Jack Pearson is dead. Long live Jack Pearson. After more than a year of head-scratching, chin-stroking, forehead-sweating, theory-spouting, and general sobbing, This Is Us gave viewers the episode they had been dying for: the one in which Jack was dying.
Showcased on TV’s biggest stage, a.k.a. the post-Super Bowl slot, the “Super Bowl Sunday” installment of the überemotional NBC family drama set up the proud Pearson father (played by Milo Ventimiglia) to depart in heroic fashion — specifically, in flames while saving his family from that long-teased fire that destroyed their home. But in a twist (go figure!), he emerged somewhat unscathed — even after ducking back into the burning house to rescue the family dog and a pillowcase full of prized Pearson possessions. Alas, at the hospital, when the danger seemed to have passed, the amount of smoke Jack had inhaled put too much stress on his lungs, causing him to go into cardiac arrest and die suddenly — off-screen, no less. “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,” sums up Ventimiglia. Jack’s wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), didn’t take the news so well; actually, she didn’t take it at all, ordering the bad-news-bearing doctor away until she saw Jack’s body, void of life, for herself.
It’s hardly a goodbye for one of prime time’s most beloved dads, though, given TIU’s penchant for era-hopping. Here, we ask the show’s crafty creator, Dan Fogelman, and the person who effortlessly embodies the Pearson patriarch to answer a few burning (oops) questions, reflect on the heart-stopping (sorry again) adventure, and explain how, even after this devastating death revelation, you still don’t know Jack. At least not entirely.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The secret is finally out. Bittersweet or sweet relief?
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: I’ll say both. Dan, you’ve been talking about this being the way Jack meets his end for a very long time, so there’s a level of satisfaction in what the group was able to put together. I’m really happy with the outcome. And now people can stop asking me personally how Jack died because… well, they know.
DAN FOGELMAN: Now we’re not answering questions about how Jack died, we’re answering questions of whether we’re relieved to no longer answer questions about how Jack died. [Both laugh.]
Let’s go back to the genesis of this mystery. What appealed to you about telling a story about this family that had experienced great tragedy through a father that died too early?
FOGELMAN: You see the response people have to taking this character that they’ve fallen in love with and watching his loss be this defining moment for the family — because we’ve all experienced it in some shape or form in our lives, or been touched by somebody who has. So, in a show that lives in the small moments, this one big event having held a big key to this family felt like a really important piece of it. Milo, you knew since the pilot that he was dead, right? Because we originally had a line in the pilot script…
VENTIMIGLIA: There was a line between Randall and William where Randall says, “Well, my father who’s not around anymore…” and if you pay enough attention to the pilot, that line was missing. But William still says, “He must’ve been proud of you.” He used past tense. So I’ve known from the beginning, and Dan has always assured me, “Now, Mi, Jack is dead, but it doesn’t mean you’re going anywhere.” Which has been another question I’ve fielded a lot: “Does that mean you’re not on the show?” And people would be upset with that.
FOGELMAN: Yeah, that’s a question I’m getting a lot: “Is he still on the show?”
VENTIMIGLIA: Yeah, I’m still around.
And, Milo, what was your initial reaction to finding out you’d be playing a dead man walking? Did that intrigue you?
VENTIMIGLIA: It absolutely intrigued me. But I think part of the magic of Dan’s writing — that the other writers have been able to accomplish — is not being so beholden to one way of traditional linear storytelling. We get to bounce around. And even in [the Super Bowl episode], we get to see the future, which, Dan, you’ve been talking about since the pilot got picked up. And I know sitting next to my father when he was watching the episode and just go, “Oh my god!” — and he knew that’s where it was going — that’s a really big moment, knowing that we are able to time-travel without the worry of stepping on butterflies or flying in DeLoreans.
When was the first time each of you realized this mystery was taking on a pop culture life of its own?
FOGELMAN: There were two moments. The first one was our fifth episode, the episode with the painting, and that’s where Kate reveals the urn, and people really had a reaction to that. But that wasn’t a surprise; it felt properly modulated. The crescendo after we did the second to last episode [“What Now?”], the crescendo around Jack getting in the car drunk driving and Kate saying, “I’m responsible,” I was not prepared. I’m normally pretty prepared for what’s going to come, and I have a good sense of, “Are people going to react to this? Are people going to not like this? Are people going to like this?” And I miscalculated how big of a thing that was going to become. So that was the one for me where I was like, “Woah, this is getting really big.”
VENTIMIGLIA: I’m going to echo what Dan said. It was those moments. It was the weight of understanding that the patriarch was gone and then also right there in [“What Now?”], the kind of idea that the audience was so invested in needing to know how my character died that it was like, “Guys, you’re getting a bit aggressive with it.” [Laughs.] For me, personally, it was almost uncomfortable.
