By Dan Snierson
November 20, 2018 at 10:04 PM EST
Ron Batzdorff/NBC (2)
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If you were wondering whether this year’s Thanksgiving episode of This Is Us might show you how Jack and Nicky soldiered their way through the holiday in Vietnam, or how Jack’s last Thanksgiving turned out, or even what Thanksgiving with Miguel’s family might possibly look like, the answer was: all the above, and then some.

“Six Thanksgivings” was structured so that every act offered up a self-contained story, as well as a different angle on the family-’n’-feast-focused holiday. Back in Vietnam in the early ’70s, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) realized he had bitten off more than he could chew with his damaged brother, Nicky (Michael Angarano), and connected with a certain necklace-wearing Vietnamese woman with an injured son. In the ’90s, Jack, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), and the Big Three observed their last T-Day with a guest, Miguel (Jon Huertas), who was fresh off a contentious split from his wife and childless for the day. More recently, viewers saw the first sparks between William (Ron Cephas Jones) and Jesse (Denis O’Hare), as the latter got honest about his crippling cocaine addiction and then invited him to a jazz-themed T-Day night.

In the present day, Miguel took Rebecca to a most awkward meal at one of his children’s house, and he wound up defending Rebecca’s honor and calling them out for disparaging his wife. Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) tried to make Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), who were ladling food at a campaign-related volunteer event. Toby did not quite nail the food preparations, but plan B’ed pretty well, and Kate was there to the rescue for an ailing Tess (Eris Baker) with an intimate, encouraging chat. In the end, young Randall (Niles Fitch) nailed his college essay with the “flawed” prompt about the one person who impacted his life the most, and Deja (Lyric Ross) texted her mom back, so Thanksgiving turned out all right after all.

Let’s win the country club championship four years in a row, brush our teeth whilst wearing only our underwear, and try not to think of that sloppy bowl of chicken fricassee as we serve up a few burning questions about “Six Thanksgivings” to This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You revisited a format you used in the season 1 fall finale, with each act serving as its own story. What appealed to the writers about returning to it at Thanksgiving, especially the last one with Jack?
ISAAC APTAKER: It’s a fun one to do around the holidays. There are so many TV tropes around holiday episodes, so coming up with “What’s the Thanksgiving episode that we haven’t seen 8,000 times?” is always a bit of a high bar. And what’s so unique about our show is that we jump around through all these characters’ lives and all these decades and places in time, so [we have] the ability to say, “Instead of trying to fight all of the seen-it-before Thanksgiving family stories in one full episode, why not really embrace what makes our show special and spread it out across these one-act plays?”

Tess winds up sharing some intimate parts of her life with Kate, which we think at first is just about the period, but turns out to be her emerging sexuality: When Kate says, “Pretty soon you’re going to have your first boyfriend,” she tentative responds, “Or girlfriend?” What was Eris’ first reaction when you told her about this revelation?
Eris was really excited about getting to tell this story and really getting to push herself as a young performer. Whenever we are going to do something complex or emotional with any of our kids, we loop in the parents first, so that was the first conversation. And then we lucked out that our director for the episode was Catherine Hardwicke, who did the movie Thirteen and has such experience telling honest stories about adolescent girls. Catherine has all sorts of interesting directorial tricks — for Thirteen, she had the actors all live in a house together for a week. Our schedule doesn’t allow for anything like that. But I believe she had Eris keep a diary in character to help her really get inside of Tess’s head and bring as much depth to the performance as possible. Whatever she did worked, as we’ve been completely thrilled with the job Eris has been doing in this episode and the ones coming up later in the season.

Tess later tells Kate not to mention anything to Randall and Beth. Aside from feeling vulnerable as she tests the water and starts asking questions about her identity, is there another reason she might be reluctant to tell her parents? Randall was a bit stunned at first when he found out about William’s bisexuality, but he came around, and Tess was the one who pointed it out to him matter-of-factly.
In that moment, she wasn’t even really planning on telling Kate. I think she was just feeling connected to her and they were having this intimate moment and she made a spur-of-the-moment decision right there. It’s funny, prior to this moment, Elizabeth [Berger, This Is Us executive producer] and I wrote this movie called Love, Simon, which was all about this coming-out experience in a very supportive family in 2018. And what we learned in talking to people over the course of doing that project, honestly, it’s not even about whether or not you think your parents are going to be okay with it, it’s just such a huge scary thing to declare who you are to the world. And to do that at Tess’ age, she’s really young, it’s overwhelming. I don’t think she’s worried “What if my parents don’t love me anymore?” and “What if they’re not okay with this?,” because they are pretty liberal and pretty loving parents, but it’s just a terrifying thing to announce yourself like that…. That wasn’t a premeditated decision to tell Kate, she kind of got swept up in this conversation, so then [she had] a second to think about it and go, “Uh oh, I’m not ready yet.” She needed to make sure that Kate got that.

She’s pretty young, so maybe the storyline of her beginning to explore her sexuality won’t play out immmediately. Was that also something you did to plant a seed for the distant future flash-forward story that’s unfolding?
I guess you could say everything is planting something for the future, yeah.… It’s definitely a slow burn. I mean, kids are coming out and figuring this out about themselves younger and younger nowadays. So it felt like there was a truth and a modernity to it. But yeah, this is a slow story that will play out for Tess over the life of the show.

