By Dan Snierson
October 08, 2019 at 10:01 PM EDT
Fall TV
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Once upon a time — actually, about two weeks ago — This Is Us uncorked a rather unconventional season 4 premiere. This extended episode introduced a parade of characters with no discernible tether to the Pearson universe… until the final stretch of the episode, when their connections became (more) evident. Among these new and notable faces: Once Upon A Time and House alum Jennifer Morrison playing Cassidy, an accomplished military officer who suffers from PTSD and returns home to her husband, Ryan (Nick Wechsler), and 9-year-old son, detached and alienated from her old life and clearly suffering. One day she comes home drunk, and in a fit of frustration she winds up accidentally striking her son. Ryan orders her to leave the house, and she winds up seeking help via a support group for veterans. While she’s opening up about her experiences during a session, the moment is interrupted by a chair being thrown through the window. Through its shattered remains, we see our link to a broken Pearson and the perpetrator of the act: Nicky (Griffin Dunne), who’s clutching a bottle of booze.

Tuesday’s episode of the family drama, “Unhinged,” saw Cassidy cross paths with another Pearson, Kevin (Justin Hartley), as he played video games with her son in the waiting room of the veterans’ center (and later single-handedly pushed him into therapy). After meeting Kevin, Cassidy was more formally introduced the disruptor himself, Nicky, and the three of them would share an odd moment of connection — and an unexpected laugh — later in the hour. Elsewhere in the episode: Toby (Chris Sullivan) reluctantly revealed his secret abs to wife Kate (Chrissy Metz), she would bond with a brusque neighbor (welcome back to TV, Timothy Omundson!), Randall (Sterling K. Brown) was forced to make some tough decisions at the office (don’t let the lack of door hit you on the way out, Bernice!), and Miguel (Jon Huertas) continued his mission to win you over by saving Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) from job termination.

Let’s remove the cucumber slices from our eyes and the fish sticks from the microwave, rock a suit like Arsenio Hall, crush some Mario Kart, take the door off the hinges, and welcome Jennifer Morrison into the group.

NBC

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your agent tells you there might be a role for you on This Is Us. Your first reaction is…?
JENNIFER MORRISON: Oh, I absolutely want to do it. By the way, this was not something that was just like offered to me. I had to fight for this. I love the show. I’m a fan of the show, and I’ve heard that there was a great guest arc coming for a strong female and [creator] Dan Fogelman auditions everybody. Everybody auditions for the show. My team came to me and they were like, “Is this something that you would want enough that you’d be willing to read for?” And I said, “Uhhh, yeah!”

You’re playing a veteran who’s been in the thick of war. How much did Dan and the producers tell you so you could accurately play this character — and what kind of research did you do?
It’s a combination of their research and my research. They’re so incredibly thorough over there, which has been wonderful. Dan and I spoke quite a bit about the research the writers have done and the way that they were coming up with this character. Even every department had a lot of research, which was super-helpful. I’m not used to having that many resources in one place. The props department brought a ton of research about some of the tactical gear and the logistics, and the wardrobe brought more research about exactly what uniforms you can wear, when, how, why.

I had played a soldier years ago in an independent film [2013’s Alpha Alert], so I had done some previous research that definitely bled over into this research. I went back to some of the memoirs that I read for that and went online and looked through some of the research about veterans who come home and are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. I re-read a couple books about war. It was a lot of going back to my notes for [Alpha Alert], and that character was also struggling with PTSD…. I also started following some veterans online on Instagram and following their everyday lives. I felt like that was another texture to the research — not just knowing what it was like to be in Afghanistan, and not just what it’s like to face the horrors of everything that you’re facing when you’re over there, but also see what people’s everyday lives look like when they came home.

