This Is Us creator on that fire — and the 'thrilling,' 'heartbreaking' Super Bowl episode
Things are really heating up for Jack and the rest of the Pearsons. In a very scary way.
This Is Us ended Tuesday’s episode on the ultimate cliffhanger — and the biggest hint to date about how Jack Pearson departed this world. After the family’s Super Bowl Sunday non-celebration — a gathering that Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) was eager to make happen given that it would be the last one before the Big Three heads off to college — the family patriarch cleaned up the kitchen and called it a night. But when he left the room, the temperamental slow-cooker that he’d switched off shorted out and sparked a fire. The blaze snaked through the kitchen and spread through the house without warning, as the smoke detector never had its batteries replaced. Upstairs were: Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who had just decided to join forces and open the construction company that Jack had long dreamed of, Randall (Niles Fitch), who was still shyly glowing from his first kiss with Allison (Isabel Marcus), and Kate (Hannah Zeile) who had asked her dad never to stop being her No. 1 fan, despite her urging to the contrary earlier in the episode. Not present: Kevin (Logan Shroyer), who was spending the night with Sophie after fighting with Jack and Rebecca (and only making up with his mom; after all, he could talk to his dad tomorrow…).
Given that we had glimpsed the burned-down house at the beginning of the season, we know exactly where this is all headed — and it ends with Jack’s funeral. And this episode, titled “That’ll Be the Day,” moved into place the chess pieces that we saw hinted at in the season 2 premiere, from Rebecca in the Steelers jersey to Kevin being out of the house. The family drama’s next episode, which airs on NBC after the Super Bowl on Feb. 4 promises that “all of your questions will be answered.” But that’s too many days away from now. So let’s ring up This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman to break down this pivotal episode and Jack’s final living moments to come.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, we’re really doing this? It’s time to let go?
DAN FOGELMAN: I mean, all signs point to that next week is going to be the Big One. This was always the plan from inception, that this time in season 2 is when we’re going to show the answer to this question — and then let things progress in a different way beyond there, which people will see next week as well.
There are a lot of teary fans out there right now. Would you like to say something reassuring to them — or are you about to tell them to brace for a storm — a firestorm, as it were? On a scale of 1 to 10, how painful is this going to be?
It’s a fair question. I think it’s a little bit of everything when it comes to what people should be bracing themselves for. I’ve constantly been surprised by the emotional reaction people have had to the show since inception. It wasn’t a quote-unquote story line about the show that I was expecting necessarily. Generally speaking, when people are getting emotional or crying over the show, there’s a hint of melancholy to it, but it’s also an uplifting, cathartic, emotional cry. Next week is a very, very heavy episode, and I think the end of this week’s episode and next week’s episode have a different kind of emotional reaction to them. The episode is alternately thrilling and brutally heartbreaking and sad. And then surprising. If you stick with it and can make it through it [laughs], it’s very rewarding.
How would you characterize Jack’s final moments?
The first time I saw the final five minutes of last night’s episode, I was so blown away by the filmmaking and by Milo. And it’s everything that I’ve always wanted the show to be. The show has always been the little moments feeling really big. If you look at Jack’s final moments of this episode and potentially his last day and night with his family, it’s really small stuff. He has one quick conversation with his daughter, he has one ordinary but beautiful conversation with one of his sons, he has an argument/big moment with another one of his sons. He and his wife made love, and then he cleaned up the kitchen and looked around the kitchen and kind of took stock of his life. And I think if you were able to hypothetically jump into that kitchen with Jack and ask him if he could have spent his last day any other way, he would have said no.
As we head into the Super Bowl episode next week, we’re headed into a big moment that’s like out of a movie — one of the moments that rarely happens in our life, when something extraordinarily big happens, like a house fire. But one of the things that we’ve always tried to accomplish in the show — and you saw it both this week and you’ll see it next week — is: It’s little things and the quiet moments, and sometimes the biggest moments of our lives are the simplest and most surprising and the quietest, even amidst the big stuff. I think what was so beautiful about the end of the episode last night was its simplicity.
No one’s ever ready for death, of course, and you get the sense that the Big Three are caught off-guard when Jack dies. Jack has this sweet conversation with Kate where she tells him to never stop looking at her that way, this nice, quotidian moment with Randall about his date, and he has the fight with Kevin. How early did you decide on what their final interactions with Jack would be, and what was that process like in terms of informing your storytelling in the present?
There was a lot of talk about it. There was a lot of things that we were pretty locked into early in the series’ conception, and the conception of all this was that the kids had had various interactions with Jack before they left and we didn’t think it would be right for everybody to end in this big explosive fight that they spent the rest of their life regretting. When you look at Randall, I think of myself. I lost my mom suddenly and unexpectedly, and it was the heartbreak of losing her and the sadness of it. My mom and I left nothing on the table – there were no final goodbyes, there were no final big moments, but there were no pangs of regret other than just sadness that she was gone. And I think that’s a little bit where Randall is. When you look at Randall as an adult, you feel a lot of things, but one thing you don’t feel is a lack of closure with his father; you just feel a deep well of sadness where he’s gone. Kate had a very specific relationship with her father, and a lot of what she’s looking back on in this night is stuff of the cause of the incident, and how she blames herself. And Kevin, you feel a guy who really struggles to talk about his father, so it makes sense for us that he’s the guy that would’ve had a little bit less closure at the very end. My mom passed away in surgery—it was a serious surgery, but her dying was not supposed to be a real thing that was on the table. That was 10 years ago now, and I have replayed our final conversation as she was kind of going into surgery more times than I would care to count. It’s the little stuff that sometimes really sticks with you, and we were trying to capture that, and that’s something we’re trying to capture next week. We have big, big stuff happening – fires and heroism, but the show has always lived in the really small, unexpected moments as well, and I think people should be ready for all of that.
