This Is Us creator on that new clue about Randall's mother — and Kevin and Madison's future
"A full, beautiful story is going to be told," says Dan Fogelman.
In this week's episode of This Is Us, "Changes," the Pearsons were rolling with change, managing it, or trying to create it.
Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) showed tough love to blossoming daughter Tess (Eris Baker), who stood up for herself at school for the right reason, but not necessarily in the right way, according to her parents. Randall was also testing new territory (in) himself; he connected with a new therapist, Dr. Vance (Keith Powell), with whom he would share a story about how he felt alienated from his white family as a kid following a brutal proposition from Kate's friend.
Meanwhile, newly engaged one-night-stand couple Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Madison (Caitlin Thompson) tried to adjust to a new normal that wasn't normal at all; they also took a vulnerable leap in learning about each other('s issues) as they sought to make up for so many skipped steps before the arrival of twins. Kevin's sister and brother-in-law also awaited the arrival of a child. Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) met a prospective birth mother in the park, trying to tamp down their mixture of nerves (see: Toby) and excitement (see: Kate). And way back in the past, Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) found themselves with three kids careening into that mysterious vortex of change known as puberty.
Speaking of mystery — and when you talk about This Is Us, you often are — the third episode of season 5 was garnished with scenes involving a Vietnamese grandfather (Vien Hong) and his over-inquisitive granddaughter (Brandilyn Cheah), who needled him with questions. Questions that brought into focus the woman in all those photos around the house. That woman? Randall's birth mother, Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes), who, as it was revealed in last week's premiere, did not die from an overdose on the day that Randall was born. Is she still alive? Maybe. Maybe not. But clearly, worlds will soon collide, and one would imagine that Randall's life is about to… what's the word?… change.
What to make of this latest puzzle piece? Is Kevin truly turning the corner? What lurks around the corner for Randall as he enters a new round of therapy? Let's put our foot in these pancakes, hoard some diapers, angry-pour a glass of wine, and get nervecited as This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman sheds light on the key moments of "Changes."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Madison opens up about her struggles with bulimia and Kevin shares his own addiction demons. It's a big moment of connection and vulnerability, but will all these issues bring them together or pose more obstacles? Are these two fundamentally compatible enough to make this hyper-accelerated relationship work… in the middle of a pandemic?
DAN FOGELMAN: I think our characters will figure out if they're compatible matches at the same pace as the audience figures it out, which is one of the things that's really exciting about this relationship. You really get to watch a relationship form in full as it grows. Will their personal issues affect the relationship? Of course. I think that's part of what any relationship is. The stuff you bring with you — the good, the bad, the ugly, the complicated — is all the stuff that has to fit with the other person's good, bad, ugly, and complicated. That's something that they're still figuring out. For these two characters, this episode is the first time in this hyperspeed, out-of-time relationship that they've been able to sit and really just connect. A relationship is often about sharing the parts of yourself you don't comfortably share with others, and this is the first time you're really seeing Kevin and Madison do that.
Kevin is now operating at a high level of maturity. He's not running from his problems; he's living in them, trying to solve them. Might Kevin surprise everyone here, in what seems to be his biggest challenge yet? It seems encouraging. Or do you caution viewers that Kevin 2.0 is in such an early stage, there are a few bugs that could crash the hard drive?
Justin has done such a great job of presenting this very flawed character who you can't help but love and root for, who continues to step in his own s--- time and time again. Hopefully the first four seasons of the show have put Kevin in a position where he's ready for this moment, where he's ready to become a father, where he's ready to live up to his promise. It would not be out of character for Kevin to take two steps forward, one step back. But the thing you're always watching and hoping for is for him to not take that step back and to just keep progressing. And if ever Kevin is ready for that, it's now.
What can you tell us about his new film, Glass Eye? On a scale of A Few Good Men to Body of Evidence, where does this one rank?
It's one of those prestige courtroom dramas, so whatever the 2020 version of A Few Good Men, that's probably the genre. What I can say is that Kevin starts working with a new director next week who's a bit of a force of nature and a complicated force for Kevin in that episode. In this particular film, it's a young, hot, coming-off-of-Cannes Film Festival-type director who's not a Ron Howard or M. Night [Shyamalan]. It's a fictional director.
In his therapist-assigned journal, Randall introduces himself by sharing what happened to him with Kate's friend, who "always wondered what it be like to kiss someone like you." It's heartbreaking to think about the racial micro- and macro-aggressions that young Randall endured and kept bundled up inside. We saw a hint of the complicated mix of anger, isolation, and sadness inside him during his awkward conversation with Kate at the cabin, but how will this new period of discovery of and connection with his identity impact his relationships with his siblings, Rebecca, and even his own kids?
One of the primary things Randall was trying to express to Kate in our season premiere was how lonely — and silently lonely — he often felt in that house as a younger man and how unexplored some of the things he suffered quietly were. As he's embarking on this new quest in therapy to challenge that, this is the first time you're watching him re-litigate things he may have bottled up and kept internalized for so long. That's been part of his journey for a little bit. Obviously when it comes to the stuff with his siblings and the family, that's on them to process and assess and acknowledge and figure out how to address, and it's less on him. Randall's journey is a very internal, very complicated one of identity and also of being willing to say out loud —whether it be to a therapist or anyone — that my childhood wasn't always perfect for me. And because of his adoption, because of how fundamentally decent and how his parents were and how much he loved them, that's a very hard thing for him to express. That's part of his exploration with this new therapist.
