There are no batteries in the smoke detector. Be alarmed. This is not a fire drill.
Stomachs across the nation dropped in unison during the final moment of Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us. A relatively lighter episode — tinged with romantic mystery! — concluded with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) cozying up on the sofa. He dropped the bomb that he wanted to pursue that long-deferred dream of starting his own construction company. After initially expressing reluctance that this was not the best time, what with a triple college tuition bill on the way, Rebecca quipped: “Well, I guess that’s… going to make it pretty exciting, isn’t it?” But as the camera pulled back, we learned the reason Rebecca told Jack to remind her to buy batteries: there was the smoke detector, with its dangling wire, and no power attached. Put that clue together with the burned-out Pearson house that Rebecca grieved in front of at the end of the season 2 premiere, and you’ve got that special sinking feeling.
“Clooney” was an episode that sought to cover all sorts of ground, some of it quirky. As the title suggests, it unspooled the origin story of Clooney the cat, William’s storied stray feline that defied all odds (and obstacles) to scamper into the life of William (Ron Cephas Jones) — and, ultimately, to scurry into a new boy’s life. Still detached from the career he left behind in the season 1 finale — much to the rolling-eyed chagrin of his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) — Randall (Sterling K. Brown) embarked on a wild muse chase before solving the sketch-y riddle of William’s mystery lady, who turned out to be a Billie Holiday mural. Then came Randall’s time to surprise. He told Beth, who was frustrated with parts of her own job, that he had found his purpose: They should rehabilitate the dilapidated building where William lived and turn it into something for the community good.
Speaking of questions answered, fresh-out-of-rehab Kevin (Justin Hartley) went to stay with Rebecca (Mandy Moore) for a little mother-son repair, only to be frustrated by the omnipresence of Miguel (Jon Huertas). After an awkward, bratty confrontation, Kevin apologized and learned that Miguel was not actually in love with his mother while she was with his father — and that Miguel made Rebecca happy — or as happy as she could be after losing Jack. In addition, Kate (Chrissy Metz) helped Madison (Caitlin Thompson) come to terms with — or at least, start to come to terms with — with her eating disorder, something Kate suffered from, too, in the time leading up to Jack’s death. What else? Oh, right: Young Randall breathed deeply at the mall and approached the red-headed girl, Allison (Isabel Marcus), of whom we sneaked a peek in the season 2 premiere.
Let’s exchange these organic bananas and raw cashews for some Skittles and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, knock on some random doors, gaze deep into our Magic 8 Ball, and ask some questions that will also be answered by This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Well, that was a not-nice way to end the episode.
ISAAC APTAKER: We’re trying to brace people and help people prepare. I think I told you that this was one where the impact of it sneaks up on you. It’s a way of showing that there’s so much going on in these characters’ lives right now, and there’s so much that they’re dealing with. It’s so easy to make a simple mistake. Of course, looking back, we all know what that leads to, but life is hectic. Sometimes you forget to get batteries.
Words to live by. The implications of that scene are clear, obviously. We are closer than ever to learning the truth about Jack’s passing. You’ve set up various puzzle pieces at the beginning of the season, the dog, the cast on Kevin’s leg, the redheaded girlfriend of Randall. We just met the redhead. Plus, Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] has said that viewers wouldn’t have to wait until the season finale for Jack’s death, so we have to ask: How close are we?
Without giving away exactly what episode we’re going to see the death, we are very close. We’re not pulling any punches. This isn’t like, “Oh, they’re going to get batteries next week,” and everyone will be on Twitter cursing us. [Laughs.] You are watching the events that lead to this man’s untimely death.
We’ve known that a fire seems to be the cause of Jack’s death, or at least factors heavily into it. Here, we see the smoke alarm that did not receive these batteries. On several occasions, we’ve seen the house’s circuit breaker fail. Fair to say that those are related, that there may be some sort of electrical fire?
It’s entirely possible. But then again, it’s sort of saying like how throughout our show to explore the way that life is totally unexpected, and we don’t necessarily see where the curveballs are coming from, yes, certainly it could be that electrical fire. Also, there’s lots of different ways that a house can catch on fire. It’s the kind of thing where you don’t really realize what’s important until you have all the information and can reflect on it, much like actual life.
