Family time just got intense. And tense.
After a six-week hiatus, This Is Us returned with its winter premiere, “The Fifth Wheel,” and things turned…well, downright cold. In the show’s lengthiest scene to date — and one of its more brutal — a raw chunk of the Pearson family drama was laid bare for all in the room (and on the couch) to see. A month after lost soul Kevin (Justin Hartley) reported to rehab after a DIU arrest (complete with a stowaway niece in the backseat!), his immediate family — sister Kate (Chrissy Metz), brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown), and mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore) — visited him at the facility to attend a supportive, gentle family therapy session. Maybe scratch the “supportive” and “gentle” part. Bluntly lorded over by a therapist (guest star Kate Burton), the reunion turned from sharing zone into blast zone: Kevin and Randall ripped into each other, fueled by decades-old tension, with Randall defending their mom when she was attacked by Kevin — and quizzed by the therapist if she had prepared her children for the possibility that they might be susceptible to addiction, given Jack’s history with alcoholism. (“They had 17 years of memories,” Rebecca noted defensively. “That’s it.”) Backed into a corner, Rebecca blurted out to Kevin that the reason that she favored Randall was because Kevin was difficult to raise. Kate didn’t escape unscathed either, as Kevin told her that she was an addict, too. (That was also an issue broached in the episode’s past-set story, as Jack and Rebecca differed on dealing with Kate’s eating habits.) Ultimately, when emotions settled, Randall apologized to Kevin, and Rebecca tried to reconnect with Kevin, leaving the family on at least slightly stronger footing.
While the Pearsons engaged in their frosty feelings exchange, a new Big Three came to be, as Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), Toby (Chris Sullivan), and Miguel (Jon Huertas) drunkenly compared notes in a nearby bar on what it’s like to be romantically linked to this family that suffered a great tragedy that is tip-toed around. Let’s make a secret trip to Toys “R” Us, grab some lightsabers, and venture into the Pearson no-fly zone with This Is Us executive producer Issac Aptaker to analyze “The Fifth Wheel.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was a rather loaded family reunion. Did an air-everything-out episode for the Pearsons seem like the most enticing way to reunite everyone after a trio of episodes where everyone was separated?
ISAAC APTAKER: Yes. This was always part of the plan. So much of the first half of our season was about this family missing each other and being so consumed by their own demons that they weren’t seeing each other and what the others were going through. We knew that we wanted to come back from the break with an episode that throws all of our siblings and Rebecca into the same room and really lets them address, head-on, some of their family issues in a way that they really have not to date.
A lot of people consider This is Us their weekly therapy session, so, here we were with the family actually in therapy. Does this count then as two sessions for viewers?
Yeah, we’re going to bill them double the rate, so I hope everyone has good insurance. [Laughs.] It’s so tricky, because therapy on TV — it’s just been done a lot, and it’s been done so well — In Treatment, The Sopranos. That is always a risky territory to enter into, because the bar is just really high. But we believe so much in our cast, so we wrote this scene for them that’s like an 11, 12-minute, non-stop scene. Then, our director, Chris Koch, shot it basically like a play. We brought in an extra camera for the day so we could just let them run it straight through without having to reset and relight as much as we usually have to. Then they just went at it, and spent the whole day out in Malibu at this place we were shooting, just tearing into each other. We were just so excited by the result.
How long was the first draft of that scene in the script?
The first draft was probably even longer, then we whittled it down from there. But we really wanted to give everyone a chance to say their piece, and there’s so much to unpack. We had talked about: Is there an episode where the entire episode is just this therapy session? But we have all of our other characters that we love so much, and there was so much to deal with from our mid-season cliffhanger, that we needed to tell those other stories too.
There’s so much here to explore in this therapy session, and it’s fascinating to poke around the wound and see all that long-suppressed anger rise to the surface. While I’m sure these tense family dynamics will come into play in all sorts of ways given those confessions and accusations, the family rift does resolve somewhat by the end of the episode. How much debate was there about leaving it even less patched up and allowing that darkness to really stretch out over another episode or two?
