This Is Us producer breaks down Kate's toxic boyfriend and Rebecca's rescue mission
Warning: This episode contains plots details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “A Hell of a Week: Part Three.”
Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us wrapped up the Big Three trilogy by wrapping up Kate in a blanket of drama and trauma.
In the present day, the woman who overcame adversity and a miscarriage has been busy figuring out how to best raise her blind son, Jack, but she felt like she was doing it as a single mom. Husband Toby (Chris Sullivan) was emotionally unavailable and checked out; as he explained, Jack’s blindness made Dad sad. So, in the Justin Hartley-directed “A Hell of a Week: Part Three,” when Kate (Chrissy Metz) signed up the gang for a retreat for other families with blind children, Toby instead fixated on a pipe dream that a medical miracle might reverse Jack’s condition and then weaseled out of attending the retreat. Stepping up in his place was Rebecca (Mandy Moore), and mother and daughter engaged in bonding moments at the weekend getaway: Rebecca prodded Kate to take the plunge into a pool, they= duo duetted on “Ironic,” Rebecca opened up about her cognitive struggle, and she reminded her stressed-out daughter of her innate strength beneath that sensitive exterior. Later, back at home, Kate gathered the confidence to tell Toby to man up in his parental duties, to which he could only muster an unconvincing “I want to.” He then told Kate that he needed to spend time with his son as she headed out to the family cabin with her brothers, whom she had told that her marriage was “two seconds from imploding.”
Late-90s Kate, meanwhile, was in even more peril. Kate (Hannah Zeile) had finally found first love, but none of the Pearsons was feeling thrilled with her choice: unsettling (ex-)record store employee Marc (Austin Abrams). And they didn’t even know exactly how toxic Marc was, as he spent the episode manipulating Kate, food-shaming her, body-shaming her, yelling at her, and acting erratically and immaturely. When the new couple headed up to the family cabin against Rebecca’s wishes and she declined to quit her record store job in solidarity, he became unhinged, driving recklessly, insulting her, throwing her out of the car, and leaving her to fend for herself on a dark, lonely road. As Kate placed a distressed pay phone call to her mother, Marc reappeared with a blanket and an apologetic face, which proved enough for her to hang up with her mother and return to his car. But that call set off alarm bells in Rebecca, so the Pearson matriarch rallied the rest of the Big Three and drove up to the cabin for a rescue mission — but who knows what awaits them at the end of this dark and winding road.
Let’s step out of the magical forest, crank up some Neil Diamond (not Urge Overkill), and call This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker from a side-of-the-road pay phone to analyze the events of “A Hell of a Week: Part Three.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How can my first question be anything but: What the heck is Marc’s deal? He’s awful to Kate, body-shaming her one minute, controlling her the next, lashing out the next, and then comforting her and apologizing the next. Is he simply an emotional abuser, or is there more here and he has mental health issues? Alcohol seems to be in play here as well.
ISAAC APTAKER: I think he definitely has some undiagnosed mental health issues. When we started talking about this character in the [writers’] room, so many of our writers spoke up and had these stories of emotionally abusive, emotionally manipulative relationships, especially early on when people were just starting to date and sort of figuring out who is a good person to be in a romantic relationship with and who is not. So Marc is kind of a compilation of a lot of our writers’ room’s worst hits, if you will, [laughs] when it comes to early teen love.
Austin is doing such a good job. People can recognize and separate the actor from the character because he’s really bringing this guy to life, and I think he’s keeping it from crossing over into too much of a cartoon of villainous boyfriend. I think he’s doing a really, really amazing performance. But yes, Marc is rough in this episode.
We know that Kate’s family is concerned, but where is her head after everything that just happened? First love, which can be blinding, but are the scales even beginning to fall from her eyes?I think so. Kate’s a really, really intelligent woman and she knows — at least a part of her knows — that Marc is not good for her. She’s really scared in that car. She really scared when she gets left on the side of the road. And she comes so close to telling Rebecca, “I need help, I need to get out of here.” And then he turns and goes back to sweet Marc and he approaches her with a blanket. And there is a big part of her that believes that she’s in love with him. So it’s not so simple. And I think as an audience, on that phone call scene talking, you’re just hoping for her to get the words out and let Rebecca hear what she needs to hear to come rescue her daughter — and it doesn’t quite get there.
Let’s talk about this intervention that’s about to happen. It seems like Rebecca & Co. are riding in on a white horse to rescue their princess — to evoke a baby Kate analogy — but we’re guessing it won’t be that easy. How might Marc respond when he sees all these Pearsons who already don’t like him, as he knows?
It’s much more complicated than just going to rescue a princess, because this is a girl who doesn’t necessarily know she needs rescuing. Like I said, a piece of her is aware that this is toxic. But another, perhaps larger, part of her thinks, “This is the love of my life. This is the first person who’s ever told me that he loves me, who’s ever wanted to be in a relationship with me, and I don’t want to let that go.” So it’s much more complicated than just going to save someone who knows they need to be saved.
We’ve seen the impact that Rebecca had on Kate’s eating and weight issues, but what kind of scars does the outright verbal abuse that Marc is dishing out leave behind?
It’s definitely a contributing factor. There’s so many things going on inside of Kate. But a first love is so formative and so shapes the way that you see yourself. And I think that the way that Marc speaks to her and treats her has a big impact on her self-esteem and self-worth for a while going forward.
Toby is hardly the model family man right now, and he’s only activated by the idea that his son might able to see through a medical miracle. How much of this is self-absorption, and how much might his depression be a factor here, working against him?
