Warning: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “Songbird Road, Part Two.”
Nicky’s reluctant Meet the Pearsons Tour continued on Tuesday’s installment of This Is Us, and if you were looking for sweet family resolution with Nicky (Griffin Dunne) agreeing to join the family for Sunday dinners, well, you were both misguided and disappointed by episode’s end.
In last week’s episode, viewers met a Nicky still traumatized from the Vietnam War four decades ago, and from older brother Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) informing him that he wanted nothing to do with him two decades ago. The younger Pearson had spent year after year after year devolving into a troubled, shutaway soul stagnating in a trailer in rural Pennsylvania, battling addiction issues and suicidal thoughts. Led by Kevin (Justin Hartley), the Big Three found him in his trailer, engaged him in some awkward conversation, broke the news that Jack died back in 1998, and started to head home, but Kevin would follow through where his father folded: He turned around the car and returned to the trailer to put a supportive hand on Nicky, who was located dangerously close to a gun. In this week’s follow-up, the trio took their uncle to a hotel for the night, and then the other Pearson who initially had declined the road-trip invitation, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), showed up impulsively, too curious to miss an opportunity to talk to the man who claimed memories of Jack that she didn’t know.
Nicky would tell his sister-in-law precious few things — turns out, Jack was quite a gifted builder as a child — but his willingness to share was soon exhausted, and he was not soothed when she opined that Jack’s new sobriety at the end of his life would have built a bridge back to brotherhood. Quasi-interested Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Randall (Pearson) returned home to their lives, so Kevin and Rebecca stayed behind to lead Nicky to assistance at a nearby veteran center. He was too entrenched in his misery and regret and alcohol to truly accept the helping hand, though, scoffing to Kevin that he wasn’t some feel-good reclamation project for the actor. Maybe he’d get help, maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe there’d be another family reunion, maybe there wouldn’t. The episode concluded with a revelation of relapse for our would-be savior: Kevin, he himself no stranger to addiction, left alone in Nicky’s trailer, returned to the bottle, seemingly defeated by his inability to turn Nicky’s life around overnight. He may have repaired Nicky’s leaky roof, but his own was caving in, again.
What will become of Nicky? What exactly sparked that relapse? And how far down the road of relapse will Kevin go? Finish up your sequin fight so you can read what This Is Us executive producers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker revealed about “Songbird Road, Part Two.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: That conversation between Nicky and Rebecca surely went through various incarnations during the writing process and what she might want to ask him. Can you take us behind the scenes of those scenes?
ISAAC APTAKER: What we loved so much about their interaction… Rebecca has grieved her husband for the past twentysome years, and she hasn’t met anyone who knew him outside of their relationship. So this is her access into a part of his life that he never shared with her. And it’s a chance for her to get a new piece of Jack, even though he’s no longer with us. So when we came up with that idea, it felt really exciting that what Rebecca would want out of this interaction with Nicky is more insight into her husband, who she never got to ask so many questions. In episode 311, she’s saying, “I wish I had asked him, I wish I had asked him, I’m ready to start asking,” and now here’s this person who isn’t Jack, but has insight into a whole different chapter of Jack’s life.
ELIZABETH BERGER: Obviously it did go through iterations behind the scenes, and obviously there are versions where it could have delved more into his war history. That could have been more what was on Rebecca’s mind. But it seemed to us so special that she would get a piece of this childhood that she never heard about before, so that’s ultimately where we landed.
She certainly didn’t get all the answers she would want. Did she get enough? Or is there more for her to grapple with moving forward?
APTAKER: I don’t think she did. I don’t think anyone did. Part of what is so interesting about this episode is their experience with Nicky isn’t satisfying in a traditional end to a story. Especially for Kevin and we see what that does to him. They get a little bit — it’s almost a tease — and then he says, “I can’t do this. I need to set my limits,” and closes the door in their face. Yes, Rebecca got a little bit of what she was searching for. But no, not at all. I don’t think that filled her.
Also, is it a hole that just can never be filled?
APTAKER: It’s this frustration of knowing that someone is out there who you want to get to know, and you want to help, and you want to bring into your family, and that person has no interest.
BERGER: Right. I think in an ideal world, he would have turned out to be this treasure trove of information that he would openly share with them. And what’s so frustrating is that he is that treasure trove of information, but they haven’t quite figured out to crack him, so we’re going to have to wait and see going forward if there’s more that he’s eventually willing to share.
You leave the door open for Nicky to walk through again. Will we see him before the season ends? And if so, will that appearance indicate how much he’ll be a part of the show — and the Pearsons — moving forward?
BERGER: We can’t say whether or not we will see him before the season ends, but we always have a larger plan. So it’s safe to say that obviously Nicky is still out there, which means that there’s a good chance again in the near future on our show.
APTAKER: And we hit the jackpot with Michael [Angarano] and Griffin. I mean, we’re always suckers for good actors. So when we fall in love with two performers like that, we try to find ways to bring them back.
When we see Nicky next, will it be immediately evident whether he’s sought treatment?
