This was Us: Inside the final days of filming This Is Us
Let's begin with a flashback to the End. On a decidedly pleasant L.A. morning in late April, the stars and producers of This Is Us — the expansive family drama that never met a feeling it didn't commune with — have convened on the Paramount lot for one of the last times. A scene from the finale is being filmed, one seemingly designed for significant tear-duct destruction. At the epicenter of emotion are Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, matriarch and patriarch of the endearing Pearson family, and this is their last mega-moment together. We can't tell you where it's taking place — or even when it's taking place — but does it matter? Rebecca and Jack are, for lack of a better word, timeless.
Their love story opened six seasons ago with him sitting expectantly on a bed, wearing only a tiny Terrible Towel, and her, even more expectant (triplets!), wielding a birthday cupcake and attempting a sexy dance. Suddenly the contractions start, as does their oversized adventure. To recap: One of their triplets dies in childbirth; the best doctor in the world delivers an epic lemons-to-lemonade speech that inspires them to on-the-spot adopt a third baby who was left at the fire station; Ventimiglia's Jack dies from a heart attack after rescuing the family from a house fire; Moore's Rebecca later marries Jack's best friend; the Big Three grow up to raise their own families and battle anxiety, addiction, and much more; secret relatives pop up; one of the siblings makes a surprisingly resonant splatter painting; another becomes a Senator; Rebecca dies after a long battle with Alzheimer's; and now it all ends with… well, again, we can't reveal that ahead of Tuesday's finale. Other than to say that everything comes full circle. And that family is forever. And that it just got awfully dusty and onion-y in here.
Smiles. Tears. Uncertainty. Promises. More deep stuff. And "Cut!" "Good, right?" enthuses This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman to director Ken Olin. He agrees: "It was really good." (In fact, they'll get so caught up in the moment, they'll forget to grab a camera angle and will have to ask the actors to film it a few days later.)
Before the cameras roll again, though, Moore has a problem. It's not a big one. It's actually a common occurrence on these stages for her — and for any fan of the show.
"I might need a tissue," she says as she exhales, wipes her eyes, and resets... "Can I get a tissue?"
"They're right here!" her TV husband chimes in, dutifully delivering the goods.
Got enough for 10 million more people, Milo? When This Is Us concludes its sixth and final season on May 24, it will mark the end of an era for a show that lived in so many of them. It's hard to fully appraise the impact of this unicorn hit — which ranked No. 1 or 2 among all broadcast primetime entertainment series in the 18-to-49-year-old demo for its entire run — but we can start here: This Is Us reimagined and revitalized the family drama with a thoughtful, crafty, time-jumbling multigenerational saga that mashed up melancholy, mirth, memory, and mystery.
In the fall of 2016, as the world devolved into political madness, America sought comfort in the Pearsons, parented by SuperDad Jack (though he was not without demons) and sparkly, can-do mom Rebecca (though she had sublimated her singing dreams to pilot this family). Their Big Three grew up to be: perfectionist do-gooder Randall (Sterling K. Brown), who was literally searching for his identity after growing up in a white family; musically inclined late-bloomer Kate (Chrissy Metz), who confronted an eating disorder and self-esteem issues on her path to improvement; and self-consumed TV star Kevin (Justin Hartley), who was haunted by the long shadow of his father and an equally long search for the One.
Also in the Pearson painting: Randall's comically candid wife and dance studio boss Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson); Kate's pop culture-obsessed, depression-battling (ex-)husband, Toby (Chris Sullivan); Jack's loyal buddy-turned-Rebecca's second husband, Miguel (Jon Huertas); and Randall's biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), a kindly musician/recovering addict who died from cancer waaaay too soon after Randall tracked him down. Let's start a new sentence, because this family runneth over: wild-mouthed veteran/reclamation project Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne); R&B's impressive children (Faithe Herman's Annie, Eris Baker's Tess, Lyric Ross' Deja); Kevin's romantic interests (Alexandra Breckenridge's Sophie, Caitlin Thompson's Madison, Jennifer Morrison's Cassidy, Melanie Liburd's Zoe); Kate's acerbic second husband, Phillip (Chris Geere); and Deja's single-dad Harvard boyfriend, Malik (Asante Blackk); plus the Verizon girl, the State Farm girl, and the Trojan girl (sorry, now we're just listing more of Kevin's girlfriends).
While all of these colorful characters came in and out of focus over the years, one thing remained clear: This Is Us loved to play with expectations or conventions. A seemingly tertiary figure, such as Beth and Randall's newly adopted daughter, Deja, could elevate to prominence as the sole subject of an episode. The season 4 finale followed several characters you'd never met — until you realized that you had. (Kate and Toby's son, Jack Jr., grew up to be a pop star!) Some seasons boasted more cast members than an early round of The Voice, and three different sets of actors would play the Big Three at various stages of childhood. (This fact will be important later.) The story sprawled across a century, with flash-forwards teasing end-game plots. "It was one way we gave some urgency and propulsion to a family drama that was often just people sitting at a table talking about how they're feeling," sums up Fogelman.
But in just a few days, no more twisty mysteries. No more fraught family summits. No more almost-revelations about Nicky and Edie's sex life. No more shiny flashbacks to Jack and Rebecca in Steelers garb. The next time jump for This Is Us will be into the TV history books.
Let's hope that emotionally spent viewers can collect themselves in time for next week's finale after surviving May 17's walloping weeper, "The Train." Brimming with heartache, comfort, nostalgia, and gratitude for the mother extraordinaire who radiated joy before Alzheimer's dimmed her light, the penultimate episode saw Rebecca cross into the afterlife via an elegant train metaphor and it left viewers wondering: With Rebecca reunited with Jack in the hereafter, what exactly awaits the Pearsons in the final hour? And can This Is Us maintain the momentum and take you on one last ride to remember?
Something you should know: Fogelman has been thinking and tinkering on this finale for several years now. And while he cautions that it won't be as "loud" as the "Train," he believes that you're in for a different kind of satisfaction. And he explains how by using a different analogy: "It's a real epilogue of a family," says the creator. "I've always loved when I read these sprawling family novels and there's that final chapter that gives you that feeling of closing the book and feeling warm, and feeling like you got a sense of closure for this family that you've just spent hundreds of years with. I think we've checked the boxes. I think you're going to feel a lot of resolution. I don't think you're going to get to the end of it and feel that you have missed anything."