Jack finally decided to stop deferring his dream to start this construction company and Rebecca, after the initial hesitation, kind of bought into the adventure in a fun way. Why must you be a dream killer?
[Laughs.] For us, since season 1, we’ve known that Jack would sort of have these dreams deferred and really put a lot of his own personal ambitions on hold to support to his family, and particularly to send Randall to that private school. If you remember that season 1 episode where he’s toying with the idea of not taking the promotion and doing what he loves. Totally putting his death aside, it felt like a natural time for him to start thinking, “The kids are grown. I’ve launched them. We’re going to be empty nesters. Why not now to dive into this passion I’ve always had?” Much like Rebecca last year with the singing, it sort of felt like Jack’s turn to maybe give a shot at what he never really got to pursue.
We see Jack tell the boys at the mall, “You got to own your choices. Choose them fully and don’t look back.” That line seems very on-brand for Jack. Take us inside Jack’s head to get from what was said at the mall and then what he told Rebecca on the couch. Was that just something that always nagged at Jack?
I think he’s the kind of guy where he made that decision to keep that job and send Randall to that private school. I don’t think Jack’s a man who wonders if he made the right choice a lot. He picks a path and just continues down it. Because he’s supporting three kids and he’s had his share of hardships, and he’s all about perseverance. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t sort of reassess at a certain point and make a new choice. He’s not the kind of guy that’s going to be like, “Oh, should I have quit and started my own company 10 years ago?” But definitely the kind of guy who’s going, “Maybe I should start my own company now and commit to that.”
So we saw at the end of this episode, he’s making a choice and committing to it and we’ll follow that up in our next episode, as he continues on with this idea of really, very late in life, pivoting and starting the business he always wanted.
That’s a great moment when they’re on the couch, when she says, “Do you think this is going to be a good idea?” He says, “Not really.” Then she says, “Well, I guess that’s going to be exciting.” There’s something really sweet, like they’re underdogs in this together, and we love that about Jack and Rebecca. Then we get the moment with Jack buying the suit with Kevin. These are really loaded moments — these emotional gut punches given that we know what’s about to happen. Should we brace for a few more of those wonderful, it’s-all-coming-together family moments before he passes?
Yes. Definitely. Now that we know we’re this close to the death, every time Jack has an interaction with one of his kids, that’s even the tiniest bit emotional, it has this added weight to it because we, as an audience, have this bird’s eye view and can see what’s coming.
We’re certainly very mindful of that whenever we’re crafting these moments, that a little goes a long way, because you know that the audience is sitting there going. “Ooh, is this the last time they talk?” And very soon it will be because like I said, we’re not pulling punches with that smoke detector — it’s coming.
Was Jack’s straightening Kevin’s tie a nod to not just the strengthening of their bond before he passes but also the scene in season 1 where Jack teaches Randall how to tie a tie, which stuck with him into adulthood?
Yeah. He and Kevin — and Kevin and Rebecca, too — have had such a volatile relationship, and we wanted to make sure that we really saw that certainly in Justin’s story, there’s a lot of love and affection he has looking back on his father. So we wanted to make sure that we showed some of those really powerful, wonderful father-son moments. It’s not all Kevin screaming about how Jack ignored him when he almost drowned in a swimming pool.
Questions about Miguel are answered in this episode, particularly about his love for Rebecca. He tells Kevin that he was absolutely not in love with his mom when she was married to his dad, and he sings their praises as this incomparable couple. Can we call this the next step in your rehabilitation of Miguel into a good guy given early skepticism about him as a replacement husband?
[Laughs.] Yeah, definitely. It’s a 12-step process. The first big moment for people was seeing that Facebook message, and just knowing a little bit more about the timeline, that there was a buffer of time. And then last week with the Others at the bar. It’s not hard because Jon is such a charming actor. It’s just like getting peoples’ heads around the idea that this man didn’t swoop in and steal America’s sweetheart from Jack. Last week did a lot, and then this week certainly drives it home when he really definitively says that, “Nothing shady here happened. Nothing shady even happened in my mind. I was such a fan of those two together and it was all on the up and up.”
