This Is Us producers break down the Big Three's big decision about Rebecca
- TV Show
Warning: This story contains plot details from Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, "Family Meeting."
Just one episode after the death of Miguel, the Big Three turned their attention to his surviving spouse and the highest-ranking member of the Pearson family. She was in need of it. And they needed to figure out the best way to repay.
Tuesday's installment of This Is Us, titled "Family Meeting," showcases two very different Rebecca Pearsons (Mandy Moore). In the past story line, viewers are reacquainted with the young mother who was tripping over her superhero cape to raise the Big Three the best she could. (Yes, sometimes Super Dad Jack slept in and she was left to go it alone.) Rebecca is seen waking up at ungodly hours, coddling crying babies, signing permission slips, setting up tooth fairy traps, dismantling tooth fairy fears, and after Jack was gone, giving self-worth pep talks and doing her best to hold this family together. Contrast that with the future Rebecca: her three grown children are coming to terms with how to do right by the old woman in front of them, sparkle faded, at times listless and detached from everything around her. At other times, she's confused and disoriented as she calls out in distress for her late husband (not Milo Ventimiglia's Jack but Jon Huertas' Miguel). "That's not our mom," observes Randall (Sterling K. Brown). "Our mother was magic."
And as the Big Three huddle over too much Chinese food at the family mecca to discuss her declining health — while Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge), and Phillip (Chris Geere) hole up in the old family cabin, at a safe distance — familiar familial dynamics resurface. Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall clash over her care: Randall wants to bring their mother back to Philadelphia, even though he's overwhelmed with Senatorial duties in D.C., while Kevin wants her to stay in this remote Pennsylvania house that she had asked him years ago to build.
Meanwhile, Kate (Chrissy Metz) — you know, the sibling who was actually appointed by Rebecca as her health care proxy — all but recedes into the bushes, passive if not paralyzed. But after a phone call to her ex, Toby (Chris Sullivan), who reminds her that Rebecca had tapped her as the decision maker for a reason, Kate finds her mojo. She shows her brothers how to actually be present with Rebecca — look her in the eye! touch her! — and then announces that she will take Rebecca back with her to L.A. At the last minute, though, Kevin proposes a new idea: He and Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) move into the family house to assist the full-time aide. At last, a plan. Bearer of family burdens, Randall realizes that his brother and sister have grown out of the boxes in which he'd placed them. And so time rolls on in the new era, until one day Kevin calls Randall with a grim directive: Return to the family mecca. Mom's about to die.
Let's shake off those Gremlins nightmares, crank up two-thirds of Hanson, dab on some Tommy Girl perfume, and pass the therapy cat to executive producers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, who wrote the episode. Here, the duo offer insights into the critical "Family Meeting" that felt a bit like a play, how Kevin came to be the caretaker, the looming end for Rebecca, the tooth fairy, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Coming off the life-of-Miguel episode, which ended bittersweetly with his death at a reasonably old age, viewers finish an episode with Rebecca very close to dying. Why are you so mean? Just tell us now, do you plan to kill off the rest of the Pearsons in a hyperloop crash in the distant future?
ISAAC APTAKER: [Laughs] I will say [the Miguel episode] certainly is sad. I do think that it's the best way to go. We're all gonna pass, and Miguel made peace with his own family. He's surrounded by the Pearson family, who were also his family. It's a lovely way to go. So as emotional as that is, that's as good as it gets, folks. So I do hope people do see the lightness there.
What were the discussions in the writers' room like when it came to stacking so much heartbreak at the end of the show? Of course, the show loves to balance the dark with the light. And therapy cat is doing a lot of work here.
APTAKER: Therapy cat! Elizabeth wrote that scene and when I first read it, I was like, "What? This is the weirdest thing she's ever written, that she would make up an Alzheimer's therapy cat. In no way did I ever believe that this was a real thing. And then she sent me a link to this website she had found — a medical Alzheimer's-focused store. And this is an absolute real thing that is supposed to be very helpful to people with Alzheimer's.
ELIZABETH BERGER: I will say we spoke obsessively this season in the writers' room — probably more than we discussed anything else — about how are we balancing sadness with joy and uplift in our final chunk of episodes? And it definitely was a huge priority for us. So we've done our best, and we hope that people feel that as they watch.
This episode juxtaposed young Rebecca — a woman with so much energy and sparkle who handles so much for her family — with old Rebecca, the life drained out of her, lost without her husband. Did you set out to show how much this disease can ravage a person, but soften the blow by revisiting young Rebecca, and also show how the Big Three want to do right by this mother who was always there for them?
