This Is Us creator breaks down the big questions of the 'simple' series finale
The Pearson matriarch has been eulogized. The Pearson matriarch and patriarch have been reunited in the afterlife. The Pearsons are history. The Pearsons are forever.
On Tuesday night, the final, sweet brush strokes were applied to the Pearson painting. And while the painting is still drying, your eyes are, too. "Us," the last-ever installment of NBC's time-warping multigenerational family drama This Is Us, wasn't a tear-duct obliterator on the level of the "The Train," which ushered Rebecca (Mandy Moore) into the afterlife on a memory-packed luxury train. This was more of a tender and nostalgic postlude, "a sweet swan song" as Sterling K. Brown called it, "a warm hug," as Moore deemed it, "a very simple, quiet episode," as creator Dan Fogelman referred to it. In short, by design, this landing was to be stuck... gently.
That's not to say that "Us" didn't still slip in a few surprises. Half of the episode took place on a rather non-eventful day in the early '90s (and it was filmed back in season 3, to capture the Big Three at a certain pre-teen age). Rebecca savored the concept of a lazy Saturday with nothing to do, Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicsak) just wanted to be around the family as they played games like foursquare and watched home movies, and Kevin (Parker Bates) and misunderstood mathlete mischief-maker Randall (Lonnie Chavis) were suddenly growing up too fast as Jack taught them to shave. And speaking of days slipping by too fast, a moment to return to the morning of "Memphis," as the terminally ill William (Ron Cephas Jones) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) discussed the wonders of grandfatherhood before embarking on that road trip to remember.
In the present — er, future — and after Beth schooled Randall in the best Worst Case Scenario game yet, the Big Three paid their respects to their mother in all senses. First, they delivered their tributes at her funeral service, and Randall (Brown) gave a perfectly moving, funny eulogy that he couldn't remember delivering (and the audience never saw). Then they administered one more Big Three chant pondered their next steps in life: Kate was opening up a bunch of of music schools for the blind. Kevin was focusing on his non-profit home-building company and spending time at the home he built. And Senator Randall Pearson was strongly considering honoring not only his mother's wishes but the DNC's by attending the Iowa State Fair, kissing some babies, eating some deep-fried Oreos, and seeing if he was White House worthy/willing.
And then, after Randall wondered why Rebecca had squeezed his hand at the last moment, the show went out of time and space to continue the conversation at the end of "The Train," when Rebecca crossed over and found Jack laying next to her, ready to welcome her to the afterlife. (She was scared. He reassured her that she would be around for many more family moments — and none of the creepy ones). Viewers saw those family traditions continue after Rebecca's funeral — the kids playing four square, the adults playing pin the tail on the donkey, a game that Jack and Rebecca almost didn't buy at the toy store one day, but did because the family on the box looked exactly like theirs. It was all somewhere at the intersection of serendipity and fate, just like the night Jack stumbled across Rebecca singing "Moonshadow" in the bar that night.
As Jack and Rebecca exchanged "I love you"s — hers teary, his assuring — and she squeezed his hand (Oh, that's why she squeezed Randall's hand in her dying moment!), it was all over. And just beginning. Because the last montage of This Is Us ended with little Randall on the couch with his dad, soaking up a moment of the family laughing and wrestling. So much was to come, but the two of them exchanged a look and savored the now of the then.
Let's fry up the Oreos, fill the room with smells of pies and pipes, cross multiple lines and protocols, commune with Miguel's great grandmother's ghost in the Atlantic Ocean, and discuss the very final outing of the Peasings, er, Pearsons with This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, who wrote the last two episodes of the series. And we swingggg! into it....
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After such a lovely but devastating episode with "The Train," the finale was much simpler and gave viewers uplift and a comfortable resting place. What appealed to you about ending the series on a note that reaffirmed its themes that family is forever and past generations live on with us well past their time on Earth?
DAN FOGELMAN: We wanted to make this show about the continuation of life and not the end of life — and kind of hug the audience a little bit and try and capture something that's more about family and the simplicity of family. And the underlying message of the entire enterprise here, which is that people die, but they don't leave the painting. And I think [we] did that here…..