"It will be a sweet swan song of remembrance of why this family resonated with people as long as they did," confirms Brown. "It's an exhale that says, 'Okay. Now I can say goodbye.'"
Sounds reassuring. But maybe you're feeling a bit like Rebecca — like you're not quite ready yet to let go. That's okay. Let's put on our conductor's cap, ride the rails of nostalgia, go back to the start, and see if we can help you to get there.
This is… the beginning
There's something here, thought Dan Fogelman. As the emotionally attuned screenwriter (Crazy. Stupid. Love.) and quirky-show creator (Galavant) scrolled through his Facebook feed and saw the wonderful jumble of his friends' lives unspooling all so differently, he began brainstorming an idea for a movie about a group of similarly aged people and the ripple effect that our parents' decisions have on our lives. Which evolved into an idea that these people all shared a birthday. Which ultimately evolved into a time-jumping family TV saga "that would all come together in a hospital with an adoption, one child being lost and the other being found," says Fogelman. "Honestly, I just wrote a story and I wasn't really thinking about anything until I wrote it."
In his early pitches to the networks — NBC won the bidding war; this thing was a hit from the word go — he outlined a complete-if-perilous journey for the Pearsons. It would be revealed early on that Jack had died years before. The cause of death (involving a fire) would play out as a mystery. Kate and Toby's divorce would be teased late in the penultimate season. Oh, and… "I knew that it would end with the death of the matriarch of the family, who in many ways the show was often very much about. Those details allow you to play in time confidently, because you know where you're going linearly, even if you're not telling the story linearly." (Watching a pile of home movies out of order was how he would describe the narrative flow.)
For all that he knew, what Fogelman didn't realize was how much he was mining from his own life (his mother's sudden death, how Randall and Kevin represented the different parts of himself that he liked and loathed). "This show, in a weird way, has become a psychological study of my inner workings," he reflects. "And by proxy, all of my writers who have poured themselves into it. We weren't all saying, 'I'm going to try to capture something I'm feeling inside or grasping at about my childhood.' It was more of us just telling a story and then after the fact we're going, 'Whoa! I put a lot of that on television, didn't I?'"
What they were putting down, viewers were picking up. The pilot wowed with a twist for the ages. Literally. This isn't a story about unrelated people with the same birthday — these are three siblings and their parents as young adults! ("The directors of our pilot, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, had a plan and are very smart guys," says Fogelman. "Choices like Jack's [retro] jacket were extraordinarily important, and it was a summation of thousands of little choices.") The end of episode 2 ramped up the intrigue when present-day Rebecca showed up with her husband… Miguel. Where was Jack? In an urn on Kate's mantle, as you'd discover three episodes later. How did he die? (That mystery was stretched out to and through season 2's "Super Bowl Sunday," when 27 million people finally learned his fate.)
For a dead dude, Jack sure made an immediate impression on the audience, "What I would hear a lot was people looking for their Jack," recalls Heroes alum Ventimiglia. "Looking for the father figure in Jack, looking for the husband in Jack; later on, it was looking for the son in Jack. They were fascinated with this guy who seemed a bit of a mirage. In every step of the way of playing a man of a different era, I was very aware to make him attainable, make him accessible. He's a guy that anybody could be if they really put in the effort." (Well, any guy who can do pushups with a kid on his back.)
His relationship with Rebecca also entranced viewers, who swooned over their joyful all-in romance and teamwork-through-tragedy ethos. Moore saw beauty and opportunity in the couple's flaws. "Even though they're held on this pedestal as this standard-bearer of what it means to be in this seemingly perfect marriage, I never felt that way about them," says the actress, who first worked with Fogelman on Tangled. "I loved that they weren't perfect. They had a real mutual respect for one another — as individuals and parents — and they saw something in each other that they didn't necessarily see in themselves, and really celebrated so much of what was in their partner."
While the show was built on the legend of Jack and Rebecca, Randall and Beth soon became every bit as #marriagegoals, especially once the story lines (and Randall) explored Beth's wants and needs, too. Fogelman envisioned this pair as a sort of Next Generation Jack and Rebecca, an "even more fully-realized, more fully-therapized, more modern-day marriage." And he saw something right away in the chemistry of these two actors who'd first met in NYU grad school.
"As Sterling was reading with [prospective actresses], I was like, 'Oh, this guy is a real force of nature and a powerhouse,'" recalls Fogelman. "I remember feeling that she [Watson] was equally — if not more — formidable than him, and feeling like it was going to be important to us in the series, even if it didn't feel that crucial in that pilot script. The second episode ends with, like, a six-minute monologue from Beth to William, and Susan hadn't had as much to do in the first episode. I remember going down to set and watching her do this monologue, and it being one of the first moments where I was like, 'Okay, this series could really be a thing.'"
On their very first day of filming, Watson told her onscreen husband that if they could make the audience feel for Randall and Beth how they did for Martin and Gina in Martin, "we did our job." To her surprise, they felt it. And they felt seen. "I find [Randall and Beth] as two people who represented what it is to want to be married, to find your true love that you want to experience life with," she says. "Even more specifically, to see two Black people on television be that representation of something so universal meant a lot. When I was growing up, I had few examples.... I don't think I had any in drama. For this relationship to not only represent our culture, but to cross the boundaries of any culture and be the representation of goals for a loving relationship, is the legacy that it will leave."
Brown points to the way that the couple supported and uncorked potential in each other. "Randall found somebody who felt like home for someone who felt as if they were without home," he says. "Even though he knew he was loved and appreciated, he never felt like he fit. And so he finds this woman who accepts him and his eccentricity and his anxiety and loves him. In return, he opens up in her this desire and ability to dream. And there's something just inherent in the love that Sterling has for Susan Kelechi Watson, and vice versa — that came through on screen."
While the bonds of each couple were mighty, they would be tested. The season 1 finale ended with Rebecca and Jack under separate roofs. "[Fans] were worried that I was leaving the show, because one, I was dead, and two, now I'm getting in a fight with the love of my life," recalls Ventimiglia. "It's like, 'No, no, no. Couples have their arguments and hope that they find their way back together.'" In season 3, it was Randall and Beth who hit an uncomfortably rocky patch. "When Beth and Randall were going through some marital turmoil, my wife [and TIU guest star Ryan Michelle Bathe] goes, 'Look, if Lucious and Cookie can figure it out, I need you negroes to get it together!'" says Brown with a laugh. "I was like, 'Yeah, fair enough. I hope it all works out.'" (It did work out, but not for another key couple on the show. We'll reopen those wounds a little later.)
