This Is Us writers on Beth's dashed dreams and Kevin's crisis
Co-executive producer Kevin Falls and writer Jonny Gomez take us inside the pressure cooker that was 'The Music and the Mirror.'
All Beth ever needed was the music and the mirror and the chance to dance...
But it seems Beth's dance dreams are to be deferred once more, as this week's This Is Us, found her dance studio hobbled by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. An opening montage showcased the studio's slow demise, as the explosion of the virus led Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) to first convert to masked classes, then to Zoom dance sessions, and finally, to decide to close (though by episode's end, it's clear that though she did what she had to do, she won't forget what she did for love).
While Beth grappled with having to kiss her dreams goodbye a second time, things got real for the West Coast Pearsons too. Kevin (Justin Hartley) realized that his new movie left him with some "serious stink," only to discover he'd already stunk up the joint by walking off so many projects (see: The Manny, a Broadway play, and this film). But a chance virtual encounter with Zoe (Melanie Liburd) rattled him after she pointed out that his tendency to go along with whatever comes his way, acquiescing and making the best of what someone else wants.
Meanwhile, Madison (Caitlin Thompson) faced drama of her own while wedding gown shopping with Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore). When her dad canceled on her, Rebecca came to the rescue with a Jack Pearson-worthy speech. This precipitated a heartfelt moment between Kate and Rebecca, with Rebecca reminding Kate that while she wasn't always an "easy daughter,: she was always "easy to love."
But that joy might be short-lived because back at home, Toby (Chris Sullivan) and a pipe in their ceiling reached their breaking point. While Toby called in the big guns, a.k.a. his dad, to help him fix the leak, he reiterated his struggles with his new role as a stay-at-home parent and the loss of his identity alongside his job. Though his father urged him to be honest with Kate, Toby instead told her how easy the pipe was to fix, spackling up those feelings once again.
As Toby kept quiet about his own frustrations, Beth slow danced to some K-Ci and JoJo with Randall as she tried to decide what came next, and Kevin grabbed for the remote to assert his preference for once, only to be unable to reach it, thanks to sleeping babies and Madison. All of which left us wondering just when each of these Pearson pressure cookers might explode.
So, let's eat some dry Lucky Charms, try on a Björk dress, and stream some Bridgerton, er, make that The Great British Bake Off, as co-executive producer Kevin Falls and Jonny Gomez, who wrote the episode, help us face "The Music and The Mirror."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Beth is facing something a lot of small businesses and arts organizations have this past year, which is closing due to the economic impact of the pandemic. How did you decide you wanted to tell that story? And more specifically, how did you hit on this montage that really shows the slow erosion of Beth's dream?
JONNY GOMEZ: We knew from early on this season that we wanted to tell the story of Beth's dance studio. We didn't decide that it was going to have anything to do with COVID until we made the decision to bring that into our season storylines to begin with. When we had both of those in play, it changed how we thought of everything. Telling the story that so many people are going through right now — especially with the arts, and how it relates to COVID and the loss of business and the loss of patronage — it just felt like a natural story to tell. We've shown Beth in the future as being successful, but that doesn't mean that this was going to be successful. Dan early on had an idea of: What if we mirrored her dance studio, the rise and fall, with what we've already seen happened to Beth in the past as a teenager? What do you do with those dreams when you put all your eggs into this basket and then you can't dance anymore?
In the future, we know Beth does have a dance studio of some kind. Is this the end of the road for this studio — or might it have a second life? How complicated is the journey to that future point career-wise for her?
GOMEZ: It's going to be a similar answer if you ask anyone in the arts right now: what do you do from this point? There are really no easy answers. One of the things that we leaned into is that there is no clear-cut answer, there's no obvious, "She's going to do this and get this arts grant and everything's going to be okay." And it's also not as easy as just walking away. We see how hard it is for her to hang it up again. It's going to be a very complicated story for her going forward.
KEVIN FALLS: We've also baked it into the series that she does go there, so we do have a new plan in terms of how we're going to get her into that same place that you saw previously where she's looking over all those young dancers and running a successful studio.
So it sounds like the pandemic really changed the course of the dance-studio plot you might otherwise have had planned for Beth.
FALLS: COVID helped us with something that wasn't so much about Beth having that studio closed, but like Jonny said, everything else that was going on with small businesses. We really, really wanted to make it clear that there's no pity party going on. She's aware that she's not the only person going through this, and we didn't want the audience to go, "Oh, poor Beth." A lot of people suffered, and she says out loud, "No one feels sorry for me." She's keeping a stiff upper lip, but like everybody else who's going through this – they know they're not alone, but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt.
