This Is Us director, writer break down new flash-forward mystery and dream reunion
Cast member Jon Huertas and co-executive producer Julia Brownell answer pressing questions about the drive home.
Last week on This Is Us, three new Pearsons were added to the family. And this week on This Is Us, well, baby, it was time to go home. Of course, that road home — and even that first step out of the hospital maternity ward — is never easy, and viewers saw all sorts of Pearson parents embark on trying drives as they tried out their new lives with excitement and unease. Armed with twins, Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Madison (Caitlin Thompson) learned about car seats and avoided a showdown with a paparazzo before an overwhelmed, grateful Kevin (re)proposed to his fiancée with a hospital ID bracelet. Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) gave a ride to Ellie (Annie Funke), who was reeling after her emotional goodbye to her biological daughter Hailey and decided in the car that it was too painful to continue to be a part of this family from the sidelines.
Meanwhile, in the past, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) cruised through child No. 2, Annie, but found themselves on their ride home at odds with how many kids they should ultimately have. (He was definitely a three-child guy, while she was more of a shut-up-and-give-me-my-Snickers-blizzard woman.) And in the more distant past, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) anxiously juggled three babies in the back of their car; Rebecca was still reeling from the sadness of losing one of the babies, while Jack secretly chugged a small bottle of whiskey at a gas station.
And because you can never have enough time periods on this NBC family drama, "The Ride" laced in a flash-forward sequence that introduced viewers to the adult versions of Deja (La Trice Harper), now a med student, and baby whisperer Annie (Iyana Halley), who reunited with Randall and the rest of the family at Kevin's house, where Rebecca seemingly lay on her deathbed. Oh, and who just pulled up to the house in the white car? No, seriously. We're asking. Guess that (car) door will open in the next flash-forward.
Let's grab a pacifier and a sun hat, figure out how to install this car seat without no stinking manual, grab some mixed nuts and nothing else from the gas station, cue up Felicity with Mom, and sit shotgun with This Is Us star Jon Huertas (who directed this episode) and co-executive producer Julia Brownell (who wrote it) as they take you on a memorable "Ride."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This episode focuses on a day that carries great importance, yet is quite simple in its scope of action: the car ride home from the hospital with the baby. Why did you decide to explore this loaded-yet-quotidian act?
JULIA BROWNELL: We have these landmark episodes that we talk about for a while, and this is an episode that we have been talking about since at least last season — the moment of driving the baby home from the hospital, when all that anxiety hits you that you're going to be a parent now. I remember I left the hospital, I was like, "Oh my God, they're giving me this baby? They actually do that?" [Laughs] Especially with [This Is Us creator] Dan Fogelman becoming a father this summer — and lots of parents and new parents on the show — we were really interested in exploring the dynamic of joy and anxiety and fear and everything hitting you. But it's a challenge, as Jon knows. There's a lot of driving, and we want to keep it exciting.
Jon, this is your first time directing episodic TV. What were the challenges in bringing this chapter of the Pearsons' story to life? A lot of greenscreen, for starters.
JON HUERTAS: There was a lot of greenscreen. The thing that I thought was going to be the hardest was dealing with babies. At one point I counted in the episode, there were eight or nine newborn babies. We were able to trim that a little bit, but having worked with babies in the past and getting them to be in the moment — they're in their own moments, I guess, when they're babies. So it's not the easiest thing to deal with production-wise, and you only get to work with a baby that young [for limited amounts of time]. I thought, "This is going to be so daunting." But with COVID-19, we weren't even allowed to shoot our actors with live babies. So now it added another challenge. How do we make sure that we feel a connection between our actors and these tiny babies when we're not never going to have them in the same room? So the challenge was getting the actors to be in that moment, in that place where they're looking at a substitute. We have these dolls that are very lifelike, but actually feeling a real connection to them and having that hopefully carry over into [postproduction], and shooting [them] on their own. So that was the biggest challenge for me.