BERGER: We attempted to do all those things that you just said — and also to highlight what this is like for her grown children, who are people that experienced this incredibly magical, beautiful version of her. Obviously, it's the most heartbreaking thing in the world to see a person that you once knew existing in a state that doesn't feel like them at all. That's what they're all grappling with in this episode. And that's what specifically Randall and Kevin are struggling with, that their mother is still alive, but the version of their mother that they grew up with is not. How do you come to terms with that? How do you lean into that experience and find beauty and grace in it?
The show has delved so deeply into how Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, and it impacts the entire family. You're not cheating here. And this episode explores more details of care management, acceptance, and how family members respond in the time of crisis. What has continued to intrigue you about exploring that process?
APTAKER: It's something that most of us — not necessarily with Alzheimer's — but most of us will go through caring for an older parent and an uncle, whatever, a loved one. Certainly many people in our writers' room have stories that speak very, very specifically to this. And it's a story that, as universal as it is, we don't feel like it's been widely told. And then it very much taps into the themes of the show of parents and children, and generations carrying things forward, and paying back the love you were given. So it all feels very coherent to what the show is about, and we just feel like it's an under-told, universal experience.
BERGER: And once we committed to telling an Alzheimer's story, which was a big decision, we all talked at length —
APTAKER: — endlessly! [Laughs.]
BERGER: — as to whether we could and should take this on. Once we did decide to do it, it was very important to us to do it authentically and to not tell the romantic television version of it, but to tell a version that would ring true to people who experienced it and are watching at home. Once we decided to take it on, we really committed to hopefully telling it as truthfully as possible.
Was that one of the tougher decisions to have Rebecca's arc end like this, that this would be a big, final chapter you'd tell in this epic family story? You mentioned the writers talked at length, but what were those discussions like?
BERGER: I will be the first to admit that I was worried that it was just too sad. We went back and forth on this a lot, and Dan [Fogelman, the show's creator] really felt that it was so organic to a show about memory for Rebecca to go on this journey. Once we committed to it and once we dove in and started breaking it, I think it did prove to be the right decision for the show. We do feel that it has taken the show to really beautiful, fascinating territory, and we're glad we did it. But it was definitely one of those that we had long, intense debates about — and then we all leaned in hard and did the best we could with it.
Siblings have their own language and rhythm, and that's really comforting. The problem is they also fall right back into old patterns, which this episode explores. Clearly these characters have evolved and progressed so much since the beginning of the series, which Randall comes to see, but are childhood familial dynamics one of the most powerful forces on Earth?
APTAKER: Oh, totally. It's so hard for people to change. It may be even harder for others to realize that they've changed when you've known them your whole lives. So much of this episode is about Randall not seeing Kevin and Kate for who they are, but seeing them for who they were. And it's really not until he has that scene outside with Beth, where she forces him to recontextualize his brother and sister and realize Kevin is not the screw-up drunk that you grew up with, or the shallow, womanizing actor that you spent your early adulthood with. He's come into his own, and he's a substantial man who can take on this responsibility. It takes Randall a minute to see that.
Can you walk us through the calculus of how you decided that Kevin would be the one responsible for Rebecca's care? He feels this burden for how he made life difficult for his mom in earlier years, and views this almost as a karmic opportunity to pay her back. If he felt guilt for not being around when Jack died, he can be here for Rebecca.
BERGER: Kevin probably started the series the most selfish of our siblings, and the one that was most living just for himself and making decisions moment to moment and not thinking too much of how it impacted other people. We really feel like he's grown and changed so tremendously. Even though sometimes he would backslide and sometimes he would self-sabotage, he's come a really, really long way. This decision felt like a culmination of that journey. So much of the series has been about all of the ways that Randall picked up the burdens and carried the weight in his family, and to get to a place where he's able to peacefully pass the torch, in this case, to Kevin, and know that his brother can handle it — that felt just like a beautiful place to end their brother story as well. They've gotten to a place where Kevin can handle this and wants to handle it, and Randall can feel that and accept it.
Kate is very passive in these family discussions — and when she finally is prompted to assert herself, she teaches them about being present for Rebecca, and she pitches her plan to move Rebecca to L.A. Is it worth noting that when she finally plants her flag, Kevin says, "Okay, here's another idea"?
APTAKER: Yes. Honestly, we really did talk about that a lot — and we hope it doesn't feel that way too much. What we came to the idea of is: Kate has a plan because no one is willing to step up and make this sacrifice that Kevin ultimately is willing to do. And he is only really able to get to that place and do that because Kate unlocks him and says, "Guys, here's what I need from you. I need you to be able to touch her. I need you to be able to look at her." And only upon doing that is she releasing Kevin to realize what he actually is capable of. So it all does go back to Kate, even though her logistical plan is usurped.
