"We want the audience to feel the frustration she's feeling and the fear that she's feeling," Dan Fogelman says.
Courtesy of NBC

The season 6 premiere of This Is Us may have been set on the 41st birthday of the Big Three, but the Pearsons were caught up in much more than candle lightings and cake cuttings.

Kevin (Justin Hartley) was learning that his co-parenting arrangement with Madison (Caitlin Thompson) was proving to be untenable, perhaps not surprising given that he was living in her garage. Viewers would say an additional "what?" when Kevin reluctantly decided to sign up for the reboot of The Manny — yes, the show that propelled him to fame and provoked a career crisis that saw him melt down and walk off the set — so he could be stay in town and be there for the twins.

His brother, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), was also having trouble focusing on his special day. The man who burgled their house was being arraigned, and even in the face of a tempting offer from wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), Randall couldn't resist going down to the courthouse to confront the guy, only to learn that the perp was suffering from mental health issues. An empathetic Randall decided to set the guy up at a shelter, only to get stood up.

Their sister, Kate (Chrissy Metz), was left to celebrate her day and watch after the kids sans husband Toby (Chris Sullivan). And so the first cracks in their long-distance relationship began to show, not a promising sign for their already-doomed marriage. Down the road, though, there will be a second marriage for Kate, and a first one for Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne), who was busy this episode Facebook-stalking old flame Sally (Genevieve Angelson). But Tuesday's hour also focused on Pearson matriarch Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who received more unsettling news in her battle with early-onset Alzheimer's and was determined to recall a single word that was just out of reach in her foggy brain. Meanwhile, in the past, Rebecca was dealing with a different kind of tragedy, as she and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) tried to help the Big Three make sense of the Challenger explosion.

Let's prepare for liftoff, wish for a less problematic Aladdin genie, do our own hair while watching a Treat Williams indie, say a prayer for Splishy as well as Splashy, and stop fighting this feeling as we ask This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman to break down the big events of "The Challenger."

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The endgame has begun — and it begins on a quieter note, as the Pearson pieces are moved into place after an eventful season 5 finale. Which pieces were the trickiest — and most important — for you to set up for what's to come? Rebecca and her Alzheimer's?

DAN FOGELMAN: It's hard to get inside the experience of somebody suffering from this disease, especially in the very early stages, like Rebecca. So there was a lot of conversation and talk about how we were going to address this very first step. It's not a place we're going to live in constantly. In this present-day part of the series, I'm very interested in Rebecca having moments with her family that she's aware may be fleeting, as opposed to living just in the early stages of the progression of her disease. So when we do it, we want to do it right. We want the audience to feel the frustration she's feeling and the fear that she's feeling. So that was something that was really talked about a lot and took great care to trying to get right in this episode.

The episode transports the viewer literally inside her brain fog, as she struggles to retrieve a specific word. What kinds of discussions did you have from a visual standpoint, in terms of devising ways to illustrate that battle?

Yeah, it's hard. And like any disease, there's no "one size fits all." We have this idea of the train ride with her father, which is a thematic thing for our season. We knew exactly what we were going to do big-picture for Rebecca this season from a very early stage. But I would be lying if I said we knew how we were going to do all of this stuff. Early in this season, my writers and I figured out how we were going to take this first step of living inside of Rebecca's first real episode. Because we had only shown one episode in the past, and it was more of a result of a hiccup of medication than it was actually progression of her disease. So there was just a lot of talk and a lot of reading, and a lot of consultations, and then us saying, "Okay, here's how we're going to attack it."

How ominous is the latest revelation about the plaque on Rebecca's brain, even if there's optimism about the medications working? Are timetables and decision around her care getting moved up?

The disease progresses differently for different people, and certainly there's so much advancement going on right now and so much research happening that I don't think this first episode moves up any timelines as much as it starts moving up the reality that this thing is here, however long that may take and whatever the journey ahead may be. And with that comes conversations that need to happen, decisions that need to be happen — not for now, but maybe for the future.

But in a show about family with all these complicated family dynamics, it doesn't get much bigger than that, you know? Deciding what Rebecca wants and how she wants in this show is akin to a Game of Thrones Red Wedding, in terms of where something really has stakes for all the characters involved, and it's something everybody cares about in this family. So for these characters, it doesn't get much bigger than their sole remaining parent's illness is starting to progress and there are conversations to be had.

Mandy Moore on 'This Is Us'
| Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

You have to change the marketing of the final season to "Who will ascend the Pearson throne?" So, what kind of emotional toll will take on Miguel [Jon Huertas]? Few have been more supportive of the Pearsons and put in more invisible work than Miguel.

