in episode 10, where they’re able to hug and they have this insight into each other, where she can give this man exactly what he needs to hear about what this experience meant to her, and is willing to claim him publicly as her foster father. It’s so beautiful and just speaks to the baby steps and the really, really subtle moments that they’ve had together to get here.
There is closure in the driveway with that goodbye, but we’ll ask anyway: Is there possibly more to this story? Have we seen the last of Deja?
I can’t say whether we’ve seen the last of Deja. This could be it. She could be back. But we all do really love that girl [laughs], so there’s definitely a possibility that there’s more to this story to tell.
Randall tells Beth that they don’t have to go through the foster process again if they don’t want to, but she says that she does, even if it means losing a child all over again. We then catch a glimpse of the young boy who was having trouble going through the foster care system. What can you hint about this boy who seems to be coming into their life?
The end of this episode is very, very dark and heavy for most of our characters, but it’s our way of showing that out there in the universe, when you least expect it, there is that possibility and this hope and this other child that needs a home. And he might be the one that winds up with Beth and Randall for good.
How soon might this happen?
That’s more of a flash to what’s to come for them, so it’s not like next episode that kid’s going to show up, it’s a bit of a bigger picture for the season.
Randall’s kids have been rather drama-free, so it’s a bit startling when Tess tells Kevin that she hates this house. She seemed welcoming of Deja, and was sad when she left. Can you hint at why she is so unhappy? There’s been so much upheaval in the house this last year with the arrival of William and Deja. Is Randall’s attention too divided by the events of the last year?
That’s going to be something that we definitely explore more in the back half of the season. It’s exactly that. It’s part the attention, it’s part that she’s been living in this house, [and Randall], with the best of intentions, but still, has brought now two new family members into the home that she’s fallen in love with and have either passed away or ripped away from her very suddenly. That’s a lot for anyone — that’s especially a lot for a young girl to deal with, and I think it’s really trying for her. There’s a couple of moments where you see she’s really struggling with this, but it’s pretty slight in the episode. Because it goes to that greater idea for this whole trilogy, which Jack sums up at the end: When you have many kids, when you have many siblings, when you have many people in your life that you care about, and there’s a lot going on, it’s so easy to take your eye off the ball and become too wrapped up in what’s going on your own life, or in something else, and miss someone else in your life that you love who is really hurting. So Randall kind of misses what’s going on with Tess and she winds up hiding in the back of Kevin’s car, just as Jack takes Randall to look at the college and misses Kevin. Kevin is so wrapped up within the drugs and misses what’s going on with his sister. Everyone is missing what’s happening to the people right around them.
This episode filled in a big blank about what happened when Rebecca came to William’s apartment when Randall was nine. Can you walk us through the process of deciding how far William would get in his mission to meet Randall after Rebecca fled the apartment? There’s something noble in William’s decision to stay away, but also incredibly heartbreaking and frustrating in the idea that he could have made contact but actively chose not to. As he said, he had that realization when he saw the bikes and realized that a whole childhood had been lived, and who was he to insert himself into the situation against Rebecca’s wishes? Would that have been easier for Randall to swallow if William simply ran out of taxi money and never was able to track him down?
It was always important to us that it was William’s choice — that it wasn’t a circumstance, he didn’t lose Rebecca, he didn’t run out of money, he got there and he actively could have gone up to that door and could have forced his way into Randall’s life and made a choice not to. And, you’re right, it’s super frustrating. We have the added frustration of knowing that William grew up to be this beautiful man who had a wonderful impact on Randall in an incredibly short amount of time. We have that perspective looking back on it. For William, there was no way of knowing that. All he saw was that this boy who he had never met aside from that one day as a newborn, who has this full life with siblings and bicycles and a beautiful home, and he has been told by the woman raising him that she doesn’t want him to be a part of that. So for him to follow her to her home, and to really walk up to the door and insert himself into this child’s life, did not feel like his place.
On to Kevin. Okay, now has Kevin bottomed out? Will he come to terms with what he needs to?
Yes. [Laughs.] We’re not going to come back [in January] and have Kevin in prison smuggling things to get painkillers. That’s not where our show is going. It’s safe to say that him driving under the influence with the niece who he adores unknowingly in the car, and then getting arrested is pretty much his wake-up call, and the people in his life are going to be very aware that he has a problem and needs help.
