Dan Fogelman also offers insights into the big moves of the season 4 finale.

By Dan Snierson
March 25, 2020 at 03:00 PM EDT

This Is Us

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When the Pearson family gathered for baby Jack’s birthday in the season 4 finale of This Is Us, it wasn’t all bunnies and balloons. Actually, it wasn't bunnies and balloons at all — it was a bone-chilling butting of heads between Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), the Pearson brothers who have not been seeing eye-to-eye on treatment for Rebecca (Mandy Moore) as she enters the early stages of Alzheimer's. In "Strangers: Part Two," Kevin discovered that Randall had guilted their mother into signing on to a nine-month clinical trial in St. Louis, their old feud flared up again, and the two hurled the ugliest of verbal darts at each other, making for one of the saddest chapters in Pearson family history.

"Look, family rifts are really hard to both be a part of and to watch," series creator Dan Fogelman told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. "It had to be something that would really separate these brothers for a period of time, in this family… This is Cain-and-Abel-type stuff for these two. This is a fight that goes toward literally their inception to the alpha men growing up under the same roof at the exact same period of time, both with two wildly different skill sets… [Justin and Sterling] did it so brutal and so brilliantly. And obviously it's all done in one take. Part of making a drama is not being afraid to let people be really flawed and really ugly so that hopefully as we tend to do in our show, offer that kind of hope we offer and the repair we might offer is well-earned and well-executed when it comes."

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Along with the clash came other gasps. Kevin was told by Madison (Caitlin Thompson) — the best friend of Kate (Chrissy Metz) — that their one-night stand resulted in two miracles: She is pregnant with twins. Surely this is the pregnant fiancée that Kevin referred to earlier this season in that flash-forward? Fogelman would only say that the answer is coming soon. "There are many more chapters in Kevin’s romantic story. Kevin has a journey ahead of him and I don't want to get too far ahead of it just yet," he said, adding that "it felt like an interesting time to have a character kind of embark upon parenthood and embark upon becoming a parent with somebody who's a virtual stranger to him."

"Strangers: Part Two" mirrored the season 4 premiere (titled "Strangers") by expanding the world of the Pearsons yet again, introducing several new characters. Art gallery employee Hailey (Adelaide Kane) turned out to be the adopted sister of Jack (Blake Stadnik), who ran into the hospital room where Jack's fiancée, Lucy (Auden Thornton), was giving birth to a daughter a decade after Rebecca's deathbed flash-forward. Zach (Adam Rocha) was Hailey's co-worker, who is romantically interested in her. Eli (Josh Hamilton) is the ob-gyn who is treating pregnant Madison, while Eli's daughter, Sadie (Glory Rose), offers wise counsel to him via horse whispering. “The doctor becomes an important character next season to Kevin — he’s having twins with a virtual stranger, not a normal birth experience," said Fogelman. "It’s no coincidence he was introduced in the same episode that Dr. K returned."

Dr. K (Gerald McRaney) was the man responsible for the best-ever lemons-to-lemonade pep talk, but think of another metaphor from the show — the painting — to understand how Fogelman will continue to evolve This Is Us. "Our hope is to continue to keep people invested in these future story lines by getting to know the characters slowly, as we've done, so that by the time you're really landing in full stories with them — if we do — you feel that great investment," he said. Of this ever-expanding family tree, he summed up: "It's so interesting to look at a matriarch and patriarch, with Jack [Milo Ventimiglia] and Rebecca, and to start with them simply on a bed with Milo sitting with a Terrible Towel covering up his junk, and then realize that decades later there will be all these human beings that are offshoots of these people both biologically, emotionally, through adoption… Doing it in hopefully an elegant way where we started with a guy and a girl on the bed about to have triplets and we ended with this giant fabric of life is something we've always hoped to execute by the time we're done."

Season 5 will reverberate with the idea of new life, according to the show creator, who nodded gently to the coronavirus pandemic currently engulfing the real world. "I'm very excited about — especially with where the world is right now — the uplift and I would call it almost a rebirth that comes next season," Fogelman said. "It's kind of a rebirth and a lot of new beginnings. But particularly the word birth would be a big thematic part of next season."

Birthdays traditionally open each season, and there's a bittersweet 40th one looming for the Big Three, as viewers have previously peeked into the celebration at the family cabin sans the family nexus, Randall, because the brothers aren't speaking. "His 40th birthday, it's not him sitting on a couch in the fetal position and crying the entire time," hinted Fogelman. "It's fair to say there’s a longing and also an immediate family rallying around to kind of try and make it all work."

As for Rebecca, who is bound for St. Louis with husband Miguel (Jon Huertas) for the clinical trial, "It's obviously a challenging chapter for Rebecca moving forward," Fogelman said. In season 5, he intends to finally explore how Jack's best friend became romantically involved with Rebecca after Jack died, and what led to their previous fracture. "So often they operate as a couple, in service of the larger family," noted Fogelman. "Here's an opportunity where we're going to be putting them in a location together… as they undergo this treatment that they didn’t necessarily plan on trying. And it will also allow us to get towards a further understanding of how their relationship bloomed, then stalled, then kind of bloomed again, and getting really inside of it."

Wondering why Miguel — and, for that mater, Kate — have not popped up at Kevin's house in that flash-forward? Or whom Nicky (Griffin Dunne) found love with, given that he was wearing a wedding ring? "They will all be answered, and there’s a plan for it," said Fogelman. "I can’t tell you if it will happen next season or the season after, but it will happen in one of those two seasons.”

All mysteries will need to be solved by then; in answering a question about wrapping up This Is Us, Fogelman once again signaled his intention to end the series after season 6. (NBC renewed the show through season 6 in a three-season pickup last year, and has expressed eagerness to extend the series further.) "NBC has given us this gift that’s two consecutive three-season pickups, which we asked for, which has allowed us to really kind of plan out and map out our storytelling in a big-picture way," Fogelman said. "That's when the Pearson story will basically come to a close."

For much more on those fireworks in the finale, head over here to hear from Justin Hartley and then check out what Sterling K. Brown had to say about the big fight.

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This Is Us

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

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