Of course, relationship navigation was just one thread of life that the show explored. There was nary an issue that This Is Us — which has received four best drama Emmy nominations — didn't find an honest, messy conversation in: transracial adoption, alcoholism, gender identity, eating disorders, abusive relationships, miscarriage, PTSD, and, most recently, Alzheimer's. "We always have monitored ourselves," notes Fogelman. "You can get hit with [criticism] that the show is too dramatic or too much is happening to these people. At a certain point, you'll run out of those incidents for a family. But my mantra has always been: Sit and have an honest talk with anybody, and you will find out the stuff that's bubbling underneath, whether it's anxiety or addiction or body image. And if you put together three people in their 40s, along with parents, along with kids and spouses, there's myriad things going on. So we try to not say, 'We need a new issue to explore!,' but 'What's organic for what's going on in these characters' lives?' And we have a family that was born out of the tragic loss of the hero patriarch, which brought with it a well of these issues. Or exacerbated a lot of them."
Viewers saw it play out in the anxiety-choked Randall, who in season 1's gutting "Memphis" went on a celebratory roots-exploring road trip with William, only to have it end with Randall losing another father — holding William's face as he took his last breaths. Brown, who was a child when his own father passed away, won an Emmy for his gripping performance. "I wasn't able to be at the hospital [for my father's death] because I was just 10 years old and they didn't want me to be present," he told EW when that episode aired. "But this was sort of an opportunity for me to say goodbye."
Issues certainly swirled around and through Kevin, the dickish injured high school quarterback (played by Logan Shroyer) who later hit it big in Hollywood but never forgot that fight with Jack hours before the fire. As the adulation and money piled up, Kevin feared that he hadn't lived his life in a way that would make his dad proud. In his most memorable moment (minus the Manny meltdown), he bottomed out in addiction (something he did share with Jack) and wound up on his knees on the lawn of an old classmate he'd slept with and stolen a prescription pad from, begging for his father's necklace back, pleading for help. "Look, the Manny stuff was fun," says Hartley. "But the most fun, oddly enough, was what they let me do when he had his pill addiction and his drinking and he's spiraling out of control. Maybe not fun to watch if you loved the character, but then we earned the right to build him back up."
Another work in progress: Kate. In the pilot, Rebecca's plus-size daughter (a character based loosely on Fogelman's sister, Deborah, who served as a consultant on the show) was embarking on another weight-loss journey, stripping down to her underwear to stand on the scale, taking her earrings off for good measure. To see a plus-size woman's journey of empowerment — someone grappling with societal pressure and her worth, feeling micromanaged and judged by her mom, and scarred by a toxic boyfriend and the guilt she felt from the night her dad ran back into the burning house to get her dog — was both vivid and validating for Metz. "Dan decided to write a woman who we'd never really seen, not this completely, on a network television show," praises Metz, who's particularly proud of the show's coverage of plus-size motherhood, including Kate's high-risk pregnancy that led to a miscarriage. "When you see yourself, you're like, 'Oh, wow. I'm important enough and deserving enough to be talked about.' What a concept, you know?"
Even so, early episodes focusing on Kate's weight-loss struggle irked some fans. "Initially it was like: 'Why do we always have to talk about weight? She's so much more than weight,'" recalls Metz, who earned an Emmy nomination in season 1. "And my rebuttal was always, 'First of all, it's one woman's story. Second of all, it has affected so many things in her life.' Then, as [her story] started to become about a woman who wants to have children and a healthy relationship, and is dealing with whatever you're still going to be dealing with if you're straight-size or plus-size, their tune changed a little bit." If the tone of the comments evolved, the volume never did. "Every day — I mean, still to this day — I get tons of messages and strangers crying [to me] in the bathroom about, 'Wow, this is my story. This is my life,'" shares Metz.
This Is Us truly turned topical when the writers decided to address the headlines that dominated the summer of 2020. While race had been explored over the years in Randall's stories, the potent season 5 premiere found an exhausted Randall engaging Kate in a raw, uncomfortable, and mesmerizing conversation about her sudden interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, when they'd never discussed these issues in their 40 years. "Dan said, 'I think our show is unique in that it can actually take these things on and synthesize them into the story line that we've already established,'" says Brown. "And it was amazing to see the response that [the episode] got. It really struck a nerve, positive and negative. People who were like, 'If I wanted to watch the news, I'd go to the news. I'd come to this show to escape!' We've dealt with cancer, we've dealt with adoption, we've dealt with abandonment, and now all of a sudden, when you talk about race, it becomes too close to home? [But] the overwhelming majority of people were like, 'Thank you for illustrating either a perspective that was different than the one that I had so I could learn something, or for allowing myself to be seen.'"
As Sullivan would often say to his costars: The more specific the show got, the more relatable it became. "I mean… this is us," says the actor, who has received two Emmy noms as Toby. "The title that nobody thought would work is why the show connects. There are a thousand ways in this show to connect: Whether you're a recovering heroin addict who gave up his child at the door of a fire station or a single mother who lost a child in childbirth and whose husband passed away, or if you just have a brother, or if you're just a person with a difficult relationship with your father, the show is perfectly representative of how flawed we all are — and how that makes us perfect."
Of course, with such discovery has come that well-documented, unrelenting wellspring of emotion. Lots of tears. So many tears. Jesus, even the mailman cried when William died. In a climate clouded by cynicism, This Is Us was never afraid to slap its heart on its sleeve — to a fault sometimes, its critics would say. Fogelman remains puzzled by such sentiment about the show's sentimentality: "Do these characters talk about their feelings a little bit more? Of course, because this is a show steeped in monologue and dialogue about feelings. But I've never understood [that criticism]. I do find a lot of art now underly sentimental. I don't recognize that behavior in people who are so sparse and withholding of their affection for their family and their loved ones." He chuckles, adding that "my friends are sniveling messes when it comes to talking about their hero worship of their fathers or their love for their daughters and sons and wives. And when they talk about their divorces, they're overwrought messes.... I've never understood how our show is more sentimental than all of that stuff."
