Executive producer Isaac Aptaker tackles questions about the Thanksgiving fall finale.
When This Is Us headed into the holiday hiatus after Tuesday’s meaty fall finale, the halls were decked with more worry than cheer.
The Thanksgiving episode of NBC’s time-tinkering family drama gifted viewers with unease and dread, a bit of family warmth-’n’-togetherness, plus another Flash-Forward Mystery Tease-a-Thon™ that begat bundles of new questions.
Set on Thanksgiving Day, “So Long, Marianne” brought the whole gang together and pulled some of them apart, while exploring the unsettling struggle of Rebecca (Mandy Moore), the Pearson matriarch last seen angrily rebuffing dutiful son Randall (Sterling K. Brown) when he suggested she seek medical help for her sudden forgetfulness and behavior shifts. In Tuesday’s episode, still in denial, she asked him to keep the whole matter under wraps. And then she left the house to get some air, maybe see a movie, and pick up a pie. When Rebecca did return to the house later — and Randall apologized for overreacting and overstepping — she surprised him by arriving at the painful truth that she did indeed need to see a doctor. As she explained, halfway through the trailer to Cats, she could not remember which movie she was there to see.
In a sly flash-forward that was framed as that Thanksgiving Day but was actually nine months later, viewers had watched Rebecca buy flowers at the supermarket instead of baked goods, get sidetracked in a Chinese restaurant, and panic when she couldn’t find her phone. She was ultimately picked up by the police and returned home… to the Pearson cabin, where Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Kate (Chrissy Metz) were getting ready to celebrate their 40th birthday. She asked where Randall was. Kevin reminded her that he and his brother weren’t speaking anymore(?). In other news, Kevin’s fiancée (???) had morning sickness (we’re starting to run out of question marks, but ????). Given that nine months prior, our in-recovery actor was unattached, there seemed to be more than a few mysteries hiding under that birthday banner.
“So Long, Marianne” also brought viewers a peek at better times for young Nicky (Michael Angarano) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), who skipped a fraught family meal and instead celebrated a gambling win with five pounds of shrimp at a nice restaurant. It offered a glimpse into the deepest future, as Jack Jr. (Blake Stadnik) honored that crustacean tradition decades later. It reminded present-day Nicky (Griffin Dunne) first of how little — and then how much — of a role he played in Pearson family lore. It gave Deja (Lyric Ross) a moment to celebrate with the day with her biological mother, Shaunna (Joy Brunson), and when she became upset that her biological mother had finally turned around her life (“Why couldn’t she be like this for me?”), adoptive mother Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) helped her find joy in the time they did have together. It saw Tess (Eris Baker) finally muster the courage to come out to her friends via Zendaya and social media. It also found Kate (Chrissy Metz) having trouble talking to Toby (Chris Sullivan) about her dislike of his #crossfitlife before she discovered that LadyKryptonite5 was serving as his nicely toned shoulder to cry on, at the very least.
Let’s put on some pleated pants, warm up the ginger tea, and do the Cupid Shuffle but definitely not Miguel’s Whiskey Business slide before asking This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker five pounds of burning questions.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What kind of traumatic holidays did you all have growing up that made you want to take it out on these poor Pearsons?
ISAAC APTAKER: I know, poor Randall — it’s his favorite holiday and it just so happens that it’s the holiday that falls right at the end of our midseason. So it’s where things tend to come to a head for him and his brother and sister.
This episode gave viewers an unsettling exploration of Rebecca’s deterioration. What appealed to you about telling this story of the decline of the family’s backbone?
So much of this show is about memory and about looking back. So the idea that one of our characters would be faced with this incredibly scary illness where you begin to lose that and that begins to fade away felt very in keeping with the themes of the show. So many people in the writers’ room have dealt with parents with various forms of, call it dementia, Alzheimer’s, what you will, and we felt like it’s a story that we haven’t seen a ton on network television. Those are always the areas where we are excited to explore them as storytellers, and where we find we get the biggest response from people reaching out, saying, “Thank you. I dealt with this with my father, I dealt with this with my mother. Thank you for reflecting this experience back to me.”