How did you choose the song that she and Randall dance to? Were there any alternate tunes there?
GOMEZ: We wanted something that was just very '90s, something that felt like teen Randall and Beth could play. Early on, I had that song ["All My Love"] in the script and was told, "Hey, let's get our director in and let's make sure that we leave it as open as possible." Because that was true for me in high school, and I have very specific feelings for that song, [but someone else might not]. So, we took it out and we just said "a '90s love song." Then it was kind of kismet; we had never mentioned a song we were thinking of, and Jessica Yu, who is just a fabulous director for us, goes, "I don't know if you've heard the song, but K-Ci and JoJo have..." I just started laughing. I was like, "Yes, let's do that song."
Kevin is also facing a crossroads. First off, it looks like his behavior on set is finally catching up with him. Why was now the time to address it? A lot of us have been wondering, "How many times can he quit or walk off a job without facing consequences?"
FALLS: We were starting to segue into what he wants to do. Does he want to stay an actor? Or is he looking for something more meaningful in life? Because it feels like he's been searching when he went looking for [Nicky]. He's looking for meaning, and as we were starting to break the story about Kevin, we started to realize that there was a pattern developing to Kevin's behavior. We thought actually now that he's walked off this third time, there might be a problem insuring him as an actor, because you can't depend on him staying on. Even though a lot of us see it as noble. So we just thought we might as well lean in to it.
GOMEZ: The scene at the talent agency feels very similar to the scene we had in the writers' room talking about it. "Was it really bad? Well, he did do this. Well, there were these extenuating circumstances. He also did this, and then he did this." It was like, "Oh God, Kevin has had a rough couple years."
How precarious a position is his career in right now? Will this precipitate a true fall from grace?
GOMEZ: It's one of those things where you see different people in Hollywood where you feel like their career might be over. Then you look at Iron Man, and it's like Robert Downey Jr. becomes a bigger star than he ever was before. Hollywood is one of those weird towns where [there is] a lot of taking you down, but they also love a redemption story. For Kevin, it's hard to say. His career is probably in a rough state, as evidenced by the scripts that he's getting right now. People aren't willing to take the risk that maybe they would have been. But I think he got to a point where he's realizing he cares about other things more than acting right now. He's got his own crossroads to decide on.
Zoe's compliments really seemed to shake him, with her remarks that he's pretty adaptable. Particularly when we see him give in to Madison's choice of TV show, but later reaching for the remote. What does this mean for him and for his relationship with Madison?
GOMEZ: We love the character of Zoe; we love the actress Melanie Liburd. You have those exes, you have those people that were in your life that can just cut through all the bulls---. We all have that ex who can just say the thing that rattles around in your brain — and they didn't mean anything by it, but it's like, "Wow, okay, I haven't seen you in a year and you still remember me better than most people know me." That was something that we talked about in the room: What would she say that would rattle Kevin's cage a little bit? What we came to is this feeling that he and Madison have been circling all season, which was they kind of got engaged, but then they kind of weren't and then he kind of proposed. And then he kind of didn't. They've been dancing around this all season, and with both of them, they both want it, but they're both afraid to admit what they want.
FALLS: Also as we move into the last few episodes and head toward a wedding, it's not unusual and it's not necessarily a bad thing to really re-evaluate your reasons for getting married. At least for me, I remember as the day closed in, I knew I was going to marry this woman, but I started to think, "Am I sure about this? This is a big leap. On paper. Till death do you part." They're both going through a little bit of that. Certainly that uncertainty feeds into speculation whether they'll get married or not, but it's also very true. Anything can happen, but we don't want this to be like, "Oh my god, they're not going to get married." No. It's simply they're re-examining all the reasons for getting married. We just wanted to go and really ground the reasons for why you move forward with somebody as you get close to D-Day.
Speaking of re-evaluating, though, we've seen his old flames in a previous episode. Might this trigger some re-connection with Sophie?
GOMEZ: Last season, we saw Kevin ask the universe to push him in a direction, and it took him through that whirlwind date and took him to Sophie's mom's funeral and it ultimately led him to Madison. I think what we're exploring with all of this is the people that have been involved in Kevin's life before are always going to be some part of his life. What he's grappling with is how much a part of his life are they going to stay as he's looking to his future. I think there's a lot of lessons that we can get from examining our past relationships as we move forward.
