This Is Us producer breaks down Randall's cliffhanger, Rebecca's diagnosis
Warning: This article contains plot details from “Lights and Shadows,” the season 4 winter premiere of This Is Us.
When This Is Us returned to the air after a two-month hiatus, everyone had Rebecca’s brain in mind. Well, maybe, not everyone; Randall (Sterling K. Brown) had been instructed to keep his siblings in the dark, so in the winter premiere, “Lights and Shadows,” he flew out to L.A. and, with stepdad Miguel (Jon Huertas), accompanied Rebecca (Mandy Moore) to the neurologist on the sly, as they sought answers about her memory lapses and erratic behavior. They would come, in the form of a (preliminary) diagnosis: mild cognitive impairment. More tests would be needed for a course of action, but viewers could see as she stared vacantly yet purposefully into the mirror that she was trying to holding tight to memories (an epic romantic speech to Jack at the garage, quiet time with infant Randall) that will slip away, sooner, eventually.
Meanwhile, Toby and Kate moved past Avocadogate into (Lady)Kryptonite Crisis, as he revealed that his Crossfit texting friend had tried to kiss him, but he rebuffed her. But a deeper drama revealed itself: Toby told Kate he was avoiding the house because the idea that his son was blind was making him sad. As for Kevin, he was desperate to disappear into a love story like his parents’, so he wooed a cute woman in a coffee shop (Sophia Bush) and gave her the Hollywood Bowl date of her dreams with a Some Kind of Wonderful-esque private performance by John Legend, only to discover that she was actually married and couldn’t go through with a whirlwind romance with her celebrity hall pass. (As he returned to Earth and swore off destiny and fate and the stars, he missed a call from Sophie.) “Lights and Shadows” then ended in ominous darkness: Randall returned home to Philadelphia in the middle of the night and entered his kitchen, only to find himself face-to-face with an intruder.
Who’s this not-so friendly visitor? How will rattled Randall respond? What lies ahead for Rebecca? Does Sophie loom ahead for Kevin? Let’s call up John Legend, cue up World of Dance, send 47 emails, and see sparks fly as TIU executive producer Isaac Aptaker takes you into the “Light and Shadows.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Randall is an overwhelmed, overworked councilman, father, and son. He’s battled anxiety attacks throughout his life, and he downplayed Beth’s concern about him a few episodes ago. How impactful will this creepy kitchen encounter be — and how might whatever is about to happen trigger those issues?
ISAAC APTAKER: We’ve seen in the first half of the season and this first episode back, Randall’s slate is getting so full and it’s just getting even fuller. Now he’s taking on his mother’s mental health issues and whatever’s going on there, and we know that that hits him so hard. That relationship is so important to him. On top of everything that’s going on with his work and his own immediate family, the pressure is just cranking up. Now he’s returned home from this emotional trip, and there’s a man standing in his kitchen. And it is going to be the straw that leads to Randall to have to re-evaluate what’s going on with his own mental health and how much he can handle.
This cliffhanger seems headed in a different direction than that of family drama. Can you reassure viewers that next week isn’t the Randall-is-held-hostage episode or a Six Feet Under “That’s My Dog”-ish episode in which Randall is kidnapped and forced to do drugs? You know how protective fans are with this character, and if anything were to happen to him…
I love that episode of Six Feet Under, which is one of my favorite shows, but it’s a very, very different show than ours. And I would hope that audiences trust that we’re not going to have Randall murdered in his own home.
Rebecca was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. MCI doesn’t always lead to dementia or Alzheimer’s, yet it puts a person at an increased risk of developing such an illness. How should viewers feel at this point in her journey, knowing a little bit of how it ends up for her decades later?
We’re a little bit ahead of Randall, because we’ve seen that final flash-forward. That said, we saw a little moment. We haven’t seen very much of how Rebecca ends up. So we’re pretty much along the ride with our characters. We had a doctor who specializes in neurological conditions on set that day for the diagnosis scene, and she was weighing in on everything from what the doctor would say, to what Rebecca is a memory test would look like, to where the family would be seated. So we’re just really, really trying to be accurate. And what is accurate is instances like this is a very slow watch-and-wait, a bit frustrating lack of answers.
The doctor mentioned blood tests and MRI. So will we explore more of that journey in the next few episodes and see that easy answers aren’t coming in terms of a full diagnosis?
Absolutely. We’re headed toward the blood test, the MRI, and there will be some more clarity on Rebecca’s condition. But it’s something that we’re going to be very medically accurate about, and the answers will come as they come.
We’ve talked about memory being a critical element of the show. And here we see Rebecca staring into the mirror, reflecting on some memories. Was the implication that she fears that these precious memories of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and her children will be slipping away sooner or eventually — and the idea of forgetting who Jack is almost as tragic as losing Jack for real?
Exactly. She lost her husband too soon, but she has always had the comfort of these amazing years they’d had together. They had such a romantic, great love story, and the notion of forgetting all of that and not having those memories to lean into is incredibly scary for Rebecca.
That scene where she’s remembering her declaration of love to Jack in the garage, where the sparks are literally flying, was powerful, as if burned that way into her memory…
This was our first episode ever directed by our director of photography Yasu Tanida, who’s been with the show since the very beginning. He got his DGA card for this episode, and you can really see there’s particular attention paid to the visuals and the look of the show. And that’s one of my favorite moments of the episode, where the sparks are literally flying.
How much guilt does Miguel feel that he overlooked the signs?