Randall and Kevin have been through some serious ups and downs over the years. They had a breakthrough in “Jack Pearson’s Son,” when Kevin rushed to his aid, but this throws a wrench in everything. Of course, once Randall gets past his anger, he’ll realize that his brother is sick and needs help, yes?
They’ve had such great repair last year and over the first part of this year, and now Kevin has been arrested with Randall’s daughter in the car. It’s not exactly the perfect way to continue a happy brother relationship. But addiction is an illness, and Kevin has really been suffering. And then there’s also the saving grace that Kevin did not know Tess was in that car. She was running away from home, crouched down in the back seat. It doesn’t excuse what he did, but he at least has that small leg to stand on of not knowing.
Everyone is distracted with their own lives, but shouldn’t this family have been paying more attention to signs of addiction, given everything they’ve been through with Jack?
We had that exact thought while we were writing it. So we were really careful that any time Kevin interacts with a sibling — and there are very few — he sees Kate, and he’s a little bit off, but he has the excuse of he’s rushing out to see Sophie and [Kate’s] about to tell him that she’s pregnant. She’s wrapped in her own thing. And then when he shows up at Randall’s door, he has the excuse that he has just driven all night from Pittsburgh and is exhausted and found out about Kate. Meanwhile, Randall has not only just found out about Kate but had Deja taken from him. So there’s always so much going on that people are missing the ball.
Let’s talk about that final moment with the Pearsons. Everyone’s gathered in the living room— Kevin in the cast, Kate, the dog, Jack giving that sweet smile to Rebecca. But Randall’s game of Pac-Man ends when the ghosts get him, and the screen reads “Game Over.” It’s a lovely family moment, but it’s also ominous — it feels like the end is nigh for Jack. How should we read that ending?
It’s definitely ominous. What’s more telling is that we’ve set up in our first episode this season these three boxes that we needed to check for everything to fall into place before we could be at the time of Jack’s death. And early in the season, we met our dog Louie, and now over the course of this day, Kevin has broken his leg and he’s now in the cast. So we’re really down to that one piece, which is Randall and his red-haired high school girlfriend. And once we meet her, everything that we’ve seen is now in place. It’s safe to say that the time is closing in. For sure.
And how close are we to meeting the redhead girlfriend?
That would take all the fun out of watching the show if I told you that!
Looking back at the first part of season 2, what worked better than you thought it would, and what didn’t work as well as you thought?
Deja exceeded all of our expectations. We were concerned with the amount of real estate we had with her. She was only in four or five episodes of this season, and we were like, “Is that enough time to fall in love with this girl? And will we care when she’s taken away?” I hope people agree — I certainly do — when you see this episode and she is taken away, that’s the scene when we screened it for people where their heart just breaks. That so has to do with Lyric, who is such a new actor that we found from Chicago, and she just brought this girl to life, and in those scenes with Sterling and Susan, you just fall in love with this girl, and this girl is a part of a family. That exceeded our wildest expectations. In terms of the other question… that is trickier.
Maybe you were frustrated that there was a story line that was underdeveloped because other stories ate up too much time?
Something that we’re going to do — and we keep on trying to do and then we have to pull back on, just because these episodes are short — is really exploring Toby and Beth’s world outside of our Pearson siblings. They’re two of our favorite actors and we always have great ideas for them, [but] we have to keep the plot moving forward [so] we put a pin in them. It’s something that’s been a goal of ours this entire year and because we had so much plot — a lot happened in the first half of the year — that we haven’t been able to tell those stories in the way that we hoped. But that’s something we’re determined in the back half of the season get into a bit more — where they come from, and what their lives outside of being significant others are.
What is your one-sentence tease for the return episode on Jan. 2?
When we come back in the new year, our family will be dealing with the fallout of Kevin’s addiction and arrest — and will all be gathering to sort out how to best be there for their brother and son, and in a really, really explosive and ambitious way, playing out a lot of their family drama in this 11-page, nonstop, tour de force scene.
To read what Sterling K. Brown had to say about the fall finale, click here.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.