Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker offers insights into the events of 'After the Fire' and tease the season 4 finale.

By Dan Snierson
March 17, 2020 at 10:01 PM EDT

This Is Us

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It's a big if. In fact, it's the biggest if that surrounds This Is Us. What if Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), a.k.a. SuperDad, hadn't died in the aftermath of the fire that claimed the Pearson home? Anxiety-riddled good son Randall (Sterling K. Brown) has been torturing himself with that idea for decades, lugging around unnecessary guilt that he should have done more to save his father from playing hero one too many times that night. Returning to therapy this week, Randall played out a storybook version of that scenario with the sharp Dr. Leigh (guest star Pamela Adlon). He explained how Rebecca (Mandy Moore) would have immediately revealed to him the truth about his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), that she kept from him, how Jack and William would have attended substance-abuse counseling together, how he would've been in William's life to catch the stomach cancer that claimed him, and Jack would have been around to help Randall help Rebecca fight the battle against a failing memory.

Dr. Leigh interrupted her patient, asking him to stop playing fantasy and open up about the version of that same scenario that he feared. In that exercise, he grew up estranged from his family, became a professor dating TA after TA, and never got to know William. Dr. Leigh would point out that in both versions, he imagined that Rebecca confessed the secret earlier on, leading the therapist to deduce that he had unresolved anger toward his mother. Randall processed that truth nugget and thanked her for her insight… and explained that he had already lost two parents and he wasn't eager for the trifecta, so he was going to let it go instead.

Well, not entirely. He used it — along with his status as the noble child — to pressure Rebecca to reverse her decision and agree to enroll in an Alzheimer's clinical trial in St. Louis. Carefree family time for Rebecca would have to wait, but for Randall, a brotherly clash with Kevin (Justin Hartley) would not. (See: next week's finale.) Let's put on a pair of cheap shoes, connect the dots, play some Connect 4, hop on the giant chessboard and, of course, wash our hands for 20 seconds before we call up This Is Us executive producers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker to delve into what happened "After the Fire."

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’ve seen flashes of the what-if-Jack-lived scenario before — Kate’s wedding dream, Randall imagining Jack and William laughing it up on the sofa — but what appealed to you about dedicating a full episode to that idea as Randall plays out an exercise in therapy? It’s an exploration of the ultimate question that has hung over the show’s characters throughout its run.

ISAAC APTAKER: When you have a family who's so defined by one tragedy and one day in their lives, as writers who have spend countless hours talking and thinking about these characters, it's only natural for our brains to go, “Well, I wonder what would it be like if that had panned out differently.” Especially for a character like Randall, who holds himself so responsible for his father's death. For him to be able to release that and then see all the good ways, but also the negative ways, that it would affect his life is just something that we've always been talking about wanting to do one day. And it felt like where we were in our season and where we were with him and his brother, him and Rebecca, and him in therapy, it gave us the perfect entry point into it that felt really organic to the serialized present-day stories.

We see the rosy version of the what-if scenario as well as the darker version. Which one wound up being more fun and intriguing and emotional to plan out?

ELIZABETH BERGER: The darker version was fascinating for all of us and so fun to talk about — while also being upsetting to talk about. [Laughs] But to get to see just a completely different version of Randall, and what that allowed Sterling as an actor, was so exciting for all of us because we really are seeing, to Sterling's credit, a completely different performance. And that was really thrilling — all of these seasons and episodes deep — to see a completely new side of him that is separate from anxiety and separate from Beth and his family and basically all of the things that have come to define his character. To see him shed them and perform it so brilliantly was both exciting to talk about and then even more exciting to see brought to its feet.

I’m still processing earring-wearing playboy Randall.

BERGER: Totally.

APTAKER: Kay [Oyegun] and Vera [Herbert] were our two writer-producers on the episode, so they were covering the set [during the filming of the episode]. We would be getting constant pictures and videos of the monitor: “Ahhh! He's getting someone who isn’t Beth!” “Ahhh! He has a weird mustache!”

Any interesting ideas in the writers' room that particularly pained you to cut?

BERGER: I think there were previous versions where Kevin was much more into cooking. [Laughs]

APTAKER: Oh yeah, that was a much bigger part of the world!

BERGER: There were whole monologues and passages devoted to Kevin's alternate life as a chef that didn’t quite make it in.

APTAKER: Not because we didn’t like it. We were just kind of like, “Wait, what are we doing?” I think it got too exciting for us to imagine what everyone's lives were like. And then at a certain point we had to look at the script and go, “Oh, we have 41 minutes here and we have to be responsible professionals who tell a story. We can't just fill in random details about everyone in our universe.”

BERGER: Right. We don’t totally believe that Randall has imagined an alternate world where Kevin is a chef. So that had to fall by the wayside.

Randall decides at the end of his therapy session to not follow Dr. Leigh’s lead and confront his mom about hiding the truth about William from him for 36 years. “I’ve already lost three parents,” he tells her. “I know that losing my mother would break me.” While it’s a heartbreaking thought, why is this binary for him? Isn’t there a scenario where he’s able to share his hurt and feelings, and they work to move past it?

APTAKER: Interesting. Yes, of course it is not really binary in the world. I think Randall is seeing it in a very specific way and he's just saying to the doctor, “I'm not going to go there. I'm not going to do that again, I don't think it's worth it for me. This isn't how I want to spend my time with her.”