We’ve seen how the horrors of war have ravaged Nicky, and how Jack was able to somewhat successfully compartmentalize them and raise his family. We’ve seen the beginnings of how Cassidy is having trouble readjusting to civilian life. What does her path forward look like?
There’s not a ton I can say about it, but Dan and all the writers had been really careful to be incredibly accurate about how delicate that journey is and how unique it is for each person facing it. I don’t think any one person comes home from facing those kind of horrors and has the same exact reaction to it, you know? So I think that’s something that they’ve done a great job with the writing, is really paying attention to the nuance of exactly what this particular woman is doing to try to unwind some of the damage that’s been done.

What adjectives would you use to describe her path forward?
I mean, it’s complicated. I know that that’s super-vague, but it is complicated. There’s no clear path to healing, so there’s definitely steps forward and then there’s steps backwards.

From the get-go, what intrigued you about Cassidy? What was it about her that made you say, “I really want to explore this woman in the military?”
Just getting that first script that showed the beginning of who Cassidy was going to be and setting up her backstory was just wildly complicated in a way that is just so intriguing to an actor. To see every corner of her in the sense that you start by seeing her super-vulnerable and missing her family and almost resistant to call her family because she knows how vulnerable it’s going to make her when she’s in a place where she needs to stay strong all the time. And then going from that level of vulnerability to questioning this woman in the hospital and almost threatening her and how strong and aggressive she has to be in that moment. And then turned around with so much regret, hoping that what she promised she could follow through on. And then finding out what she promised she couldn’t follow through on. And then the military ended up just bombing them anyway. The levels of humanity that were there just even in that first script — and it continues. you start seeing more and more corners of her as you see more episodes. There was such a full person on the page and such a complete person on the page, which was so exciting. So often when we write a strong, smart woman, she has to always be tough. They leave very little room for somebody to be vulnerable. And the truth is really strong, smart women are vulnerable and delicate in other ways as well. There’s a real wholeness to that. That was already in the writing, which was so exciting because instead of having me try to find that, I could build from that.

Speaking of Cassidy’s time overseas, are there more war experiences for us to uncover through her eyes? Will we learn more about what made her join the military and how quickly she moved through the ranks as a woman? She’s clearly very good at what she does.
She is very good at what she does. I don’t think I can talk about that. But I can say she’s someone who really has worked her way up. That’s something that we definitely talked about it. She didn’t come in at some sort of advantage. She was not in a certain position because she had gone to the right school. She really has earned her way out because of her ability.

In the season premiere, Cassidy’s husband, Ryan, orders her out of the house after she accidentally strikes their son. In this episode, Cassidy tells Kevin that her husband wants her to get help. How fragile is their marriage at this point?
From the point at which she hurts her son accidentally — and obviously very accidentally — I think that it’s incredibly fractured. Not only is her husband concerned and afraid of the circumstances, but she is. The last thing in the world she would ever want to do is hurt her child, yet that moment felt completely out of her control, and I don’t think there’s anything more terrifying for a parent to feel like their child might not be safe with them. It’s definitely what scares her into trying to figure out what would be the best way forward to get help.

A lot of fans have been speculating that Cassidy would be a romantic interest for Kevin, especially after a who-is-the-mother-of-Kevin’s-son mystery was introduced in the season 3 finale. What can you say to those fans speculating heavily in that direction?
[Laughs] They’re speculating about any woman who could possibly have logistically had his child. So I feel like I’m in good company with all the people being speculated about…. They can speculate. There’s nothing more I can say.

Does that question also feel a little reductive considering the story you’re telling here about this woman who’s dealing with PTSD from war? Besides, she’s got this complex family situation with a young son to attend to and maybe even salvage. So that may not even be the fifth most important thing going on here.
That’s what I have to say is so impressive about Dan Fogelman and Isaac [Aptaker, co-showrunner] and Liz [Berger, co-showrunner], and the whole writing team over there, is that there is such depth and so many layers and so much honesty to what they’ve written for this character. No matter where things go in terms of how she ends up fitting into who she knows and how she relates to anyone from the Pearson family, they’ve really gone the distance to write something that is really honoring the truth of someone who would’ve gone over to Afghanistan and dealt with what she’s dealing with. And I think that that is just so beautiful. It’s rare as a guest star — I feel like I’m being written for the way a series regular would be written for. There’s no holding back in terms of what they’ve brought to the page in such an amazing way, which I so appreciate it, and it makes me better. It makes me stretch, it gives me an opportunity to grow every time I’m on that set, which I really love. It’s really exciting.