Yeah. And it's definitely a place we're heading. Jon Huertas is going to get a real showcase this year. All illness that's chronic and long and complicated, it's not just how it affects the patient — it's also how it affects the families, and particularly the caregivers. Anybody who's ever been a primary caregiver for somebody who's suffering, especially somebody who's suffering from Alzheimer's, knows the hold it can take. There's a story to tell ahead of Miguel, this man who came into this family, and his entrance to the family as a romantic option for Rebecca was probably met with the same reaction as it was met from our audience at first. Your father's best friend is suddenly dating your mother. There's a journey here — a hero's journey for Miguel — coming next, with this man who's devoted himself to his wife and to this family, that'll be very fulfilling and rewarding for the people who love that character. Or for the people who have always wondered about the character and haven't let him in yet.

Kevin reluctantly decides to take the Manny reboot. Will viewers see the reboot in action — and is Morris Chestnut going to be involved beyond a billboard?

You know, it's funny. I think I cut a line from the first episode, something akin to "Even Morris Chestnut said no to the reboot. That's why they're going to Kevin." [Laughs] But it just felt, with this much time having passed, maybe a little confusing. Yeah, we're going to see The Manny in action in various ways. It was always, to me, something that was so exciting to see: Kevin returning to a show that was so much the source of his disillusionment, his unhappiness at the beginning. And now on the priority level where he's placing his career, returning to the scene of the crime felt like such an exciting comedic opportunity for us.

Justin's so funny, and I've long said it: It's unseemly for a guy that looks like Justin to be as funny as he is. And he carries so much existential crisis, and he does this season as always. But it's always fun to put him in situations that are also funny. Him at 40 having to return to The Manny — this show he once hated — for this reboot just felt like such a great opportunity for us that we couldn't resist it.

It's the show on which he learned to walk — and walk off. Kevin decides that he needs to be there for his kids, swallows his pride, and takes this gig. Family is so important to him, but he's had big dreams as an actor, so can you hint at any ramifications of sublimating that dream for now?

Kevin for five seasons has been teetering on coming of age and then stepping in it. Maybe being a good father — a thing he's always said he wanted to be — does start taking precedent over his hopes and dreams of what he wanted as an acting career. Or maybe he could have it both. Or maybe it's something else…

Kevin makes big decisions and he makes them irrationally, even when they're well intentioned. He wanted to be close to his kids, so he moves into Madison's garage temporarily. That's really just an idiotic decision. He immediately decided, "I'm just going to take The Manny because I want to be close to my kids." Kevin does things quickly and then pays the price of the ramifications. He falls in love quickly. He breaks up with people quickly. Hopefully you root for him to figure his stuff out, and it's so fun watching him go on the journey and then mess up again. My hope for him — and I'm not saying it's going to happen — is that he finally figures it all out in this final season. But we'll see.

Speaking of a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, Randall tells Beth that he needs to do more for the people who are hurting in the city. Surely a chain of events will get us to his "rising star" status in the future, but does this specific drive lead us to what happens down the road?

I think so. You don't become a rising star in politics overnight just from doing one thing or from one guy that you met who robbed you once and realizing you need to do more. But we're beginning to arc out Randall's political and career story line. It will be interesting for his character that this moment starts and operates on a timeline that works closely in concert with his mother's decline. For a character who's got such complicated history with his family — and with his mother particularly — they become linked in a way. So it's a long play. He's not going to just give one speech and then suddenly become the next great thing. This is the beginning of the story line and a drive that his goals and his aspirations may reach pretty far and pretty wide.

In a sweet surprise gesture, Toby shows up at the end of Kate's birthday, but it can't make up for the fact that he wasn't there for the day — and more importantly, that he won't be there for many other moments. How much tension will this distance cause in the relationship, even as Kate realizes that Toby is doing this to help support the family? The road to divorce can be paved with very good intentions on both sides.

That's what we're trying to say. It's not just that he missed the birthday, it's going to be what comes next, and the fights that will brew out of distance. You're not fighting just about distance, you're fighting about he's no longer tucking in the kids the way that kids want to be tucked in because he doesn't know how their schedules have changed, and then he feels that he's being judged for being a bad father when he's really just trying to support his family by killing himself flying home on the weekend.

It's going to be a slow build between Toby and Kate. We never planned on having them coming back in season [6] and being terrible to each other and on the cusp of divorce because it wouldn't have been true to these characters, nor to their relationship. We have the ability to play with time in the show. So it certainly helps you explain the dissolution of a marriage in a way that can allow you to zoom out quite a bit and not just only live in the ugly. And as you said, the path to a lot of broken marriages is paved with good intentions on both sides — and both people can be the villain and both people can the hero, and it isn't all ugly as ugly as it seems at the time. Relationships that don't work out can be relationships that lead to other beautiful things. And because we operate from an optimistic point of view on this show, my hope is that we can deliver something when we finally get there that while sad and awful, it was also fulfilling and meaningful to the large percentage of people who have gone through something like this.

We are starting to see that Phillip [Chris Geere] has demons and is full of self-loathing. What traumas might lie in his past?

