Executive producers Issac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger take you inside 'The Cabin' — and hint at what's next.

By Dan Snierson
February 18, 2020 at 10:01 PM EST

This Is Us

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The Big Three trilogy may have ended last week, but the Big Three drama most certainly did not — it just migrated to the woods of Pennsylvania. Tuesday’s installment of NBC’s era-flipping family drama, titled “The Cabin,” brought viewers to the old Pearson cabin (and to the new one!) — and brought some bubbling-under tension to the surface in timelines past and present. And yet one got the sense that there was more to come when Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Kevin (Justin Hartley) descended from the mountain road back into the problems they left behind for the weekend.

Back in the late ’90s, alarmed Rebecca (Mandy Moore) was on a mission — with Randall (Niles Fitch) and Kevin (Logan Shroyer) in tow — to rescue Kate (Hannah Zeile) from the clutches of first love. Her daughter was entangled in a relationship destined to end poorly, as troubled record store employee Marc (Austin Abrams) intensified his toxic campaign of emotional terror and gaslighting on her, only to keep reeling her back in with apologies and kisses. After abandoning Kate on the cold, dark drive into nature, things worsened at the cabin. Marc ignored her pleas to stop playing around with her beloved Jack mug and dropped it on the ground, where it shattered. He body-shamed her. And just when you couldn’t hate him enough, he locked her out of the house in the winter night, forcing her to break a window (which led to a sliced-open hand). In the aftermath, Rebecca & Co. arrived at the cabin and were served a hot breakfast, but they soon picked apart the couple’s tense charade and uncovered the cold truth. Rebecca restrained her ready-to-rumble boys but showed no mercy herself, instructing Marc to “get the hell out of my house,” banishing him from Kate’s life.

The present-day cabin story brimmed with drama too, as Randall, Kevin, and Kate convened to commiserate about their respective problems. The tension ratcheted up when anxiety-plagued Randall let slip that he was recently in Los Angeles, ultimately revealing that he snuck into town to help Rebecca seek medical help. Adding to the dysfunction and discovery: Kate learned that her best friend, Madison (Caitlin Thompson), had slept with Kevin. This supposedly therapeutic getaway would be salvaged by a time capsule: The trio dug up a box that Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) had buried there decades earlier, which contained pie-in-the-Pennsylvania-sky plans for a house on the hill next to the family cabin. Kevin was intrigued by Jack’s drawing, and the episode ended with the implication that the son had brought that dream to life on the hill, and viewers saw that this home was where the family had been gathering in the distant future to see Rebecca, presumably on her death bed.

Let’s put down those Star Wars figurines and make some pancakes (on second thought, maybe not), plan a perfect life in a mansion with Joey Lawrence, try to find some decent cell reception, and call up executive producers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker to see if they’ll unlock the “Cabin” door and its secrets.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We have a lot of cabin drama to explore, so let’s start here: First loves can be transformative, whether wonderful or toxic. What intrigued you about making Kate’s first experience the latter?
ISAAC APTAKER: Honestly, it came out of the personal experiences of a lot of our writers in our writers’ room. Many people had traumatic or toxic early relationships — and very few had perfect ones. [Laughs] So we felt like we’ve shown this really beautiful early love story with Kevin and Sophie, and Beth and Randall are, for the most part, very charmed. That’s just not everyone’s experience, so it felt like we had to accurately portray all the ways that early love can look — and unfortunately this is one of them.

I’m curious about the writers’ room discussions on this: Did Marc joke around with the mug and then drop it truly by accident? Or did he drop it as a bit of a test to see where he stood with her? I feel like it’s the latter.
APTAKER: Have you been hiding under our conference room table for the last three weeks? [Laughs]
ELIZABETH BERGER: Yeah, we’ve been having a lot of mug conversations in our room. We wanted to leave it to interpretation that perhaps he turned around and it just slipped out of his hands and it’s just a crazy accident. My personal opinion is that he dropped it on purpose, but we wanted to be able to play it both ways.

Kate had a bad reaction when she saw him holding the mug. Sure, that was because it was Jack’s mug and no one had used it since he died, but was it also that when she saw Marc with it, she instinctively knew deep down inside that he wasn’t worthy of the mug — and that Jack wouldn’t approve of this guy?
BERGER: Absolutely. There’s something about somebody who is not treating you well holding an object that used to belong to the person that treated you better than anyone in the world that is absolutely resonating with her. And yeah, I think on some level she also knew, “If my dad was here, he would hate this guy.” [Laughs] All of that is playing out as he’s standing in front of her holding that mug.

In the aftermath of Rebecca kicking Marc out, you might think Kate would act out on the family given her conflicting emotions, anger, and embarrassment, given how she was upset that the family wasn’t supportive of this relationship. In the face of overwhelming evidence, though, did she feel that she couldn’t save herself and needed someone to step in?
APTAKER: Yeah, I think at that point she was just relieved. A larger part of her has realized she’s in over her head than the part of her that thinks she loves him, and she’s just so grateful that she has a way out.