But at the same time, I don’t blame anyone for wondering how she fits into the world. They’ve cared about these characters for three years and they’ve gone through a lot with them. And they’re connected to that family in such a powerful way, I think it’s only natural that when you bring someone with this much story into the mix, you want to know, “Well, how do they fit into this puzzle?” I don’t blame anyone for asking that question, but I do appreciate the delicacy and attention with which the writers have handled her story line.

Small characters don’t get $1,200 water heater scenes. You don’t just throw away a moment like that.
Yeah, it was beautiful. And there’s more to come. Every script always pleasantly surprises me with a new layer that is revealing about Cassidy.

Nicky did not get off on the right foot with her by throwing a chair through the window while she was in the middle of a group share. As we saw in that final scene with them, nowhere to go from there but up? Clearly they share that bond of having experienced and been traumatized by war…
Yeah. There’s a lot I can’t say, but what I can say is that moment when he throws the chair through the window — and this is such a tribute to where wonderful actor Griffin is; he just brings so much to every single little look and thought and everything he says and does — but she so sees herself in him immediately. Someone could be kind of pissed or off-put, like she was in being interrupted, or the level of anxiety that she’s facing in her life based on all those things are falling apart and to have this thing kind of interrupt it. And it’s not what happens for her. What happens is she turns at the shock of the noise and then looks in his eyes and sees herself. There’s something so powerful about that because what’s broken in him is broken in her. And even though there are two unique beings who’ve never met before that moment, there’s no doubt that there’s something parallel about what they’re going through.

She does seem intrigued by him in the aftermath of that shattering, which, by the way, was totally jarring.
It’s like a jump-scare! I mean, I shot the scene and when I watched it back, I forgot it was about to happen. [Laughs] What a brave move it was for Dan and the writers to decide to introduce you to these new characters, knowing that they have three more years on the show, if not more, and in order to be able to reveal more and more about their [main] characters, they needed to have more people for them to bounce off of. But for that to mean anything, you have to really know the new people to care about the way they interact with the Pearsons. So it was a really bold move to go the distance to really set up these new back stories.… There’s metaphor on top of metaphor in terms of the way that they’re really layering this idea of how strangers impact our future and how at some point everyone in our lives was a stranger, and eventually they either pass through or they become family. There’s just such a beautiful theme that they’ve laid through all of the episodes that lean into that idea.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

At the end of this episode, when Kevin makes a ridiculous comment, it breaks down the walls of not only Cassidy but Nicky, and the three of them share an inappropriate laugh. How would you describe the dynamic between this trio?
They’re all broken in very particular ways, some of which are similar and some of which are very different. So in a sense they’re a triangle that makes one whole. All three of them are a corner of the triangle that is holding each one of them up. And any one of them missing from that triangle would be a problem at this moment in their life.

Rounding off to the nearest dozen, how many This Is Us secrets are you keeping right now?
Well, here’s what I can say: I have purposely not read stuff that I’m not in to be able to enjoy it as an audience member. I’ve been very diligent about giving myself the opportunity to stay an audience member for what I don’t participate in. So I have luckily eliminated a certain number of secrets by doing that. [Laughs] But gosh, I don’t know, maybe a couple dozen? Depending on how detailed you want to get with what you consider a secret.

Fair to say that Cassidy will be sticking around for a while?
I guess the way that Dan has put it is that she’s a significant part of this season. So that’s the way I will reiterate it.

Can you leave viewers with a cryptic hint — a phrase, even a word — about what awaits Cassidy this season?
Hmm… paperwork.

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