By Dan Snierson
March 24, 2020 at 10:03 PM EDT
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

This Is Us

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Warning: This article contains plot details from Tuesday's season 4 finale of This Is Us, titled "Strangers: Part Two."

When it comes to the Big Three — and on This Is Us, it always does — a rivalry runs through it. Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) have frequently found themselves at fundamental odds, and the brothers have been gearing up for more conflict as they clashed over how to care for their mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who was in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s. Randall believed that Rebecca should participate in a promising clinical trial in St. Louis for nine months, while Kevin believed that he and his siblings should honor her wishes to decline and prioritize spending time with family.

In Tuesday’s season 4 finale, when Kevin learned that Randall had secretly pressured Rebecca into reversing course and agreeing to participate in the trial, Kevin started a fight for the ages — and well, he finished it, too. After Kevin confronted his brother, Randall uncorked some ugly words, telling him that Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) died ashamed of him, that he wasn’t even chasing Dad’s shadow but Randall’s, and that "you’ll never know what it’s like to devote yourself to anyone other than yourself. And you’ll pretend, but it’ll just be a performance, a tired stale performance, like all of your performances.” Kevin calmly returned fire, saying, “You know, I used to think the worst thing that happened to me was the day that Dad died. It’s the day they brought you home. Hand to God, Randall, the worst thing that ever happened to me was the day they brought you home.”

As if Kevin wasn't loaded up with enough drama on the first anniversary of his sobriety, the intermission of the fight included a revelation from Madison (Caitlin Thompson), who informed Kevin that she was pregnant (with twins!) from their one-night stand. (Viewers saw Kevin with two kids in the distant flash-forward — along with some hope when he put his arm around his brother by the bed of ailing Rebecca.)

What was it like to film the show’s most brutal fight — and, sure, the cologne ad? How did Randall's words impact Kevin's decision with Madison to go "all in"? Is there still hope for Kevin and Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge)? Fresh off his impressive season, Justin Hartley is ready to go deep on the Bash Brothers and much more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Well, that was darker than expected. The first thing that struck me was how neither Kevin nor Randall even raised their voice, yet it was by far their most devastating fight. What was your first reaction when you read that script and saw those words being hurled?

JUSTIN HARTLEY: I envisioned it like when you’re wielding a knife on someone and you can either stab them — like a violent stab, like a horror film — or you can just take the knife and slowly let it just go into the gut and just turn it really slowly. You know what I mean? That's what they were doing to each other. It was slow, painful, awful. What's worse? Rip the Band-Aid off or just take it off really, really, really, really, really slowly and watch the person suffer? I mean, it was bad. It was like, “I'm gonna say this. If I scream it at you, then you might think that I'm just reacting to something and I'm overreacting. But if I say it and I’m calm, now you know that this is what I actually think.” I mean, that’s some terrible s— they said to each other, you know?

Beyond terrible. And I like that metaphor. I remember Milo saying that while filming Jack and Rebecca’s fight in the season 1 finale, he and Mandy moved their director’s chairs farther apart than normal, and kept their distance from each other. What do you remember about filming that scene? How did you and Sterling handle it?

Well, I don't know what he's going to tell you because he's, like, Mr. Actor Professional. I’ll tell you the truth, though. He and I laugh our asses off. We hang out. We were joking the whole time, sitting side by side. He's one of my best friends. And so nothing changed. We ran the scene a couple of times just to get the words out. But I'm not what you call a Method actor; I can sort of dial into a scene right away. But it was so well written. I'm not the kind of person that would avoid him for an entire day. Our relationship is such that we were such close friends and we have such respect for each other that in that personal relationship that we have allows for us to trust each other on set and realize that whatever is said, wherever we go, my friendship with Sterling is the safety net, really. I can say whatever I want to him as Kevin.

We trust each other, and I know that I'm going to get everything that he has and he knows he's going to get every single thing that I have. And there's nothing that's going to be left out there. We're a couple of athletes, a couple of animals, and it was fun…. I had a blast. I mean, I didn't realize how fun it wasn't until it was over because I was exhausted while it was going on. But what a great way to send off season 4, huh?

You mentioned that you were cracking jokes. Any stick out to you that you can share?

I would say things to him like, “You do realize that Randall is totally manipulating the situation and is kind of a piece of s— right now. Right? You do realize that?” He's like, “Okay! Okay! Okay!” Then he would laugh and then he would say, “You know Kevin's been gone forever though, right?” I'm like, “Okay! All right! Well, we'll see what happens!” [Laughs]

What did you think about this being the issue that ultimately fractured Randall and Kevin? Obviously caring for a parent is very fraught and loaded situation, and can divide families.

It was great writing and a wonderful story to tell and it was relevant, and it's what actually happens in families. You have these moments where this is life from death, this is a defining moment, and we’re disagreeing and who has the power and who's the decision maker and who manipulated what and who lied to who. This is what families are, right?