Jack has a reputation of being something of a superhero, a super dad. We left off with the fire heading up the stairs and Jack working to save the family in the promo. Is there a heroism to the way he goes out?
I will say that the opening five to 10 minutes of the episode — we spent a fortune, we went into the middle of nowhere so nobody would see us, and we built our house. We brought in the people who had done Backdraft, and for you, as an audience member, it’s very hard to breathe. It’s extraordinary…. It’s fair to say that he goes out like he lived. I literally said to NBC — just about the entire next episode in general, and not just Jack’s story line — if we were doing a cheesy marketing campaign, we could say in that movie-trailer-guy voice, “If you think you know everything, you don’t know Jack.” [Laughs.] Next week’s episode was one of a couple of episodes that were part of my initial pitch to NBC. Many of the episodes were for future seasons upcoming, but this was one of the first ones. We’ve been working at it for two years, I just completed it. We know we’re going to have a big audience, we know that people are braced for this and want it to be really good — and I think we’ve got it. The performances are extraordinary.
We’ve seen headlines this morning that read “This Is Us reveals Jack’s cause of death,” though we haven’t actually seen him die yet. It certainly appears to be a fire. Is it premature to say that? How much more is there to this picture that we do not know?
There’s a lot more to the picture. I don’t think it’s premature. Without spoiling it, because I want people to experience the episode, all I’ll say is all we’ve seen is what we’ve seen: we’ve seen the cause of the fire. In terms of what happens in the next hour of our television show, there are a lot of surprises, and I think the prism by which you view this family will completely shift on its axis. We’ve always said — and it’s been a huge part of what this show is about — is Kevin’s speech about the painting, and how our past informs our present. And it’s all kind of part of this, and this big canvas that we’re painting on. Milo has been saying a lot when he’s doing press, and it’s true, Jack is about more than how he died, the story of this family is about more than how he died, and the show is about more than one tragedy, but it is a defining moment for this family that exists even less than the halfway mark of the entire series. So we have a long way to go, and a long way to go with Jack in the story, before death and after it.
Kate has mentioned that Jack’s death was her fault, and we saw her get emotional about revisiting the idea of a getting a dog. We spent a lot of time on the dog last night. Fans are theorizing that he goes back to rescue the dog. What can you say? What kind of connection should be drawing?
We didn’t shy from it. That was a big part of the information that was given last night. And then people have theorized, as they have before, that the dog plays a big part in her self-blame about the incident. All we know as an audience right now is when we left Jack shutting down the house, the dog is downstairs in his little bed and everybody else is upstairs — Jack, Rebecca, Kate, Randall; Kevin is out with Sophie — and the stage is set now for when we come into the next episode. We know that the dog plays a part — somehow.
Kevin is carrying around a lot of guilt about Jack’s death, and now we know why; they never made up from that fight. Given his broken leg, though, shouldn’t Kevin feel grateful that he wasn’t in the house that night, because he probably wouldn’t be alive, either?
Yeah, and also keep in mind that he sleeps in the basement – that’s where the fire started was on the lower level. I think that Kevin’s ultimate baggage is about, yes, he had this loaded uncomfortable moment with his father right before he left. He didn’t get any kind of closure. But if you think about Kevin’s character now and where he’s been and what he experiences whenever he talks about his father, it’s interesting to think beyond the final moment he had with Jack. He is the only member of the five-person Pearson family that didn’t experience this colossal [moment], and regardless of what comes out of it next week, that in and of itself is a big, big deal. Even if they had had the loveliest goodbye of all-time — when you think about now starting to look back at other episodes where he’s felt like the “fifth wheel” of this family, is there ever more of a definitive barometer for that than the fact that in the biggest thing to ever happen to this family, he was the one person who wasn’t present, even if it was horrific.
That’s part of what excites me about the next chapter of the show. We have a lot more to learn about Jack; this show goes in really, really interesting and surprising directions. But as an audience member, you always watch the show knowing that he passes away at some point and that makes it extra loaded and sad, but there’s also this mystery of how did he die, when did he die, what were the state of relationships when he died? Once you know all of that and you go back to those 10-year-old kids and just a normal episode touching on Jack, they become different in a way that was always part of my instinct about my show. Not just more emotional or more touching or sadder, but different because you now know everything about where this family is heading, but you’re watching them before or after the storm. That is a different way to peel back, and suddenly you can look at old episodes in a different way.
What are your words of advice for the PR team at Crock-Pot today?
I just literally just sent out a tweet — because I was reading this morning the reactions to the episode — reminding everybody that this was a fictional Crock-Pot with a faulty switch that was 20 years old. So, I don’t think the entire Crock-Pot community should be blamed for this.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.