It's not just ending with a death; it's ending with that person carrying things forward. That OG Pearson couple is being carried forward into the future generations of their family. That was the ending I wanted to leave people feeling. There's been so much conversation about how much people cry when they watch the television show. And that often gets lumped in with the show being sad — which at times it is, especially this season. I always found the best cries that come from This Is Us have been more about being moved and often moved in an upward lifting manner and not just a sad manner when Jack dies or Rebecca dies. And it was important to me to find that at the end of this series and leave people with that, because that was ultimately the core principle of the show.
How did you arrive at the idea of a lazy Saturday where nothing happens, but it's about the little things — which Jack points out are actually the big things? And, of course, we see their traditions passed on to future generations.
So much of the narrative about this show has been about these big, surprising twists and the deaths of major beloved characters. But at the end of the day, what I think really drew people to the show was just the simplicity of family stories and remembering your childhood fondly from your adulthood. I thought: How confident, how cool and how important it would be to just end on a day with these kids, at an age you haven't seen in a while, that was just a simple regular day in the life? That feels like a day in the life of many families — on a lazy Saturday afternoon, as opposed to having to do anything that is super complicated or gigantic. It felt important to me that there not be this huge, giant serialized plot line in the past story of the final episode, but rather this simple day that's just borne out of what it is to be a family.
You've mentioned the word simple, but the planning that went into this was probably anything but. You shot half of the episode — those early '90s scenes — years ago because you wanted to capture these kids at this particular time. Were you nervous at all about boxing yourself in, making a big commitment three seasons before your finale would air?
I didn't really feel boxed in. I knew we had it. I knew it was good. But ironically, as we were getting deeper on the season, the job was so hard and so much work, that the last thing I needed to think about was looking at footage from an episode that doesn't exist yet and isn't going to air forever. And there was a certain part of the season where I was like, "I should probably go look at that stuff and make sure that the finale's good and that I don't need anything and I don't have to adjust the plan and say, 'Oh, this doesn't all work. I really should make this the third-to-last episode.'"
I couldn't even send an email to my post department [and] my editors to say, "Hey guys, we should compile that footage. It's time for me to look at it." I just kept putting it off and putting it off and putting it off. Because I was dealing with getting 18 other episodes out all the time and I just didn't want to look at it. And then we hit a point a few months ago where I was like, "Guys, it's time. I have to look at this." I remember very vividly — it came in my inbox, it said, "618 (season 6, episode 18), rough assembly." And it was half, if not more of the episode — the final episode of series — shot years ago. I had it on my laptop and I shared it to the big screen downstairs. And I said to my wife [Caitlin Thompson, who plays Madison], "Do you want to watch the finale with me before I've seen anything?" Which I never do with anyone, but I was almost too nauseous to look at it by myself. But we sat and we watched it and we were just so absorbed. And it was such a nice experience. I was just very excited by it.
How did the studio and the network react to this leap of faith, which they would be paying for? And how did the actors handle such a request, with the scenes not being out of the realm of comprehension but certainly out of context?
Nobody balked. I was like, "Listen, we're going to make this now, and you're either going to pay for it now or you're going to pay for it later. [Laughs.] And they had such trust in us that it was never going to be a situation where we're like, "Oh, we've changed our mind. We're not going to use any of that." Because that's where you really would've gotten screwed financially. And then for the actors, they just never questioned anything. For this particular storyline, it's not like it required any knowledge of serialized events. I was like "Guys, we're going to go spend the extra four days on set and you're going to shoot four days' worth of material with the kids that won't air for three years and is untethered to anything else you're doing." And they were like, "Great!" Then they came in and nailed it every single day. I mean, you would think there would be a lot of questions — outside of anything that they needed to know for their character — they just never balked or complained.
One of the news flashes out of this finale is that Randall seems poised to run for... president. Sterling told me that you saw his 2017 tweet responding to Aaron Sorkin's comment that if he rebooted The West Wing, he'd imagine Sterling K. Brown as president. Sterling said that you said to him one day: "What if Randall becomes president and the spin-off is the next version of The West Wing?"
I said, "It would be the ultimate great twist in television history, if This Is Us was the prequel to the spinoff of The West Wing on the same television network. [Laughs.] I actually thought it was kind of genius.