If Kate hadn’t broken the window, how long would Marc have left her outside in the cold?
APTAKER: Oh God. I think a while.
BERGER: That is something that we also spoke about, in terms of: What passage of time are we showing here? In our minds, she was out there at least an hour. I think Isaac thinks longer.
APTAKER: I mean, you can’t be outside that long in a sweater without freezing. She’s not freezing to death, it’s not the end of Titanic, but I mean, she’s out there long enough to do something pretty extreme and smash a window to get back in.

Kate seems to be in recovery mode after Rebecca ousts Marc. Is that the last we’ll see of Marc?
APTAKER: For the time being, that’s the last we’ll see of Marc.

We’ve seen Randall battle anxiety throughout his life, but there was something sad about seeing him struggle so deeply over something so small as picking out an item for the time capsule. To be as highly functional as he has been as an adult make you wonder: How much stuff is he sublimating on a daily basis just to get through the day?
BERGER: Yeah. Randall is someone that has been so good at compartmentalizing his anxiety and keeping it just below the surface that it’s actually easy for him to forget how anxious he is a lot of the time because it’s just such a part of life at this point. But it takes remembering something small — like not being able to pick an object for the time capsule — to wake him up and make him realize, “Man, even in my everyday life, there are all these little things that get the best of me.” So we wanted to show that he’s been so anxious for so long that even he doesn’t always catch it.

Randall shared with Kate and Kevin that he was plagued by anxiety and that Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) wanted him to see a therapist, and Kevin said, “Maybe you should.” Randall didn’t outwardly respond. He does seem closer to finally accepting help by sharing these feelings, but what is getting in the way of his getting help: pride, fear, vulnerability, all of the above? And how close is he to reaching out for help?
APTAKER: It’s all that swirling around. Also, he’s been set in his ways for so long. Like we showed in the episode, this has been a lifelong struggle for him, and he’s developed these lifelong coping mechanisms of compartmentalizing, of going on runs, of bottling it up until it explodes. So to re-examine how he’s handling his anxiety and think, “Maybe there’s something I haven’t been doing for this long and need to try,” that’s a scary thought for Randall. But he is going to try. And in our very next episode, we will begin Randall’s journey into seeking professional help.
BERGER: He’s in that convenience store and he’s checking the cameras obsessively and he’s realizing that he’s obsessed with what’s going on in his house, even though nobody’s in his house. He’s worried about the girls, even though they’re in an incredibly safe situation. It’s becoming harder for him to ignore the fact that he needs help.

Given what we know of Kevin, you think he might hold more anger toward Randall for his secret L.A. visit. They seem to work through — or at least put aside this issue for the time being. But given what we know about future estrangement, does that tension from that specific issue bubble back up in unexpected ways, with something else alongside it?
BERGER: It may bubble back up.
APTAKER: We like to bubble things up.
BERGER: The thing about Kevin and Randall’s relationship, like many sibling relationships, is that you can move on from issues and you can be there for each other in the moment, but the past never really goes away; it kind of just lives underneath the surface. I think these brothers are definitely like that, where there’s a history there that’s extremely complicated and the same issues of the relationship play over and over again and come out at unexpected times. And then they’re able to have smooth moments and smooth passages of time. But it is safe to say that those lingering issues always live inside of them and may be reemerging at some point, too.

And Kevin still has to talk to Rebecca about what he knows, and why she felt he was too fragile to handle it. It’s also hard to be mad at someone who is ill, so what can you hint about complicated dynamic and conversation, where he’s concerned about Rebecca but also hurt that she didn’t trust that he could handle this information?
APTAKER: That’s coming up right away next week. And you hit the nail on the head there, where it’s hard to hold too much resentment and anger at someone for not telling you something when they’re in this really precarious place.
BERGER: I feel comfortable spoiling that we have actually a very lovely episode coming up next week. It’s one of my favorite Kevin-Rebecca episodes that we’ve ever done. It’s just a really beautiful story about a day they spend together that I can’t wait for people to see.

Kate seems to move past her annoyance, at least in the short term, that Kevin and Madison slept together. Is there more to that Madison situation, though?
APTAKER: Yeah, Kate certainly has some bigger feelings about the Kevin-Madison situation that will be addressed very soon.

Toby (Chris Sullivan) had a breakthrough with baby Jack after saving him from choking, and then found a way to turn something about his son’s blindness that made him “sad” — that he would never see Star Wars — into something positive, where he introduced him to the sounds of Star Wars. Toby may be making progress in bonding with Jack, but what about with Kate, when she gets home? Is it enough to start righting this Millennium Falcon?
APTAKER: Hopefully it puts Millennium Falcon back on course, and that’s another one we’re going to be jumping into. Our next episode takes place immediately upon the Big Three returning back to their lives, and we’ll see for all of them whether the transformative weekend at the cabin is able to unlock them and send them on the right path to fix what was going so wrong in their actual reality. So for Kate, that is the question of: Will she be able to repair with Toby?

