This Is Us producers break down Randall's tense therapy session, Rebecca's diagnosis
Warning: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “Clouds.”
After a not-quite restorative getaway at the family cabin, the Big Three returned home to their respective lives — and those nagging issues from which they had fled.
Reeling from lifelong anxiety issues (not to mention a recent home invasion), Randall (Sterling K. Brown) finally acceded to the wishes of his concerned wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), and agreed to meet with a therapist in Tuesday’s installment of This Is Us. Turns out, that meant attend a therapy session, not embrace it. He spent the first part of the hour trying to charm the therapist and show her what he already knew about therapy (not much, beyond The Sopranos) and the next part trying to control the session, as noted by Dr. Leigh. When he cut the session short, returned home, and limply told Beth that he tried but it wasn’t for him, she lowered the boom on him. “I know you think I need this,” he said, to which she responded, “Babe, I need this.” She explained that she too was deeply affected by the home invasion, but didn’t feel like she could share it with him because it might “break” him. And so he decided to return to therapy, this time in earnest. (And this time, viewers could actually see Dr. Leigh, played by… Pamela Adlon!)
Meanwhile, Kevin (Justin Hartley) — a.k.a. the last of the siblings to find out that Rebecca (Mandy Moore) was having cognitive issues — filled in for Randall as the Good Son, volunteering to take his mother to her doctor to receive test results. Before that ominous appointment, they had an afternoon to remember (much like the unexpected early-’90s one when Kevin and Rebecca stopped by the baseball card shop). Their current-day bonding expedition involved completing Rebecca’s dream of finding Joni Mitchell’s house, and it was so consuming that the fun Pearson had to remind the practical Pearson they had to go get those test results, even if she was scared. (The results did confirm what was feared: Rebecca had mild cognitive disorder and was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.)
Meanwhile, Kate (Chrissy Metz) returned home to a penitent and evolved Toby (Chris Sullivan), who was excited to show her the studio he had built for her and for baby Jack, but she wasn’t in a receptive mindset. That is, until she received the surprisingly wise words of not-always-wise best friend Madison (Caitlin Thompson). Toby’s studio dreams ultimately received an A from Kate, and viewers saw a montage of baby Jack growing up, pursuing his own music dreams.
Given that it’s report card day, let’s fire up some three-cheese macaroni, chase down a ’91 John Candelaria card, throw out those old 2017 magazines, and use our celebrity fast pass to ask This Is Us executive producers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker to take us through “Clouds.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Randall has finally agreed to enter therapy. The first time was not a charm — as he kept his therapist at arm’s length — but it was interesting to see him once again go into martyr mode about being the one who helps Rebecca. Will part of this therapy be a matter of untangling of how he simultaneously resents being put in the position of being the reliable one but also derives satisfaction, pride, and self-worth from that station?
ELIZABETH BERGER: I think for most people in therapy, it’s a complex untangling of a very complicated web, and we’re definitely going to see Randall navigating, — especially when it comes to his mom — really conflicting feelings, because there are just such strong feelings of devotion and of love and of wanting to bend over backwards to do absolutely anything for her. But at the same time, so much has been put on him from such a young age, that has to take a toll on a person. Those two conflicting things have been warring in inside of him for a very long time, so we’re definitely going to be seeing him unpacking that and trying to get to the bottom of that in a deeper way.
At the end of the episode, he returns to therapy. Now comes the hard work. Will he go from undersharing to oversharing while still keeping up the micromanaging? Will he come to find out that he’s bottled up much more than he thought?
ISAAC APTAKER: We have a therapy episode coming up that really, really dives into Randall’s psychology in an interesting way. We’re bringing back Pam, who everybody just had such a great time with, and we were thrilled to be able to get her for a few of these — when you actually see her face! [Laughs] I don’t want to give too much away about it, but she starts probing into Randall’s psychology and what makes him tick in a really, really interesting way. It launches one of our more out-there-conceptually episodes that we’ve ever done on the show.
A lot of the fun in casting would be picking the person who should serve as Randall’s therapist. How did you land on Pamela, and how did you land Pamela?
APTAKER: That was the one where we lucked out. We were like, “What if we could try to get Pam Adlon? There’s no way. She makes that show [Better Things] singlehandedly. She’s so busy.” Then we reached out to CAA [her talent agency] and they put us in touch with her. She had just done a panel interview with Sterling where they interviewed each other, and they hit it off, so I think she was intrigued at the idea of getting to work with him. We just set up a call and she happened to have a little window when she had just finished editing her show and she came in and did some episodes. It was shockingly easy given how busy and famous she is.
You joked about this, but what kind of discussions did you have about having Dr. Leigh out of sight where the audience is just sitting there with him alone in the awkwardness, until the end of the episode, when Randall can truly and fully “see” her and is ready to begin in earnest?
BERGER: A lot of that had to do with what Sterling can do as a performer. As we were talking about this, we started realizing that it would just be absolutely incredible to stay in these long takes with Sterling where you’re getting into his psychology and you’re watching him turn her words over and over again in his mind. And because Sterling is the type of actor that can do that and to live in those minutes-long takes, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do it that way.