Moore sees a fearlessness in processing feelings and going to vulnerable places. "I just don't think culturally we're given that permission to feel the way that we feel when we watch a television show that makes us cry and holds a mirror up to our own lives and the choices that we've made," she says. "I think that's what people are going to miss about the show. Maybe they're not even fully aware of it. I did think it was funny, at times, that our show got pigeonholed for that. But I also understand when people were like, 'I was watching for a while and I had to stop because I just couldn't handle it.' You have to be in the right frame of mind to allow this into your life. This show does not shy away from it."
Fogelman & Co. say they tried to balance calamity with comedy, just as they saw that mix in their own lives. The cast believes that the show's laughs got overshadowed by all that talk of its tears. (See: "The Train," when Kevin and Randall have a conversation at Rebecca's deathbed about how Jack was surprisingly ripped for a '90s dad. Or any Worst Case Scenario-izing between Randall and Beth.) "I keep trying to remind people how funny our show is," says Sullivan, whose Toby provided winky-needy comic relief in early seasons. "I don't think [people] realize how much levity there is, and that it is a big part of the balance. Things are not as joyful if you don't have your suffering, and suffering is not as endurable if you don't have your laughter."
Beth later emerged as the bottom-lining voice of the audience as she managed these externally processing Pearsons, dispensing bon mots while self-dispensing wine. "This season, in particular, is the first time — toward the end of the season — that I noticed they were writing to the comedy of it," says Watson. "I could feel they didn't want Beth to cry as much, because I guess it was like, 'Uh-oh, if Beth loses it, then this might be a bit too sad.'"
Tears — at least from sorrow — weren't usually the problem behind the camera. Huertas took special joy in making Ventimiglia lose it: "We love to watch Milo try to hold his laugh in. Justin does the impersonation the best, but it's this Huh! Huh! Huh! — and it's the funniest sound." Moore was happy to be a target, though it wasn't appreciated as much when she was wearing old-age makeup that took hours to apply. "There's a real misnomer that we must all be just walking around with our heads in our hands all day," she says. "It was quite the opposite. Oftentimes when I'm in this makeup, there's some sad stuff going on and I can't be joking around. But you get Jon and Chris and Justin all together in the same room and it's too much."
Was it a release valve? Coping mechanism? Just goofing around by this "band of clowns," as Sullivan refers to the cast? Whatever the case, "it's what has made the past six years as much fun as it has been," sums up Brown. "Folks ask, 'How do you carry all that around?' And I'm like, 'Well, I don't. I let it out.' And as a result, I feel a little bit lighter going home."
This is… preparing for the end
The beginning of the end began in the middle.
After initially weighing a lifespan of four or five seasons, Fogelman decided early on that six would be the limit. "I was a little worried about the amount of time I would have with the kids before they crashed into each other [in terms of physical growth], and we were able to squeak in there," he says. "As the show was getting successful, I recognized there was going to be commercial reasons to continue it for as long as possible, and I held firm to the plan. I was pretty clear [in season 3]: 'If you pick it up for another three seasons, I'll commit my life to doing this for that amount of time, and then that will be it.'"
After season 3 finished airing in 2019, NBC announced that whopper of a renewal, without confirming that would take the show to the finish line. As the years passed and ratings remained impressive, NBC was understandably not eager to part with the Pearsons. "The conversations were flattering, and they were never forceful," shares Fogelman. "They were always delivered with the right tone, which was like, 'We know what you said, but we're checking in.' And there have been moments where I was like, 'Oh God, I love these people I'm working with.' But you have to stick to the plan. The only thing that's kept us afloat all these years was knowing where we were going. As much as I'm going to miss these people, I do believe it was the right decision for the show with every part of my being."
In fact, Fogelman hadn't just signaled his intentions for the End in season 3; he had begun filming it. Half of the finale that you'll watch on Tuesday was shot back then, since he wanted to capture the young Big Three and Randall's kids at a specific moment in time. (Specifically, we're talking about Lonnie Chavis as Randall, Parker Bates as Kevin, and Mackenzie Hancsicsak as Kate; plus Baker's Tess, Herman's Annie, and Ross' Deja.) "It's a testament to how trusting everyone's been in the process," remarks Fogelman. "To the credit of the studio [20th Television] and network, four or five days of shooting stuff for four years later is not an inexpensive undertaking. They always really trusted us to do our thing…. And the actors never questioned anything. I was like, 'Guys, we're gonna spend an extra four days on set and you're gonna shoot material with the kids that won't air for years and is untethered to anything else you're doing.' And they were like, 'Great!'"
"It didn't seem that big," remembers Ventimiglia with a shrug. "It didn't seem like one of those things that you think, Wow, this is going to be a massive moment for the show. Thank God Dan was thinking ahead to get it! [They] just played as any other scene[s] that we shot, which was good. It kind of took the pressure off. I remember Mandy and I walking off set and Dan going, 'Those were the final shots of the show.' I mean, he said it like it was in stone."
The cement was drying on the show's ending in other ways, too. The season 3 finale flash-forward to an old, ailing Rebecca was Fogelman's last tentpole in the ground. He'd always believed that the final season should center on her decline, likely from Alzheimer's. But as season 4 approached, it came time to decide if the show should truly tackle such a brutal downer as its farewell arc. Serious debate in the writers' room followed. "I will be the first to admit that I was worried that it was just too sad," says executive producer Elizabeth Berger. "We went back and forth on it a lot, and Dan really felt that it was so organic to a show about memory for Rebecca to go on this journey. Once we dove in and started breaking it, I think it did prove to be the right decision for the show. We feel that it's taken the show to really beautiful, fascinating territory."
"I always felt we could do it pretty strongly, though when the people you trust the most are having pause, I listened," says Fogelman. "It became our job to say, 'We're going to treat this disease honestly, where our ability to pass some time is our friend. We want to showcase what happens to not only the person suffering from the disease, but also the family members, while at the same time having the show remain palatable to a wide audience.' When somebody gets sick, even when the most horrific things happen, people don't stop living and laughing around them. That's been our balancing act."
It helped that the show's scribes had personal experience with the disease touching their families. "Many people in our writers' room have stories that speak very, very specifically to this," says executive producer Isaac Aptaker. "And as universal as it is, we don't feel like it's been widely told."
