Warning: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, “A Philadelphia Story.”
“A Philadelphia Story” spotlighted a kindly, beloved, big-hearted paternal presence on This Is Us — nope, not that one, the other one.
The second episode of the NBC family drama’s third season returned viewers to Randall’s late biological father, William (played by the Emmy-winning Ron Cephas Jones), who was seen here five years sober, welcoming a new tenant to his building and community, and just being the generous, decent soul we know him to be. But a deeper story of the episode centered on Randall (Sterling K. Brown), who made a heartbreaking, pained decision as a college-bound teenager and received not one but two bruising blows in the present, as he grappled again with issues of his identity and background as a transracial adoptee while joining his two worlds. Meanwhile, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) revealed their IVF journey to Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who took a beat to come around to this high-risk procedure, but not before a jittery, unmedicated Toby lost his temper. And Kevin (Justin Hartley) invited the Pearson crew to the premiere of his Ron Howard war movie, and although new not-girlfriend Zoe (Melanie Liburd) seemed to want to keep her distance, she texted the equivalent of a door opening after the fact.
But that look on Randall’s face at the end of the episode? Sorry, Kate, you’ve got some damage control to do. Let’s grab a celebratory fro-yo, fellow milk enthusiasts, ponder the planet’s dwindling water supply, and get the real “Story” from the bookkeepers, This Is Us showrunners Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was a key episode for Randall in two different time periods. In the past, he turns down a chance to learn more about his African-American heritage at Howard to stay with his adopted family. In the present day, he is honoring that heritage by rehabbing his biological father’s building and rec center. It’s tough to watch him rejected by both sides of his background — first by Chichi [Yetide Badaki], who tells him that he’s not one of them, and then later when he finds out that Kate said that she was the only one in the family who would carry on the legacy of Jack [Milo Ventimiglia]. What do these rejections do to him, and which comment impacts him more?
ELIZABETH BERGER: I think they both do. So much of Randall’s life is this struggle to come to terms with his own identity. And I think he feels so connected to his black identity. He feels so connected to his adoptive parents and his family, but to always feel like you’re moving between worlds causes a lot of internal conflict. We’re glad that it’s painful, because that was what we were going for. [Laughs] But, yeah, it’s something that we’re going to continue to see him grapple with and come to terms with throughout the course of the season.
Would you describe it more as a journey of discovery or self-acceptance, or maybe both, as he seeks to carry on the legacies of both his dads?
ISAAC APTAKER: Both, yeah. Randall has such a unique backstory, and he’s always searching to figure out: Where do I belong? What’s my identity? Where’s my place in this world? So I think those things go together.
He’s been so embraced and loved by the Pearsons, but there’s always been that underlying tension that he’s different. Kate’s comment to Kevin that she’s the only one who’s going to pass on a piece of Jack tapped into that. He’s always had a strong bond with Kate, though. What will that remark do to their relationship in the short term?
BERGER: We’ll see next week what it does to their relationship. Kate loves her brother so much and feels so connected to him. And I think she was coming from a place of feeling so intensely about her own situation that she wasn’t choosing every word correctly.
APTAKER: She didn’t even say that to Randall’s face. She said it not even thinking, when he wasn’t there. So that this will get reported back to him — it hits him in a totally different way than she ever would have intended.
BERGER: But she will definitely have to deal with the consequences of not choosing her words a little more carefully.
Young Randall sees his mom — and his siblings in turmoil — after Jack’s death. After celebrating his admission to Howard at his friend’s house and seeing their family together, he calls Howard and withdraws his acceptance, saying that he needs to stay home for family. I imagine this won’t sit well with Rebecca. What can you say about his next steps to college? Is a reversal in the works in the next few episodes? And we know he met Beth at college…
APTAKER: We’re all hoping for a reversal. You’re going to see as we play more in the ’90s that Randall’s really the one who’s stepping up here and feeling like he can’t go all the way to Washington right now and leave his family in the state that they’re in. So that rejection of the admission is going to stick here. But, like you said, it does lead to him meeting Beth. So, we know as painful as that moment is, there is that silver lining — or, I guess, a gold lining.
BERGER: Yeah, we’ll find out this season. And we’ll see that Randall is so connected to Rebecca and feels so protective of her that it’s going to be a real struggle for him to not devote himself fully to taking care of her, which obviously should not fall on a 17-year-old boy. So watching him find that balance and be there for her, but also be there for himself, is something we’re going to be tracking throughout the season.
It was refreshing to see William back. We didn’t get to see him as much last season as we would have liked. Is this the primary way that we’ll be seeing him in the next batch of episodes, as Randall rehabs this building?
BERGER: We were really excited about how natural this felt with seeing Randall in this neighborhood and this building that his father inhabited, and then being able to flash to William in the same space felt so cosmically cool and exciting to us, that in this case it was extremely organic.
APTAKER: We love this William, and we love him with Chi Chi. But we also love to see him with our characters, and he hadn’t met them yet in this time. So in terms of time with William, we really jump all around and find tons of different ways to use him, both in this building world and also once he’s met our Pearsons.
Confession time. Did you know you were going to kill us with showing him holding Chi Chi’s baby?
BERGER: [Laughs] When we all watched it in the edit bay, we were like, “Well, that’s the most powerful moment of the episode right there!” Even though there are others that we love as well.
