This Is Us producers break down those 'difficult' dinners — and what that surprise visitor means
Co-executive producers Casey Johnson and David Windsor, plus director Ken Olin, offer insights into "I Got This."
If a Pearson ever invites you over for dinner, think twice before accepting. Or at least brace yourself for a hearty helping of tension.
In Tuesday's episode of This Is Us — which explored the lines of demarcation in familial relationships (and units) — Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Madison (Caitlin Thompson) were starting to get the hang of parenting their newborn twins, as were Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) with their adopted daughter. But when K&T went over K&M's place for some sushi and celebration, the meal didn't sit well with Toby, who'd just been laid off and found out at their house that he didn't get that much-wanted new job. Kevin kept offering to cushion the financial blow with his own "stupid" Hollywood movie — a gracious but perhaps poorly presented overture — Toby turned insecure and territorial, before later turning apologetic. Kate wound up taking a cue from Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and taking charge of their trying financial situation by taking a job at Jack's music school. Every C-note counts!
Across the country at another dinner table in another Pearson household, emotions were running hot. Carol (Phylicia Rashad) seemed to be overstaying her welcome with all her nitpicking, causing another confrontation between Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and her mother (which resolved in a way that will have Randall enjoying more quality time on the porch with his basil plant named Isaac). Adding to the chaos, Tess (Eris Baker) was frustrated that Beth kept forgetting to use the correct pronoun for her significant other, Alex (Presley Alexander), while Deja (Lyric Ross) was miffed that boyfriend Malik (Asante Blackk) has confided in Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and not her about the return of the mother of Malik's daughter.
Speaking of returns (and relatives): "I Got This" ended with Kevin pledging to focus on his nuclear family… only to open his front door and find Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne) standing there. Better set another place at the dinner table.
Let's dedicate an entire room to cereal, put juuust the right amount of Scotch bonnet peppers in the curry, grab a few IPAs out of the cooler, and throw some shade at Jennifer's Instagram before we check in with executive producer Ken Olin, who directed the episode, and co-executive producers Casey Johnson and David Windsor, who co-wrote it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This Is Us is known for its fair share of uncomfortable family dinners. We get two more in this episode. What appealed to you about telling the latest chapter of the Pearsons in this manner?
CASEY JOHNSON: We always knew we wanted to get to these two dinners that simultaneously explode. And then we had to go back and we called it "planting the bombs under the table"; we wanted to build the tension as we got to those dinners. From a writing standpoint, it was really interesting. We wanted to be subtle enough that you didn't see it coming, but not so subtle that it didn't feel earned. It was amazing to watch Ken work with the actors, too, to figure out how to build that tension but make it all feel very grounded at the same time.
DAVID WINDSOR: Strangely, somehow, the two episodes Casey and I have written for the show have had this big, tense dinner scenes. We did one last year in the past with the 18-year-old kids and Rebecca [season 4's "Storybook Love"]. We're becoming known as the difficult dinner scene writers. [Laughs] I don't know why that's happening.
CASEY: We have to figure out who hasn't had a difficult dinner, and we'll do that next season.
We'll look out for that. Toby has always been envious of Kate's relationship with Kevin and has explained how important it is for him to be her No. 1. Did Kevin accidentally trip a double wire with his generosity and movie-star privilege? Toby is feeling especially inadequate after being laid off, and here comes Kevin again — and this time he's got bags of "stupid" money to save the day!
WINDSOR: What's so interesting about that story line for us is that on Kevin's side, there was nothing but good intention there. And that scene where he says, "We're all a family," he really, truly believes that at his core. And as that character evolves and become a little less selfish now that he's engaged to Madison and he's got two little babies, his perspective on life is really changing. He's realizing that family really is important. And on the other side, Toby was feeling very insecure about where he is and his place in life right now. So it set itself up for a really good, tense moment that wasn't intentionally hurtful, but just sort of became that.
