Fogelman says Rebecca and Miguel's relationship will be a big part of season 6 — and that a Jack-centric episode may be Milo Ventimiglia's "best episode of the entire series."
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This Is Us - Season 3
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This Is Us is down to its final batch of episodes — or to put that in terms that fans can understand, the final few tissues in the box. The sixth and final season of the NBC series that revitalized the family drama will begin to dole out its last 18 episodes on Jan. 4 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The season 5 finale dropped a few shockers in two different time periods — Madison (Caitlin Thompson) walked away from Kevin (Justin Hartley) on their wedding day! Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) will get divorced and she'll marry Phillip (Chris Geere)! Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne) will walk down the aisle! Randall (Sterling K. Brown) will become a rising star in some fashion! — and these news flashes will get full stories in the coming months. Also needing more context and illumination? A certain deathbed scene with the family's matriarch, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), in the distant future.

EW asked This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman to peer into the Pearsons' immediate and deep future to preview what's in store.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the final season?

DAN FOGELMAN: Time. The show has always been a little bit about how we view our lives through time and zoom out. And the last season, as we get deeper into it, does that a lot. I'm also personally feeling the time right now as we enter the back couple of episodes of our entire series. I'm starting to feel that kind of bittersweet emotion that comes with something coming to an end. So it's both a word that comes to mind when I'm thinking about this final season of the show literally, but it's also something personally for all of us that we're thinking about a lot right now.

If you were to use a superlative to describe season 6, what would it be?

By the end, it may be the most ambitious.

This Is Us
'This Is Us'
| Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Is that in terms of the amount of story you plan to tell? In terms of the storytelling forms you want to break?

Yeah. How we're playing with the form to get to the point where I've wanted to get to since the beginning has required a lot of planning. What we're asking of some of the actors — particularly Mandy Moore right now — is beyond ambitious. I'm hesitant to say [that season 6 is] more emotional, because then there's 9,000 things about how much people cry [laughs], but as the season builds and builds, and as you feel it come to an end, I think you're going to feel the weight of that emotion as well.

How will the family cope with Rebecca's declining health this season, and how will she? Is everyone trying to bank as many memories while they can?

At its core, this has been a show about three things, which is family, time, and memory. Rebecca's story line and her disease really factors into all of that. Alzheimer's is a disease that's a disease for the family, and not just for the one person who's suffering from it. This is a family whose childhoods and adulthoods have been defined by one another. So I think Rebecca's illness will put them in the spotlight together.

How much time will we spend in that distant-future time period this season, especially early on?

Not a lot in the early part of the season. The early part of the season pretty much stays in the present day, except for when we're going back in time for Jack [Milo Ventimiglia] and Rebecca. And then there's a clear shape to our season as we move forward. On occasion, you're getting glimpses of things in the future — the way we do give you an endpoint until you learn how we get there. But for the most part, we're going to really stay in the present.

The premiere takes place on the Big Three's 41st birthdays. What adjectives you would use to describe the season 6 premiere?

It's nostalgic. It's reflective. This season's going to have a nice, quiet, slow pace to it, intentionally. And some things need to be set up to then explode later or come to fruition later. So these first episodes are doing the job to — hopefully in an entertaining and fulfilling way — set the table for some really big stuff that's coming down the pike.

In those first photos released from the episode, Randall and his family look a bit more distressed than festive…

We're coming off an ending of the previous season that had a bunch of big moves for our characters. You saw Kevin essentially get left at the altar. You saw that five years in the future, Kate is marrying somebody who's not Toby and who is a co-worker of hers. We've seen that Kate and Toby are going to be trying a version of a longer-distance marriage for a moment in time. We have seen Rebecca worrying about where her health is going next. So as we pick up on this birthday, a lot of those stories are getting continued, and we're finding these characters in a different place and time — certainly from where they were at the end of the season, but especially from where they were when they started the show. That first episode is really about marking where these characters are now, versus where they were five years ago.

In the premiere's '80s-set past story, Jack and Rebecca will handle a parenting dilemma involving a tragedy. What can you say there?