As you promised, we learned more about the Vietnamese woman, whose son Jack helped, and she gave him the necklace that Jack later gives Kevin. We know that Kevin [Justin Hartley] and Zoe [Melanie Liburd] are headed to the fishing village where Jack lived to try to get to the bottom of this, but what can you hint about the woman’s story from there? And how much more story is there to tell, because it feels like there’s something ominous swirling around her and her son.
We still have a lot of questions, and Kevin has a lot of questions, and we’ll be answering them through Kevin and the rest of his journey.… It’s a very cool collision course of past and present, because in the past we see that Jack’s time with Nicky before he gets transferred back to his base is rapidly running out, so those two stories touch on each other and connect in a really cool way.

Nicky’s soul is in a dark place after refusing Jack’s orders to help an injured Vietnamese child who’s suffering. For someone who protected spiders and released them back into the wild, this seems at great odds with who he was. Two weeks is not a lot of time to flush out the intoxicants from Nicky’s system and get his head on straight. How far gone is he?
In that moment, [Jack is] realizing how far gone his brother is in a lot of ways. It’s the first meaty, really substantial interaction we’ve shown with them since Jack brought Nicky back to his village. In hearing that story, he’s starting to understand why his brother has become addicted to drugs, how he has seen a lot of horror that Jack has not necessarily seen in in Vietnam, and I think he’s realizing there, “Oh wow, the task I set out for myself in this very limited time is really, really hard. Because this kid has been through it.”

I think Jack’s head is racing with trying to figure out the best option with very limited resources out in the middle of nowhere. Like you said, this was that sweet little kid with glasses who would save spiders, and it’s the case of the sweeter and more vulnerable you are going into something like this, the harder it’s going to be on you. So Nicky was just so ill-equipped for what he had to go through, and we’re seeing the other end of it.

What’s your one-sentence tease about where this story is headed in this critical two-week time?
It’s hugely surprising.

NEXT PAGE: Aptaker on Miguel’s big stand: ‘It’s exactly what you want him to do in that situation’

Miguel has a moment or two of sticking up for himself and Rebecca, like when Kevin was giving them a hard time. But here he really steps up and defends his turf — or Rebecca’s. He tells off his son and says, “Take all the shots at me you want to… but the one time in a decade that you see Rebeca, you show my wife some respect.” It’s an interesting moment because we always interface with this storyline from the kids’ perspective of feeling like Miguel overstepped into their lives, and here we see perspective from the other side, where Miguel’s kids think Rebecca is the bad one who stole their dad away.
Mm-hmm. I love seeing it from the flip side. We’re all the hero in our own story, and we see things always from Miguel being the intruder into the Pearson family, but if you think about it, there was this whole other family that also grew up as best friends alongside them. And to them, Rebecca is the one who stepped in and intruded. [Laughs] It’s so cool to realize that, “Oh wow, this world is so much bigger than the family we’ve been watching for the last few years.” And I hope people fall in love with Miguel in that moment. I think Jon did such a great job, and when he draws a line. It’s such a great protective moment — and it’s exactly what you want him to do in that situation.

So, now how far along are you on the Miguel image-rehabilitation mission?
We hired a PR consulting firm to write this episode. [Laughs] No, it’s interesting, because a little bit of the attitude that his own family has toward him is some of the attitude that our audience has had toward him, so seeing him be able to confront that head on is very validating.

He wins you over a bit, but on the flip side, he says that he tried to be present to make up for his absentee days and send them gifts, but they’d barely give him an email back. You think about Jack’s speech to Miguel about taking on that fight and showing his kids that he is their father, but at one point, it sounds like he just gave up. Would Jack have given up? And how much guilt does Miguel carry for that?
I definitely think Miguel did give up a little bit. We have so many of these great Jack hero moments on our show, but it’s cool to be a little bit realistic with it, which was our goal here and show that sometimes no matter how awesome the pep talk, it doesn’t stick. People are flawed, and Miguel at a certain point, sort of gave up on trying to have that relationship with his kids. Who knows what Jack would have done in that situation? But for Miguel, time and distance took his toll. But what I love about this story is that he wants that connection with his grandkids. He wishes they had a closer relationship, and no matter what happened in the past, he’s willing to put in the time and effort now.

Randall and Beth have a tense moment in this episode after the disagreement between her and Jae-Won (Tim Jo) about how Randall should be spending Thanksgiving. She hears him say to Jae-Won, “What do you want me to do? I don’t care if it’s a mistake, she’s my wife.” It’s clear Randall respects her acumen, and he wouldn’t hire her if he didn’t believe in her. Did Randall do his wife a disservice by standing by her possibly flawed idea because he wanted to help, or was he just in a damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t situation?
I think he was in a total damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t. Randall respects Beth and her opinions so much. In a lot of ways, she has much more expertise and background in city council and urban planning, for sure. So I don’t think it’s ever about not actually thinking that she knows what she’s talking about. Both Beth and Jae-Won are presenting valid points of view on how to handle a campaign situation, and it’s all just complicated by the fact that one of the people on his team is also his wife. It was an unfortunate choice of words in a pressurized moment that now Randall is going to have live with.

This theme is popping up a lot on the show — This Is Us: An Unfortunate Choice of Words — whether it’s when Kate says that she’s the only one left who can carry on Jack’s legacy.
Totally. That’s the theme of the season: “Oh, I wish I didn’t say that!”

How awkward does it get when Beth announces next week that she’s running against him?
Wouldn’t that be amazing? If we were a different show, that would definitely be the story. No, we’re not going quite in that direction. But that off-handed comment that Randall made in the soup kitchen is the start of something much bigger and much scarier for this couple and where they’re headed.

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NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.
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