It’s almost a little crushing to see the way Rebecca answers Kevin’s questions about whether she’s happy with Miguel. You get the sense that she’s forever scarred by Jack’s death, but she’s sort of moving on and sought this next chapter. However, she still clings to the old one by wearing the necklace. What does that say about her connection to the past — and how must that feel for Miguel to see her still wearing that necklace?
We joke about that a lot in the writers’ room how hard it is for Miguel. It’s not, like, ideal to have your wife walking around every day with a necklace of her former husband [laughs], but at the same time I think he totally understands, and I don’t think he would want her to take it off. He has such a love and a respect and loyalty to Jack, too. Yeah, that speech is very bittersweet. She lost her husband when she had a lot of years left. She was not an old woman at all. She did find love again, but it was a different kind of love. I think Mandy’s so beautiful in that scene and how she articulates how it wouldn’t be appropriate, it wouldn’t really be right for her with kids and having just lost Jack so tragically to find another passionate, fiery, young romance. But she took the time she needed and she found a different kind of companionship that works for her. I don’t know, I think it’s kind of a whatever-works situation. And there’s a lot of beauty in Rebecca and Miguel’s marriage too.
They do seem happy, but there’s just something about that idea of, “I know I’m not the love of your life.” It’s lightly devastating in a way.
It is. Even though I do believe that they truly are happy, there is a tinge of quiet devastation there. I mean, you’ve got two people who lost their most important person in Jack.
We also learn in this episode that Kate struggled with eating disorders when she was younger, but losing weight didn’t make her happier, any happier. In fact, she said that she missed the voice of hate. It felt empty without it. It’s good that she realizes happiness isn’t achieved by a number, but sad that she feels that she needed a voice of hate. How would you characterize that voice inside her now?
That’s an interesting question. I think it’s definitely still there. This was definitely an interesting one that was talked about in the writers’ room for a long time. It’s such a nuanced, sophisticated idea, where when you define yourself as overweight and your thing is, “All right, this is my body, I just need to lose weight.” Once you cross that goal and reach a weight that you should be happy with, all of a sudden, you don’t know who you are because your whole identity has been tied up in, “I have to lose the weight, I have to lose the weight.” A number of people in our writers’ room who have struggled with weight spoke to this. Once you hit your goal, all of a sudden, it’s like, “Who am I?” Because you spent so much of your energy and so much of your consciousness thinking about reaching that goal…. Kate still has that voice she’s struggling with. Does she want to lose more weight? Is she accepting who she is? I think it’s a constant battle for her. As we saw last week, it’s further complicated by the food being wrapped up so much in her relationship with her dead father. I think there’s no simple answer and it changes a lot for her, but I do think to a certain extent that voice is always with you.
In this episode, you certainly are delving more into the nuances of this eating disorder she has and her history of struggles with eating, which we also learn about after Kate picks up on the subtle clues of Madison’s bulimia. You’ve talked about how you bring in consultants before tackling various issues, and I know Dan’s own sister consults on the show. How did those conversations with all those experts inform how you’re telling this part of the story?
The writer of the episode, Bekah Brunstetter, did extensive research, and spoke to a few friends who work professionally with people specifically struggling from eating disorders to really, really try to get it right. There was some personal experience in the room to go on, but there was a lot there that we didn’t know. And it’s such a universal, common experience that we wanted to make sure that we got it right. There was a lot there. One of the things we learned was that Madison, as someone new to this, would be very unlikely to define herself as bulimic, or give a name to it, which is why we avoided those words. But there are a lot of really interesting little nuances, and I certainly learned a lot in diving into this issue.
If this is the age for when the problems really took root, is Jack’s death the catalyst for exacerbating it?
That’s exactly right. Jack’s death just takes what was already an underlying issue for her and just magnifies it.
In other news, Randall finally seems to have found his professional purpose. He’s going to help Beth with this project and, as he says, bring dignity to these people’s lives. What can you say specifically about what this project is?
One of the things that always gets asked is, “What does Beth do exactly?” We’ve always known she was in urban planning, but none of us totally knew exactly what that meant. [Laughs.] It was sort of like a phrase we threw around, much like the weather trading last year. So then we came up with the notion of, “Remember William’s building? It had such a character to it, and felt like there were all these really interesting people living there. It’s this very tangible connection to learning more about William.”