And just being in cars. A lot of greenscreen, which means: How do we just bring life into this scene when we're just sitting in a car on a stage? How do we keep momentum going? Because that's the most important thing for any episode of television: You want to keep the momentum flowing. You want to keep people along for the ride. So just figuring out how to get the actors to help us do that was a daunting challenge at the beginning. But then after getting on set and working with the most incredible cast that has ever been assembled for a television show — in the world — it was pretty easy.
Kevin truly goes all in by re-proposing to Madison. But there is still no ring. So to be clear: Kevin arranges a private concert at the Hollywood bowl by John Legend for Sophia Bush on their first date, yet Madison gets his hospital ID band for their second engagement?
BROWNELL: She will be getting a ring! She will be getting a ring.
This feel-good event for Kevin and Madison feels fairly ominous for the Kevin-Sophie shippers who've been holding out hope, albeit an increasingly fading hope. Should they start to accept that this one is going to stick? Or would you say to them: Don't stop believing?
BROWNELL: What do you think, Jon?
HUERTAS: Uh, I was going to ask if I could start singing that song. [They laugh] I think that… never say never. Especially in television and especially with This Is Us. But the story we've been trying to tell in the most recent episodes is a really sweet and true love story between Madison and Kevin. And I think there's a really big part of our audience that is really starting to get invested in that relationship — as much as they were invested in the Sophie-Kevin relationship. So, really, I think that — and you tell me, Julia, if this is true or not — our writers kind of have to take a cue from the audience a little bit and see what the audience is thinking, feeling about Kevin and Madison, and act accordingly.
BROWNELL: The thing we've always explored with Kevin is, he has this childhood love for Sophie, but does that work today? Just because you were in love with someone at 10, does that mean that applies to you when you're 40? And what we were trying to achieve with the paparazzi scene is a moment where Kevin really sees Madison and all she has to offer, that she can be there for him in the way that he's there for her, and that he sort of has everything he's been looking for, and why does he keep questioning it? So maybe we're asking the same thing of the audience. Like, why do you want Sophie so badly? Look at how great Madison is! [Laughs] She gave him two babies and helped save him from the paparazzi!
I understand she took charge in that moment and solved the problem of the paparazzi ruining their special ride home by agreeing to give him details of Kevin's jogging route. But wasn't that… a little weird? Maybe she could have paid him off rather than sell out her fianceé on a different day?
BROWNELL: Maybe she lost his number, right?
That is a question. Did you talk about that in the room, whether she was actually going to deliver on that deal?
BROWNELL: Did you talk to her about it, Jon? I think that was probably something she had an actor's secret, potentially, that she was working with.
HUERTAS: I didn't talk to her about it, but I always saw it as it was just a ploy to get rid of him, that she would never do that to Kevin. And also, if we're trying to show some growth in Madison's character — I think the old Madison probably would have stayed true to that promise: "I will get you that photo, with the tight shorts and all…" But the Madison that we've grown to really love now, she's had some growth over episodes upwards of two seasons ago. And I think that the new Madison knows what that really meant to Kevin. She saw Kevin in the moment, how he responded to that paparazzi, and I think that would never betray him like that if we're really going to believe that she's this dedicated wife for Kevin.
BROWNELL: You should listen to nothing Jon is saying. [Laughs] Just kidding. No, I think she lost the number. Also, Madison is new to all this celebrity stuff. One thing that was really important to us is that she doesn't really buy into it. She's not that excited in the Hollywood glamour part of it all, which is what appeals to Kevin. He's been searching for a long time for a sort of normal life that he saw his parents having, you know? And Madison's rejection of the glamor of his life is appealing to him.
HUERTAS: Is that because she's the daughter of Hollywood royalty? Because I don't understand why Madison has such a nice house, why she has a nice car. She is —
BROWNELL: I will say, Jon, you might find out in a few episodes!