In short, the thematic resonance, the fresh storytelling ground, and the stakes were too enticing for Fogelman to shy away from. "Losing mom to a slow illness over the final season of the show…. For a family drama, it's as close to the Super Bowl as you get," he says. "The conversation between three siblings about the caregiving plans for their mother at her request — it would be the biggest stakes the family can have outside of, you know, the house lighting on fire and the hero dad getting everybody out. It's: 'Oh God, here are all the childhood issues rearing their head. The mother who they all worship is now ailing. What are the decisions for her going to be? How are they going to process it when they lose her?' It doesn't get any bigger than that."
It certainly stood as a formidable challenge for Moore, who, at age 38, was already playing a seventysomething grandmother, popping up in more time periods than anyone else — and spending the most amount of time in the makeup chair. She went into research mode, reading books, talking to journalists battling the disease, and calling neurologists. (The show's writers always consulted with experts in the field of whatever issue was being explored.) "I was really nervous, and I wanted to make sure that we handled it respectfully and with dignity," says Moore. "It's not just seeing her at the beginning of this journey, it's following her through until the very end. I know the writers did their due diligence, but I wanted to make sure that I had done mine as well. So with each new script we got, I wanted to get on the phone with a doctor and go through, 'Okay, how much would Rebecca be leaning on Miguel at this point? It says that the television's on in the background, I imagine that at this point in the progression of the disease she wouldn't be watching anything with a real narrative to follow.' Sometimes those details don't end up making it in the final version of an episode because we only have 42 minutes and 30 seconds, but those details matter to me."
That kind of dedication only reaffirmed to Fogelman that the reins of the family were in good hands as Rebecca led the family charge in the back half of the series. "I was incredibly knocked out by her, from the beginning," he says of Moore. "Then it just became a factor of us saying, 'There's nothing we can't do with her.' You're like, 'Is this crazy if Mandy gives a 12-minute monologue about what her expectations are for her children, as she grapples with her cognitive decline in old age makeup?' We don't even think about whether she'll be able to do that, because we just know she can." (The singer-actress can also still rock the charts: Her performance at Kate's second wedding of "The Forever Now" — which was co-written by her husband, Taylor Goldsmith, and This Is Us composer Siddhartha Khosla — reached No. 1 on the iTunes chart last month.)
It's all been quite a megamorphosis for Moore, who'd thought about quitting acting after some rough pilot seasons. "This Is Us hit on notes that I never even knew were possible to dream about, you know?" says the actress, who was nominated for an Emmy in season 3. "And it's all thanks to Dan. I'll be thanking him for the rest of my life. It takes one person giving you permission, seeing something in you that you never would've been able to see in yourself."
Fogelman also has nothing but praise for how supportive that three-time Emmy nominee Ventimiglia has remained throughout the process, as Jack began to fade into the background (though he never left the painting). "At a certain point, it gets harder and harder to flesh [Jack] out anymore," says the creator. "Milo always would call me directly and be like, 'I understand, do what you need to do.' He was always grateful to come to work and never complained — not once. We always knew the show was better when Jack was in it, so we would say, 'We have to make sure we're not away from him for too long.' That was always a conscious thing we battled."
Ventimiglia admirably anchored the early seasons as the show fired up the how-did-Jack-die? mystery. The arc culminated with the Super Bowl episode, which saw the beloved patriarch go into straight-up hero mode, rescuing his family from the blaze and emerging relatively unscathed before his shockingly quiet death at the hospital from a heart attack. "We had built the house way out north of Los Angeles," recalls Ventimiglia. "I remember looking at the filming crew, they're all in fireman outfits, because the fire was that intense. I remember the flames licking inside the door when they shouldn't have been. I remember turning and looking at [camera operator] James Takata and he's looking at me like, 'We're about to open this door and go through this shit!' It was very physical and taxing. And on top of it, I remember Niles [Fitch, as teen Randall,] and Hannah [Zeile, as teen Kate,] just being so emotional with the experience of it."
As were viewers. Even though they already knew he was dead, fans grieved Jack's loss all over again — and took their anger out on… the faulty slow cooker that sparked the blaze. (The parent company of CrockPot, which saw its stock plummet 21 percent in the aftermath, issued a statement assuring customers that its equipment was safe. Ventimiglia even filmed a PSA in which he helped himself to some chili from a CrockPot.) "People still talk about the slow cooker," he says. "That one's gonna be following me around forever, I think."
Jack was further unpacked in season 3, when he signed up for action in Vietnam to rescue unstable little brother Nicky (Michael Angarano), who'd been drafted and was not cut out for combat. Jack wound up haunted by the horrors of war and by cutting off his damaged sibling. ("That was the one thing that I did not agree with Jack on, how he shut his brother out," says Ventimiglia. "It was a really hard pill to swallow for me. But that's what people do. That's what happens.")
By season 4, as Fogelman indicated, the story pendulum swung toward the living Pearson parent. Ventimiglia says that while he "mourned" the lack of Jack discoveries in later seasons (season 6's funeral-set "Don't Let Me Keep You" stands out as a lovely showcase and exception), "there's so much more to the show than just Jack. I had no problems supporting everybody in the stories that we had to tell." And he sounds like a beaming spouse when talking about watching Moore level up: "After we wrapped, I remember hugging Mandy, and the first thing I said to her was, 'I'm so proud of you.' I really saw her grow and shine and just blow people's expectations away with every performance. In the beginning, I kept saying, 'I get the front row seat because I'm right there with her.' I'm so excited for her, and what she [did] toward the end, it really is wonderful and beautiful. And just so f---ing honest."
This is… the final stretch
While the final season of This Is Us explored the debilitating effects of dementia on a family, there was another dreaded D-word that finally hit the Pearsons: Divorce.
Only death did part Jack and Rebecca. And it was R&B for life. But, as revealed in the flash-forward of Kate and Phillip's wedding, the writers split up Toby and Kate, a couple who'd weathered so much over the years, whether it was fighting depression (him), suffering a miscarriage (her), hiding workouts from a partner (him), navigating the challenges of raising a sight-impaired son (both), adopting a second child (both), or taking good care of Audio the dog (Neither. Seriously, where'd he go?).
