Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia hint at what's in store in the season 4 premiere when Jack and Rebecca break bread with her parents

By Dan Snierson
September 10, 2019 at 01:49 PM EDT
Fall TV
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It’s the opposite of a secret that Jack and Rebecca of This Is Us fame became one of TV’s compelling love stories. But while viewers have peeked into this part of their past — see: the first encounter in the season 1 finale; the first date and road trip in season 3 — how this couple formed the bond that would last a lifetime (or at least until the end of Jack’s life) is a story that has yet to be explored in depth. Season 4 of NBC’s hit family drama just might remedy that, as the beginning of the season will dig into the early (’70s) days of Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia).

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

There comes a time in any blossoming couple’s courtship when one must make the courageous leap of introducing his/her increasingly significant other to his/her parents, and Rebecca will take that bold step in the premiere. Previous seasons have familiarized viewers with Rebecca’s demanding and rather racist mother (Elizabeth Perkins), but now it’s time to meet dear old dad, someone whom Rebecca aims to please. “Rebecca is a bit of a daddy’s girl,” Moore tells EW. “There are certain things that they don’t align on. But I think at the end of the day she really loves her father for who he is. He’s quite protective of her.”

How might Rebecca’s new boyfriend acquit himself when he breaks bread — and the ice — with her parents? “Wouldn’t you expect Jack to win anyone over?” says the actress, who was recently nominated for an Emmy. “I would. But her parents can be a bit… tricky. They’re a little protective. We’ve gotten some clues over the course of the show too that [she’s] not especially close with her parents later in life. I feel like they don’t necessarily understand [her] ambition as a musician. So this is all new territory bringing a boy like this home.”

Meanwhile, Ventimiglia reminds that Jack can handle himself in a variety of high-pressure situations. “I think Jack is someone who can hold his own,” he tells EW. “He’s not afraid of whatever company he’s in. He’s very respectful, but he’s going to have some obstacles. And they may have his own making.”

Ventimiglia seems to be hinting about the wounds of Jack’s past, which are uncomfortably fresh in this era, as he has recently returned from the Vietnam War. Given the horrors that Jack witnessed in the trenches — and his failure to rescue his bottoming-out brother, Nicky (Michael Angarano) — his PTSD struggles could pose challenges in forming a relationship with Rebecca as well as simply reacclimating to civilian life. “We’re going to see postwar Jack in new, young love with Rebecca, and the fog of war hangs on,” says the actor, who received his third Emmy nomination for the role. “Jack, just like a lot of soldiers of the era, dealt with and internalized a lot. You’ve got to deal with bombs that are constantly going off in their world. A lot of internal stuff. He’s still in battle.”

The season 4 premiere is apparently designed to throw you off your game; castmate Sterling K. Brown calls it “subversive.” Ventimiglia is remaining all quiet on that front, other than to say coyly: “If people watch it like they watched the pilot and just enjoy getting to know these people — not worry about where it’s all leading — then I think they’re going to be not even pleasantly surprised; they’re going to be happy to learn what we have at the end for them.”

Fans of the ever-fraught relationship between Rebecca and daughter Kate (Chrissy Metz) were pleasantly relieved to see the two find another moment of connection in the season 3 finale‘s present-day story, following their clash over the proper way to care for premature baby Jack. While their dynamic will perhaps always be pocked with underlying tension, the pair have made gradual progress in repairing their relationship over the years. Moore indicates that Rebecca’s relocation to L.A. with Miguel (Jon Huertas) should be another key step in that healing journey. “Any incredible life experience — Kate giving birth — all of these situations are only going to bring people closer,” she says. “It’s an important part of their finding some semblance of understanding in their relationship. I also think that the prospect of Rebecca and Miguel moving out to California is a dicey one for Kate, but it’s only going to bring them closer and bring them more on the same page.”

As for Rebecca’s fate in the future — and Kate’s, for that matter — Moore opened up (as much as she could) about that mystery over here. “We’re in the final throes of her life, the last couple of weeks, I would say,” she told EW. “You get that sense of urgency of the family gathering, for one reason or another, and in my mind, it’s to sort of say farewell.” (Moore also says that this part of the story will not be directly advanced early in the season.) “Sixty-six [years old]-and-above Rebecca breaks my heart because I know she’s a woman who’s been through a lot,” offers Ventimiglia, adding that while the show’s early seasons delved into Jack and fatherhood, “we’re really shifting to the matriarch side of everything and understanding Rebecca’s journey and what her impact on the family has been. I’m so excited for Mandy.”

And the following sentiment may not be the most shocking one from Ventimiglia, but it’s heartfelt. Jack Pearson departed this earthly realm decades ago, but his presence is still felt. And so is his loss. When Ventimiglia thinks of season 4, the first things that come to mind are “growth, family, the lessons learned,” he says. “The people we meet, the feeling that time goes on and time expands — even when it does contract, even when there’s one less member of a family. It doesn’t mean that something’s missing. It’s just an opportunity for things to grow deeper, bigger, and wider. In that comes the myth, right? Still, four years in, I really wish that Jack was around for his adult kids. Not even for them. Just to be around. Just to be a presence in their life.”

Season 4 will continue to show the cavernous imprint that Jack left on the Pearson family, but there are plenty of new faces waiting to make their mark in this era-hopping story. Check out this trailer for season 4 (premieres Sept. 24, 9 p.m. on NBC), which introduces all sorts of characters that aren’t strangers, just friends and family members you haven’t met yet.

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