JOHNSON: One moment that I really loved that Chris Sullivan did so well was: "You guys are a family, and we are a family." That was a big moment for Kevin; as he says later, you think when you're growing up you're going to be with these people forever, but then you kind of splinter off into your own family. And that was very bittersweet to realize that you do kind of evolve into your own family, but especially for the Pearsons, they have this super-strong tie back to the original five. And the moment when Kevin makes Kate promise that she'll come to him, you saw the strength of that sibling bond that is still very, very present between the two of them. And it's an interesting conflict for Kate. "I'm so close to my brother, but I'm No. 1 with my husband as well."
KEN OLIN: I particularly love when our show de-sanctifies itself. There's certainly no malice or arrogance when Kevin does it, but we all know out there in the world that sense of Hollywood privilege and that there's a way that sometimes it does desensitize someone like Kevin to how much somebody else may be struggling. People know different kinds of families where your original family is the priority. And other people don't experience family that way: "No, wait a minute — I'm your family." But certainly the way that Kevin and Kate — or Jack [Milo Ventimiglia] — think about the Pearsons, that family comes first.
That is the family and will always be the family. Someone like Toby does not have that experience. I think those moments are really important to keep this show from becoming just self-referential. There are different sides to this. And these things would have come up one way or the other. And what I loved about this episode is, "Wow, we're not afraid to go there." We're talking about money. Money is big. Like Kate says in the kitchen, "Money. Wow." It's huge in families. And when there's that kind of disparity wealth disparity in a family, it's going to be complicated.
Finances are such a charged topic for families, and Kate gets the confidence from Rebecca to take the job at the music school. Toby ultimately assured Kate that he was cool with it. But will his insecurities get the best of him as he so badly wants to be the guy to save the day? He also has struggled with depression…
OLIN: I'd be surprised if it wasn't something. [Laughs] We still have a long ways to go.
JOHNSON: I don't want to give too much away where we're going in the next couple episodes, but it is going to be interesting to watch Kate going to her first day of work. It's a role reversal now, and Toby will be the one home with the kids. How did that feel for both of them? It's pros and cons on both sides, but it's certainly new territory that they've never been in in their marriage.
OLIN: We have all sorts of dynamics in our writers' families. For my generation, that was really complicated. And for some people probably, it's not as complicated, and I think for some people it still is. There's still traditional role models, but also there's self-esteem issues. And we've seen for Toby just in this episode, it's complicated. I mean, he does take pride in his professional achievements, and that's shifting. So that's going to be another area that's going to be complicated. And we're going to go there really soon.
Over the seasons, viewers have seen that while Jack was SuperDad, Rebecca was wearing her superhero costume under her normal clothes. That is touched on again in the flashbacks in this episode, as Rebecca took control of the family's finances, and in present day, she inspires her daughter to take action. Was that scene in which Kate called Rebecca to thank her for strong, silent service also another chance to show how far their once-fraught relationship has come?
WINDSOR: Absolutely. What was really satisfying for us with thinking about how to show that realization for Kate after everything that she has gone through, like, "Wow, Dad really was the hero in our lives, but all of a sudden I'm realizing Mom was doing so much of her own hero work." Having her realize that was a really great opportunity to bring them closer and heal whatever fractures were going on between them.
JOHNSON: Also we were interested in telling the generational story between how Rebecca fit into her household and now, what's Kate's role going to be in her own? And how that shifts and how she got that encouragement from her mom. Because of that phone call, she's able to take a leap and try something different. That came out of a lot of conversations in the writers' room, with some of the women writers, talking about the differences between their moms' experiences and their own experiences, and how many things have changed within one generation.
Jack was under a lot of pressure to support his new family. How much of that pressure is also proving something to his dad as well as Rebecca's dad?
WINDSOR: [We wanted to be] able to go back and see the beginnings of Jack making the transition from being a foreman and a worker to trying to get to the next level. We have shown him struggling to trying to prove himself to Rebecca's dad and get away from his own father. And this is the beginning of that and watching that be uncomfortable for him. This guy who's very confident in who he is — it was really interesting seeing him not be that person for the first time and admit, "I was really out of my league in this moment." It was a very vulnerable moment for Jack, and it was fun to write.
