This Is Us creator explains huge finale twist and wedding surprises
"We don't expect people who love the couple to necessarily love it right away," Dan Fogelman says.
This Is Us ended its fifth season with a timeless tradition that goes back further than the days of Dynasty: the surprise wedding cliffhanger. Just not the one you were expecting.
Welcome to… KaPhilip? Or is it Phate? Either way, a janitor has been paged to sweep all the jaws off the floor.
NBC's time-tripping family drama once again toyed with your heart and mind on Tuesday night, revealing what happened on the wedding day for a most unexpected couple, Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Madison (Caitlin Thompson), the latter of whom became pregnant with twins after their one-night stand. Both entered the big day with cold feet, Kevin's more than Madison's, but it was Madison who forced Kevin to get honest with himself by admitting that while he loved their family and the idea of falling for her, he wasn't actually in love with her.
But a four-years-from-now sequence — which viewers were fooled into thinking was present-day Kevin working on his vows — served as a double twist. As it turns out, Kevin wasn't just not getting married to Madison, he wasn't getting married at all. He was prepping his speech at the wedding of his sister, Kate (Chrissy Metz), who was marrying her music teacher boss, Phillip (Chris Geere). Shocked viewers had been played like a fiddle, as the episode showcased rising tension between Kate and husband Toby (Chris Sullivan) after he secured a job in another city. But instead of giving into division, they pledged their love to each other and vowed to make this long-distance relationship work.
Elsewhere in the hour, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) experienced healing in their conversation about his perspective-shifting trip to New Orleans to learn about his birth mother. Rebecca asked Kate to build that modern house next to the family cabin as seen in the flash-forward. Malik (Asante Blackk) revealed to Deja (Lyric Ross) that he got into Harvard, setting up another long-distance situation. Oh, and five years from now, Randall is a rising star getting national magazine attention. Plus, Nicky (Griffin Dunne) is married.
Him? Them? How? Huh? Those are just some of the questions that This Is Us fans are probably texting each other right now, so let's record over someone else's VHS tape, embrace our varicose veins, try to remember who the third Chipmunk is, and tickle our scalps with intel from This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, who offers insights into the big moves of the finale — and what they may mean for the final season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: That was quite a shock-and-twist ending to the finale, and to one of the show's core couples. What were those discussions like in the writers' room when you talked about breaking up Kate and Toby?
DAN FOGELMAN: Honestly, we've known that this was the path for so long and when we were going to do it for so long that it was almost like past the point of, "Should we, or should we not?" because that was just what happens to them. It was more about: "How exactly will we execute this?" Very early on — not just at the beginning of this season, but many seasons ago — I knew what the final moment of this episode was going to look like and feel like. And I knew it would be the ending of the season. So when you know that, then you stop saying "but…" and you start saying "how" a little bit more. And we have really good writers and we just kind of figured it out. It's meant to be a shock, and then you're meant to process it. And we don't expect people who love the couple to necessarily love it right away. We're trying to capture something we haven't done on the show, which is a lovely married couple maybe not making it all the way. And it's something that happens very commonly — more commonly than not in the human experience. It was something we always knew we were going to attack it in our final season.
Why was this a story you wanted to tell for Kate heading into the final season? She has taken such charge of her life, healed old wounds, and is professionally filled. Is this a peek at a fully realized Kate, Kate 2.0?
I think so. My hope for the series has always been: When you end the series, even if you haven't agreed with all the choices that the writers of the characters made, you'll have found the most realized versions of those characters. If you went back to the pilot episode, who was that person back then, and who are they now, they would hopefully feel like very different people, and people that you would've wanted them to become. Even if you don't necessarily like all the choices they made, or all the choices that the writers made. And I think with no character more than Kate.
Chrissy said that she cried when you told her and she jokingly tried to talk you out of it. Between Chris Sullivan, Chrissy, and Chris Geere, who had the best reaction?
I remember Chris Geere came in to meet Chrissy and do a little reading with her very, very early in our season. We had to go through intensive testing protocols, and it was a whole deal. But I want it to feel them together, even though I've been such a fan of his for such a long time; that's how we do it on this show. He was just reading a version of an early scene with his character [laughs], and I remember telling him where this was going to give him the context. And I remember him just nodding and trying to process it, probably keep on a bit of a cool face, being somebody who watched the show, which he does. He was like, "Oh, s---! I'm walking into it right now." And you know, Sully and Chrissy Metz have always been like the rest of the cast. They never complain or try to force me out of a story point. Even though it's hard when you're always reading stuff on the internet. And you know you just want to give people sugar all the time — just give everybody what they want all the time.
It just got a little salty.
Exactly. You've got to give them a little salt with the sugar… But we're trying to capture some stuff and try to attack some stuff.
Why Phillip? Obviously you'll fill in that story next season.
Well, that's going to be a big journey for us in season 6. I think we wanted somebody who had a very different energy than Toby. We've been big fans of the actor. Why the character is a really good question and we have the answer for that, but we haven't told you a lot about him yet, so there's not much I can say.
Were you agonizing over a bunch of different options, studying a board with all the possible names? Or did you come up with the person pretty quickly?
That developed in the course of the season a little bit. We knew there would be somebody who came in and seemed adversarial. And then the reveal would be at the end of this season that that actually becomes a future potential spouse. It felt really good to us for it to be somebody who's been involved in her career and the cause that she's really believing in. So that's a journey I'm excited to write next season.