APTAKER: In the writers room, it started to question of, “I wonder if William has held a baby since he gave up Randall.” And we were like, “I don’t know. He doesn’t have a lot of friends with babies, so quite possibly not.” And that really got us excited.
NEXT PAGE: “What you’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg of where Toby’s going to go.”
Now off his meds, Toby seems anxious, and he has an outburst. How ugly is this going to get — and how will this impact his relationship with Kate? Seems like we’re on the slow path to that flash-forward with him in bed — not the one way down the road.
APTAKER: That flash-forward, we showed [how] it’s going to get — him in bed, bordering on catatonic. This is a story that we’re being really careful with. We’re approaching it from a very real, authentic place, and then consulting with a couple of doctors about what going off of your antidepressants cold-turkey looks like. And that’s a really aggressive thing that Toby did, flushing those meds — and it has some really scary medical consequences pretty immediately. So what you’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg of where Toby’s going to go.
BERGER: We’re also trying to show that marriages have these really have these sad, painful, difficult chapters to them. And we’ve seen Toby be there for Kate on more than one occasion and really try to be her rock. And now we’re going to have to see if Kate is up to the challenge when Toby is down.
Just when you think Kate and Rebecca might be making some progress, it’s back to some old patterns for this mother and daughter. Rebecca tells Kate how after she lost Jack she became extra overprotective, which explains some of her anxiety over the years. But is some of her concern here still line-crossing, given their fragile relationship and Kate’s sensitivity about Rebecca’s fixation on her weight?
BERGER: In this case, it’s more of like a universal mother-daughter difficulty than necessarily their pattern — although, obviously, they are in this new, fragile good place. Rebecca’s in the most difficult position you can be in as a mother right now, and she deeply wants Kate to have exactly what she wants. But she’s also terrified of her doing anything that could hurt her. So I think she would probably argue that it’s not overstepping, it’s her duty as a mom to do everything she can to tell her daughter the truth about this high-risk situation. And then we see her put her own feelings aside and try and be there for her. So I think she did a pretty good job.
APTAKER: What I really love about that story is you see where they’re both coming from. Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong there. Rebecca is expressing a totally legitimate medical concern for her daughter and [Kate] keeps saying, “I’m a woman. I’m an adult in my 30s who’s looked at the risks and made a decision about what I want to do with my body.” They’re both coming at it from a totally justifiable place.
Rebecca says that she should have intervened more with Kate in the months after Jack died. Is that fair self-criticism, or would that have backfired and just alienated Kate even more at the time?
BERGER: It’s a real damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. But I understand her instinct to look back at that period of time when she was so grief-stricken and so unable to take control of the family. But who knows how that would have gone over? I think there’s a good chance that it could have just alienated her kids and driven them even further away from her.
Speaking of Rebecca’s guilt — which we saw in the funeral episode as she insisted on staying near Jack’s urn after having left his side in the hospital — she’s still haunted in the months after his death, and wonders where they’d be now if they’d moved houses. Is she being way too hard on herself here and looking for a reason to blame herself? After all, they probably would have brought that Crock-Pot with them.
APTAKER: Well, it’s that very natural thing. I certainly do it. When something bad happens, you go through all of the choices that you made that seemed so inconsequential that led up to that moment. It’s a little bit like her wishing she had talked to Kate about her weight, looking back and going, “Oh, if only I had done this, maybe things would have turned out differently.” But like we just said about Kate, who knows? That could have made things worse. If they moved, there could have been something wrong with that house. You can’t go back and rewrite history, but there’s that tendency to wish you could.
BERGER: We certainly don’t see it as her fault. We see it as Jack bringing her there on a whim and he thought it would be fun, but deep down he didn’t want to move either. A lot of what she’s going through is just that feeling of when your partner that you’re used to sharing every second with is gone, and you still, somewhat literally, hear their voice. So she’s without him, but he’s still so very present in every moment, which is heartbreaking in its own way.
It was nice to see the moment when Kevin decided to pursue acting, as he wandered drunk from the football field into the theater, climbed onto the stage and imagined the crowd cheering. He’s really seeking this external validation from other people, craving that approval, that he was always seeking from his father. Is that the reason that he fell into acting, more than a love of it?
BERGER: Absolutely. We think that there has always been that little void in Kevin that needs that. Part of that comes from having Randall around all the time, who got all this attention and who was extraordinary in a lot of ways. But we’re going to explore the way the love of acting also does come into play, so it’s not just for attention. But he definitely often operates first from that space of: How do I fill this hole?
Back to Kate’s poorly chosen words. Kevin is stung by what she said, although he later agrees with her, saying the idea of kids makes him nauseous. How much of that is self-protection and Kevin feeling that he’s not worthy to be the father that Jack was — and how much of this is the show totally setting us up to see Kevin with several kids in that distant flash-forward?
APTAKER: [Laughs] Interesting. I think he definitely has a really, really high bar in terms of fathers that he felt that he would not be able to handle. That’s totally part of it. I also think if you just look at where he is in his life, he’s recently become sober, he’s about to be in this massive movie that’s going to change his entire career, and he’s in the very early days of a relationship with [Zoe], someone his sister-in-law just cautioned him against. So I don’t think he really sees himself as being anywhere near ready to be a father.
What is one thing you can tease about next week’s episode?
APTAKER: Who was that guy with the flowers?
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. For more from Moore — Mandy Moore — on the mystery man with the flowers, head over here.