Once we came up with that and then realized that this job we had given Beth fits perfectly with the idea of taking over a building like that and trying to give an underserved community housing with dignity, we got really excited, and we actually talked to our composer, Sid [Khosla]. His father started a company in New Jersey, where their whole mission is: Just because you can’t pay a lot of rent doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a nice modest apartment that has good hot water, et cetera, et cetera.
So we spoke to him on the phone and he had all these amazing stories about starting with one building and really renovating it and finding a way to make it financially viable to give lower-income communities a nice place to live. We thought, “Oh, that’s the perfect convergence of Beth’s actual job, Randall’s desire for this bigger purpose, and a connection to William,” so we just ran with it.
Any hints about the dynamic you’ll explore with Randall and Beth working together professionally, which is new terrain?
That’s exactly what next week is about. They’ve been married for a long time, and they’re partners in that sense, but it’s a very, very, very different world when you enter into a financial business relationship with someone. There’s an immediate and initial clashing of their attitudes.
We also get to spend more time with the residents of that building, including Garrett Morris [who plays Lloyd]. Everything that guy says is so hilarious. The looks he gives — he’ll have one line in a scene, and we’re just on the floor laughing. Him and a couple of other really wonderful character actors fill out this building. It’s just a really cool, new world for Randall and Beth to be in.
Funny, my next question was that given that Garrett was so great as Lloyd, were you already devising scenarios to bring him back, and then this idea came along?
Oh, yeah. He read for [the role]. I didn’t even think he would audition, but he came in and he auditioned, and we were like, “Oh my god, of course.” He was like the funniest man ever. You could literally give him anything and he just kills.
The biggest twist in the episode turned out to be William’s lover, who was revealed to be a Billie Holiday mural. Were you looking for a way to tie William’s legacy into Randall finding new professional purpose? And did you know early on that the mystery would end with the mural, or were there other ideas?
We did know it would end with the mural. I believe Dan came up with the idea. We knew that we had the idea for the box of William’s stuff. Then out of that came, “What if there was our version of a whodunit — a This Is Us/Murder She Wrote,” where there’s a clue that taps into the obsessive side of Randall. He fixates, and he can’t let it go. And another romance for William seemed like the juiciest thing. Then the idea of the mural was pretty early on, but we had a very hard time figuring out who the mural should be of in a way that you didn’t see it coming. Then we realized Billie Holiday has this nickname Lady Day, so that gives you an extra step of removal. We had one late night where we ordered dinner and we were on Wikipedia going through sort of, “Who would there be a mural of that William loved? Oh no, that name, that gives it away. That’s wrong.” Then we finally figured out Billie Holiday was the perfect one.
We also learned a lot more in this episode about Clooney the cat. Why did you want to tell this story other than, of course, fun fan curiosity?
Honestly, we usually don’t try too much to take into account what the fans think, but we got asked that question so much. And you don’t — you never even really meet Clooney, you just hear about him. People were so concerned. “Is that cat okay? Who’s watching the cat? What happened to the cat?” So, it was always in our heads. And we actually have in the writers’ room — [laughs] this is a little bit dark — but we have a plastic Halloween skeleton of a cat and someone labeled it “Clooney the cat.” And the running joke was that no one had taken care of Clooney the cat. Of course, that was not the case; that was just our little room bit. That cat was always kind of just sitting in the corner, and I think one day, someone probably looked over at it and said, “Guys, what if we tell the story of what actually happened to Clooney the cat?”
Then we wrote several scenes just with the animal, and our poor director got the script and we’re like, “Yeah, we’re basically asking you to do Homeward Bound but in seven days.” She’s wonderful, and she did it, and that’s how we got the story of Clooney the cat.
Given that we just met also the new Pearson dog this season — and Randall sent the penguins off to the great migration — are there any other animals you plan on throwing into the mix this season?
Actually, yes we do. I don’t want to say what it is, but next week we have another animal friend. Pretty soon, we’re basically just going to become like Wishbone.
What is your one-sentence tease for next week’s episode?
We see Jack and Rebecca’s last Super Bowl with the kids before they all leave home, and their desire to spend it together as a family — with relatively disastrous results.
To see why Milo Ventimiglia was pained watching the fiery clue about Jack’s death, click here.