It's one we've been planning for quite a while to start our sixth season. When people see it, they'll feel that it was baked into the fabric of the show a little bit. It's a pretty simple parenting story, which is where we often lived at our best and most simplest with Jack and Rebecca — just two parents navigating new experiences with young children. It's something that hopefully will be relatable, particularly to people who grew up in that era, or parents who were parenting back at that time. Thematically, they're going to start dealing with kids exploring heavy subject matter for the first time in their lives.

Kate is moving forward on a journey of self-empowerment, and she's going to have more agency in her life making decisions. What lies ahead for Kate in season 6?

That's a good way of describing it. When I was talking about the ambition of the show, Mandy has really ambitious stuff this year.  Chrissy and Chris have really, really complicated adult stuff that we haven't explored yet. I think self-empowerment is a good way of looking at it. When we first met Kate five years ago, she was very lost, and you could make the argument that she had been still a little bit kept in a childlike state as a result of the tragic loss of her father at a crucial age. She hadn't moved forward. We've been watching her slowly find her voice for the course of five seasons, but now we go into hyperspeed. Her journey is one of self-realization, self-actualization. But that doesn't always come easily. And it doesn't always come without some wounds in the process.

A big bomb was dropped in the season 5 finale, in regard to Kate's divorce and remarriage. But while viewers want to know all about Phillip and how his romantic relationship with Kate will get going, the show still has so much to explore with Kate and Toby's deterioration. Long-distance can be corrosive. Is it fair to say that you'll have to dig down deep on Kate-Toby before you'll get to Kate-Phillip?

I think that's very fair. We've talked about it ad nauseam, but there's always been a big-picture plan for the show. We feel very comfortable that we don't have to rush. The show at the outset of the season is going to be very much the show that people are familiar with. We're not picking up with Toby and Kate in complete marital crisis on the cusp of divorce. We owe a lot there. We have the plan for how we're going to do it, and then how we're going to do the rest and what happens later in her timeline. But we're going to live with Toby and Kate for quite a while. Disintegrations of marriages can be ugly often. They can be beautiful at times. They're not just all one thing most of the time. We're going to try to show that in all its colors.

Chrissy hinted that we're going to see the end of the journey of two important characters this season. Obviously our mind goes to Rebecca. Can we talk a little bit about who that second character is?

I mean, it's possible. It might even be more. [Laughs] It could be less. We're spanning a lot of time by the time we get to the end of this. My hope for the show has always been that the end of the show, for those who have stuck with it and those who the show has been important to, will feel like a complete meal. You don't always love all the decisions a character might make, but we're hoping that because we tried to plan this out so far in advance that you will have felt like you've closed the final page on one of those sprawling family novels that we all enjoy. In covering that much time —we've used the reference in the past, people come and go from the painting — not all of that is baked in severe trauma and tragedy. Sometimes it just comes with the passing of time. Sometimes stuff happens that takes people before their time. So there is some combination of all of that.

Kevin has had a colorful, up-and-down career — and has walked off a lot of projects. What is the fallout from all this? Where do we find him professionally this season? And, of course, he's navigating parenting responsibilities with Madison after their split.

[He is] this man who's constantly in an existential crisis, trying to live up to the model of the man that his father was and always feeling like he's failing. We find Kevin fresh off the heels of this wedding fiasco with Madison, trying to figure out how you co-parent and have what he considers a normal family while not being with the mother of your children. That is demanding a lot of his focus and a lot of his existential crisis. On a career level, he's at a place right now as we left him last season, he's not the hottest he's ever been. He's just had a stinker coming out. He's developing a reputation for walking off sets. So that works in concert with him also trying to figure out how he's going to provide some normalcy for his family.

Viewers got a glimpse of Randall's future in The New Yorker as a rising star — of what, exactly, is a mystery you left hanging. How soon do we start to get into this professional rise?

That's a bit of a slow burn. As a reminder, he's a pretty public city councilman in Philadelphia as we left him last season, and we know that five years from now he's getting a bit of national press that's anointed him as somebody with potential. The journey to get from here to there is a long one. It can't just happen in the first [few] episodes of the season; it's going to require some things to be built and some events to happen that propel him. But it's a fun journey to watch him go on with his family in the midst of the crisis of his mother's failing health. And other things that may be happening to the family.