We know that Rebecca has been forgetting things and confusing people, she’s been easily distracted and disoriented, and has unexplained mood swings. At the end of this episode, she tells Randall that she wants to seek medical help, but the situation has only worsened nine months from now. So can you confirm that you are telling a story about Alzheimer’s or dementia?
We’re not giving an exact medical medical diagnosis just yet, but she’s definitely on that path. Correct.
Will viewers have that diagnosis by season’s end?
Yes. It’s definitely coming down the path for us. The reality is, it actually takes a bit of time and testing to come to a diagnosis. There’s not an instant blood test where they can tell you what’s wrong, but it’s something that we’re going to be exploring in the back half of the season with as much medical accuracy as possible.
Miguel called Rebecca’s frequent losses of her phone “senior moments.” Was he in a bit of denial, like Rebecca?
I think it’s a combination of two things. It’s definitely denial. And also when you’re with someone every day, in a way, you’re less aware of the subtle changes, you notice them less because you’re seeing them every moment. And when you see someone every three months, it feels more dramatic and you’re almost more attuned to it.
Nine months after Kevin’s prophecy, his wish is coming true with marriage and a baby. He’s an impulsive guy, so is this a happy story of growth or… should everyone be a little concerned with the speed with which everything is happening?
[Laughs] It’s definitely fast. Aug. 31 is [the Big Three’s] birthday, so we’re nine months in the future and he already is engaged and soon to be with child. People can draw their own conclusions there, whether they want to believe that things are hunky-dory or if this was a bit of a panic and something that Kevin might wind up regretting.
It would be easier to swallow, timeline-wise, if it were someone whom we already met. Would we be wasting time by speculating about every woman who fits this qualification, which includes but is not limited to Sophie, Cassidy and Madison?
Not at all. There’s definitely a fun guessing game of women in Kevin’s life, women in the show. But as we’ve demonstrated throughout the run, and certainly this season, we love expanding our cast and introducing new characters. [Laughs] So I would say nothing’s off the table there.
Are we to assume that this child his fiancée is pregnant with is the boy you introduced in the season 3 finale flash-forward? He might look a little younger in the distant future (which is between 12 and 15 years from present day) for the math to work out. And should we be thinking that he has more than one kid?
I think that they’re both fair guesses. We got such a quick glimpse of him in that deeper-future period that it feels totally possible that that could be the kid.
We’ve seen Kevin struggle with the close bond that Rebecca and Randall share. Will there be repercussions from Kevin — and even Kate — over Randall’s keeping Rebecca’s condition a secret? Is that the basis of this fight?
It may be. I mean, so many of the people that we brought in to speak to what it’s like to have a parent with dementia or Alzheimer’s talked about the tensions that flare up between siblings, between spouses, when it comes to that person’s care. There’s just so many decisions and there are never clear-cut answers. So, yes, I think that the secret could be it. There’s going to be a lot of complicated decision-making down the line regarding Rebecca’s treatment and care, and that all makes existing sibling rivalries rear their heads, for sure.
So it’s better to speculate in that direction than, say, some fallout tied to Kevin’s decision to get engaged — or even something that we don’t even know about yet?
It could be that too. I mean, maybe his pregnant fiancée is Beth. It’s not Beth.
How long have Kevin and Randall been not talking?
That is something that you are going to have to wait and see when we get back to that time. But because we know it is our fifth season premiere [as each season begins on a Big Three birthday]. We’ll see the rift, see the falling-out, see how it all happens over the back half of the season and into the beginning of next. It’s all coming up in the very immediate future for the show; this isn’t something that’s going to be a long wait.
On a scale of Randall and Kevin’s fight on the streets of Manhattan to Jack’s Nicky-is-dead lie to his family, where will this Pearson sibling estrangement rank?
