This Is Us producers break down Randall and Kevin's growing divide: 'It is quite upsetting'
Warning: This story contains plot details from Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, titled "New York, New York, New York."
New York, New York, it's a helluva dramatic town. And once again, it served as the backdrop for simmering tensions between the two Pearson brothers not named Jack and Nicky. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) have experienced more ups and downs in their sibling relationship than an Empire State Building elevator, and as evidenced by the three Pearson trips over three different decades to the Big Apple in Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, you should hold on tight, because the ride is far from over.
The most intense visit took place in the present, after the Big Three video-chatted about the care for their ailing mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore). Randall brought to his siblings an opportunity to get Rebecca into an Alzheimer's clinical trial, which Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin agreed to, the latter rather tentatively. The dutiful son headed up to New York to discuss the opportunity with his mother, who had flown in to attend Kevin's big movie premiere, but Kevin, wanting to give his mother one night of happiness, talked Randall into putting it off until the morning. And so the three of them proceeded to have a night to remember with zero family turmoil… is definitely not what happened next. When Kevin slipped away from a moment at the premiere and Rebecca had a brief memory lapse, Randall couldn't help himself, stepping in and mentioning the clinical trial, which she would reject. Kevin spotted his brother breaking their wait-till-tomorrow-agreement and confronted him, while Rebecca abruptly excused herself and slipped away to the Met to catch up on some unfinished business. (As hinted at in the past story lines — which included Dave Annable playing Kevin's acting teacher with an interest in Rebecca — the Pearson matriarch simply wanted to be able to luxuriate in front of "Portrait of Madame X.") Tensions between the brothers abated briefly when they joined forces to track her down at the museum, where the trio shared a contemplative moment. But at the end of that night, their divide widened as the duo clashed again over their mother's care plan (and the impact of Jack's death), with Kevin walking away and Randall poignantly and futilely replaying the fiery trauma of his past with a rosier outcome.
What does this latest contretemps mean for Randall and Kevin? Is Rebecca jeopardizing her own care? And where is Seth Meyers when you need him? Let's grab a hot pretzel, get kicked out of a restaurant after a four-martini lunch, make fun of Dawson's Creek, stop fighting this feeling and just order $967 of room service under the names of This Is Us executive producers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, who are ready to answer questions about "New York, New York, New York."
Kevin and Randall have a dubious history on the streets of New York. When it came to that last scene, did you think about adding in Seth Meyers at the last minute walking by, shaking his head, and saying, "Oh, no, here they go again"?
ISAAC APTAKER: We almost gave Jimmy Fallon a chance to break up the brothers' fight, but he was unavailable, unfortunately.
One can never quite shake the issues and baggage from one's past, as this series has shown. How much are they clouding the way that Randall and Kevin are tackling a very complex issue — Rebecca's care — in the present?
ELIZABETH BERGER: Whenever Randall and Kevin are involved, they're bringing their entire history to the table, and unfortunately, like you said, it's a history that seems to follow them everywhere. They'll make great strides, they'll get along famously, but as soon as something scratches familiar territory for them, it just all comes bubbling to the surface. Obviously we're seeing that in a big way with this episode, and with what Rebecca's illness is bringing out in the both of them.
APTAKER: That was one for our writers' room that felt like a really common thread when we talked about, "What are the things that trigger the biggest fights for siblings and for families?" Once it comes to the care of parents, people just feel so strongly that they know what's best for a loved one, particularly a parent, and that can lead to such tense, fraught confrontation.
There's a powerful moment in that final conversation after Randall asks Kevin if he ever wonders if things would have turned out different if Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) hadn't gone back in the house for the dog. When Kevin responds, "No, I don't, Randall, do you?," Randall says: "Every single day." How far down the rabbit hole has Randall been going? Based on that what-if moment we see Randall play out with Jack, does he feel haunted that he should have exerted more control over that situation and now he's overcompensating with his mother and making sure he does everything in his power to save her?
APTAKER: That's exactly right. We have to remember that, for Kevin, he wasn't actually physically there for the fire and for those moments. So he has a whole different kind of pain and resentment when it comes to that night. But for Randall, he was standing right there, and as someone who sees themselves as able to save people and fix problems, he can't help but relive it over and over and over and wonder, "What if I had just behaved a little differently? What if I had just demanded he get down from that roof?" So it's a different kind of excruciating torture that Randall puts himself through.
BERGER: It's interesting because in series a lot of the times, he comes across like the sibling that's actually at the most peace with his father's death. We haven't seen him struggle with it the same way that we've seen Kevin and Kate struggle with it. But if you think about Randall and his control issues and how much he wants to save everyone around him that he cares for, it makes sense that there's so much brewing beneath the surface, and that this isn't something that he's necessarily come to terms with in the way that he's projecting. So, yeah, we are excited to explore that in the immediate future.
Given that Randall brings up the "what if Dad didn't go back for the dog" scenario to Kevin, does he have unresolved anger at Kate that needs to explored, even though it's not her fault?
APTAKER: Interesting. I don't think so, because Randall is someone who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and I don't think it would ever occur to him that Kate shouldn't have asked him to go in there, or Kate should have stepped up and said, "Never mind." I think he always goes to blaming himself first and holding himself responsible first, so I think it's much more his self-flagellating than it is blaming his sister.
That last scene is another key alternate-universe what-if moment with Jack. My question is not why do you like to torture us, though feel free to answer that too — I'm wondering how much time is spent in the writers' room talking about the sliding-doors world where Jack is alive, and which problems may or may not still plague our various Pearsons even if he were around?
