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 nextYou’ve known Jack was going to die since the beginning of the series. What was your reaction, though, when Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] told you Jack didn’t perish in the fire that was going to be teased, but he would die suddenly at the hospital?
I mean, it was nothing but applause for Dan Fogelman. He is never one to give us an obvious answer, but he’s also never one to make it so complicated that we can’t understand it or process it or accept it. His creation of these moments is so beautiful — they’re perfect. They really are perfect. It’s hard to say someone had a perfect death, but it really felt like a moment that was real, that you don’t see, that doesn’t carry this, “Yeah, okay, but…” I mean, his wife was eating a candy bar when she heard. [Laughs.] Who does that as a writer? Dan Fogelman does —and it’s heartbreaking and beautiful and it’s unique.
You mentioned that you don’t want to say it was relief when Jack died, but is there a sense of relief now that this episode is in the rear-view mirror? Does it feel like in some ways that a burden has been lifted?
Yes, it does — and no, it doesn’t. All of us have gotten very accustomed to not speaking about family secrets. But I’ll tell you what — it’s a question that I’m happy not to field anymore: “How does Jack die?” “Yeah, I’m sorry, I can’t tell you. Just wait for another month, another week, another day, a few hours — when you get there, you’ll know.” I am happy to have that in the rear-view. But it’s not the end of Jack. There is still so much to know about this guy.
It’s hardly goodbye for you. What does telling this chapter of the story now allow the show to do moving forward?
This is episode 14, so that’s only the 32nd hour we’ve ever known this family. So now, if Jack died in 1998, when the kids are 17, there’s still a lot to know — different sides of him, what made him, what shaped him, what inspired his romance with his wife, what happened with he and his brother in war…. That we’ve invested as much as we have as an audience in 32 hours is pretty remarkable. There’s a lot of life left in him — even in death, there’s a lot of life left in Jack.
The cast recently had a viewing party to watch the episode together. What stands out to you about that? Who lost it the most?
It was heavy. But there was no one that wasn’t crying. Everyone was. At Dan Fogelman’s house, he has two TVs playing, and where I was sitting, I had Sully [Chris Sullivan] and Chrissy [Metz] next to me, and behind me was Sterling [K. Brown] and Mandy, and then in the other room was Justin. And the second it was over — and they both ended at the same time — Justin walks in, and we all just started hugging one another. I know this was the episode of Jack’s death, but I thought the episode itself was so very much carried on the shoulders of Mandy and Sterling and Justin and Chrissy and everyone else. I mean, that beautiful scene with Eris Baker, who plays Tess, I mean, my god! Knocked out of the park! And then at the very end when we see the older version and Dan just expanded the world even more! We’re going into the future! And you see an older Randall, who’s probably the same age as his mother in the present day! Like, how cool is that?
How much guilt, if any — or what emotions — should Kate feel? You can understand why she would feel that way after crying out that the dog was still in the house, and her knowledge that Jack always did anything he could to make her happy.
Kate shouldn’t feel any guilt at all. There’s no guilt associated with that. It wasn’t her crying out for her dog that ultimately is responsible for Jack. Jack made a decision. I mean, it’s not that Jack just went in and grabbed the dog and ran out. Look at all those other treasures — those family memories that Jack pulled out. The moon necklace! I mean, how? How, Jack? Even Rebecca said that at the hospital: “How, Jack?” It’s just Jack, it’s who he is. Kate needs to forgive herself, and what a beautiful moment she had with Toby, where she talks about how much her dad would have loved him, but how Toby is the one who saved her. Literally, saved her. Such a beautiful moment played by Chrissy and Chris Sullivan.
Now we can write the epitaph on Jack’s gravestone — or urn. How should that read now that we know maybe not the full story, but more of the story?
Jack died as he lived — in service of his family.
To read more from Ventimiglia about Jack’s “f—ing painful” death, click here.
To find out why This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman wanted to Jack to die THAT way, click here.
For more This Is Us scoop, follow @dansnierson on Twitter.
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