In any case, Toby still has a lot to learn. After the choking incident, he was letting Jack play with those Star Wars figurines and putting them in his mouth, which seemed like definite choking hazards.
APTAKER: That came up! [Laughs]
BERGER: We definitely talked about that as well when we saw the way it had been executed. All of us parents in the room kind of wrapped our heads around it by being like, “He’s right there! He’s holding the baby and keeping an eye on it!” But yes, those are definitely not toys you should be left with unsupervised.
APTAKER: Yeah, let’s go on record. The official statement from This Is Us is: Do not leave your young children unsupervised with small pieces.

If readers take away one thing from this interview, I hope it’s that. Let’s jump ahead to the end of the episode, where viewers received a nice flash-forward surprise. Kevin completed his father’s dream and built the house, a place where we have been before without context, as the family gathers to be with Rebecca. Kevin has a moment of hesitation in the car before entering the house to bring back the food, and he seems to be steeling himself before going into the house. Is it simply because he knows the end is nigh for Rebecca, or is there a little more to that story? How significant was that pause?
APTAKER: He’s heading back inside to a very emotional, loaded situation. The family has all gathered, Rebecca is not doing well. And he’s also just sort of in a reflective space at that moment. He’s looking back at the old cabin thinking about all the history and memories that his family has there — and then at this new home that he’s built for himself, inspired by his father’s vision.

We’ve seen the family return to the cabin in times of family crises or bonding. It’s clearly a special place for them. Did it just seem fitting that this pivotal flash-forward scene should take place there? And will we learn more about why Kevin specifically was the one spurred to action to complete Jack’s dream?
APTAKER: We’ll definitely find out why Kevin built the house. And in terms of “Why there?” this has always been the plan for us, that we would one day reveal that this home was not only Kevin’s, but was on the same property as the family cabin, and he fulfilled one of his father’s dreams, post-Jack’s-death. So this was always in our head. Achieving it, on the other hand — unfortunately for our production team, the cabin and the house are in completely separate locations, miles and miles and miles apart. So there was some substantial movie magic. Kudos to all of our department heads and their teams for pulling that off, because it was very difficult.

Speaking of magic, it looks like Kevin hasn’t really aged that much decades later. He’s maybe aging better than Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise.
BERGER: Our brilliant makeup people and hair people did a lot of tests and we all collectively felt that Kevin Pearson would age very well. So finding that Clooney-esque look for him to fit the character —
APTAKER: There was a lot of Google-imaging of Clooney, Pierce Brosnan, and the men who have aged fantastically.

I bet Justin was pleased with how he would look in the future.
BERGER: [Laughs] Yes. There were some previous looks he was less pleased with.
APTAKER: I would say “horrified.” Our first test, he was horrified: “How could Kevin let himself go like this? Doesn’t he wear sunscreen?” It was a lot of that. [Laughs]

It was tantalizing to be back in that flash-forward scene. Are there more flash-forwards to come before the end of the season?
APTAKER: We’re steering clear of that particular time for the next handful, but we have some new time periods that people might not be thinking of returning to that are coming up.

It’s an emotionally powerful moment when the Big Three discover that Jack made a tape for them. When someone dies, we know and savor every last photo or recording of them, so for the Big Three to find this unexpected audio of Jack is potent and disorienting, when they never thought you’d hear his voice again. And to borrow from the Pearson time capsule, it’s another piece of the puzzle, of Jack. How did that idea come to life?
BERGER: It came from exactly what you’re describing. Obviously they have this finite amount of memories, and we were so interested in the idea of them getting a new one. Getting to hear something they had never heard before just seemed so exciting. Even for us, knowing that it was coming when you hear his voice fill that kitchen, it just is so moving. I love that part, especially when he says on the tape, “By the time you guys hear this, you’ll be teenagers,” and all of our brilliant actors’ expressions and of realizing how long it’s been since they’ve heard something new from that voice. It was just something we all felt would be really powerful and really, really fulfilling for our siblings to experience.

Next week’s episode features the first appearance of Pamela Adlon as Randall’s therapist. What can we expect from her?
BERGER: She’s used sparingly but effectively in next week’s episode — and will have a much bigger screen presence in upcoming episodes. But we’re very, very excited by the job she’s doing. And [she] and Sterling has such a fantastic and unique energy together that we can’t wait for people to see it.

Care to leave readers with one final cryptic hint?
APTAKER: Next week is about like this return to reality for our three characters and them facing the lives that they ran away from — and that will go better for some and less great for others.

To see what Sterling K. Brown revealed about that upcoming Randall-Kevin split, click here.

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This Is Us

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

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