There's definitely a backstory with Philip, and it's going to take a minute, but you're going to get to really know him. Like so many relationships in our lives — and it's been a thing we've returned to in the show — people who become huge, important lead characters in our stories often start as day players. The waiter or waitress who was waiting on us becomes our wife or our husband. The teacher and co-worker who was kind of this obnoxious English guy at school one day will become the guy you're marrying. So for a while he's going to live in that space for us, and then we're going to learn a little bit more about him and it's going to start making sense,

What you're saying right now gives hope to my theory that Crying Mailman is going to play a significant role in the final season.

I would love to get Crying Mailman back! I remember seeing that scene for the first time and being like, "Crying Mailman is wonderful! That's such a good actor!"

Meanwhile Nicky, who winds up married in the future, is off to see Sally. Whether or not it's Sally that he winds up marrying, how important is this proactive step in getting him to where he needs to be — aided by Rebecca's kick in the pants?

Well, it's everything. Our second episode, which heavily lives in Nicky's road trip with Rebecca and Miguel to go see Sally, I think it was initially titled "Lovebirds." Nicky's first half of his love story — it was one of my favorite episodes of last season, it was called "One Small Step" — and it was Nicky meeting Sally on the eve of the moon landing. We're going to name this second episode "One Giant Leap," which I really like. So yeah, the end of this episode is really important.

Rebecca is suffering from a debilitating cognitive disease, and it's not an easy one, and we also wanted to show the carpe diem side of a diagnosis like that, so Rebecca can remain a character you can enjoy and you can enjoy her journey early on. Because we don't stop becoming people when we get bad news and bad diagnoses. So that's very much an episode for her that is a completely different side of her life than you're seeing in this first episode, where she can't remember a word and it's driving her batty.

In that past story, when Jack and Rebecca are learning how to help their kids cope with the Challenger explosion, viewers see Randall's compassion at an early age, wanting to send mac and cheese to the astronauts' kids, and Kate's sweetness, when she explains that the astronauts died closer to heaven. And then Kevin tries to deflect and protect himself by saying, "It's just a story on TV. It's not real." How did you go about deciding what those reactions would be from the Big Three, in terms of how it informs who they are now?

A big part of what we talked about in our writers' room as we've made the show is the nature-vs.-nurture argument. How much of this is who the person is? How much of this is parenting? I think we're often the people we are from go. Then also how we parent makes a huge impact on who that person becomes.

This episode was an attempt to show that whereas Randall and Kate had always had an easier time processing difficult stuff and talking about it — even if they don't handle it all well — Kevin has always been one who's apt to just kind of turn a blind eye to the thing that's there and then just be miserable because of it. It's much easier for Kevin to say, "It's just on TV, none of it was real," than it is for him to go, "I just cared about something and people died, and I've experienced loss and death in a way that I never have before, and it's making me feel really complicated inside." And the way we show that ultimately is he's only comfortable saying it under the cover of night and darkness by getting into bed with his sister, his lone real confidante, and saying, "Mom and Dad are going to die one day." Which is really the universal reaction every kid has when they experience and learn about death: "The person who cares for me one day is going to potentially die before I am, and I don't know what to do with that." Randall's de facto zone, by nature, is to go into "How can I help the people who are suffering more than I am from this tragic incident?" Kate has a pretty good balance and handle on the entire thing. She kind of leads with positivity, but she doesn't make more of a situation and says, "I know they're in heaven now and being taken care of." Kevin's feelings are really complicated — and really intensely internal.

Super-important question: How much was Milo "acting" when he sang "Can't Fight This Feeling"?

Our cast through six years has never asked out of anything. Not once in six years has a cast member been like, "Dan, I don't like this scene. I don't want to do it." But I did wonder if Milo would ever call me, like, "Are you really going to make me sing 'I Can't Fight This Feeling' to open the final season of the show?" But he never said a peep. I was actually down on set that day and he was so charming and Mandy was so lovely, laughing at him and listening, that I was like, "Oh, this completely works."

How would you tease next week's episode?

It's one of our specialized episodes. It's two romantic road-trip love stories, one between young people with Deja [Lyric Ross] and Malik [Asante Blackk], and one between older people, as Rebecca and Miguel lead Nicky on this road trip to find Sally. I love writing about love and people falling in love. I think there's nothing more innocent and pure than falling in love for the first time, because you never love that way again, even though you can love in a more adult way, more decisively, more deeply. It's such a unique experience. And to put that type of love and romance opposite these much more verbal, much more broken older people who've experienced loss and love and marriage and multiple loves and multiple lives, it felt like such rich territory. When I'm sitting with those older couples, as they're exploring the regrets of their lives, of their loves, it really speaks to me.

That episode also features a peek into the future. Any hints?

This one definitely has a few of the answers of a few of the questions that I've been asked in terms of "What's going on at the future house?" By the end of our second episode, at least one or two of those questions will have been answered.

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Episode Recaps

This Is Us - Season 3
This Is Us

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

  • TV Show
  • 5
  • Tuesdays at 09:00 PM
  • Dan Fogelman
  • NBC
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