APTAKER: We'd spend quite a lot of time talking about it and thinking about it, and that's actually something of the basis of where we're going to be headed. The end of this episode teases a really cool, special one coming up next week where we explore a bit of what life may have looked like had Randall acted differently in those moments.
Does Randall have the necessary bandwidth right now to handle this quickly widening fracture with Kevin?
BERGER: Randall has been in a fragile emotional state as of late and it feels like he is on a good path, that he's finally started the therapy. But he is still under a tremendous amount of stress. He's obviously still devastated about what's going on with his mom, and he and Kevin have really come to rely on each other over the last couple years, and it would be heartbreaking for both of them if a real distance was to occur here.
We were just shown a crack in the relationship that leads to the fracture that we saw at their 40th birthday. How much more cracking will we see? How much worse is it going to get?
APTAKER: [Laughs] Oh, it's going to get worse. That fight that you saw wasn't quite an "Oh, we're not talking months from now" fight, but I promise they will get there. It is quite upsetting.
Of course Kevin and Randall have genuine concern for Rebecca, but how much of a turf war do we have here, where Randall feels that Kevin is encroaching on his role as guardian?
BERGER: Randall definitely feels that way. He's made it perfectly clear by now that he feels like a tremendous burden was placed on his shoulders when Jack died and that he had no choice to step up and become the man of the family, and that Kevin was extremely absent during this period. So for Kevin to suddenly have very strong opinions about his mother's care when he has not been particularly hands-on over the last couple of decades, it's definitely wearing at him and he's definitely finding it kind of maddening, which is definitely adding to the simmering tension here.
This semi-showdown between them was suffused with the conflict of too much grief/worry (Randall) versus not enough (Kevin). In the writers' room, whom did the majority of the writers side with? Did you talk a lot about whose approach was more harmful?
BERGER: We all feel like people are going to have very strong feelings about the way both brothers behave in these coming episodes. When people really are feeling passionately about a loved one, they can make surprising, sometimes controversial decisions. So it definitely led to a lot of conversation, but I don't want to give too much away about what brother does what, but we expect both to have strong feelings in the coming weeks.
APTAKER: We knew we were in the right zone because this plays out over our remaining two episodes. But these last two are very much about the fracture between the brothers, their difference of opinion on how to care for Rebecca. And when we were on set shooting all these scenes, we had pretty much 50-50: Half the crew were nodding along with Randall and half of them were like, "Oh no, Kevin's right. How could Randall do this?" So we really try to live in those gray areas, where you can see both sides. And we know when our own production team is split, we're in good shape. [Laughs]
A set divided! I like it. Randall is excited about the possibility of this Alzheimer's clinical trial at Washington University, which Rebecca nixes. There will surely be more discussions about courses of treatment. Given how much Rebecca lights up and her synapses fire when she's listening to music, I'm wondering if we might see the family go down the course of music therapy, which is being explored in treatment for Alzheimer's patients?
APTAKER: Yeah, that's something that we've definitely talked about. A good friend of mine's father, who had a really aggressive progressing Alzheimer's until the very end, was able to live in these old memories and remember lyrics to songs, and it was a huge lifeline for them. So given Rebecca's proclivity for it to begin with, it definitely seems like something that would be an organic fit. But that's a bit more down the line once she progresses.
Randall goes back on his word twice, in bringing up the clinical trial to Rebecca that night when he told Kevin he would wait until morning, and then when he starts to press her after she rejects it, after he told Kevin that he would leave it up to her. He's clearly in the wrong for the first part, but does he have any wiggle room on the other part if he feels that Rebecca is being too careless with her health because she wants to make up for lost time? This is fairly early on in her illness, so Rebecca is mostly of sound mind, but at what point does the patient not have full agency over her own care?
BERGER: It's really complicated. Rebecca is definitely in her sound mind right now and at a point where she has agency over her decisions. That being said, so many family members who love someone really feel deeply like they know what's best for them and they absolutely have a leg to stand on because who knows that this could help her if she goes through it and they could get X number of great years with her that they wouldn't otherwise get? But at the end of the day, you have to come back to, but what does the person want? If Rebecca feels like she would do better surrounded by her loved ones, listening to her grandkids laugh, that also is a valid argument. So like Isaac said, we like to live in those gray areas where you really could see both sides of this and there is no right answer, really. Which makes it extra-maddening for everyone.
This episode saw Rebecca sublimating her desires for her family's in two past timelines. And in the present day, she bailed on the premiere to fit it in her Met dream. Is that a big theme for Rebecca moving forward — she wants to make the most of not only the time she has left, but of the time she never got to have, the next times?
APTAKER: Absolutely. She's a woman who, after her husband died, had such a hard time bouncing back and spent so many years of her life in great pain. And now looking back, she's realized how precious and how finite it all is, and she's determined to make the most of every moment. Which is why even though some people would say, "It's only nine months, then maybe it results in this great progression in your mental well-being," she's also saying, "That's nine months that I won't be spending with my new grandson, that I won't be enjoying my children while I'm here and present and able to make the memories. So her having this sudden epiphany of how much time she's wasted makes her case for quality over quantity even more compelling.
There are now only two episodes left in this season, and we know that Randall has an important therapy session with Pamela Adlon coming up. How charged will that next session be?
APTAKER: Oh, it's really intense.
BERGER: We've already seen that the therapist knows how to push Randall's buttons in a big way. She does not mince words, and she's really good at getting to the heart of the matter with him. So the chemistry and the tension between the two of them is so interesting and so palpable in this upcoming episode. We are exploring these themes of "What if my father had lived, how different would life be?," and that's all stuff that will be coming up.
APTAKER: And Pam is actually on camera in the episode this week. It's not just her voice and the back of her head.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.