APTAKER: I think it’s going to take a little bit of a while before we answer the questions. We know people want to see Nicky brought into the family and saved from his worst impulses, but it’s going to be a bit of journey before we give those answers.
What is the family’s obligation to Nicky at this point?
BERGER: I don’t know that there is a literal obligation. Obviously, everyone in this family feels it totally differently. Obviously we’ve already seen that Kevin feels it on a completely different level than his father felt it. Jack made that decision to cut him off so he can focus on his own life. Kevin feels this strong pull to his uncle and helping him and learning as much as humanly possible. But each family member’s family are going to evolve over time when it comes to this man.
APTAKER: It’s such a unique situation when someone is a close blood relative but has never been in your life. And in a certain way — intentionally — it’s a bit of a foil to the William-Randall relationship, where that one was so warm and so fulfilling, and even though they had such a short amount of time together, it was so powerful and meaningful for both of them in the best possible way. This is a bit the opposite of that, and shows that there are many different ways when you encounter a long, lost relative.
Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kate (Chrissy Metz) seem rather checked out and emotionally unavailable for Nicky — and for Kevin, who feels like he’s the only one doing the heavy lifting. They know how important this globe-trotting mission has been to him. And sometimes when Kevin needs him, they fall short; for example, the therapy session in rehab. Can we call it out and say that they’re being insensitive here?
BERGER: [Laughs.] I think Kevin would definitely agree with you. I think it’s just a moment where all three are at such different moments in their lives. Randall has so much going on and he’s given himself already to tracing his family history in a giant way that maybe his bandwidth isn’t as wide for this particular mission. Kate is obviously so consumed with her pregnancy and this baby being born healthy that I think it’s just a moment in time where they’re not as emotionally available as he wishes they were. I don’t know that that’s a strike against them so much as that’s sometimes the way life works. You can’t always be as passionate about someone else’s journey as you wished you could.
It’s their journey, too. This is their uncle.
APTAKER: It is. Absolutely. I personally give Kate a total hall pass because she’s a high-risk pregnancy and she needs to get back to her doctor. I think the fact that she even came along for this journey was pretty admirable. [With] Randall, I think you can make a bit more of a case for, “Come on, man, just spend a couple more days with Kevin!” But counterpoint: his marriage was in a pretty rocky place and it is just kind of bouncing back. And to take off on yet another Randall family quest when Beth [Susan Kelechi Watson] needs him there is a bit selfish.
While we’re administering hall passes and throwing penalty flags on the other siblings, let’s look at Kevin. Though his intentions are pure, is he asking too much of a stranger — someone with decades of entrenched addition issues and PTSD — by coming into his life and asking him to make massive changes? Isn’t Nicky’s point of view valid?
BERGER: Nicky’s point of view is completely valid. This is someone who’s been a very isolated, very specific lifestyle for all these decades, and he did not ask for any of this. What we love is you can really see both sides of these guys’ experiences and reactions. On one hand, you totally understand why Kevin is craving information and craving to get to know this guy, but you also completely understand why this would be overwhelming for Nicky and maybe why he would want no part of it after all these years.
There was alcohol all around Kevin in Nicky’s trailer, but we’ve seen him show restraint before. He’s obviously frustrated that he can’t transform Nicky and get the results he wanted. So, what was the flashpoint for his relapse?
BERGER: For Kevin, it’s such a heartbreaking anti-climactic ending to this journey that he’s been on all season long. Obviously it meant so much to him to learn about his father’s history, and to go to Vietnam, and to retrace his steps, and to find his uncle, and I think he really felt like at the end of it, there would be this giant catharsis and this happy ending. And that just didn’t happen. And that feeling of deflation and let-down, paired with a weak moment, just led to the perfect storm of him slipping up.
Does drinking give Kevin a sort of twisted connection to Jack and Nicky, whom he feels not connected to?
APTAKER: One hundred percent. There’s a part of Kevin who looks at Nicky and sees what he hears his life could have become. On paper, they’re so different. You have this social, out-there movie star, and you have this guy who lives off of the grid who’s been to war. They don’t seem alike at all. But something about looking at his uncle, he sees himself there, and I think that scares Kevin.
Relapse is an unfortunate part of many stories of addiction. How far down a hole will Kevin be going?
APTAKER: We’re just trying to be really honest. We always knew that Kevin was going to relapse. It’s so rare that someone just conquers their addiction or conquers their alcoholism in one fell swoop. So we just always try to be realistic with this stuff. We always knew that the relapse was going to happen, and then this felt to us like the perfect trigger. So we’re going to treat it really honestly. What’s different this time around is that Kevin is now in a relationship with Zoe [Melanie Liburd], and he has had to work very, very hard to win her trust and for her to let him in. She’s someone who has a very, very hard time with intimacy and becoming vulnerable. And he’s earned that. And now he has this secret from her. So the stakes feel like they’re very high in a totally different way this time around.
In Nicky’s trailer, there’s a box that the audience thinks that Kevin is looking at, but he’s actually looking at the bottle next to it. Anything else about that mystery box that you want to tease? Is there some great Pearson family secret in there that we will be learning about?
APTAKER: Not this season. But down the line perhaps.