 It all got talked about in that final fight. I always thought Kevin felt guilt for not being there, and that's kind of where it ended. But I didn't think about the fact that not only does he feel guilty for not being there, but he also feels like if he was there, his dad wouldn't have died that day. He wouldn’t have allowed that to happen. And maybe that is my fault for not reading as much into as I should have, but when I read that [in the script], I was like, “Oh. Oh, Jesus. Okay. So he's got this resentment towards his brother — the wrong guy was there. You didn't have the right man for the job.” That is a massive statement that he made. And he'd been holding on to that for years. So when he finally said it, he said, “Oh, are we finally gonna do this?  Right now. Really? Here it goes.” Then he just let him have it.

These two brothers said lacerating things that can’t be unsaid. Whose words will leave a greater wound on the other person here?

[Deep breath] Gosh. I'll be honest with you, I like to think that I'm a good person, but I've said some s— to people before that is hurtful, that is mean, that is nasty, that I hope they don't say, “Well, that defines his character,” because I think good people say s—y things sometimes. In the moment it's the things that are being said to you. And that's what fuels the things that you say in return. And then in your private moment afterward, when you're sitting down, I'm not sure it's the words that the person said to you that hurts so much as it is the words that you said to the other person to hurt them, to inflict that pain on them, that you sit with, that keep you up at night. So I think it depends on when you ask. In the moment, it's the words that were said to him, and then that night, Kevin probably sat there and was just thinking about the horrible s— that he said to his brother, and that's probably what kept him up at night.

I heard that the cast and crew were divided on who was in the wrong when you were filming these last few episodes. It’s the classic, “You care too much/you don’t care enough” and “I know what’s best for our mother” and “our mother has decided what’s best for herself.” I know you might have a horse in this race, but where did you personally land on this debate?

Well, Kevin’s. I don't know if I can separate myself from it. Just because of the nature of my job, really. I mean, I get the other side of it. I don't like the tactic that was used, but I definitely get it. It's very much like politics, isn't it? Throughout history, I've been able to look at our Presidents and be like, “I don't agree with their politics, but I know that what they're thinking is, ‘This is what's best for the country.’” I mean, until recently…. There's not a question in Kevin's head that this is what Randall thinks is best. It’s the way in which he got it done that he's struggling with. This is a manipulation. This is taking advantage of a situation. That's the problem that he had. Also, maybe it's because of the way that I would want things done if I started to have that kind of issue in my life, and I would say, “Well, there's this clinical trial” or “I just want to spend time with my daughter.” Call me an idiot, but, I don't know, nine months is a long time. But then: I spent weeks and weeks and weeks justifying Kevin's position so that I could go do this thing. So I don't know if I can be as objective as anyone else.

Things seem strained between the brothers in the distant future at first, but at the end, by their mother’s bedside, Kevin puts his arm around Randall. Was that meant to represent the extending of an olive branch — or was this part of an ongoing process of healing?  What can you hint about what happens to that relationship?

You know what the funny thing is? I don't totally know. But I took it to mean that the idea is that they always come back together as a family, and it might take a while, it might take a bit. But they're brothers this is not going to divide them until their deathbeds and they don't speak. That’s how I took it to mean. But I think it's going to take a while.

If Randall hadn’t re-engaged with Kevin, does Kevin’s conversation with Madison turn out differently, or does he just take more time to get there? It seemed like after those words that Randall landed, Kevin was resolute in proving that he wasn’t only consumed with himself, that he can be a true caretaker. How does that fight impact his decision making and psyche?

That's so funny that you said that. Because when I was reading the script over and over and over again, when I was sitting there preparing for all this stuff, that's the very thing that I kept asking myself. How much of this fight that happened, [Randall’s] coming back and saying the things that he said about [Kevin] only caring about himself, impacted what he went in and said to Madison? And was it, in fact, directly related to that, or what was he going to come to that resolution anyway and it just hastened it?

I don't know if I ever came to the conclusion [laughs], but I’d like to think that Kevin would have always come back to that decision. I don't know if it would have been that quick, although, knowing Kevin, I will say that he would have come in and said something reassuring. Maybe it would've happened that day, but it would've taken a little bit longer. Maybe his approach would have been to ask more questions and then reassure her as opposed to like coming in and saying, “This is my stand. This is where I'm at. This is what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. I'm all in.” I guess it impacted in the way that he did it. I don't know if it impacted his final decision, but that's a lot to hear. And the reason why it hurt so much is because Kevin is afraid that it might be true.

It appears that Kevin will be "all in" with Madison, for now. How did you feel about the choice of Madison, knowing that fans could be rooting for something else, including Sophie? Might this all be a red herring and he could get there?

It might be, and he could still get there. I mean, I love the idea that we write these stories where life doesn't always turn out the way that you planned it when you were 4. Things happen, every day, and it's like, “Well, I didn't see this happening.” And it's like, how do you adapt? How do you adjust? How do you live your life?