The idea that one of your characters becomes president is a big swing. He has committed his life to being in service of others, this notion truly would honor Rebecca's wishes for him, and we know the guy's pretty good with a speech, but what was the debate like in the writers' room about Randall possibly landing in the top office in the land?
We had debated so many different things. It was often very debated about Randall's endpoint. What we pretty clearly knew was we weren't going to go all the way there — whatever decision we made internally, we weren't going to take the story all the way there. I would be lying if I didn't say there were moments when we discussed the idea of going back in time to Randall getting Tess to go to his mother's deathbed and revisiting that scene and showing him surrounded by Secret Service agents going, "Eagle is on the move!" and everybody going batshit. [Laughs] We thought it would distract from the television show, and it wasn't the right decision for us, but it was certainly a source of a lot of conversation.
The spin-off/reboot does sound like something a lot of fans would be interested in.
I suspect Sterling and Susan are going to be pretty busy for a while.
We remember a few things from earlier moments this season. When young Randall tells the cop at the pool that he's going to run for president one day. And on Randall and Rebecca's road trip, he tells her that if he ran for a Senate seat, he'd win. And he said that if he wins, he couldn't imagine where this thing would end, and she told him that she could see it very clearly. In your mind, does he win?
Or does he even run? All he's committed to in this final episode is that he'll go explore this fair and see people like him. I think the question's better left unanswered for now — only because what I wanted to capture was that like Kate and like Kevin, Randall is able to follow his mother's wishes and not allow himself to be hampered or held down by his mother's passing, but for her or in honor of her, potentially move forward in the biggest way imaginable.
In terms of the end point of his political career, it's something that we wanted to touch upon lightly — and it's the closest we come to the Sopranos family scene in that diner and everything just going to black. There is no answer of what comes next and you can bring your own knowledge of the character and what is said in those three moments you referenced earlier and you can decide as the audience like a Choose Your Own Adventure-type novel: Does he ultimately bail, and just say, "I want to be home with my wife and my kids, and I'm very content in my position as a Senator," which would also be lovely completion of his arc? Or do you think he goes all the way? This is definitely a cutoff in that point of time that one of the few things we leave hanging. And if Aaron Sorkin wants to reboot The West Wing with Randall, then I give it to him.
In your mind, do you have a definitive answer of what happens, or are you still exploring it?
I do have a definitive answer in my mind. Yes.
Early in the episode, we see Randall struggling to write the perfect eulogy. But we don't see the man who makes these spectacular speeches actually deliver it — we experience it through him numbly floating through the haze and blur of the day. Did you think about writing one but then decide that it was more effective to show it from the perspective of someone who was overwhelmed by the day?
I scripted it without words, saying that Randall would float through the space and time, and you would never hear a word that he or any of the other speakers really say. On the day, in order to capture some of the real emotion, we had Sterling and Justin and Christy and others all improvise, write little eulogies on their own. Chrissy sang a song. They were all told, "These will not be verbally in the show, but I want to feel you talking and being sweet and being funny, so that I can capture it with the audience, but it will all be like a bomb has gone off in Sterling's head and he's just floating through the day."
It was very much borne out of my experience, burying my own mother. I've stayed up the entire night before my mom's funeral, knowing that people would be expecting me to write and deliver a very strong eulogy. And I was putting such intense pressure on myself, playing probably the part of a martyr, and it had to be perfect. Then I got there, and I remember seeing people laugh, I remember hearing people cry, but I can't remember a single word I said. I kind of floated through that entire week in like a disoriented haze, and I wanted to try and capture that on camera.
What did Chrissy sing? And what did Sterling and Justin say?
Chrissy had not been told I'd be asking her to sing. So I was like, "Chrissy, can you sing something?" And she's like, "Do you want me to just sing something?" And I'm like, "Sing one of your songs from your new album." She's like, "I don't think it's appropriate, tonally?" And I was like, "What about 'Time After Time'? That was a song that was part of your character's origin story with Rebecca." So that's what she sang. And it actually was beautiful and everybody was crying and clapping.