Moving on to that nice reunion between Kevin and Jack in the dream sequence—
HUERTAS: Ohhh! That's my favorite scene.
Kevin had previously imagined an interaction with his dad when he went back to his high school while high. This one had a lot more feel-good vibes. What was it like to stage that scene? Jon, did you like this one better than the one in which Kate dreamt that Rebecca was celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary with Jack, which wasn't so great for Miguel?
HUERTAS: And therein lies the answer to that question, whether or not the Jack-and-Kevin scene was better! It was my favorite scene. And I don't know Julia remembers when we were just rehearsing the scene, but I think I turned to you, Julia, and —
BROWNELL: Yeah! You welled up, right?
HUERTAS: I welled up. I had misty eyes because I have father issues myself and those are the moments that get me. But the way that we staged that scene, originally it played out as one shot where we stayed with Kevin all the way from the time he wakes up and all the way into the room when we find Jack. And just the way that Justin and Milo played that scene was so sweet. I mean, there was this look of awe on Justin's face when he saw the person that was standing there, backlit by that window. And when Milo looked turned around — that was the moment that just got me. I think it's one of the most beautifully shot scenes that I've seen on This Is Us. Our [director of photography], Yasu Tanida, is so amazing.
BROWNELL: I think I told you this on the day, Jon, but that scene was inspired by a story from one of our writers, Elan Mastai. We have a number of writers on the show who lost parents at a younger age, and he lost his mom when he was in his early 20s. He described after his first daughter was born, having a dream where he heard crying, and he woke up and he found his mom standing in the window, holding his new baby. And that was so moving to us when he told that story that I was like, "We have to put that in this episode!" And it was one of those cases where we were just like, "Okay, that's a scene in the episode, let's build everything out of that." Because the visual of the parent in the window was so beautiful. I know when I had my children, I never felt more connected to my parents. I needed my parents more. So I think to give that moment to Kevin, even in a dream, felt really special.
Fans love these moments when Jack can interact in the present day with the grown-up Big Three. And the actors love it too. I'm wondering: In the writers' room, is it hard to resist the temptation of doing too many of these moments? They're such treats for fans, but a little bit goes a long way for resonance…
BROWNELL: Yeah. And I mean, Milo is so good that you're like, "Why is he dead in most of the timelines? That's not fair!" [Laughs] So, yeah, we try to be very judicious about it so that the moments really do pack a punch. And I just feel lucky that this one seemed special enough that we got to put it in.
In the past, we see Jack struggling on the ride home, overwhelmed by everything that's happened and coming home with three babies. He is triggered by a driver who cuts him off and turns to rage, and then medicates with alcohol. As he confesses to Rebecca, he's worried that he's repeating the sins of the father, but is there also a layer of untreated PTSD from Vietnam in play here?
HUERTAS: That's interesting.
BROWNELL: I think for sure.
HUERTAS: Being a veteran myself [Huertas was a pararescue jumper and nuclear weapons technician in the Air Force, serving in Operation Desert Storm], with PTSD, you medicate yourself with alcohol. Because nothing else seems to work for you. Instead of reaching out for help a lot of times, you reach out for the bottle. I think that's probably a huge thing for Jack. That is probably the way that it manifests for Jack. [To Brownell] I don't know if you guys have talked about it in the writers' room, but I always took Jack's alcoholism as a way of medicating his PTSD, and he saw his father needing it to medicate himself from whatever he was going through and why he couldn't be around his kids without a drink. Whatever [Jack] is dealing with, whatever keeps him able to function in his subconscious is that bottle. So I've always tied it to PTSD in a way.
BROWNELL: Yeah, I think that's right, Jon.
Julia, I've previously talked to your fellow writers about whether you all considered the possibility of having Ellie change her mind and not go through with the adoption. They said that in your research, that wasn't actually very common; it was more of a misguided Hollywood cliché. In that research, how common was this scenario — that the mother in an open adoption found it too painful to maintain a relationship with the adoptive family and severed ties?