Jack’s end has a simplicity to it; there’s an understated and unexpected nature to his death, which happens off-screen. Dan, how did you choose to focus on small details that stay with you forever — like Rebecca taking a bite out of the candy bar, Jack joking that she was blocking the TV and her sticking out her tongue as their last interaction? And, Milo, what were you drawing from?
FOGELMAN: The show is about the little stuff. We don’t normally live in a space where Jack’s running, holding a mattress over his daughter in a flaming building. Normally, it’s two people having conversations in a car. And that’s kind of how we wanted to attack the death of our major character here — let it live in the really small, quiet, regular moments. I think we were really successful at that, and I think that’s because of the way Milo and Mandy played that last scene — and then what Mandy does in that final scene is so crazy.
VENTIMIGLIA: The way it was all written folded exactly into conversations that Mandy and I had about what Dan was wanting out of this moment. We weren’t looking to play this as “Oh, this is their last moment, so we gotta make sure they’re holding hands or kissing.” No, for all intents and purposes, they’re out of the fire, they’re beyond the fire, they beat the fire. So, Mandy and I were playing it very much like Jack and Rebecca old-hat — they’re not needing to have this big romantic moment. I think actors at times will want to over-emote, but this has been a job where we’re expected to have these big moments that might tip the scale to something that doesn’t feel real. It feels more [like a] movie or television, as opposed to you’ve got your eyes on a real couple. Mandy and I have always been aware of that — especially coming up on the very end — and didn’t want to put too much weight on their last moment, because we knew that Dan had seen it as: they’ve beaten the fire.
FOGELMAN: You can’t state enough what he does in the first six minutes [of “Super Bowl Sunday”]. He did all his own stunt work, I mean, we really burnt a house. So to be able to, in a 46-minute span, go from action hero to romantic comedy lead — and then, in [“The Car”] he stars in six one-act plays, in the course of an hour of television, each with a different member of the family — I think it’s just tour de force for a guy who’s at the top of his craft right now.
There’s irony here in that no one had a bigger and stronger heart than Jack Pearson, but that was the thing that gave out on him.
FOGELMAN: And an off-camera heart problem, at that. Here’s this larger-than-life guy who, in the movie version of his life, should have gone down in flames saving the family. His ultimate death was very small and quiet, and it wasn’t even on camera. There’s something just really real about that.
Milo, what did you think of the idea that the death would be played so small, it would actually be off-screen?
VENTIMIGLIA: I was happy to not have to play that “uhh… uhh…” and croak-over-and-die moment. Dan was being very kind to me as an actor. [Fogelman laughs.] But also I think it’s even that much more painful for Rebecca, that she wasn’t there, and having that be a driving force. Same thing with the kids. Even down to when we shot it, Mandy didn’t know I was going to be in the room. She walked into the room and pretended to see Jack. She didn’t know I was going to be lying there, shirt open, like I’d just had chest compressions.
Do you think on some level Jack did know 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?
VENTIMIGLIA: 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.
FOGELMAN: I agree, I think that’s probably the case. It’s not something we put a fine point on, but there’s a moment that always has stuck with me since we shot the episode, which was the moment after Rebecca sticks out her tongue at Jack and walks out, and you just hang back and the way Milo played it, it’s almost as if he’d been covering a little bit, like that feeling when you know something’s a little off internally but you can’t quite process it. He doesn’t know he’s going to die one second later, but I do think that’s what he played. I think that comes across.
Neither of you ever imagined that this little mystery would turn into such a defining talking point for the series. The show, of course, has always been about much more than that — and its explorations of subjects like race, adoption, or body image are more provocative. How much concern was there about not letting this overwhelm the show? And how did you try to balance that aspect, when you saw how activated fans were by the mystery?
FOGELMAN: We got concerned about it. Honestly, I think it was a little bit of a BS story — the narrative that people were overwhelmed about the Jack mystery and death. It was almost like it was getting overwhelming because of how much people were writing about how people were getting overwhelmed by it. We did this one episode at the end of last year where Jack gets in a car after having had drinks as Kate is saying, “I’m responsible for my father’s death.” That was a head fake on our part. 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. But I thought we handled it well this year. 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. 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.
VENTIMIGLIA: You can’t even call the experiences happening to the adult Big Three a distraction — that was taking center stage itself. From my perspective, it didn’t feel like we were lighting fires elsewhere, forgive the example, to take away from this moment of knowing Jack’s death. There is a desire — and I even have it, to know what’s happening with every single character on the show, and every character is rich with this living of life and experiencing loss that it’s all part of it — to know about Kate and Kevin and Randall, as much as you want to know about Jack and Rebecca young, Jack and Rebecca in different stages, and Jack’s end. They’re all equal.