To help support the family, Toby relocated to San Francisco, where he found meaning in his career doing whatever it was that he does, while Kate thrived at Jack Jr.'s music school. When the increasingly distant couple reunited for a weekend of reconnection, it was clear that they both had grown. And grown apart.
The story line caught Metz by surprise. And it stung a bit. (Yeah, yeah, there were tears.) Even though Metz has enjoyed her new scene partner in Geere, and even though Toby also found love again with some woman named Laura, and even though Kate and Toby are peacefully co-parenting in the future, Metz still holds a candle. "Selfishly, I would want to work with Chris Sullivan forever — as a fan of his and a friend," she sasy. "I'm like, 'Uhhh, I don't like this.'… I mean, he was my day 1 role dawg. And it's just hard to put the breaks on. And it feels weird because you feel like you're cheating on somebody. But as an actress, it's really wonderful to be able to challenge yourself and to stretch your acting muscles in different capacities and to understand a different perspective."
Sullivan saw value in finding honest conversations in something so common yet shrouded in stigma and shame. "It's a subject matter that has been sensationalized and dramatized, but rarely does the depiction of just a relationship that isn't working get played out, you know?" he notes. "I am really proud of that, and I am really proud of Dan and the writers for not leaning into old tropes or plots that have been retread time and again." Make no mistake, though, he also struggled with the divorce. In fact, he and Metz didn't really discuss the mechanics of it until they had to. And when they did? "I would make sure to take the piss out of Phillip, and she was constantly talking about, 'Ooooh, Laura! I bet you guys have so much fun together!'" he quips. "That was one of the ways that we were able to ease up on it a little bit."
The story of Kate and Toby's demise in "Katoby" was juxtaposed in the same episode with the rise of KaPhillip. (Not the best shipper name. Phillate? Definitely nope.) Once again, the show aimed to balance the sour with the sweet. And in setting up Rebecca's end of life, the writers infused a lighthearted romantic mystery into the proceedings: Whom did Kevin spend the night with? Sophie, Cassidy, or the wedding singer? (It was never going to be the wedding singer.) When the answer was revealed to be childhood sweetheart-turned-wife-turned-ex-turned-girlfriend-turned-ex-again Sophie, social media lit up in approval. "The way the story line was going, it could have gone many different ways, and I thought it would be interesting to see if he ended up with Cassidy or Madison," says Hartley. "I was glad when I heard we were going to make [Sophie] work. I love Alex and we work well together and she's just such a joy to be around. I got so lucky with all of these costars — I mean, every single one of them — because Kevin dated a lot of people on that show."
There was growth for the self-consumed actor in the final season, however backslide-y and frustrating his journey may have been. Kevin successfully co-parents his twins with ex-fiancée Madison, he founded a non-profit construction company to honor his dad, and the son who wasn't there for his father on the day he died wound up caring for his in-need mother in the house that he built for her from a sketch by Jack. Sums up Hartley: "He finally figured it out."
Also in this final stretch of episodes, viewers finally figured out Miguel. (You didn't think we'd forgotten about him, did you?) The long-promised spotlight installment "Miguel" delved into the bittersweet life of Rebecca's honorable husband, who was so conflicted about his feelings for his best friend's widow that he fled to Houston and then took another few years before striking up the nerve to reunite with her. The episode painted a fuller picture of the boy from San Juan who always felt caught between two worlds, and who proudly cared for Rebecca during her decline, right up until his own death. Redemption was a long time coming given how Miguel was introduced at the end of the show's second episode, with many viewers wondering if he'd capitalized on tragedy. (Huertas remembers one exceptionally dark theory that Miguel had something to do with Jack's death.) Back then, Fogelman had set an ambitious goal "to make the audience fall in love with Rebecca and Miguel in their own unique way," and he found a willing partner in Huertas. The actor was intrigued by the long game, and excited to build this character — the least fleshed out in the bunch, just a guy named Mike — from scratch.
"How do we attack that negativity with great qualities and elements of this character that people might not notice outwardly but feel it?" is how the actor remembers framing it with the writers. "Having to turn the audience around was a huge challenge, and a welcomed one. The selfish part of you as an actor wants to be opened up a little sooner. We had a pandemic that got in the way of some of the stuff that we wanted to do. But ultimately, after seeing the reaction to Miguel and some of the social media where people actually apologized for everything bad they ever said about Miguel, maybe it was worth it to wait."
If Miguel's death brought the audience to tears, Rebecca's decline soon after brought them to their knees. For the show's penultimate episode, "we were looking for a way to show Rebecca's death that would be elegant," says Fogelman. He'd get the locomotive idea from executive producer K.J. Steinberg, who had a family member with dementia who kept imagining herself on a train. "She said, 'What if that's how she dies? That in her mind's eyes, she's walking through a train from the front to the back?' Our collective group of writers and actors put picture to something that I think a lot of people have thought about."
"It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever read in my life," says Moore, who was overwhelmed by the script, she vomited and had trouble breathing. (Ask your doctor if reading a Fogelman script involving a death is right for you.) "My goodness, if this is what really happens to us at the end," gushes Moore, "it doesn't seem all that bad, you know?"
She wasn't the only cast member who was moved to tears and shortness of breath. Metz had learned a while ago that Kate was alive in the distant future (when she's opening international music schools for the blind), but "I didn't know that she would be on a plane, just white-knuckling to get there before her mom goes. And so when I learned that part of the puzzle, I was like, 'Oh my gosh!' Because it's so relatable. I was in that situation with my grandmother and… [she starts to cry]… ooooh, sorry. I'm getting emotional!"
Once filming started and those farewell moments had to be put on film, things only intensified. "Sue said when she had to say her goodbye to Rebecca — the echoes of having recently said goodbye to her dad — she's like, 'SK, it was almost too much,''" recalls Brown. "Ken came out to her and he was like, 'All right, there's a whole bunch more goodbyes, so I kind of need you to see if you can pull it back a little bit.' And she's like, 'I'm gonna do the best I can, Ken!'"