BROWNELL: What we learned the most was that going into it, the adoptive parents have to understand that everything is just a plan and that anything could change at any moment. Most adoptions nowadays are not completely closed, but there are many, many levels of open adoption, and that a birth mother might think she wants one level, but changes her mind. So that for us was a less detrimental but also really interesting thing to explore. As we said last week, we didn't want to tell a story of Kate losing the child that she thought she was going to adopt, but we thought it could be very interesting that Kate has bonded with this birth mom and she's potentially losing that friendship. We thought that that could be really interesting to explore.
It's intriguing and painful to watch Ellie struggling with this incredibly fraught situation. Might we see more of that, and see her have another change of heart before the end of the season? Kate certainly is trying to set a path for that.
BROWNELL: That's always possible. That's the beauty of a television show like this, is that you get to bring people back. I thought Annie Funke was really wonderful, and really connected with the audience. And this show is about a big extended family. So I hope she comes back in some way.
Toby reveals to Kate that he was laid off. Is this because he absolutely never, ever, ever went to work?
HUERTAS: You know, that's funny. In television land, a lot of times we really don't know what people do for work. They go to work, but we really never know what they do. Even if they say, "Oh, I was working on a TP1000 report," What the heck is a TP1000 report? What does this pertain to? So I thought that was very funny that Toby was laid off when we never saw him at work. We don't really know what he does.
BROWNELL: Jon, do you want to tell EW what Toby does? Do you know?
HUERTAS: No, I don't know! I think he does something with software or something.
BROWNELL: What we thought in telling the story was the idea that a lot of people are getting laid off in COVID; it has been a really difficult time, particularly in the startup world, the internet world that Toby works in. So we thought that was a realistic thing to have happened. As much as we have not seen Toby at work, we do feel like he's been very defined on the show by [the idea that] he's the one who works and has a job, and Kate has had different career interests but has been the home base. And now we're potentially interested in telling the story of what happens when someone who has always felt very secure in his career — when that changes and the dynamic in a family changes.
What will this loss of income and identity do to a guy who is in the middle of adding a new child, parenting another one with special needs, and is someone who has struggled with depression? He calls his wife the unflappable one, but how flapped will he be by these events?
HUERTAS: I think that a man who's just brought home a newborn baby and has another baby at home, and his wife really doesn't have a job, and they have a pretty big house — something's going to have to happen emotionally for Toby. And we know that he deals with depression. We've kind of, in the past, alluded to what Toby struggles with. So if you compound this, I think it's a smart guess to think that in some way, this is really going to affect Toby emotionally, because of the responsibility he feels for his family.
Let's shift over to Randall and Beth. After this episode, the audience can really see why Randall was so invested in expanding the family with the adoption of Deja; he just wanted to be able to create more branches of his own family tree. That said, here we see Randall put a lot of pressure on Beth, fresh off of giving birth to their second child. How much of a penalty flag, if any, should viewers throw on him for pressing her hard and making comments to little Annie that she and Tess will have to have as many babies as possible to build the tree?
HUERTAS: Remember we had a lot of conversation about that, Julia, when we were filming that? Yeah, I didn't want Randall to come off like, "This is about me and my desire to have a bunch of kids." And I think we do have to be careful with Randall in that respect, just in everything we've seen with him. I don't think that we should harp on Randall too much because a lot of people grow up thinking that this is the kind of family they want to have. They had a pretty big household. And even though Randall's had problems with Kevin, Randall is the one that keeps the family traditions going when it comes to Thanksgiving and other things. So there is a part of his life that he cherished so much when they were full family of five that he has that desire to have a full family of at least five like that. We can't fault him for wanting to replicate what he had with his own family, and Beth is very good at how she handles Randall and his stuff, if you will. And I think it shows in that scene.