Toby's dad warns him of bottling up his feelings via a metaphor about the pressure of a broken pipe. But then Toby turns around and lies to Kate about how easy it was to fix. How soon might he burst — just like that pipe?
FALLS: Toby's father did not have success, as far as fixing the plumbing in his own house. So, he's actually speaking from experience. Toby strikes me as somebody who is going to do the best he can no matter what to stay married and work on his marriage. We've seen that in the past — that they do that. I presume that they will continue to do that, but whether it works or not remains to be seen.
Kate is finally fulfilled in her work, but Toby clearly can't stomach the stay-at-home dad life. Is he being selfish?
GOMEZ: It's tough because it's what he says to his dad — this is not what he signed up for, an image that he had in his head of being a primary worker and Kate signing on to be a stay-at-home parent. But we've seen it with a lot of people where jobs change and a different parent has to stay home. A different parent becomes the working parent sometimes. It's a perception shift that he's grappling with right now. This is not how he envisioned his life, and it's not how he's really lived his life. So I don't know if it's selfish; it definitely can come across that way depending on how he treats the situation. But I think it's also just grappling with the new status quo, and he and Kate frequently have difficulty communicating. We've seen that in the relationship. But I have hope for this couple; I really like this couple.
FALLS: You map out your life, and suddenly, you introduce something that you really didn't plan on. I think you're allowed to say out loud, and hopefully to your wife and your significant other, "This is hard for me. Let me get through it." Maybe it's starting to get selfish when you go, "Listen. This is something I want to do and I'm going to continue to do it because it's my pursuit of happiness and you want a happy spouse." Then I think you're starting to get into territory that may be a little bit selfish. But I don't think we've seen Toby do that yet.
GOMEZ: He's trying to allow Kate to have this but also knows that the money that she's making can't replace the money that he was making. They have some pretty major expenses in their life with a new house and a child with special needs. These are expensive things, and I think he's trying to keep all of that afloat.
Kate and Rebecca have a really wonderful heart-to-heart about Kate finding her joy and Rebecca finding her easy to love. We've watched their mother-daughter relationship grow and evolve so much these last few years. Is this a pinnacle for them? Is this as healed and whole as this relationship is going to be?
GOMEZ: It feels as healed as we've seen it. I don't know if it's as healed as it's ever going to be, but we very consciously wanted to build on Laura Kenar's beautiful episode from last year, where Kate and Rebecca went to the retreat and had that moment in the pool where you felt all the crap falling away from the relationship. I think we just love seeing an adult child and their parent reconcile. We've all had relationships with parents that are good, that are bad, that are all over the place and seeing that reconciliation late in life is something that affects a lot of people. We're all very happy with where Kate and Rebecca have got their relationship to.
But just to play devil's advocate, is any part of Kate jealous of the ease with which Rebecca mothers and supports Madison in the bridal shop?
FALLS: I think there's a tendency to put your best foot forward for a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law that might be coming into your life. The parenting you do for someone who's an in-law is different than what you'd do for somebody that you've known for 40 years. The nice generous thing that she did doesn't necessarily equate to parenting that you do with somebody who is your direct offspring. You're able to be nicer and sweeter in that moment. Sooner or later, Rebecca is going to be like every in-law.
GOMEZ: That's the growth too because if this were Kate from season 1 or season 2, I think you're right. She would have fallen into that jealousy and that frustration, but she's grown. She's grown past that and been able to look at this and appreciate Rebecca for exactly what that moment is.
Will we meet Madison's father? How much might he complicate things for her and Kevin?
FALLS: That's something that we've been circulating for some time because we haven't had anybody from Madison's side. We have one more season to go and a few more episodes to go. Anything can happen. There's a lot that we're starting to get to the end of now that we're talking about one more season. You only have so much real estate to tell your story and start to have to choose your stories wisely. It's the time where we have to service a lot of things. Some we will, and some we won't.
Can you tease the next episode?
FALLS: Who doesn't like a bachelor and a bachelorette party? These are two very, very unusual bachelor and bachelorette parties, like you've never seen before.
GOMEZ: Revelations will be made. Bachelor and bachelorette parties are just tricky things in general, and when you have this group of men and women, you're going to have a lot of fun. You're also going to have, in classic This Is Us style, a lot of emotional breakthrough.
FALLS: We guarantee nudity.
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This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.