Then it was his turn. Randall had to let go of the mother who'd made him promise to follow his public-service dreams instead of being sidelined by her disease, and he'd honored her wishes by becoming a Senator. "The first time we shot the goodbye with the hand squeeze, [Ken] was like, 'All right, Randall needs to be strong for his brother and sister,'" shares Brown, whose Randall had honored Rebecca's wishes to be in service to others. "I'm like, 'I'm doing the best I can!' It felt like, it felt like the end…"
He trails off and collects himself before continuing: "Being able to say goodbye, to be there, is very meaningful for many people who've had a chance to be present at their parents' transition. And for me, who didn't have that experience in real life, I got a chance to relive having that experience of saying goodbye to William, which was a really powerful, cathartic moment. And being there for Mom in this particular situation was gorgeous: Mandy Moore, as Rebecca, laid out on this bed, just beautiful and peaceful, knowing that life is starting to move away. I was like, 'This is how my scenes with Mandy Moore end. This is the last time this group of people will be together in a scene.' All of it swells and swirls together to a place where you're like, 'The show is almost over,' and it hit like a sledge hammer."
Moore had her own difficulty remaining unresponsive, fighting back tears as she listened to these poignant farewells that Rebecca couldn't react to. (Tune it out, she told herself. Picture yourself floating in the ocean, tropical drink in your hand.) And she'd be struck with another overwhelming thought: The man who definitely wasn't trying to write about something very personal had definitely written something very personal. "I was like, 'Oh, this whole time, the show has really been a love letter to Dan's mother,'" shares the actress. "As much as Jack was celebrated as a hero, his children are living in their father's shadow — and his untimely demise is something they've had to carry around for their whole lives. Mom is the heroine of this story in a way, and it's in large part to Dan and his relationship with his own mother. There's something really, really beautiful that I don't think even really coalesced and made sense to me until the very, very end."
This is… saying goodbye
In those final days of filming, the vibe was at times loose and loopy. Other times wistful and respectful. And then, finally, all wet-eyed and sputtering.
On one morning, Ventimiglia huddles with Fogelman over an iPad as the creator shows him snippets of scenes filmed for the finale years ago. "People ask me, 'How do you feel about This Is Us ending?'" Ventimiglia says. "And I'm like, 'Mixed. Hanging on and letting go. Trains are leaving, but you're digging in.'"
One train, in particular, is indeed leaving right now. Ventimiglia and Moore are summoned to the caboose to film that exquisitely understated Jack-Rebecca reunion in the penultimate episode's final moment. A reverent hush falls over the set as Olin and Fogelman discuss how to stage the big reveal, if the camera should reveal Jack to be suddenly there, or if it's more effective to see the outline of someone before realizing it's Jack. "Ooh, it's going to be really good," relishes Fogelman. Moore positions herself on the bed in different ways. "Do you want me to lean back and flip my whole body over?" she asks. No, just a little turn will suffice. "Don't rush that 'Hey,'" Olin encourages Moore. It's always quiet on set when actors film a scene. This one feels… quieter.
"Everybody's been waiting for that," Ventimiglia says of the moment later. "I loved that sense of comfort," raves Moore.
Soon after, on a nearby stage, Olin is plotting the crossing action and competing dialogue for the 17 Pearson family members who've gathered for Rebecca's farewell. "That's a lot of people," he says, shaking his head. "It's just… a lot of people." Observes Sullivan: "This was a fitting way to go out, all of us together. This is the most we've all got to work together in six seasons, ironically. You can tell people are a little more present, paying a little more attention. Everyone's having a good time, but there's a calm over the crowd. It's respectful somberness, bright sadness."
Watson, for one, has chosen to process this moment… horizontally. While the other actors take their places, she lies down on the floor and planks, before shifting in a few yoga poses. Brown walks into the room and drops to the floor, planking head-to-head with her. "Did you do your nails?" he compliments. "I did," she says.
"I have seen everyone process differently," Watson says during a break. "Some people are very sentimental, some people are taking it on the chin, and some people are pushing through just to not deal. Some people are more anxious than normal." Brown gets down to brass tacks: "Who cries the most? Chrissy cries the most."
Jones, who won two guest Emmys for his work on the show (and who had a double lung transplant in 2020 after battling a pulmonary disease), succumbs to raw emotion after his final moment as the conductor of Rebecca's metaphysical train ride. "You cats held me when I was struggling and you didn't let me go," he tells the cast and producers through tears as he steps off the set. "You've been there for a very difficult part of my life. I'm a walking miracle."
With such a sprawling cast, the goodbyes stretch out over a few weeks, and the actors are showing up on off days to send off their castmates. On the last day of filming for Baker, Herman, and Ross, "Su and I were not working that day, but we're like, 'I'll be damned if I'm not going to be at work to say goodbye to these young ladies,'" recalls Brown. He and Watson offered hugs to their TV daughters, thanked their parents for "allowing us to share their children," and then they all visited their (already partially dismantled) townhome set for the last time. "We were walking through the house and just looking at it," says Brown. "And it's full of these pictures of them when we first got together, when I could hold Eris and Faithe in one arm each. And you have pictures of Lyric when she decided to cut her hair, when she first joined our family. I took a picture, Su took two pictures, and we said goodbyes. It was beautiful."
After the Big Three wrapped their final scene — Metz remembers fighting off so many tears and bugs on the outdoors shoot — Moore and Ventimiglia finished their tenure together with a small scene at a toy store and with one-year-old versions of the Big Three. "The day was running late, and these kids were all up past their bedtime, so we're sitting there trying to soothe them," says Moore. "This is what the show has been from the very beginning, you know what I mean? This is real parenthood here! Or fake real parenthood. Trying to get someone else's children to calm down so they're not crying on camera and you can say your dialogue. It was funny. Like, of course we're closing out this experience with crying babies."
Earlier that day, Ventimiglia and Moore had slipped away from the sea of people and well-wishers to walk over to stage 32, home of the Pearson house, for a quiet moment that mirrored Watson and Brown's townhome tour. "We walked through the front door, and we walked through the living room, and then into the den where sometimes our chairs used to sit, and then through the kitchen, the cupboards were open," he says. "We went down the hallway where all of our photos were, we started taking photos out of frames. And then our upstairs sets, the bedrooms are behind the first floor. So then we walked through our bedroom, and walked through the kids' rooms, and just kind of were living in the space for a minute. And then as we were walking out, I remember hearing Mandy say: Goodbye, house! Thank you."
That's very sweet. And what did you say, Milo? "I didn't say anything. There was nothing else to add. She TV-wife nailed it. As always."