BROWNELL: One thing we really wanted to show in the episode was the difference between first-time parents bringing home a baby and second-time parents. Your life has already changed seismically when you have multiple children. So as we expressed, the hospital is just kind of like a nice little vacation from the other tyrant at home. It does start off as an innocent comment, but when you bring that second one into the world, you're like, "Hey, we're actually really good at this!" Let's keep doing this!" As opposed to having the first one where you're like, "Oh my God, what has happened? My life has now changed forever." So it does start out as an innocent comment, but then the deeper part of it, which Jon is talking about, he can't drop it.
Beth and Randall spent a healthy amount of time talking about something not-so-healthy: Dairy Queen. Was there a promotional tie-in?
BROWNELL: No, there wasn't.
HUERTAS: In fact it was hard to get Dairy Queen to work with us. The location [of the store] that we had was actually a different brand. I'm not even going to say it now because I don't want to get in trouble because of what we were able to use with Dairy Queen. They were very specific: "If you want to work with us, this is the kind of signage you're going to have to deal with. This what you're going to have to do with this place." So it's definitely not promotional, but you know, people do like Dairy Queen.
BROWNELL: I'm from the East Coast. I'm from New Jersey, where Randall and Beth live in the episode, and Dairy Queen Blizzards hold a very special place in my heart. [Laughs] And I was not willing to let go on that one. I really hoped it would come through. So I'm really happy that Dairy Queen agreed to do it.
Let's flash-forward to the flash-forward. We now know the identity of two more people who show up at Kevin's house for Rebecca's final goodbye. How did you arrive on those next reveals being Deja and Annie, because there are a lot of missing pieces to go? And by the way, the actress who plays adult Deja could have been Lyric Ross in aged-up makeup.
BROWNELL: I know! Actually, when we saw that actress, we were like, "Oh, should we just age up Lyric, like we do some of our other cast members?" But we finally decided because we had cast an older Tess [Iantha Richardson] to play Tess, that that would be confusing. But yes, I agree. She's such a dead ringer.
HUERTAS: She got her voice down so perfectly. Between takes, the sound guys, in particular Erin [Paul], our boom operator, he was talking to our sound guy and the other boom operator. All I could hear him saying was, "It is uncanny, guys. She sounds exactly like Deja. She looks Deja." I mean, the crew was impressed with this level of casting that we were able to accomplish. And I feel like both her and adult Annie both captured exactly who our younger actresses are as well.
BROWNELL: Because so much of Randall's journey this season — and his journey throughout the show — has been about finding out where he comes from, and this idea of his family tree, we thought it could be cool to show his adult daughters, all of them together in that final moment of the episode. And with Deja revealing her pregnancy, he has sort of gotten his wish, even on a very sad day weekend for him. And because his episode was supposed to be about starting families, we thought seeing the culmination of Randall's family felt really natural to us. We've wanted to tell the story of who Deja becomes and who Annie becomes, and these felt like nice little ways to give a little Easter eggs for that.
We are missing Miguel from this gathering. Jon, you don't have to say what you know, but do you know his fate in the future?
HUERTAS: I know a piece of his future. Yes. That's all I'm going to say.
At the end of the scene, a white car pulls up and Randall says, "Look, who's here!" What can you tease about who might be stepping out of that car? You could just say Kate and finally put fans minds at ease, as that has been one of the biggest questions, but any hints about who's showing up next are welcome.
HUERTAS: Um, I mean, all I can say is that Miguel loves white cars. White cars and gadgets. No, I'm just kidding. I'm going to let Julia answer that question.
BROWNELL: I will say I think you'll get a little bit more information, at least by the end of the season of who might be in that car. And I think it potentially might be more than one person.
And finally, can you drop a hint about the next episode?
BROWNELL: When babies are born, relatives tend to come to town to visit. So you might be treated to some characters from previous season that you would like to see.
HUERTAS: You might see another era for Miguel and Jack.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.