Milo, were there times where you felt overwhelmed by it and thought, “God, will the conversation shift away from this?” Did you and your cast members talk about the dominance of that story line?
VENTIMIGLIA: If Dan wasn’t so confident with what we were doing creatively, I might have been worried. But I’ve never experienced that with Dan. Ever. I believe in what Dan is doing, and I believe in what he’s putting out into the world in terms of story, and so I’m never worried about this one arc being the sole focus of people’s attention. Because I knew at a certain point that was going to be satisfied. So, all I personally had to do was tease out as I could, or keep quiet when I needed to, to keep the desire to know alive. I was a pilot light. All I was, was a pilot light.
FOGELMAN: I think for the cast it was really the stress of literally doing the press and being asked the questions, and not being sure how to answer it because they’re afraid they’re going to give something away, like that would be bad for the show.
VENTIMIGLIA: That’s very accurate, Dan.
[Last] Tuesday’s heartrending but hopeful funeral episode suggests plenty of areas the show might explore with Jack, such as his time in Vietnam with his brother, which we still know very little about. What awaits in the aftermath of death?
FOGELMAN: 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. 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; we know more about them already… 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. I’m excited to enter his next chapter… Vietnam is going to be a big part of where we’re heading. We’ve met this guy who’s this heroic dream father figure, but he comes from a very different beginning, and we’ve even seen glimpses of that, so how does that man come from that? What was that journey? How does Jack’s past inform what has previously been the past when we met him? If our past becomes the future, what happens when we go to the deeper past? That sounds really science fiction-y, but it’s not that crazy. [Laughs.]
VENTIMIGLIA: I keep telling people: “You’ve only known him for 32 hours. That’s it.” It’s not a lot…. 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 him and his brother in war…. Even in death, there’s a lot of life left in Jack.
Did you feel guilty at all about the backlash that Crock-Pot received? And is that how the Crock-Pot Super Bowl promo with Milo came to be?
FOGELMAN: I feel responsible to say it wasn’t a Crock-Pot; it was a generic slow cooker that our prop department made. So the fact that word took off on the internet when it was really just about a kind of faulty, old made-up kitchen appliance, we wanted to do something for them, and Milo was kind enough. We were trying to make sure that everybody knew that was not the brand we had on the show, so I think it was successful in that way. They really took the whole thing in good humor and good spirits, and hopefully, it can wind up becoming a nice thing for their company — even though it wasn’t in the show.
Milo, what was your take? And are you a slow-cooker enthusiast?
VENTIMIGLIA: I’ve got a slow cooker cookbook actually, and I’ve had one for years. And I have two slow cookers. I have one Crock-Pot, a smaller one, and then I have one larger all-clad slow cooker. So the backlash? I was like, “Guys, don’t hate on machinery. It’s okay, it was just an accident. It was a faulty, fictional slow cooker that doesn’t deserve a real, live company’s destruction.” But also, that moment, Mandy and I had talked about — and Dan, I don’t think we talked about it with you too much, maybe more [with director] Ken Olin — but Mandy was very worried, because [Rebecca] was in the kitchen cooking all day, about blowing the switch or turning it off or unplugging it. And I said, “No, no, no, I got it.” And it was important to me that Jack was the last one to interact with the fated slow cooker.
Which of the following is the most responsible for Jack’s death: George the neighbor (Jack McGee), the slow cooker, the dish towel that caught fire, the dog, or the doctor (Bill Irwin) for inadequate medical care? Let’s rank ’em.
VENTIMIGLIA: Please don’t pass it on to Bill Irwin.
FOGELMAN: Leave Bill Irwin alone.
VENTIMIGLIA: Jack McGee has already suffered enough.
FOGELMAN: I think the dish towel has gotten off way too clean. Everybody’s come after kitchen appliances and doctors and hospitals and the old man, but no one really comes after the dish towel. If that dish towel hadn’t been there, none of this would’ve happened. I blame the dish towel.
VENTIMIGLIA: Dan, I think we’re approaching this wrong. I’m going to put the blame on Jack. I mean, first of all, take some responsibility for your own self. He forgot the batteries. You’ve got to know certain things in your house. I have, in my own home, a faulty light switch right now, which sometimes sparks. I’ve got to change that. I mean, Jack knew. George said, “You gotta fiddle with the switch.” I’m going to put it on Jack, not the dish towel.
FOGELMAN: It’s such a Jack thing to do — to take responsibility to spare a f—ing dish towel!
VENTIMIGLIA: Dude, I don’t want [to upset] the cotton industry all of a sudden! I don’t want to do a special video stepping out of a shower, drying off with a dish towel. You already put me in one in the pilot!
This Is Us returns to NBC on Feb. 27.