I remember Sterling had written out a lot of stuff, because he's Sterling. And then after a while, we'd get the camera angle and he'd be in the middle of his stuff and Ken [Olin, who directed the finale] was just yelling out, "Cut!" And Sterling was like, "I've got more! I've got more!" [Laughs.] Ken wasn't focusing on the words; he was focusing on how much of the camera movement we needed. Sterling and Justin were both, if I remember correctly, both trying to make the audience laugh a little bit with whatever they were saying. They were in character, speaking about Rebecca, almost having a competition with who could say the funniest or most shocking thing that would get everybody in the audience to laugh. Because they knew their words weren't getting me on camera.
You filmed the '90s storyline in season 3, but how long had you been writing that present-day part of the finale? Did you outline some of those scenes back then and fill in the blanks as things became clearer this season, aside from the major tentpoles?
I didn't sit down to write the present-day scenes until a couple of months ago, but I always just knew globally in my head what the scenes would be. I knew it would end with Rebecca and Jack. I knew the pin the tail on the donkey stuff at the end. I knew there would be the final Big Three scene. I knew I wanted a scene between Kate and Toby [Chris Sullivan]. I knew I wanted Deja towards the end of the episode to tell Randall he's having a grandson and she's going to name him William. But I never really wrote any of it, nor had it really outlined. Then I just sat down, I was like, "Okay, here's my seven spots. I have room for new scenes." And then I decided I wanted one last Worst-Case Scenario between Beth and Randall. I wanted one last Kate and Toby scene. I wanted to give Nicky [Griffin Dunne] a scene with Kevin — their origin story. And then I hoped to God that I could get them all in in enough time to fit inside of one episode, and we did.
You deliver what fans always want more of: Jack and Rebecca, not just on the simple day in the past, but a continuation of the scene of the caboose. When Rebecca laments that she had so much more she wanted to do with her family, Jack reassures her with lines such as "You will. It's hard to explain but you'll do all those things with them." We know that everyone lives on through their family, but you're visually exploring that idea further. Can you walk us through the origins and intentions of that scene? Did you wrestle with how to depict an afterlife and give comfort to those who are grieving or who wonder about their footprints after they're gone?
I did. He is speaking abstractly, but it is also at the core of something I believe in. I'm not an intensely spiritual person, but I've experienced enough loss and trauma in my life to speak on it. What the show is saying quite literally is you carry this stuff forward with you — those who survive — and you pass it off to your kids and they will pass off versions of it to their own. That's the most direct way that we're saying you participate in all this stuff with those who continue to live after you've passed.
There's a slightly more abstract version of it, which I always believed, which is that you're kind of living in multiple timelines of your life at any given moment. So, you and I can be sitting and having this conversation on a Sunday afternoon, but I am also still living in that third-grade classroom of mine that I've just been thinking about where something happened, and I had a conversation with my mother or father afterwards about it. That's a really abstract complicated philosophical notion. But also a little of that in this ending and in this television show is the way we play in time and tells stories of time. If you think of time as only linear, then of course, when somebody dies at the end of their life, they're no longer in the story. But if you think of time as something more abstract and Christopher Nolan-y [laughs], then you are with your mother and your father in that childhood kitchen, just as you're with your husband or wife and children in your own kitchen. That's a little bit more of a complicated [idea]. So we treated it more simply with just Jack saying, "You'll be there," and we'll let the audience apply their own spirituality and belief systems on top of that."
What was it like to film that scene?
I think Milo and Mandy are so special together that when you're watching what you know is their ultimate final scene together, and one that's going to end the series, you can't help but go, "Wow, this is really moving." I found what they were talking about moving, beyond just the actors and the relationship. I was like, "Oh, I think this is gonna be meaningful to people who have lost somebody."
It was really powerful. I think the whole crew felt it. How can you not? I mean, you've got these two beautiful people lying in a caboose that's clearly going to the afterlife [laughs] in beautiful lighting in a beautiful bedding. It was just a beautiful moment. And everybody was crying. Ken and I made a mistake — which we never made in six years of making the show — and actually had to call the actors back to grab one little piece of pedestrian footage, just to make sure we had all the angles and all the coverage, because we were so caught up in the moment that we actually weren't doing our job. [Laughs.]
