This Is Us producer breaks down that epic therapy fight
The Pearsons hash it out when the family visits Kevin in rehab
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.
What was the harshest line that the writers brainstormed for the therapy scene that never made it out of the writers’ room? Was there one where you said, “Oh, that’s just too mean”?
Oh man, good question. We had a lot more venom from Randall, specifically about the drunk driving and the danger that [Kevin] put Tess in, but we felt like that was the immediate anger that he was feeling towards Kevin. It became so much more of an interesting scene that really got into their lifelong dynamic of feeling like Kevin was always obsessed with attention and “the Kevin Show,” and then Kevin going right back at Randall at “the Randall Show”-type stuff — these two brothers really getting into the core of their issue, as opposed to Randall just slinging some really nasty insults about the drunk-driving incident.
What sticks out to you about shooting that scene?
I was not on set that day… but we shot that at Casamigos Ranch in Malibu. And weirdly enough, that’s where Justin Hartley was getting married a week later or he had just gotten married there. He had to do this brutally intense scene from the show where his character is lashing out and is torn into, and then have this really beautiful wedding in the exact same place. I think he actually spent his first night as a married man either in the room that Kevin was supposed to be staying in, or the adjacent room. It was just a weird coincidence.
Kate Burton lays down some serious law as Kevin’s therapist. How did you land on her for the role and did she bring anything to it that you weren’t expecting?
Everyone loved her from her recent stuff on Grey’s Anatomy, so we were really psyched that she said yes…. She had seen the show a little bit, but she wasn’t super familiar with it. My writing partner, Elizabeth [Berger, who’s also a TIU executive producer], got on the phone with her and explained what we were trying to do and it was going to be our longest scene ever for this show. She was going to have to hold her own against our actors who had been working together a year and a half, and were really going to lash into each other. I thought she did such a brilliant job. Not only holding her own, but bringing such a credibility to it. I think she just made it feel so authentic and real. She had the perfect amount of asserting herself and just stepping back and letting the bombs fly. One of my favorite moments is between her and Rebecca, when she’s really pushing Rebecca to admit that Jack was an addict. Then Rebecca goes on that rant against her, and Mandy ad-libbed this, I believe, at the end of Rebecca’s run she just said, “Thank you!” And goes back into polite, middle-aged-woman mode. I thought that that between the two of them was just a really nice touch.
The intensity of the therapy session balanced nicely with the Others, a.k.a. Beth, Toby, and Miguel, bonding at the bar. Was it somewhat or very inappropriate for them to get drunk, given the circumstances?
I know, right? At least they own it.
It’s really fun to watch these people we don’t see together gripe about being on the Pearson periphery, and it feels like you’re winking at the audience and some of the conversations we have. Were the seeds of this conversation borne out of that moment in the second episode of this season, where Toby says, “Miguel gets no love and I feel his pain”?
We have such a big cast, and we love them all so much. It’s always so much fun for us to try out new dynamics and say, “Hey, we’ve never seen what’s it like when Toby and Beth interact with each other. Let’s try throwing them into a story.” It felt so organic to us that when we were going to do this long therapy story that really dived into the dynamics of the immediate family, that we could do a very similar story where we could get into the dynamics of what it’s like to be a significant other of the Pearsons. It comes with its own very specific and complicated set of baggage. Once we came up with that notion, the story almost wrote itself. It was so much fun imagining how those three characters would relate and realizing that they actually have so much in common dealing with what it’s like to try to be in a relationship with someone who has experienced this profound loss and had to put their life back together.
Kevin is getting help, and is on his way to healing. What is his road from here? How soon will he leave rehab, and is his next task making amends with Sophie?
We’re trying to be very realistic here in our portrayal of addiction and recovery. As everybody knows, it’s a long and unpredictable process. The rehab chapter is wrapping up after this week, but there’s a lot of work to be done. It’s exactly as you said: he has a lot of amends to make, he has a lot of work to do based on what happened in that therapy session. Episode 12 picks up right where we left off; he dives headfirst into repair. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s one of my favorite Kevin stories we have coming up — the people he chooses to try to fix his relationship with first.
In the past story, Jack struggles in the role of bad cop with Kate. “I couldn’t stand the way she was looking at me,” he tells Rebecca, “I would give her all the ice cream in the world.” How much of Kate’s issues with food and weight is a reflection of addictive traits inherited from Jack, and how much of it provides a relief and is a gateway drug to a more innocent time, when she was with her father? Is it a way to hold on to a connection to him?
Yeah, I think it’s both of those things. There’s a genetic component to addiction, so part of it can certainly be inherited. Also, her relationship with food, as we learned in this episode, is much more complex than we may have even realized. Certainly, she’s an emotional eater, and she associates it with comfort, but it’s also deeply associated with her father. She can’t go have lunch with her father, but she can have ice cream in private and view that as a way to [hold on to] these memories of him. It’s all tied up in a way that she’s only begun to unpack.
How much more is there to come with Tess’ unhappiness, and why she hid in Kevin’s car? It seems to be related to all the upheaval and house guests coming and going. It’s touched on very briefly as Randall and Beth leave to go visit Kevin, and she insists that she’s fine, but if they’re going to be bringing a new foster child into this house, as we saw hinted in the fall finale, isn’t that going to pose more problems and bring that back to the surface?
Definitely. That story is not at all put to bed. Keep your eye on Tess, because there’s more to that than we have seen.
To read what Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson revealed about Randall and Beth’s relationship, click here.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.