What conversations did you have with Mandy about bringing this specific era of Rebecca to life? She seems so lost without Miguel, and losing a partner can accelerate the decline.
BERGER: Mandy was so committed to telling a truthful interpretation of someone going through this disease at this stage. Honestly, we didn't have to have many conversations with her, because she was doing her research. She was consulting with doctors. She was reading nonstop. We were just all on the same page because we were all doing that research about what this stage looked like. Then just through sheer talent and hard work, she really brought it to life. We think it's such a brilliant performance. She does this thing that blows me away where you aren't totally sure at any moment who she's recognizing and whether or not she's fully understanding who even her children are in each scene. But she does it in a way that feels so authentic and effortless that you just truly believe that that is the mental state that she's navigating as she walks from room to room in this episode.
When Rebecca takes the pregnancy test, and she and Jack talk about how it's just one tiny little baby — "It's the two of us, we can do this," you laugh, knowing that the road ahead raising three kids of the same age will be overwhelming. Does the math even out the other way with three kids who will be there later to form this team to help the lone parent here? As Kate said, there's a reason that there were three of them.
BERGER: We loved that serendipity, or fate, of it — that in the end, they were faced with a parent that has a disease that's so massive and takes so much energy and emotion and time to deal with, and the idea that you don't have to do it alone because you have two other siblings felt really, really beautiful to us.
When Rebecca whispers in young Randall's ear about the tooth fairy, did she tell him that not only is the tooth fairy not real, but then ruined Christmas and Easter too?
APTAKER: No, she didn't. That is so funny, because I was like, "I wonder what she's whispering to him." So I put her on my headphones just to try to hear that part. And she was whispering, "I'm telling you a secret right now. Act really surprised." [Laughs] So we did not ruin our sweet young actors.
BERGER: You're touching upon something we discussed in the writers' room, where there were versions of that scene where we see her say out loud that the tooth fairy isn't real. And we decided: Should there be any children awake watching this with their parents, we simply could not do that to them. So we've protected the kids at home, the kids on set — we did our best to not ruin the tooth fairy for anyone. [Laughs]
How is Beth adjusting to her new Other Big Three group, given that Sophie and Phillip have replaced Toby (Chris Sullivan) and Miguel (Jon Huertas)?
APTAKER: This was intentionally reminiscent of that other Big Three episode we did, which we all thought was so fun. In the spirit of not making this episode too sad, our secret weapon is always Susan. She's just so funny. Her, Phillip, and Sophie have such an incredible dynamic — I love the hazing and indoctrinating the new guy and showing him the ropes and the telling-it-like-it-is dynamic that forms between him and these two women who really have — for better and for worse — been a part of the Pearson extended family for decades.
Susan and Alexandra nailed that role play as Randall and Kevin.
BERGER: They really did. And they were both very much enjoying themselves.
The episode ends with Kevin calling Randall and saying, "Get here as soon as you can. It won't be long now." Viewers don't see Kevin call Kate, but they know she's alive because they've seen her deeper into the future. Any hints as to where she's coming from and how this mystery will resolve itself next week?
APTAKER: I don't want to give any hints, but that will all be addressed in the next episode, immediately.
Elizabeth, would you like to be equally as cryptic?
BERGER: We've been very purposeful on showing who has already arrived to the house in flashes that we've shown so far. So if we haven't shown someone, that probably means that there's a story to be told. And we will be telling it over the next two episodes.
Then you'll love this next question: Exactly how nigh is the end for Rebecca? We've got two episodes left, and at the end of this episode, things are happening fast.
APTAKER: I don't think you summon your entire family from their big political jobs and their lives across the country, unless you're pretty sure that that the end is very imminent. So this is certainly everyone gathering to say their final goodbyes.
What's one more hint you can give about this episode, which is titled "The Train"?
APTAKER: There's a train in it.
BERGER: There might be some really exciting cameos in it that people will find satisfying and exciting.
APTAKER: If they don't, they don't like the show.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Say goodbye to the Pearsons with EW's special This Is Us edition, available to purchase online or wherever magazines are sold.
- This Is Us star Jon Huertas breaks down that Miguel bittersweet episode — and his fate
- This Is Us stars celebrate — and mourn — the final day of filming
- This Is Us star Chris Sullivan on why Toby & Kate didn't make it — and why that's okay
- This Is Us star Justin Hartley says not everyone will be happy with Kevin's ending, but...
- This Is Us stars, creator reveal the 14 spin-offs they'd love to see