Dan Fogelman takes you inside the process of plotting out Jack's death
The mystery of how Jack Pearson lost his life is now out in the world for you to feel satiation, sorrow, and a sea of other emotions. It probably didn’t unfold exactly like you imagined — Jack wound up expiring from cardiac arrest brought on by smoke inhalation hours after rescuing his family and dog from that house-destroying fire — yet it still cracked your heart by serving up quiet death after louder-than-life disaster.
The demise of the beloved Pearson dad in this fashion was built into the design of the NBC family drama, according to series creator Dan Fogelman. “When I started to write this thing, in my mind’s eye, there was a fire at the house, and the patriarch of the family heroically got the family out of the house, and then died in a really small way, without proper cinematic good-byes, hours later in a hospital by himself,” he told EW. “So we were always writing towards that.”
The first big download of intel about Jack’s fate, which confirmed that he was indeed dead, arrived in the fifth episode of last season, when Kate (Chrissy Metz) introduced the urn with her father’s ashes to boyfriend Toby (Chris Sullivan). Interest heightened over the season as details were doled out preciously, and the speculative chatter reached fever pitch near the end of the season, when Kate, in one of the second-to-last episode’s final scenes, tried to explain to Toby why she has trouble talking about Jack: “I’m the reason he’s dead.” The episode then flashed back to the era in which Jack died: he stepped out of a bar to call teenage Kate (Hannah Zeile) from a payphone to tell her that she was right — he needed to repair this marriage — and he proceeded to drunkenly drive off to Rebecca’s road gig.
“That was a head fake on our part,” says Fogelman, who notes that he’d always been planning to resolve the mystery later in season 2. “While I thought it was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool, interesting timing,’ and people might think that’s coming, I didn’t realize the narrative around that moment would get so strong. If I could take back a moment, that’s the moment I’d take back, just to have slowed the spread of our story.”
Indeed, after witnessing those scenes provocatively stitched together, viewers believed that Jack’s end/mystery resolution was highly nigh, especially given that the following week’s episode was the season finale. But when that finale unspooled a devastating fight between Jack and Rebecca instead of addressing the cause of his death, there was fan frustration. “I think that we thought — and I still continue to think — that the big shock with the finale to people was going to be, ‘Oh my god, this marriage is suffering! America’s sweetest couple is in a state of disrepair and separation,” says Fogelman. “I thought that was the big kind of twist or misdirect: This isn’t about Jack’s death; this is about something deeper and darker, which is: these two are on different pages.”
In hindsight, Fogelman concedes that he would have “changed the way we were messaging the big, big thing coming in the [finale], because we were referring to the separation. People are preprogrammed that characters die in finales, so that was something I hadn’t really contemplated to the same degree.” That said, “we didn’t lie about anything,” he points out. “Kate feels very responsible for Jack’s death, and that [was] explored in this season… but you don’t want to use up your favor in that way.”
Which is why Fogelman took extra care when plotting this season: the goal was to “never make it frustrating” for mystery-focused fans and give them a significant hit of information in the premiere — and one that would offer guideposts for when they should start bracing for maximum heartbreak. Key clues were placed in the final minutes of the episode, culminating with Rebecca (Mandy Moore) crying out in anguish in front of the charred remains of the Pearson house, leading viewers to surmise that a fire that either killed Jack (or at least played a huge part in his death). “When the attention started swarming, the only thing we consciously adjusted was to say, ‘Let’s make sure we give people enough of a bite of the apple in the first episode of the season, and put in some placements of a dog and a cast and a redheaded girl, so that the audience can know when it’s getting close enough,'” explains Fogelman. “[Viewers wouldn’t have to spend their time] wondering if every moment he’s going to get hit by a truck. That was really the only fear: I didn’t want it to become distracting where people aren’t following the stories they need to follow. And I think it was something people enjoyed.”
He likened the unraveling of this lengthy mystery to another tear-inducing process —the peeling of an onion — with each layer revealing a piece of information about a family member and the state of his/her relationship with Jack in the days or months before he passed away. “In order to fully understand that year of their life, you don’t just do it one episode,” he says. “You have to understand what had happened in the marriage and what was happening with those kids vis a vis their father before they lost him. That frames these 37-year-old people we’re seeing.”
Fogelman is contented with not only the manner in which the mystery rolled out this season but how viewers interfaced with it. “We gave the answer that people were looking for in the first episode back, and for the most part, until the batteries were [revealed to be] missing from that smoke alarm, the talk of Jack’s death felt like it ratcheted down,” he says. “People were focused on first Jack’s alcoholism, then his relationship with Rebecca; they were focused on Kevin’s addiction and Kate’s pregnancy, and Randall and Deja, and I was getting a ton of questions about that. And, of course, ‘What’s going to happen to Jack? Is he going to die this season?’ But it wasn’t this overwhelming thing that was the only thing people were only talking about. So I felt we did a nice job. And then, of course, the last three weeks were about that, so naturally people were going to talk about it quite a bit. I’m pleased with how it went down, overall.”
You now have seen how Jack will remain a vital part of the storytelling moving forward, thanks to those flashbacks in last Tuesday’s standout funeral episode. But if you’re still wondering if the series will set up some kind of new riddle, Fogelman can offer instant resolution. “I think that would be a foolish thing to try to create,” he says, noting that the question about Jack’s demise was born organically, not out of calculation. (Also, as he has previously stated: “The show is not about Jack’s death, and if that’s all you care about, you’re missing the point.”)
But while the mystery of Jack’s death may have been resolved, the mystery of Jack himself is still to be unspooled, given that the loving-but-private family man secreted away plenty of important history, such as his time in Vietnam and his deceased brother. “In many ways, Jack might be the character we still have the most to learn about, because he’s kept so many secrets in this period before we’ve really known him,” says Fogelman. “We’re talking about the third season now, and I’m really excited about that, because we can do things with Jack and learn things about Jack that we really can’t with a lot of our other characters…. It’s one of the things I’m most excited about — where we go next in learning stuff about Jack. Which is ironic because the character just died in the most public way on national television.”
While you prepare to unpack Jack, don’t expect to learn anything more about that other tragic death on Super Bowl Sunday — that of Mr. McGiggles the lizard, who was supposedly crushed by Beth’s foot in the kitchen. “That’s one character that will not be returning to the show,” shares Fogelman. “When Mr. McGiggles dies, he’s dead forever.”
The next episode of This Is Us airs Feb. 27.