I just love the idea that Kevin has all this money, all this fame, all this notoriety, he's got everything figured out. And yet he's an alcoholic, a recovering addict, and he's got the fancy cars and all this kind of stuff. And yet he doesn't have a relationship with his dad because he died, and he’ll never have that. And he's got the love of his life that he was married to, that he cheated on twice, and now this woman is pregnant with his twins that he barely knows. It's incredible the journey this guy's taken. He's lived several lives in one lifetime so far, it's pretty incredible.

Remember when [creator] Dan Fogelman said he'd be nuts to let his wife sleep with Justin Hartley? Did you remind him of that?

Yeah. You know, some things you just can't help, man. Apparently she just couldn't stay away, I don't know. But he wrote her sleeping with Kevin, so I guess that's the difference. [Laughs]

Sure, that's the technicality. Kevin says, “The love of my life will be my child.” That’s a lovely sentiment, and it gives him new purpose and clarity, but it also felt like a pretty heartbreaking statement of resignation to make from someone eager to find a love story like his parents. It was very loaded and mixed. And also, I don’t believe him for a second. I believe he will find that.

Very loaded and mixed. I also think, though, that he's very self-aware and understands that this thing that he's searching for, he doesn't want to hurt anybody else in the process. He's hurt Sophie a few times. He's also had it; he had it in his hand and he let it go. So it's also one of those things where she says to him, “I don't expect any of you financially. I'll take the whole thing on myself,” and he's kind of letting her know, “I'm right there with you. I'm all in. I will dive in this with you.” But it's the responsible thing to say, because he's not like, “Well, I'm going to make myself fall in love with you and we're gonna become husband and wife.” He's not promising her anything that he doesn't think he can give her. So I think it's a very responsible adult reaction as well.

Could she possibly fill that romantic hole in his life down the road?

Certain circumstances lend themselves to people changing their minds or sort of rethinking things that they thought. And also, I mean, gosh, he didn't see this happening, right? He doesn't even know her. So just to say that he couldn't fall in love with her, he doesn't even know her. So I think that's definitely a possibility, for sure.

Kate [Chrissy Metz] and Miguel [Jon Huertas] were rather passive in this episode, which is the space where Miguel has been living. He's been on the sidelines and just letting the Big Three take over. Will they forced to be choose sides now that Randall and Kevin have just completely clashed and fractured?

Unfortunately when you do have that huge strife where you have one person taking one side and another person taking another side —  like a couple of bullheaded people — a lot of times families are forced to choose. I don't know. I mean, we saw Kate at the 40th birthday party, we didn't see Randall. So I don't know if Kate's splitting time or if she's making a choice, I would imagine that they're probably splitting time. And you'd have to talk to Dan, but I think Miguel is probably just more like… there for Rebecca.

The cologne ad where you show some nip. You’re a brave man, but you can back it up. What was that shoot like? Did you actually pose for that or did they Photoshop something together?

That is me, come on now! It was great. We have these two lovely models that came in and were very game, too. They were very gracious and understood the whole thing. It was really quick. It was really easy. And I thought it was a great sort of thing to showcase where Kevin is at in his life — his personal life and his professional life — and how totally different they are. I thought we nailed that one. Hopefully people will get a kick out of it.

It was a fun moment in an episode that was light on lightness. Viewers previously learned that Randall and Kevin aren’t talking at the 40th birthday party, and that Kevin has a pregnant fiancée at his 40th birthday party. What can you hint about where we'll pick back up?

We're going to find out more about the pregnancy and the twins and the mom and the morning sickness and the fiancée, and all that kind of stuff. We're going to find out more about this feud that Kevin and Randall are having. The health of their mom, how rapidly it’s deteriorating. And there's a whole Toby and Kate thing with the baby that goes on. The finale leaves a lot of questions… where you're like, “Oh God, where do they go now?” Just exploring more of the characters and getting more involved with the family and everyone's getting older now, so trying to figure all that out. I don't know how many times Kevin's going to be in the old makeup, hopefully not that many times. But we'll see.

Can you drop a finale clue about season 5 that will make us wonder what you meant?

Hmmm. I wonder if Kevin being all in with Madison is really that at all. I wonder if he's really all in with Madison. I wonder. I dunno.

And I wanted to ask you: How have you been coping with the coronavirus pandemic while housebound?

Listen, I haven’t budged. My dog is trained in everything but English now. She’s the most well-trained dog ever, this little puppy. And I'm turning this body into a piece of steel. All I do is work out and play with my dog and talk to my daughter.

Has there been any early talk about how this might impact production on season 5? I know you finished season 4 in the nick of time. The producers have said that  they’re hoping to start on time, but we’ll see.

We don’t know yet. I think we just all stay safe and stay responsible and healthy and we'll just see what happens. I mean, if they say we can go back to work in July, we'll go back. And if not, then we'll just wait until everything's okay.

Well, I'm glad that you've got everything under control and that you're working out hard, and it sounds like you’ll be ready for the next cologne ad shoot.

I'm ready for the next Marvel movie, buddy! Are you kidding me? I'm ready to go.

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This Is Us

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

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