He definitely feels guilty. He’s Rebecca’s person, he’s the one with her day in, day out, and I think he’s going, “How could I have not seen this? How could I have chalked this up to just a senior moment?” It’s easier to notice changes in someone when you’re only seeing them once every two months, because the changes feel more dramatic. I don’t think it was that Miguel wasn’t attuned, he’s an incredibly present husband. Sometimes it’s that person who pops in every once in a while that can go, “Whoa, something’s off here. Something’s different.”
Let’s talk about Toby and Kate. After admitting that Jack’s blindness was making him sad, Toby seemed suddenly activated when Jack reached for the lights. It was exciting moment for both parents, but then Kate turned a bit somber. Is she worried that he’s setting himself up for disappointment by indulging in a dream that Jack can’t realize, and/or is she even slightly resentful that that‘s what it took for him to engage when she needs someone there for this full journey?
I think it’s all of that. It’s her going, “Oh no, Toby is only happy when he thinks that there’s hope for Jack’s vision. Why can’t he accept our son and his sight limitation? Why is he only able to invest and smile and be really engaged in being a parent when he thinks that there might be a flicker of hope here that Jack could have some eyesight?
Their relationship has a lot of love and good intentions at its core. But Kate and Toby seem to have a fundamental problem of connecting on the same wavelength. They always seem a bit off. How dangerous will that prove to be?
Where they are in this episode is a scary place for a married couple to be. There’s a fundamental difference in how Kate is able to fully invest and accept, “This is my son. I love him for exactly who he is and what his abilities are. And I’m going to be the best parent and give him the best life possible. And when Toby looks at him, all he’s seeing are the things he won’t be able to do, and that moment won’t be able to play out exactly how Toby has pictured.” And that’s a really scary disconnect.
Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) seems to be re-entering the picture, at least on Kevin’s cellphone as a missed call. Is the third time a charm? The hair color certainly matches Kevin’s son in the future.
[Laughs] She definitely seems to have the right genes for the mother of that future child. That’s a really exciting throw-forward for us. This episode kicks off what’s going to be another trilogy where we spend three episodes that cover the same week in time with our different Pearson siblings. So what that phone call is about, and whether Sophie’s is coming back into Kevin’s life, is something that will be answered in his episode.
What might a re-emergence of Sophie do to a man who’s desperately chasing a love story like his parents?
It definitely feels like he would be very primed to let Sophie back into his life. He told his brother, “I’m ready for a family. I’m ready to find the one. I’m ready for kids.” But if you remember the last time we saw Sophie, she is engaged to another man. So it’s not quite so simple.
Unless the Billy Joel concert didn’t go as well as you’d think. Technical question, but does Kevin really have enough juice to have John Legend play a private concert for his date at the Bowl — at the drop of the hat? Also, it seems like he’s wasting whatever John Legend chip he has on a first date, no less.
[Laughs] He definitely got a little excited and played his John Legend card. I think you’ve got one of those in a lifetime. But it speaks to where Kevin is in his romantic life and his headspace, where he’s so, so eager to find the one that he’s calling in his heavy-hitter music-star favors a little earlier than he should.
How did John Legend enter your orbit?
We just lucked out. That was the one where we were like, “Why don’t we just shoot for the stars and try to get like our absolute favorite?” And it was actually Halloween day that we shot that scene. John was like, “All right, well, I’m going trick-or-treating with my kids, but if we do it really early. I could do it for two hours, come in in and sing my new song and then go be a family man.” And so we got everything set up. We had him for exactly two hours. He came in wardrobe, could not have been more of a pro. Sat down, did the song, did the scene, nailed it, and then went trick-or-treating with his family.
And how did the Sophia Bush guest spot come about?
We originally were going to have Sophia Bush do an arc on our other show based on our movie Love Simon, and she’s just the coolest person. She’s really politically engaged, she’s always traveling around, serving on panels and doing great stuff for the world, and she’s an incredible actress to boot. So we had this really cool, little part come up and we were there with her and we were like, “Hey Sophia, want to come do our other show, too?” And she was super-excited. I mean, it’s pretty great: “Hey, you want to go spend a day at the Hollywood Bowl watching John legend sing?” [Laughs] So she was pretty excited, and we were lucky to have her.
In the past, Rebecca’s mother (Elizabeth Perkins) encouraged Rebecca to follow her heart back to Jack, in a nice surprising turn for that character. Now Rebecca has doubled down on Jack and it’s very early in the relationship for such a declaration of love. How will Dave (Tim Matheson) react to this development? Does that cause even more family tension?
Yeah, I do not think that Dave is going to love it. The last we saw him, he was pretty much telling Jack, “Stay the hell away from my daughter.” I’m glad you mentioned that scene with Elizabeth Perkins, because you’ve seen her play a bit of a villain. We’ve seen the less admirable sides of her character. And we always want to paint complex pictures of our characters, especially mother-daughter dynamics, which are so layered, and there’s so much good connected to the dad. So being able show a totally different side of Janet and that despite all her flaws — of which she has many — there are some moments in Rebecca’s life where she was able to do the right thing and steer her daughter in the right direction.
You hinted that Randall’s anxiety will reach a critical point, but what else can you tease about next week’s episode?
Next week is the first of our trilogy, which is Randall’s episode. We’ve never done a to-be-continued quite as immediate as this, but we will jump right back into where we left off, and figure out: Who is this very scary man standing in Randall’s kitchen? What is that all about? And then what are the implications that this encounter will have on Randall’s already fragile mental state?
And what’s one adjective you’d use to describe this episode?
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.