We’ve seen Toby’s lifelong struggle with his own mental health and with depression. They were dealt such a curveball and their son was born with seriously limited vision and Kate’s been able to roll with the punches — for whatever reason she’s been able to adapt and see the silver lining and just decide to be all-in giving her son the life that he deserves. And Toby has had a much harder time with that. And I think certainly in his history and struggle with depression could be a big factor there.
While the Sad Three are at the cabin next week, will viewers also spend time with Toby and Jack? And with Gregory (Timothy Omundson) clearly serving as an emotional outlet for Kate right now, will he have some sort of interaction with Toby during this time?
Yes, we will be with Toby next week. Sully does such great work because he’s sort of left alone with a 10-month-old actor, so he’s really having to carry the dramatic load himself there — although our baby is wonderful. Gregory doesn’t make an appearance, but we tell a story that I’m really proud of how it came out. It’s a really beautiful father-son story with Toby and the baby.
Will viewers get a better sense of whether this marriage can be repaired in the next few weeks, or will that resolve more toward the season finale?
Over the course of our next episodes, we’ll have a much better sense of whether Kate and Toby are going to be able to get over this immediate hurdle of “Can Toby be the father that Jack needs?”
While Toby and Kate bottom out, Rebecca and Kate have never been stronger. She picked an interesting time to confide in Kate about her cognitive issue, with all that Kate has going on. Why then? Had they just reached a new level of intimacy?
Rebecca was feeling closer to her daughter than ever. I also think that she’s been wanting to tell Kate. This is a woman who has had a long history with keeping secrets, and I don’t think she’s eager to repeat that. She doesn’t want to dump this news everyone all at once, especially Kevin, who the feeling is, he’s a bit more fragile with his new sobriety. But I don’t think that this is the woman who’s looking to keep this from her children for an extended period of time. This weekend is a road trip with her daughter. That’s where they have this really special connection in that beautiful swimming pool scene and then have a chance to have some one-on-one time and build some really special memories. It felt like the right moment for her to share it.
Next week’s episode is set at the cabin in both the present and the past. Will we start to see the beginning of the fracture between Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Hartley) that has been teased?
That’s something that’s more going to be growing and building over the course of our remaining five episodes. But we’ll definitely see some of the beginnings of that next week.
What words would you use to tease this intervention that’s going to be happening at the cabin in the past?
It’s explosive. Our family is feeling the way probably a lot of our audience is feeling about Kate and Marc, and they’re going to get a chance to express that.
And how would you describe the emotions that we will see in the present-day cabin story? Is it explosive in a different way?
Also a bit explosive, as we tend to do on our episodes where everyone gathers — things come to a head, some secrets are revealed. But there’s also this really beautiful story that is about this time capsule that the Pearsons bury at the cabin in the early teenage years and how that comes to play in the present.
Kevin is now the only Big Three member who doesn’t know about Rebecca’s issue. We’re led to believe that the fracture between Kevin and Randall at least partially involves this issue. Might Kevin also have to resolve anger with Kate, or is there just much more to this story that we don’t know yet?
There is much more of the story that we don’t know. But there’s certainly a brewing tension that we’ll see over the next handful of episodes surrounding Rebecca and her mental health.
What were the conversations like in the writers’ room about Rebecca being invigorated by her diagnosis? It seems like a real breakthrough moment for her, and viewers got the old Rebecca back, albeit with the knowledge that tragedy looms over them in the future. This might be the most optimistic we’ve seen her since before Jack’s death.
Yeah. Mandy’s found this whole new color to the older Rebecca character. Up until now, she’s always played her with sort of a bit of a stillness and a sadness and a quietness, and even holds her body a little bit more sort of hunched and restrained. And although there’s much to be sad about with this diagnosis, it is a slow-progressing disease and she does have time. And it has kind of sparked this new lust for life in her and this desire to appreciate her family and the world around her while she could still take it in.
“You’re fat, I’m ancient, we’re gorgeous, let’s go swimming!” How did that come about, and what were Mandy and Chrissy’s reactions to that bold line?
That’s all of our favorite line of the episode. We’ve told so many mother-daughter stories where Rebecca is tiptoeing around Kate’s weight and her feelings about it and perhaps her role in causing some of that weight gain. And it felt like this was this moment where she has this new lease on life and she’s just going to call it like she sees it. “This is who we are, Kate. That pool is beautiful and we’re going to out there and we’re going to enjoy it, damn it!” It’s so surprising, but I think it’s exactly what Kate needed in that moment.
Let’s talk about how that karaoke scene and song selection came to life. Fans have been asking for a duet for a while. Was that something that Chrissy and Mandy had been talking about on set too?
Yes. They’ve been asked, each in interviews a thousand times, “Are you guys ever going to do a duet?” So they know it’s something people have really wanted. Then in terms of song choice, we knew that we wanted it to be a ’90s song, perhaps something that they would have listened to when Kate was living with Rebecca in that teenage timeline. So Elizabeth [Berger, This Is Us executive producer] got on a group text with Mandy and Chrissy, and we just kind of pitched songs back and forth for a day until we landed on that one that we were all really excited about.
We see Rebecca stepping up in this episode in different timelines, and she’s always been the secret MVP: Most Valuable Pearson. It’s nice to see Jack directly recognize that at the end of this episode. Was that important to you to put a finer point on a message that the series has shown — just how critical she was to the survival of this family, and that she wasn’t always positioned to get the glory like Jack?
Absolutely. And we’ve hinted that in less direct ways before. There’s the episode after Jack’s funeral where she’s driving the family in the car over the bridge, even though that’s her big fear. And this is another one that’s a bit more direct where Jack speaks to it and says, “This is the real glue of this family.” In a lot of ways, he gets all the glory of the perfect dad and the guy who keeps it all together. But there were many, many years after he was gone where it was really Rebecca. And this week sets up our next episode where she really is a hero.
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.