This Is Us producer on Randall's campaign shake-up, Beth's blow-up and Kevin's assumptions
On this week’s This Is Us, two Pearson spouses found themselves switching roles as both Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kate (Chrissy Metz) had to do their best Jack Pearson impression and be the rock for their respective spouses: Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) faced growing feelings of uselessness after losing her job, and Toby (Chris Sullivan) continued to struggle after going cold turkey off his meds. Meanwhile, Kevin (Justin Hartley) became even more obsessed with the mysterious photo of his father and a young Vietnamese woman, even driving to Philly to parse the issue with Randall.
“Kamsahamnida,” a reference to the only phrase Randall knows in Korean, was light on clues to the past or the future, instead focusing on developments in the present and a boxing metaphor involving Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Randall. After discovering that Jack occasionally spars with other men (even earning himself a black eye), Rebecca (Mandy Moore) forbids Jack from doing it again — but soon young Randall asks his dad to teach him how to defend himself against a fabricated bully. Randall, it turns out, was simply looking for a way to be more “tough” like Jack.
In the present day, Randall puts his father’s boxing advice to good use, trying to hit his campaign opponent, Sol Brown (Rob Morgan), where it hurts, while Brown just smiles to hide his pain. After being killed with kindness while making an appearance at Sol’s church, Randall decides to try a new tactic: winning over Korean voters who haven’t turned out for past elections. The politically motivated scheme is immediately transparent to many in the neighborhood, but it earns Randall a crucial ally in Jae-Won (Tim Jo), his new campaign manager.
Meanwhile, Beth struggles to hold it together while helping her kids sell Girl Scout cookies. Ultimately, she tells Randall she’s not all right, which prompts him to sing her praises like he’s in love in a Disney movie before convincing her to join his campaign team. Kate tries to help Toby find his way forward, but her efforts are hindered when their dog, Audio, eats a rock. But it’s Kate’s turn to come through, so she eventually persuades Toby to join her on a walk and assures him she’s not going anywhere with a “till death do us part” speech.
Kevin’s Vietnam obsession and assumptions that the mystery woman was romantically involved with Jack lead him to burst in on Zoe (Melanie Liburd) during her post-documentary spa day with a visa application — he’s going to Vietnam (with Randall’s blessing) to find out more about his father, and he wants her to come with him. As we know from last season’s flash-forward, she says yes and the wheels are in motion to take them overseas.
This Is Us producer Isaac Aptaker delved deep into the episode with EW, evaluating the show’s tendency to put fictional dogs in danger and more. So let’s keep peeling back that wallpaper as Aptaker answers questions about Randall’s campaign slip-ups and new team members, what Kate’s big speech means for her and Toby’s future, and when we might see Beth get a win on her own terms.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’re getting more and more pieces about Nicky’s life. We know Jack hasn’t told his family a lot about his brother [played by Michael Angarano], but here he gives Rebecca this beautiful story about how they used to box as kids. As we go forward, will we see that Rebecca maybe knew more about Nicky than we thought she did?
ISAAC APTAKER: We’re going to learn everything that Rebecca knew about Nicky. I don’t think it’s a ton. I love that moment, and part of what makes it so special is that even in this incredibly intimate marriage, Jack was so guarded when it comes to talking about his immediate family growing up. He offered little snippets here and there. That was a real response to Rebecca’s frustration at how closed off Jack is. She knows maybe a little bit more than she’s already said, but it’s really the type of thing where he didn’t talk about him very much, and she doesn’t have a ton of insight into that part of her husband’s life even though they were so close.
Toby and Beth have been the rocks for their respective spouses, and now we see them admitting some weakness and seeking support from Kate and Randall. In each of their cases, have they turned the corner, or have we only seen the beginning of their struggles this season?
Especially with Toby, when it comes to depression, it’s something that is so common, and it’s something that has affected everyone in our writer’s room, either directly or through someone they know. So it was very important to us to depict that honestly and tell it on an honest timeline, and not do a story where one week Toby is in the throes of a depressive episode and the next week he’s popped a pill and he’s exactly back the way he was. It’s a struggle, and there’s a process to it. What I love so much about his story is it gives Kate a chance to be the rock for Toby. He’s so often the one who’s there for her. And I love giving Chrissy the chance to play the partner who has to be the one to buck up her husband.
Kate gives Toby a big speech about sticking by his side no matter what, being there in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, forever. Should we read into that speech as a clue for the flash-forward where we saw Toby without her and his wedding ring? That only the direst circumstances could’ve driven them apart?
Oh, interesting. I think she’s speaking in the moment, and she’s not a prophet and she can’t say what’s to come in a marriage. So that’s one way of looking at it. Or it could be just that things did take a turn and reach a point where she no longer felt that way.
Can we be assured Audio is okay? You guys love to put dogs in mortal peril and pull them out at the last minute.
[Laughs] That is what destroys me more than anything. I can go from zero to 60 sobbing. You show me a clip of a dog, I can’t handle it. I will do everything in my power here to make sure no dogs are fictionally harmed on our show.
Ultimately Randall supports Kevin’s need to learn more about their dad’s time in Vietnam, but initially he seems really reluctant. Where is that coming from? And as Kevin learns more, will Randall not want to know whatever it is he finds?
Randall is the Pearson who’s the most at peace with Jack. He doesn’t feel like he has a lot of baggage. They had some really nice closure. So there’s something very scary when your brother comes to you and says, “Hey, I want to open the closet and see what skeletons are in there. I want to start asking questions and really digging into some stuff we don’t know about Dad that he maybe didn’t want us to know or maybe wasn’t the most pleasant stuff.” So Randall’s first reaction to that is, “Let’s just leave it alone. He’s a great man, we’ve finally found closure as a family, Kate spread the ashes, let sleeping dogs lie.” But by the end of the episode, he realizes he needs to let Kevin go on this journey. Much in the way that Randall has been on a journey over our whole series to figure out his identity and mine his past, he needs to let Kevin have that exploration.