I think Jack and Nicky trump it all. I mean, that was a decades-long, never-repaired sibling rivalry. And the Kevin-Randall season 1 stuff was more of a distance and a tension as opposed to we’re not speaking. So somewhere between the two of those is about right. I guess we’ll have to have Jimmy Fallon pop up to broker their fight next time.
We’ve seen Nicky and Kevin form a strong bond in the present day, and we know that Nicky is there for Rebecca in the distant future. Is it notable that he isn’t at Kevin’s 40th birthday party, considering that the party is in Pennsylvania? And how about Toby — especially considering those tensions in his present-day relationship with Kate?
I would definitely be wondering where Toby is. We’ve ended Kate and Toby in a really scary place in the middle of the season. She’s found these texts where he’s complaining about their marriage and there’s this mysterious woman weighing in and offering him counsel, which is a very upsetting thing to find on your husband’s phone. As for Nicky, it seems like we’ve left him in a really great place with the family and he’s on this path to being one of the Pearsons in a much healthier way than the last time they all met. So, I don’t think I would be as worried about why he isn’t there. It’s also a bit early in the day — we’re not in the throes of the party, so maybe he’s just running late.
In this episode, Nicky is shaken and hurt by the reality of seeing the Pearsons live life without him, and his grandniece wondered why they had never met. But through Randall talking about Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne,” he realizes the impact that he had on Jack and how Jack passed down a piece of his brother to the family. How overwhelming is all of this for Nicky? Is it a truly bittersweet holiday?
That’s exactly right. He’s entering into this holiday with enormous trepidation about seeing the family again. Things really went off the rails for him the last time they all came into his life. He’s very nervous about that. And then he’s not expected to be confronted with this feeling of like, “Oh wow, there’s this whole group of people that I’m related to who know nothing about me because my brother chose to deny my existence.” And he really comes full-circle going from real anger and hurt to wanting to bring one of his best memories with Jack, literally, to the dinner table and into the fold. And that’s something that Kevin has been craving from Nicky all season — more stories, more nuggets about Jack that he never would have known. And so Nicky is really giving the whole family this gift of this amazing memory. Then we see that the shrimp becomes another one of the Pearsons’ eccentric Thanksgiving traditions that transcend generations when Jack Jr. is putting the shrimp on the table in the deep future.
Jack Jr. says that everyone is coming over soon. It’s nice to see that tradition live on, which was the point of that scene, but will that day be important for an additional reason, and we’ll be revisiting that meal and who might be attending it?
That’s something we’ve talked about, whether it’s that meal or just that timeline, we’re so excited at the notion that he’s going to have a kid and there’ll be yet another generation of Pearsons. We love those actors, so it’s definitely something we’re always talking about revisiting — while also being very scared of what having a baby looks like in the future. [Laughs]
Deja went through a cycle of emotions when Shaunna came to visit, and Beth helped her get to a healthier place about their relationship after some tears. Now that Shaunna has put her life together, will she play a bigger role in Deja’s life?
Yes. Shaunna had showed the family that she is in a really good place, that she’s course-corrected in a lot of ways and is on this great track. That throws Deja in the immediate moment for a total loop because she doesn’t understand why she couldn’t have had that version of her mom. But now that Shaunna has proved herself in a way, I see no reason why she can’t be a bit more of a part of Deja’s life if that’s something that Deja wants?
Is LadyKryptonite5 about to play a significant role on this show?
[Laughs] When we come back in January, we’re going to right away deal with the aftermath of Kate discovering LadyKryptonite5 and trying to figure out what the hell that’s all about and who this woman is.
What clue you can drop about the second half of the season?
We’ll get the full picture of what happened with Kate and Marc [Austin Abrams]. I know people are very curious about that and it’s something we’ve moved away from a little bit in this last one, but the full trajectory of that relationship will be revealed.
Is there a super-cryptic hint that you want to leave fans with?
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