Did you always know you wanted to end on Jack looking at his family after he and Randall exchanged that knowing look, about living in this perfect moment and savoring it, and that one day Randall will have this, too?
I did. I always knew in my mind's eye that the final words of the series would be a simple, "I love you" between two characters — probably Jack and Rebecca — and that the final shot would be some version of the kids or a kid looking at a parent who was looking at his or her family. And once I saw that shot of Lonnie looking at Milo, I knew that would be the final shot of the series.
While the sins of the father/mother was a theme explored on the show, the finale doubles down on the flip side of that, showing how all the positive modeling makes an impact and lives on for generations.
Hopefully our finale is rewarding to parents in that way. We spend so much around lives going, "How are we f---ing up our kids?" We don't often give ourselves the gift of saying, "Hey, what did I show my kid today that they'll carry for it in a positive way?" Which is so much of what parenting is.
What was the biggest challenge in filming or putting this finale together?
Because of the nature of an entire extended family gathering, we had more people in scenes than we've ever had. There's a lot of scenes with 17 people sitting in a room, let alone in great age makeup. Usually [on] our show, there's four storylines going on at any given time, and the bulk of the scenes exist between two, three people max, before you pop over to the next storyline. [In episodes 17 and 18], there's a lot of people in one story, so you're figuring out a different muscle in shooting, let alone the fact that our cast is showing up at 4 a.m. call times every day to get into their makeup and hair and wardrobe. So there were a lot of logistical challenges. And then it was just also watching the tenor of it all. Everybody's emotional and everybody's feeling it, and we wanted to make sure that we're true to ourselves in the show and not letting anything get away from us…. The people writing, acting and directing the show can't be ratcheted up to the same level that the audience might be. Because then the whole thing gets just overwrought.
Was there a scene in the finale that you filmed or scripted that pained you to lose?
There's no scenes of consequence. There was one scene in the stuff we shot four years ago. It was Jack making pancakes for the kids in the morning, combined with them cutting to Randall making pancakes for his younger kids, that we shot with the younger Tess [Eris Baker], Annie [Faithe Herman] and eventually Deja [Lyric Ross] joined the picture in that old kitchen. It was speaking to the theme that comes at the end of the episode, which is you carry this stuff forward from your childhood into your own family. It was really lovely, but it was a little untethered, because we hadn't lived in that time period with Randall and his family. It was really special and beautiful, but it just didn't fit inside of the storyline once it was all put together.
You've said before that you had no immediate interest in a spin-off or movie, but now that you've finished the series and you're in that nostalgic place, how do you feel about that prospect now, whether with Dulé Hill's family or the younger Pearsons?
I feel the same. So much of the show is borne out of my experiences and what's inside of me and my familial experiences, both as a member of a family now and as one when I was a child — as well as the experiences of my writers — but I do feel like I may be tapped out for a while... My well may be drained of family stories. So I don't think a spin-off is happening anytime soon. I don't really understand what a movie would be, but you never know.
The audience has mourned several deaths in the final season, and now it's time to part with the show itself. What should be chiseled on the tombstone of This Is Us?
"A Really Lovely Show About Flawed But Lovely People at a Time When the World Needed a Little Bit of It." And inevitably the tombstone of the show will be not just about the show, but it will be: "Would you believe all these following people worked on show you may remember called This Is Us?" Because these actors, these writers, these directors, everybody on the crew are going to go off and take this experience and translate it into their next things and they're going to be big and they're going to be beautiful. And I think that will be a real part of the ongoing legacy of the show. All the people that spring forth from — these actors will be on all your favorite shows and movies for the next 30 years. I think that'll be a big part of the legacy as well.
Say goodbye to the Pearsons with EW's special This Is Us edition, available to purchase online or wherever magazines are sold.
- This was Us: Inside the final days of filming This Is Us
- This Is Us stars reveal what they took from the set
- This Is Us star Mandy Moore breaks down Rebecca's devastating train ride
- This Is Us star Justin Hartley says not everyone will be happy with Kevin's ending, but...
- This Is Us stars, creator reveal the 14 spin-offs they'd love to see
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.