JOHNSON: I liked seeing the beginning of the path where Jack realized the responsibility he had. And it was neat to tell it in the first moment of those three babies being home and this new responsibility that he's facing. And we kind of had shown that throughout the show, of how he wanted to take a leap and start Big Three Construction, but he was always kind of bound by that responsibility of those three kids. This was kind of the origin of that part of the story.
Just as Kevin told Madison that he was excited to focus on their nuclear unit, Uncle Nicky shows up. We'll learn more about why he's there, but how is Nicky doing these days?
JOHNSON: I will say the next episode is Uncle Nicky-centric. And we're going to find out what happened not only on his journey to Kevin's doorstep, but also learn more about him in the past.
WINDSOR: One thing I will say is that he's obviously doing well enough that he was able to get to them. Whether that was an easy journey or not, we'll see next week.
Is he looking to stay a longer or shorter amount of time than Mama C will be at Randall and Beth's place?
WINDSOR: I think that one might be under wraps. Sorry.
What's one cryptic clue about next week's Nicky-centric episode that you can drop?
OLIN: Nicky is not a virgin. [Laughs]
WINDSOR: Snow globes. That's our Rosebud.
JOHNSON: We're going to see Nicky in the weeks leading up to the trip. We're also going to go back into the past and perhaps find out what happened to him and how he ended up at his trailer.
Kevin is consumed with the idea of creating this idyllic full-extended-family compound. Does that very cool house in the flash-forward somewhat fulfill maybe a partial version of what he was pining for?
OLIN: The totality of that house — meaning who lives there, and the story of how we get there — I think it probably does in some way represent an arrival for him.
JOHNSON: It's not going to be as simple as Kevin is envisioning it now. I think that's part of what this episode starts. He's got this idealized version of them all living in a compound together and everyone getting along great, and the truth is never what you think is going to be at the beginning. It takes its own path.
Let's head over to Beth and Randall's house. Mama C will be sticking around a little longer, as Beth comes to see that her mother is actually lonely and that it's nice to have her side of the family around for once. Will the story focus on how Randall needs to make accommodations for Beth, as she often does for him? How does the family dynamic start to shift in coming weeks?
JOHNSON: We have a really interesting Beth episode coming up in the pipeline, where we're going to delve into how it's been for her during this past year. Being a small-business owner and trying to balance everything in her life. And this episode was a nice opening into getting into more of her stories. Having her mom around for some of this part of her life — the transition in this episode from Beth thinking her mom is judging her and they're in their same pattern that they've been in their whole lives and then realizing that their relationship has changed and she's actually in a position to help her mom — is part of that overall Beth growth of: Where is she in life right now? Her kids are older, they're doing more for themselves. What's her role going forward? We're going to get into a little of that.
Are we about to meet Jennifer? And what kind of pressure might that put on Deja's relationship with Malik?
WINDSOR: What I will say is that the pressure that is on them is a very unique situation that the two teenage kids find themselves — most grown-ups have a difficult time navigating, much less a 15-year-old. [Laughs] And yet the two of them handle it in a very mature poised way. We're so lucky to have Lyric and Asante play these very interesting, complex, mature kids. And that's scene at the end between Randall and Deja out on the patio, he realizes, "You're not a grown-up. You're still, at the end of the day, a 15-year-old in love with a boy. I forget about that because you're so mature." I think that dynamic of their relationship will continue to create good, meaty stories for us.
Was the point of this episode to signal that you are about to show the descent of one man into madness with his basil plants?
WINDSOR: It's not really This Is Us. It's going to be called This Is Madness.
JOHNSON: There was even a little bit more with his basil that we had to cut for time! So maybe we just do an episode about Randall and his basil. I'll pitch it.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.