There were other dangling flash-forward questions coming out of last season. Who does Uncle Nicky end up marrying? Who gets out of the white car? Where is Kate? Who's the father of Deja's baby? How much of these mysteries are slow burns? Will some of those questions get answered sooner than later?

Two or maybe even three of the specifics you asked are in the second episode. But a lot of the other stuff people are going to have to be patient for. The good news is, it's not going to take more than one season of television to get all the answers. [Laughs] My hope is that by the end of the series, there is no stone left unturned. You would have nothing left to ask me about spoilers. You might want to call me and say, "I don't like what happened to such-and-such. I don't like who such-and-such wound up with." But you won't be going, "Who?" If we've done that, I feel like we've done our job and we've made the choices that we thought were best for the characters and for the story. But by the end of it, I don't think there will be any of these timeline mysteries left. Hopefully it will set us up for a very beautiful and simple ending to the entire venture.

Speaking of those mysteries, this has to be the season when viewers finally find out more about the estrangement of Miguel [John Huertas] and Rebecca — and their reunion. How early in the season does the show tackle that? You've said that you have some good stuff planned.

We do. And it's funny that you're asking because 10 minutes before doing this [interview], I was very heavily inside of it in a couple of episodes. And it's really good. It's rewarding as a writer — it was such a polarizing thing in the beginning, this character who was the husband's best friend. And it's one of the questions I actually get most in my regular life from family friends who watch this show: "When are we going to see what happened there and how they got together?" That's a big part of this season — and even the front half of this season. I think it's very rewarding. It's like, wow, you wish you could videotape some people having watched the first season when they were all screaming about Miguel to what I'm watching now as I'm editing. It's an exciting journey.

I remember long ago when you said, "Give him a chance! There's a much more nuanced story to tell here."

He's got a full and lovely season as we build and build, that really allows him in certain moments to step into the spotlight.

The show is also known for its form-breaking episodes. Can you tease one?

We're doing our last trilogy, which is when we break off one episode each with one of the kids, but they're also the grown kids and they're interwoven with the past story lines. It's very ambitious. One's being directed by Milo, one's being directed by Justin, and one's being directed by Mandy. So they're all directing another key character in an episode. It's been very fun to watching those three actors come together and help each other figure out the blocking and the direction of very complicated episodes.

Our fourth episode up is one of those specialized, very different episodes. And it's as good as Milo Ventimiglia has ever been in the show. It's a Jack episode, and it's really, really good. By the end of the season, this show, before getting really simple, it gets really ambitious. To me, it may be [Ventimiglia's] best episode of the entire series. It was a bit of a love letter by the writer of the episode — and the writers — to give Jack one here in the final season, and Milo really delivered.

What's the earliest tease that you can give for the series finale?

My hope was that it would feel like the end of one of those sprawling family saga novels that those of us who are readers, who like those kind of books and go on an adventure with a group of people through a couple of generations, close the book and finally take that three seconds and go, "Wow. Well done." And then close the book. So I do think it's going to feel like that, closing a final chapter. I do think after a lot of ambition in the season, I think it will feel really simple. I know what it is. I've known what it is for a while. I tell people about it that are on the show, the actors, and I only talk about it globally because I don't like to think about it too much because I don't want to deal with it until I've actually written it and I haven't  written it yet. But yeah, I feel like we have the right ending.

When we talked back in May, it seemed very unlikely that there would be any spin-offs. Have there been any developments since then, or does it feel even more finalized that this is the end of the story?

I mean, you have your moments. It's a testament to how much I like the people on this show and how much the crew loves each other. You have this very definitive thing that you've been thinking about for six years and you can't help but suddenly go, "Oh man, this is actually really happening. It's actually ending. But what if…?"

Honestly, more than the commerce of it all, we're not all ready to end making this show. But I've been pretty firm on creatively just knowing that it would be really hard to go past where we've gone this year, and it would be hard to keep the level where we've all tried to keep the level. So it definitely feels like the end and the time to go. Who the hell knows? My wife is very excited to go turn on the Sex and the City show [And Just Like That] all this time later. So I'm not speaking about the far future — or even the near future — though there's certainly no plans. But in terms of any continuous spin-off or continuation of the show? No, we're definitely bringing it to the end.

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This Is Us - Season 3
This Is Us

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

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