Family photos weren't the only items liberated from the set. The cast are taking as much of the show with them as they can. Huertas received Toby's big green egg from season 6's "Four Fathers," which he directed. (Fogelman offered every star the chance to write or direct an episode, and almost everyone did.) Sullivan is buying the Jeep Grand Wagoneer from the show. Moore received her Steelers jersey for the Super Bowl episode and her moon necklace. Metz requested Kate's piano. "There's so many memories, not only surrounding the piano, but music generally — and I have a perfect place for it," says Metz. "So I'm hoping, fingers crossed." And as he'd done many times by accident, Hartley forgot to take off Jack's necklace when he left the set for the very last time, so that's his now. He'd been previously gifted Kevin's famous painting, and he just requested the framed sketch of Jack's dream cabin. "But I didn't get a piano for God's sake," says Hartley. "She got a piano? That's crazy."
This is… the end
The "Train" has left the station, taking with it the beloved Pearson matriarch. So where will Rebecca's children find themselves on Tuesday in the episode simply titled "Us"? The Big Three have a funeral to attend and a eulogy to deliver, and they will try to see this end as, to quote a wise conductor, "the start of the next incredibly beautiful thing." "Beautiful" is one word that comes up frequently when you ask the cast and Fogelman to describe the last episode. "Simple" is another. "Uplift, too." And they all say that after that emotional trek into the afterlife, you'll receive ample resolution and the dramatic equivalent of a warm blanket.
Viewers will be wrapped up in a flashback story (the one filmed years ago) that finds the Pearsons savoring a lazy Saturday in the early '90s. "The finale feels like a time capsule of a family," says Fogelman, who wrote the last two episodes of the series. "It feels purposefully a little different, in a really good way. It is about a special day in the past of this family, and the simple things and the little things, as the adult family buries their mother. It will just be a very simple, quiet episode after a very big, loud one."
"It feels complete," offers Ventimiglia. "It feels like there's no more room for anything else, nor does it need anything else. It's just full." Moore agrees, recalling her first thought when she finished the script: "I just remember closing it going, 'You stuck the landing, Dan. You really did.' No one's going to be disappointed. This is a really beautiful way to end this story.'"
And Fogelman wants you to know that the final message of the show — and yes, it's been the message all along — is not that everyone passes on, but that everyone lives on. "You never lose anyone, because you're living in six different versions of your own life in a given moment, and you're carrying the pieces of people forward," he says. "That OG Pearson couple is being carried forward into the future generations of their family."
With all this metaphysical talk of living on, one might wonder: Could the show itself find new life one day, in a movie, reboot, or spin-off? (The latter seemed possible after you met Dulé Hill and Kelly Jenrette's family in that Super Bowl flashback which allowed Fogelman to pull off one final twist.) Cast members are split on such a notion. Some would jump at the chance to revisit this charmed experience. ("They're my favorite people," says Hartley. "I'll work with them whenever, however, and with whatever they want me to.") Some want to freeze this experience in amber. ("It's perfect. Leave it alone," says Ventimiglia.) Still, others are firmly undecided. "If there's a great device, a great way of getting all of us into a movie, I could be open to it," says Huertas. "But really it would be about: 'What's the idea? What does the script look like?'" Oh, and one more question: "How awesome is Miguel in this thing?"
While Fogelman won't rule out revisiting the Pearsons in some form down the road, for now he's closing this family album. "My well may be drained of family stories," he says. "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."
In any case, the show's legacy is likely secure. Even if some of it was glued on. Oh, yes, Ventimiglia fought very hard to persuade his highly reluctant boss that '80s-era Jack should rock a 'stache. "That's better than any Emmy nomination," says the actor. "I feel like Jack Pearson's mustache — that Dan didn't want — brought back mustaches for men. It normalized them a little bit. I'm pretty proud of that."
With only one more funeral to attend, and with viewers preparing to mourn the loss of the show itself, we end our journey at the Graveyard of TV Hits. And what epitaph should be chiseled onto the newly planted tombstone of This Is Us — a show that has, to quote a wise doctor/bartender, earned a rest?
"A Really Lovely Show About Flawed But Lovely People When the World Needed a Little Bit of It," says Fogelman.
"All We Have is the Forever Now," offers Moore.
Let's turn to the man who plays the man who's known for resplendent speeches. Eulogizes Brown: "Here lies This Is Us: Did its best to keep network television relevant. Happy to have relieved you of some therapy bills."
Director: Kristen Harding; Photographer: Pat Martin; DP: Madeline Leach; 1st AC: Kyle Summers; 2nd AC: Chastin Noblett; Photo Assistants: Ethan Dolorenzo, Andrew Friendly; Gaffer: Tate McCurdy; Key Grip: Han Tiger Whitesides; Best Boy Electric: Colvin Ang; Best Boy Grip: Sam Satossky; VTR: Danita Clark; Prop Stylist: Ali Gallagher; Prop Assistants: Zoran Radanovich, Geoffrey Smyser; Food Stylist: Sofia Branco Kraft; Food Assistant: Max Rappaport; Stylists: Kevin Ericson/Studio KME (Moore + Watson), Jessica Paster/Uncommon Artists (Metz); Rima Vaidila/Forward Artists (Brown + Hartley + Huertas + Sullivan + Ventimiglia); Stylist Assistants: Zoe Anestos; Bryan Baltazar; Lana Eldjoundi, Grace Grant; Hair: Matthew Collins/The Wall Group (Moore), Ashley Lynn Hall/Atelier Management (Watson), David Stanwell/The Wall Group (Metz); Makeup: Motoko Hon Clayton (Metz), Katey Denno/The Wall Group (Moore), Marlaine Reiner (Watson); Groomers: Jeni Chua/Exclusive Artists (Huertas), Carola Gonzalez/Forward Artists (Ventimiglia), Andrea Pezzillo/TMG-LA (Hartley), Kathy Santiago (Brown); Producer: Sara Bielecki/Photobomb Production; Production Coordinator: David Newman; Photo Director: Maya Robinson; Creative Director: Chuck Kerr; Video Editor: Ethan Bellows; VFX: Ira Morris/Finalbyte, Color Correction: Carlos Flores/Forage
Pick up a copy of EW's special This Is Us edition, available to purchase online or wherever magazines are sold.
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