You violated your own rule by putting your real-life wife (Caitlin Thompson) in an onscreen relationship with Justin Hartley, so it was a smart move to see you come to your senses and break them up. Given their happy dynamic in the flash-forwards, it seems like you are showing how relationships and families can flourish in all sorts of circumstances, and come in all shapes and sizes. But are you also leaving the door open for them beyond co-parenting?
I mean, nothing has been said about where Kevin lines up romantically on the show. Certainly the end gives you no reason to think Madison and Kevin are in a terrible place. It could give you reason to think that they figured out how to coexist happily. It can give you reason to believe they're together in that future. It can give you reason to think that maybe they wind up together after that. And we've purposely not answered that part of it yet. What was important to us was to show that on second viewing, when you go back into that ending — which is a gut punch on multiple levels for people because multiple relationships haven't worked out — you see that every single character that you care about feels really happy and looks really happy. And I think on second or maybe third viewing that might start becoming the thing people process more than just the shock of the impact.
And with Rebecca's line of "Everything's going to be all right," you're left with that sense of optimism.
Yeah. It's always been something that the show wanted to do — mix the tragedy and the heartbreak of life with the beauty and the joy. And you can't really have one without the other. You can't have something that's too syrupy or too sad. So hopefully we can find that balance as we wrap up.
Sophie [Alexandra Breckenridge] said it was a long story about why she changed her number. Is that story long enough for us to say that Sophie is officially in play?
I mean, I think it's fair to say. If I'm a viewer of the show, I think she's officially in play. Certainly it doesn't feel their story line has resolved. I can't say much more than that.
Rebecca asks Kevin to build her Jack's dream house. Five years from now, viewers see him writing his wedding speech on a piece of paper that says Big Three Construction Homes — Jack's business come to life — a Pearson family business. Is it a true family business, and is Kevin running it? Did he find purpose in that and become an architect, and those are the trophies in his house?
The trophies in the house is a very deep reference. [Laughs] There's like 12 people on earth who know what you're talking about… Clearly there's a business that's been started. Who it's with, I can't really guide you to. And what purpose Kevin has found both in acting, not in acting, in other businesses — there's something coming there. I mean, at the end this was always going to be a warm family story, so that's part of it.
We saw Nicky take another key step with the simple act of googling his lost love, Sally. Here we find out he's married four years into the future. Fair to say that we're unspooling a rewarding redemption story for this once deeply troubled man?
Everyone's loving working with Griffin. He's become such a huge comedic force for us. And he's become so quickly such a beloved character in the show that had these wonderful characters. There is clearly romance and love coming in Nicky's future; how it comes to be and who it comes to be with — that's a chapter that we're very excited to write. And it's another one that we have to plan for and we know what we're doing, but I can't tell you.
We see a story about Randall in the New Yorker with the headline "Rising Star." Is Randall's political career truly taking off — or has he switched careers again and is experiencing success in a different avenue? Also, how many Pearsons are famous in the future?
Well, he's not becoming an architect. [Laughs] Randall has really completed a very dramatic arc of a search for identity and balance to, by the end of the season, having found the beginnings of some of it. And I think you're going to get to see a fully realized Randall. Sometimes when you find internal peace, it allows your star to shine even a little bit brighter.
With time thinning out for Rebecca, how critical was it for her — and for Randall — to have that conversation in both of their healing processes? It feels like you can check that box now.
I think so. Having lost a parent who I didn't have any lingering things with, there was nothing left unsaid. Without really knowing where Rebecca's health is going, it's a conversation both of them would have regretted never having had if they didn't talk sooner than later. If Rebecca didn't push for it, it probably never would've happened. We had a lot of debate about this in our writers' room. I don't know that no matter how much Randall learned about himself or his experience, I don't know that he was going to ever be able to ask his mother for that because of the way he's wired, and his relationship with her. So in a way it was like a mother coming and saving both of them to have the conversation before maybe the conversation can't be had.
Will our flash-forward time be mostly spent with Kate's wedding four years into the future and Kevin's house 15 years into the future? Will you find a way to sneak in a few other future eras?
We have a plan. It's ambitious. We're definitely all going to take a long nap after this last season. But I think definitely those two periods are periods we're going to spend more time in. Obviously one was just established, but the other one has been used more for answers to questions, but we haven't lived there a lot. We'll be doing more of that in this upcoming season, which is always the plan, as opposed to having maybe three or four past story lines in one episode, we could wind up with episodes that have two or three or four future and present story lines.
You've said you've wanted to end this show after six years, and you're getting to do that. NBC would love it to go on. Is there any chance of a spin-off, some Pearson family extension?
I mean, I haven't really talked to anybody about it, honestly. It's been interesting seeing the news of [the show ending], just because we've been so clear about it from the very beginning that it was going to be six seasons. The Pearson family story has an endpoint because of the age of the kids, and because we're telling the story in the future. It's not to say there aren't more surprises in store, but I just honestly haven't even had the conversations. I know people think they're some secret plan. We haven't even had conversations about it yet.
How about a cryptic clue for season 6?
My clues for season 6 are a little bit more romantic. Resolution. Family… Well, this isn't a word, but everyone always talks about that the show makes people cry, that people cry on the show. I've always been partially stepped back from that — on occasion, the show would catch me. But there's one story line that's one of our stakes in the ground for season 6 that when I speak about it, my eyes start welling up with tears. And I'm not a crier.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.