There’s definitely healing at the end, but things are far from resolved. There was too much said in that room for it to be neatly put back together at the end of the episode. We were really trying to strike a balance between leaving things just completely raw and ugly in a way that doesn’t feel like our family and our show — because there is so much love there — but also not to be unrealistic and say, “Oh, everyone said they’re sorry.” We’re not doing the bad sitcom version where everything resets at the end of the episode. This will certainly carry forward into the rest of our season, what was said in that room. But at the same time, there is a lot of love there, and this is a family that’s not going to fall apart completely based on one therapy session, so there was some healing at the end.
Randall and Kevin have endured a most tenuous relationship over the years, and one that healed a bit when Kevin rushed to his aid last season. Randall comes into this meeting from an angle of support, but then lets his anger about Kevin and the past get the best of him before he winds up apologizing to Kevin and returning to his position of support. But how much of what he said in the middle — “The only thing you’re addicted to is attention” — needed to be said?
Oh, I think it definitely needed to be said. Randall was really, really angry at Kevin, and if he had just gone in with the “Namaste, smile and bear it” attitude, ultimately, it wouldn’t be what’s best for their relationship. You have to air your grievances. At the end of the first half of our season, Kevin did a really, really bad thing. He has this small leg to stand on of not knowing Tess was in the car, but for a lot of siblings, I could see that being a relationship-ender. That’s not the case here. I think Randall was definitely entitled to some anger in that room.
Kevin always feels like he gets the short end of the attention stick. He says it in the session — Kate had Dad and Randall had Mom — and expressed it as far back as in early season 1 when he was a kid, drowning in the pool, and was angry that his parents were too busy with the other kids to look out for him. Here, he gets Rebecca to admit that she can’t think of one special moment that was their own — even though we saw a little one at the end of the episode. Was it your intention to show not only why Kevin had spiraled into addiction, but to make a case for him to not just be dismissed as a whiny, spoiled, handsome actor who always wins — that he, too, comes out this family a little damaged for legitimate reasons?
Exactly. It’s so easy for Kevin to be overlooked — [that] is what we’re trying to show. It’s so unusual, because in any other family, and the tall, handsome, famous, rich guy would be the apple of everyone’s eye. But here, because our family is so unique, and Kate and Randall growing up had these kind of issues that seemed more urgent to Jack and Rebecca, Kevin really was a little bit overlooked and forgotten. Then again, so much of it has to do with that speech that Randall gives towards the end of the episode about how you look back and remember your childhood and everyone has a different lens and so much of it is about perception. There are these moments that we’re seeing that Rebecca and Kevin had together that were really beautiful, but that’s not what he perceives his childhood to be when he looks back.
A theme of this episode could be: Everyone has their own legitimate point of view about what happened in their family — and sorry, it hurts.
I think so! I mean, even for me, it’s so shocking to see a good mother on television admit that one child was her favorite. Rebecca is really reluctant to do it, and only sort of blurts it out after Kevin really, really tears into her. That’s one of my favorite moments Mandy’s ever had on the show, but it’s true. I think we’re reminding people there too that parents are also only human and have their flaws, and if pushed hard enough, will say something pretty upsetting to their kids.
Which best explains the disconnect in the Kevin-Rebecca relationship — that Rebecca spent less time with him because Kevin was more difficult and independent than the other kids or that she felt abandoned by him after Jack died? That was a pretty harsh thing to say, too.
I think the most poignant thing she says is they were just easier. Kevin, because he sort of felt neglected, he had to act out to get attention, he’s more difficult. You have Randall who’s this very well-spoken, loving, doting son, who’s just so wonderful to her. Then Kate, who’s just the sweetest little thing. Kevin is there whipping the football at her head to try to get her to look at him. Of course, he’s going to be more difficult to parent.