What was Pamela’s take when you told her, “You’re actually not going to be seen for most of the episode”?
BERGER: She was totally on board, and she’s hilariously funny. She was just like, “You mean, I don’t have to memorize my lines? That’s great!” [Laughs] But she was a great sport about it and totally, totally understood why it works for that episode… When she returns, you’ll get to see what she can do — and this woman is incredible with Sterling. So it’s really just a very exciting combination, the two of them.
Was Dr. Leigh just absentminded about the coffee machine and did she like that it turned into a thing for him, especially with the machine still acting up when he returned?
BERGER: I don’t think she left her coffee machine on purpose or did anything before he sat down to kind of entrap him. But I do think that once she realized that it was such a trigger for him, it definitely piqued her interest. And she’ll continue to probe into the parts of his personality that are bothered by that and get the bottom of as to why it bothers him so much.
A really powerful moment arrives when Beth confides in Randall that she needs him to go to therapy because she needs this too, having been affected traumatized by the home invasion. She empties out her purse, which contains medication. She explains that she didn’t want to lean on him because she didn’t want to break him. How should we prioritize our concern for her in relation to Randall? We’re just trying to figure out what we should worry about and in what order.
APTAKER: I love your concerns are “order of worry.” [Laughs] Beth really makes herself heard in a great way at the end of his episode and advocates for what she needs and what’s missing for her in their marriage. Randall hears her and makes a decision to go back to Pam Adlon and really dig in and do the work he needs to do. So I feel pretty good about Beth because her partner is looking inward and finally examining himself so he can be a better husband.
Rebecca’s test results indicate that she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, but the good news is that now they have a clear course of action. What can you hint about that course of action and what it means for Rebecca and the family in the more immediate future?
BERGER: Not too much. As you can imagine with our Big Three, people are going to have strong opinions about the best course of action and what is best for their mom. Rebecca has children that all feel their feelings very intensely and tend to think they know what is best, so we will be exploring the way she picks the treatment and what different people’s feelings are about the matter.
By the way, was that actually Joni Mitchell’s old house?
APTAKER: I hate to reveal it, but unfortunately it was not Joni Mitchell’s actual house. I believe, if I’m not mistaken, she still owns the actual house. So we had to find a very similar looking house in the Laurel Canyon area. But it definitely captures the vibe and essence of Joni’s real house. And that story is also, to the best of our knowledge, true.
Was Kevin’s turning down his mother’s request to skip the appointment at the end of their special day — and him having to be not the fun one, but the responsible one — one of the harder things he’s done and a sign of real growth for him?
BERGER: I think it actually wasn’t that hard for him because he has grown so much. He’s become pretty responsible guy in a lot of ways. Obviously he still has flaws and there’s still a lot to figure out, but he’s no longer the guy that’s going to just take his mom off on a flight of fancy and not get her to her doctor’s appointment. Which is interesting going forward for Randall to have to grapple with, because in some ways they think he still sees an older version of his brother and hasn’t quite come to terms with the growth that he’s made. So that’s something we’re definitely going to be exploring different in upcoming episodes: the difference between the ways Randall perceives Kevin and who Kevin has actually become at this point.
We’re approaching this big rift between Kevin and Randall, and we’ve talked about how they’ve always clashed and have had issues bubbling under the surface. But as Kevin seems rather okay with things — at the moment at least — is it possible that there’s more on Randall’s side than perhaps we thought and it’s related to something that comes out in therapy?
APTAKER: Perhaps. We don’t want to give too much away about what the source of this rift is, and there’s no way to answer that without spoiling where we’re headed. But there’s three episodes left and we promise this rift happens this season, so all will be revealed very soon.
BERGER: From the personal experiences that we’ve discussed with various writers, going to therapy often does bring out those feelings that still exist right below the surface. So it is definitely possible that some of that will come bubbling up as we move into the end of the season.
Moving on to Kate and Toby: People assume that the signs of a possible fracture between Toby and Kate in the distant future — if one does indeed exist — has been set up in their current tension. Toby and Kate seem to have gotten over this hurdle — for now, at least. Can you assure viewers that they’re out of the woods for now?
APTAKER: Yes. I think Kate and Toby have reached a really, really good place and worked their way through this immediate hurdle of Toby struggling to get on board to being the father of a blind son.
Kate is now the only one we haven’t seen in the distant future. Can you say whether we’ll learn more about Kate’s fate in the distant future — alive, divorced, still with Toby — by the end of this season?
APTAKER: We’re not doing much more distant future this season, so I think people are going to have to wait a little longer to find out what’s up with Kate.
There are only three episodes to go before the end of the season. What can you say about the pre-penultimate episode in two weeks?
BERGER: I think we have some explosive stuff coming up.
APTAKER: Our next episode, we took the show to New York to film in the freezing cold, 20-degree February nights, which people were excited about and also dreading a little bit. [Laughs] But it came out incredibly special and was totally worth it. There’s a very cool story in three different timelines where various groupings of our Pearsons head to the Big Apple.
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.