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February 05, 2018 at 04:04 AM EST

In 1980, the country was consumed with the mystery of “Who Shot J.R.?” Almost four decades later, America couldn’t stop asking, “What killed J.P.?”

On Sunday night, This Is Us finally answered that question, as the post-Super Bowl episode of the emotionally turbocharged NBC family drama brought resolution to the death mystery shrouding one of prime time’s most beloved characters: Jack Pearson. Milo Ventimiglia had warned that Jack’s death would be “an absolute soul-crushing event.” It also came with — surprise!— a bit of a twist, as that long-teased fire did indeed lead to his death, but he didn’t actually perish in the flames that consumed the family’s home.

At the beginning of the highly anticipated/dreaded installment, Jack (Ventimiglia) bravely rescued his family from the raging fire started by a faulty Crock-Pot. (Thanks a lot, George!) As if that weren’t enough — and for Jack, it never was — he registered Kate’s cries of concerns for the family dog that was still trapped in the house, and ran back in to save the canine, even returning from the flames with a sack of the family’s treasured possessions.

And for a moment, it appeared that, save for a few second-degree burns on his hands and some (or a lot of) smoke inhalation, Jack survived the fire. But while at the hospital undergoing further routine treatment, the stress on his lungs from the smoke inhalation brought about cardiac arrest. And just like that, much to the shock/denial of his wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), Jack was… gone. Sometimes heroes have to die, and this Super Dad, who had weathered Vietnam and alcoholism, flamed out tragically early. But Jack will live on — as he already has for the last season and a half — through the miracle of flashbacks. While we mourn the death of the Pearson patriarch, who put family first right ’til the very end, let us seek comfort and insight from the man who effortlessly embodies him, Milo Ventimiglia.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You weren’t kidding around when you hinted that once the audience figures out the moment where it’s going to happen, “you may get some hope — and then it’s all going to go away.” What was that like for you to finally film Jack’s death, and see all of that hope go away?
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: I don’t want to say a relief, but I think it was acceptance. First off, I had to lay as still as I could because poor Mandy Moore, she did not know that I was going to be laying there [in the hospital bed].

She didn’t know that I was going to be there. I think she thought she was walking into a blank room, and walking in on me, not knowing that the shot was also picking up my reflection, dead-still. So that was — it was a moment. And I can hear her; I’m laying there and I can hear Mandy breaking down and just crumbling, take after take after take. I wanted to give her the space and lay there, still, not moving. We even filmed bits where she would walk up to me, and I’m just laying there staring at a point on the wall, barely breathing, but having to feel her over me or near me — just losing Jack.

Which was the most difficult scene to film emotionally or even logistically throughout the episode? There are some really tiny, beautiful moments, there are some frantic moments with the fire…
The difficulty for me was the logistics of the fire. We were working in a controlled way with live flames, but still, it’s fire. So, I’m always cautious of, “Well, let me put myself between others I’m in a scene with and the fire itself,” just like Jack basically is. And Hannah [Zeile, who plays teenage Kate] and I had a lot of moments where we’re right up next to it — or Niles [Fitch, who plays teenage Randall] and I — and it was one of those things where, hey, we’ve got two days of this controlled burn, let’s make sure everyone is going home okay. So logistically that was tough.

But then the other hardest [part] was just making sure that I wasn’t in the performance giving any indication that these are the last moments that the kids are going to see their father or Rebecca is going to see Jack. Everything had to be played in a way that was, “We think Jack’s okay — he’s okay.” Glenn Ficarra and John Requa [the TIU executive producers who directed this episode] even said, “Mi, we know that the intake of smoke is what ultimately kills Jack, but we don’t want to tip that off. We want to have you not cough, we want to have you not do anything, but we have to show some kind of discomfort.” So among the three of us, we put in there me clearing my throat a lot, or just being a little more still and focused and almost just distant from what was happening, but still trying to hold that little thread of nostalgic Jack in there. I know a lot of clearing the throat and coughing didn’t get used because Dan really didn’t want to tip off that there was something really wrong with his lungs that was sending his heart into cardiac arrest, but the real-life statistics of smoke inhalation is horrible. A house fire like that — if you’re in that kind of smoke for five seconds and you take two full, deep breaths in, you’re done. You’re just done.

Do you think on some level that Jack did know that there was something bigger wrong with him when he was at the hospital, but he tuned it out and was just being stoic about the pain —you know, just being Jack?
Yes. He could probably sit there and have his wife in the room and all of that, but I deep-down think maybe he knew and he didn’t want her to have to see that or be around for that — I don’t know the real answer behind that, but I do feel like Jack knew something was wrong. 

NEXT PAGE: Ventimiglia on his initial thoughts on Jack’s death twist — and what’s next

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