BERGER: It's not even his priority right now to deal with her in that way. His number-one priority, the only thing he can think about, is getting her into that trial and doing everything in his power to help her stay well for as long as possible. At a different moments in life, maybe it would be time for a sensitive, deep dive into the past and what has transpired between the two of them. But right now all he cares about really is just getting her to that trial by any means necessary.

Randall did weaponize those feelings in a way, telling Rebecca, “I’ve been a good son. I’ve let things go. Things that were kept from me, never resented you because I knew it would be painful for you.” It gets results he wanted, but how unfair was is for Randall to guilt-trip her into this? Is that the biggest question you hope people are walking away from that scene and asking themselves?

BERGER: I think a lot of people would argue that it is a wildly unfair thing to do — to really emotionally manipulate the person you love the most into doing what you want them to do. I think Randall would argue he does not care. He just wants her to get better and he will do whatever it takes.

APTAKER: All is fair in love and elder care. [Laughs] … We intend for it to be very divisive. On set it was, at least. Half the people who are there making the show were in favor of what Randall was doing and how he was playing every card in his deck to get his mom to do what he wanted because they think he's trying to save her life, he’s trying to prolong her life. And then the other half of people were going, “That is so manipulative. How could he use that against her like that? She’s an adult who’s made it very clear what she wants and now he's making her do a total of 180.” And they found what he was doing to be very unpleasant and manipulative. So our intention and our hope is that people will really be divided on it.

While Randall did forgive Rebecca, he also did share his anger with her back in season 1, making for an awkward Thanksgiving. Is Dr. Leigh aware that he didn’t fully stuff it down and they have hashed it out to some extent? Is she possibly somewhat off-base and Randall’s a little right not to want to relitigate this?

BERGER: We definitely talked about that history between them and the confrontation and then Randall's forgiveness of her and what they went through. We all, as we dissected it, felt that it all happened very fast, and that even though there was a brief period of time where Randall was upset with his mother, at the end of the day, her being upset with him was too much for him to bear. And they repaired very quickly — probably more quickly than you would repair in real life. We all collectively felt that there was still so much going on below the surface on this issue that we probably lean towards Dr. Leigh being correct, that this has never been fully explored and fully repaired between mother and son.

Rebecca gives in to Randall’s request, even as she looks around and sees what she’s giving up with the family bonding time with Kevin, Kate, and baby Jack. Given that she’s being dragged into this, what kind of ramifications will that have on her — and her treatment?

APTAKER: That’s going to be a big question for season 5, because that's when we're going to really launch into that. But she's going into something not totally because she wants to but, like you said, because she's been manipulated. So that makes it a much more fraught departure and entry into this new city and this new world than it normally would have been otherwise. And she's really found a new connection with Kevin. She's enjoying being around her grandson every day. She's giving up a lot, so it's going to make it not an easy departure for her as she as moves into this new city.

I'm betting that Kevin will be none too pleased that Randall applied such pressure on Rebecca to get her into treatment. Are we at the inciting moment of the fight now?

BERGER: We are definitely close to the inciting moment. Kevin, of all people, will definitely have an extremely strong reaction to what Randall has done here, and we will be seeing that play out between our two brothers in the very near future.

APTAKER: Especially because Kevin was in that room in New York when she really made her feelings known and explained why she was so determined not to move to a city away from her family. Kate wasn't there — she didn't hear it right from her mom — but Kevin did. So he's going to have a really hard time accepting and understanding why she's made this sudden reversal.

Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) is proud of Randall for finally deciding to attend therapy. How might she respond to his choice with Rebecca, though?

APTAKER: She definitely has a reaction.

BERGER: She also knows her husband probably better than anyone else in the world, and to some extent knows when he's a runaway train. So she may have a reaction, but she may also realize that this is one that Randall's going to pursue his own way, no matter what she does. We'll be seeing her wrestle with that in the upcoming episode.

Before we talk about the finale, there have been lots of delays and cancellations as the coronavirus spreads. Can you walk us through how you finished filming the finale just in time?

APTAKER: We were so fortunate. Our heart goes out to all of the productions that have had to shut down. It's such an incredibly tough time for everyone, but also for this industry where people are jumping from job to job and working week to week. We were just really fortunate where our last day of our finale was right before we all realized how absolutely serious this was and how we all had to start staying home. So we were able to get our last day in just under the wire. Now we are on hiatus for the season. So we're all hoping that this gets resolved as quickly as possible and everyone's is so eager to go back to work. We’re scheduled to come back in the summer, so we have some time, and we're hoping we can stay on schedule.

And what's the premise of the finale?

APTAKER: It’s baby Jack's first birthday, and everybody is descending on L.A. for what's hopefully a happy celebration. But given that it's our season finale and our family, there will probably be some hiccups along the way.

How many timelines are we in — and will we see some new periods?

BERGER: We’re in a lot of timelines. We're all over the place in this one.

How much of a cliffhanger does the episode end on? Is it one where you’re answering some questions from the season but setting up a whole new set of questions?

APTAKER: Exactly. I think people are going to be really satisfied. What exactly happened between Kevin and Randall, we'll get to that by the end of the finale. And then we'll be throwing in some new questions that people won’t see coming, because how could they?

For much more from the This Is Us writers on Randall and Kevin's "upsetting" fracture, head over here.

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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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