When Tess has had panic attacks in the past, Randall worried that she would end up like him. Now that she's asserting herself as she settles into her identity and acting out in ways that he didn't, he's also relieved that she's not like him. Does she feel like she's getting mixed messages from him and from Beth — stand up for yourself, but only in ways that we think are appropriate? Are we entering a teen-pulling-away period?
It's natural that there's a pull-away that starts happening at this age. It's not necessarily a bad thing, and it's not always rebellion. But that's definitely something that's potentially in the cards here. These are conversations that are happening, where we as parents sit in rooms conversing about how we're going to challenge and raise our children. But what the kids receive from us might [only] be the decision we've reached in private. You've got the two sides of the equation — the parents trying to figure out what parts of the ghost of their backgrounds they want to bring or avoid with their own children, and on the child side, you've got a kid sitting in a room, unaware that those conversations are happening behind the scenes and are just on the receiving end of discipline or praise.
Look, it's one of the many ways we all f--- up our kids. There's no right or wrong answers. What you see in Randall, a guy who very much — and it's something I'm writing in a later episode right now — because of his upbringing, he's so attached to his family and so excited about any part of himself that he passes on. But then you worry about the parts of yourself that you're not as fond of. That's one of the many things that we as parents stare at the ceilings at night worrying about.
Moving on to Kate and Toby: They're a step closer to adopting a second child. Kate is immediately trusting and excited about the perspective birth mother Ellie [Annie Funke], but Toby approaches this situation with more caution. Things are happening fast and their connection was almost too easy, so… will we learn that something is a little off? Is there more to this story that than we've been told so far?
No, I don't think there's anything Twin Peaks-y about her or twisty or turn-y. [Laughs] One of the things about adoption that can be a bit of a misconception — and it's something we've learned a lot as we've moved forward through many seasons of the show now — is that the large, large majority of adoptions go forward. Because of the way things are often presented on television and for the parents who are going to be adopting, there's a natural tendency to worry and feel a little untethered and out of control, and sometimes when we're watching adoption stories, we might read into that a little bit more than there is. There's certainly an interesting journey to go through here. We've never gone on this adoption journey on the show — not a kid coming through foster care, not a kid being brought to the door of a fire station, but a planned adoption. Hopefully it will give the audience a look at what that is and what that feels like to go through this experience with someone.
Yes, we've seen complexities of two specific types of adoption stories with Randall and Deja [Lyric Ross]. How will this journey be different, and what challenges might adopting during a pandemic bring for Kate and Toby?
It's something that we hadn't leaned into too heavily, and it was a conscious choice we made at the beginning. We'd always planned that the first half of the season on Toby and Kate's end would really focus on their adoption quest with this adoptive mother. When we decided to incorporate some of the real-world events, we wondered if that was a story line that would need to be postponed. In speaking with people and doing a fair amount of research, [we learned that] people don't stop getting pregnant. Children don't stop needing homes, whether that's foster children or children in need of adoption in any kind of way. So as much as our world has fundamentally shifted right now, it's also continuing to spin. We're trying not to lean too heavily into changes that happened vis a vis COVID and the quarantine, but I will say, having just had a child myself — and this would affect both Kevin and Madison's story, as well as Kate and Toby's — having a baby in 2020 is a very different experience than it was in 2019. So you will be seeing the ramifications of that.
Let's talk about that final scene, which offered up another puzzle piece in the mystery of Randall's mother. We meet a grandfather and a granddaughter, but one wonders if there was a generation missing from that scene — a son or a daughter that would be roughly Randall's age. Any hints about how incomplete this picture is?
Not in terms of family-tree-type stuff, but incomplete in that it's just a glimpse of a character that's going to come to play a large role in our story. The story right now is not only incomplete, it's barely even painted. So in short order, a full, beautiful story is going to be told. I think it will be a satisfying and elegant answer to a lot of stuff, as opposed to something that necessarily begs more questions.
There are characters here speaking Vietnamese. Vietnam is a special place on the show, given everything we've seen with Jack and Nicky [Michael Angarano]. Coincidence, or something more?
That's certainly purposeful. Not just because of Jack having served in Vietnam. When the story is told to completion, you will see that it has to do with time and real-world history. And the fact that you're going back into a story in the past, it's existing inside of the same world and world events that were existing in that same time period when Jack was in Vietnam. So there is connective tissue. I've always set out to make the show feel like one of those sprawling family sagas that spans a few generations in a novel, where there's different chapters, different periods, and different points of connection, even if they're not direct points of continuation. The Vietnam War could have had a myriad of butterfly-type effects that could have affected the same family's story in surprising and different ways.
What's the next hint that you can drop about how Randall will learn more about his biological mother?
What you've seen right now is the first point of connection. In next week's episode, that will start locking in a little further, and we're not too far away from sharing a lot of information with the audience.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.