Kevin seems convinced this mystery woman has a romantic connection to Jack. How accurate is his assumption?
It’s such an ambiguous picture. It is a young, strapping Jack standing next to a beautiful Vietnamese woman, and he eventually inherited the jewelry that’s on her neck. So if it was my dad, I would probably think there was love in the air, but that’s his first interpretation. He’s going to go on a real quest to get some answers.
Jack has this whole metaphor about a boxing opponent smiling so you don’t know how much you’ve hurt him, which is intercut with Randall in Sol Brown’s office. Is it fair to say that Randall’s tactics are hitting Sol where it hurts even if he smiles through the pain?
Oh yeah. At first he underestimated Randall a little bit. As the guy who’s been in this community for over a decade and Randall’s coming in as a wealthy guy from Alpine, New Jersey, with a bit more of a tenuous connection to this community through William, I don’t think he’s worried at all. And then in this episode, Randall proves some real political savvy and hires this ambitious young campaign manager, and all of a sudden Sol Brown is going, “Uh oh, maybe I have something to worry about here.”
Randall is barging in a bunch of places without really thinking: last week at the BBQ place, and now registering Korean voters. His heart’s in the right place, but his actions are clearly politically motivated. Is he going to continue to have to be taken down a peg before he figures out his approach? Or will his new campaign manager effectively recalibrate things?
The campaign manager is a huge step forward for Randall, but at the same time, it’s not like he’s getting a veteran campaign manager. He’s getting a pretty young guy. Randall has only been in this political stage for a matter of weeks, so they both have a lot to learn. And there’s a lot of the story left to tell with many surprises, both for our audience and also for Randall, about what exactly the challenges are of running for city council.
Beth is joining Randall’s campaign team. Is this really going to be the answer to her stress and what she’s going through? She’s already propped up so many of Randall’s ambitions. Or will this add more tension to their relationship?
On the one hand, it really plays into Beth’s area of expertise. She was an urban planner. In a way, she knows a lot more about how to run for city council and city politics than Randall does. He’s being completely genuine when he’s saying he thinks she’ll be amazing at this. But also, it is her on Randall’s team. It is her supporting Randall’s dream. It’s not her branching out and saying, “This is what I’m going to do.” It’s saying, “Here’s how I’m going to help you do what you want to do.” It’s a delicate balance, and it certainly could get fraught.
Will we see her get her own rock-star moment again that’s not in the service of Randall? I love how much they support each other, but will we see her get a win of her own?
One hundred percent. We’re just finishing up a script for an episode that dives into Beth’s backstory. We’re going to be casting a young Susan. Susan is such a rock star and has been so incredible for us. She is definitely going to get her time in the spotlight outside of supporting her husband’s dream.
What can Jae-Won bring to the campaign? What will we see from both him and Beth in coming weeks?
Jae-Won’s the best. He’s this actor, Tim Jo, who Elizabeth [Berger] and Dan [Fogelman] and I all worked with way back on this show we did on ABC called The Neighbors. He is a really funny actor. He’s a really interesting dramatic actor. He has a really different energy from Sterling. He plays such an interesting foil for him. Here we have two guys who are both not very experienced in politics embarking on this campaign together, and they’re both real forces in their own way. They will butt heads. They will support each other, but he is in it with Randall to win it. We have a lot more story to tell about this odd coupling that we have here.
Kevin admits he has problems with boundaries and then shows up with a visa application at Zoe’s hotel room. We knew she would say yes because of the flash-forward, but what changed for her? A few weeks ago she probably would’ve chewed him out for showing up like that, yes?
I think she was a little annoyed. I think it’s also part of falling in love with someone where you accept their foibles and their annoying behaviors because you love that person. I also think she’s really excited by it. Remember, Zoe’s a documentary filmmaker, and here’s someone who’s offering to take her along on what could be a really incredible story. It appeals to both her love for Kevin and also her intellectual curiosity.
Generally speaking, This Is Us doesn’t get political. But it was a nice push for voter registration when we have a real-world election coming up. Was that intentional?
The timing of the episode, we didn’t totally know how it was all going to lay out because we were breaking this before we had our exact air schedule. But I don’t think telling people to vote — it’s political, but it’s not partisan. We try to provide an hour a week where we’re not dividing the country because so much of our lives right now is about what’s right and he-said– she-said and very divisive ways of thinking. So in terms of partisanship we’re not getting into that type of politics, but I don’t think there’s anything divisive in telling people to vote. What this country is built on and what makes it amazing is our ability to pick our leaders and how we feel about the issues that are important to us. That’s a message that This Is Us can get behind, that you have a voice and you should use it.
Can you tease what’s in store next episode, in two weeks?
In two weeks, we’re doing one of my favorite episodes of the year so far. We just got back from Vietnam, where we shot a handful of these episodes, including part of this next one coming up. It’s three different road trips. We’re going to pick up with Jack and Rebecca where we left off in their early courtship period, with them heading on the road to L.A. We’re going to jump back to Jack’s time in Vietnam and tell a road trip story of sorts with him over there. And we’re also going to continue with Zoe and Kevin’s story of their arrival in Ho Chi Minh city, so it’s a really cool episode. It’s so all over the place in terms of time and place, but the stories are really beautifully cohesive. I can’t wait for people to see it.