This Is Us producers break down that emotional triple-birth episode
Tuesday's installment of This is Us delivered not one but three babies into the Pearson family — as well as a message of hope and connection in these isolating pandemic times.
"In the Room" — a feel-good, cathartic release of a TIU episode if there ever were one — brought viewers to a location they've come to know well: the hospital. As Madison (Cailtin Thompson) prepared to give birth to twins, she was heroically distracted by Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), who were still driving home from his mother of all discoveries in New Orleans. Fellow road-trip conqueror and car-crash-victim-rescuer Kevin (Justin Hartley) arrived just in time for Madison's big moment — and to hear Randall bust out "MMMbop!" a little too passionately. And at a nearby hospital, Ellie (Annie Funke) brought into the world (and said a gut-wrenching goodbye to) the baby girl whom Kate (Chrissy Metz) and text-chain-snob Toby (Chris Sullivan) would adopt, thereby completing the new Big Three. Waiting impatiently in the parking lot because of visitor limitations, Toby opted for their daughter, Hailey, to be middle-named Rose, after the strong, ailing wife of the man he'd befriended outside the hospital, another couple who would receive heartwarming news by episode's end.
Meanwhile, quarantining at the family cabin, Rebecca (Mandy Moore) lamented to husband Miguel (Jon Huertas) that she couldn't be there at the hospital with her children to welcome her new grandchildren. She was haunted by her own words from the past, reassurance to her now-deceased husband, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), that the two of them would be there for all the things little and big that were to come in their kids lives. Luckily, FaceTime brought this family together virtually, and viewers journeyed back a few decades to learn how that technology came to be. (Thank you, Nasir Ahmed, and your geek squad!)
Let's explore the fundamental limitations of mechanical computation, hop aboard the sleepover drop-off train, recite the plot of this week's 90210, put the head of TSA on our Christmas card list, and ask This Is Us co-executive producer/episode writer Vera Herbert and exec producer/episode director Ken Olin to take us "In the Room."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This episode explored the challenges of trying to share milestone moments with your family during a pandemic — finding connection when you can't be connected in person. I know [series creator] Dan Fogelman experienced some that himself with his wife, Caitlin [Thompson, who plays Madison], giving birth during the pandemic, but what appealed to you about telling this story?
VERA HERBERT: We actually started working on this episode in the writers' room in August, when we were already feeling pretty fatigued of Zoom and missing family events and that kind of thing. It just felt like, "Oh, this is the story of the moment right now. This is what everyone is going through." Rather than leaning away from the pandemic and trying to minimize it, we were like, "Here's a moment for us to show what everyone is actually going through in a way that could be really relatable." We didn't anticipate that it would be so many months before we were out of the pandemic. Now that it is finally airing, like, five months after we started working on it, it feels even more relatable than ever to all of us who are still separated from our families.
What were the biggest challenges in making this pandemic-hindered episode during the pandemic?
KEN OLIN: There are so many restrictions that we're dealing with, just from a production point of view, so we had to figure those out as well. We're [delving into] a really emotional episode about connection, like you said. Yet in order for us to be able to shoot the show, we have to take a pretty clinical approach to all the production exigencies. And that's challenging — you're dealing with babies and how we can keep them safe. And the cast. There's a rigmarole involved. So that's a challenge.
It's a very close-knit group of people that have enormous affection for each other. Yet we have to be very restrictive in terms of the way that people can express their feelings. With Kevin, who's been away from Madison for so long, one of the things that Vera and Dan were very concerned about is that we don't want to be irresponsible and take license with the kinds of protection and those kinds of precautions that people take. So they have this scene where they're reunited in this very emotional moment, and we decided they both have to wear masks, because Kevin's been on an airplane; he's been in a car with someone that they don't know. That's tricky… We didn't want to change the emotional trajectory of the season. So we've had to figure out ways to overcome it without losing the emotional intensity of it.
This is the happiest, all's-well-that-ends-well episode of This Is Us in a while. It also felt like a sigh of relief and cathartic release for fans who have been on edge, wondering how all these births were going to go, and when Kevin and Randall may finally make peace. Even the guy in the parking lot received incredible news about his wife. Was this intended as a bit of a reward for viewers and these characters, who could use a breather?
HERBERT: Yeah, it was for us. We felt like this family has been through so much, let us just have a sort of heartwarming end to this story. Within the story itself, within each character's story line, there's not a huge amount of conflict. It's just a lot of waiting and separation. And that just feels, again, what we're all feeling in our own lives right now.
OLIN: From what I gather, the writers were all trying to figure out, "Look, we want to bring these two brothers back together and we have to earn it." I don't think that they wanted that to be ambiguous — they wanted that to be emotionally satisfying and really positive. It's nice to put some love back in the world a little bit. And not in any ambivalent way. Just embrace that for a moment. So it seemed like a good time to do that.
Speaking of: Kevin and Randall finally have this moment of reconciliation, with Kevin admitting that he said some horrible things and noting, "The truth is, you're the best person I know. And on my finest day, I'm simply doing a poor man's imitation of you." Randall responds, "We both said things; tensions were high." First of all, is it a little awkward that Randall didn't say anything so complimentary back? It's like "Um, hey! I just said something really nice about you. Your turn?"
HERBERT: I feel like Randall showed it by being on FaceTime with Madison for eight hours straight or whatever. Actions speak louder than words.
When Kevin mentions that there were a lot of things about Randall's struggle that he didn't see growing up, Randall says, "If you really want to have that conversation with me, I cannot wait to have it." But, as he explains, now is not the time, when Kevin has new babies. The inclusion of really is interesting. Will we get to see that conversation later this season? And is Kevin really ready to have that conversation?
HERBERT: We're planning to get into that territory, and you're hitting the nail on the head there with: Is Kevin as ready as he thinks? He thinks, "Yes, I would have had this conversation right now with my newborn babies, outside the hospital." And Randall brings him to an understanding like, "You think you know what you're getting into with this conversation, but you fully don't." So they're going to have to go through another level of communication to get there with each other.
Kevin tells Madison that he quit the movie in his big speech, saying, "I don't want to take jobs that are going to take me away from you and these beautiful babies. This is all I'll ever need." That is the moment he decided that he's all in, but they say couples spend their time revisiting the same fight. Is this going to be theirs? How realistic is that he'll be fulfilled by taking only in-town jobs?
HERBERT: Based on the whole journey he went through in episode 7, and then just the reality that he finds himself in here, he 100 percent means it when he's saying it to her that he did quit that giant movie and he is in it with her. I think meaning it very much in the moment is not necessarily always the same thing as when you're confronted with a choice later, sticking to what you said. So it is going to be for him a balancing act of putting his money where his mouth is.
Let's talk about Ellie. This episode plays a bit with that tension of her handing over the baby. First she says she doesn't want to hold the baby when she's born, then she says she does, and then she asks Kate if she can be alone with the baby. Was there ever any talk of in the writers' room of having Ellie change her mind?
HERBERT: You know, there really wasn't. We've talked over the years to multiple adoption experts [who] have come in and graciously given us their perspectives on the show and our story lines. A resounding thing that we've heard over and over is that when shows do that, it's pretty irresponsible and not necessarily true to life. In a lot of cases, the birth mother doesn't necessarily change her mind at the last second. So to show it on TV feels a little not truthful, and for women or families out there who are considering adoption, it's scaring people, with something that is a little bit falsified for TV. Not to say that it doesn't happen, but it doesn't certainly happen with every single adoption case. And so we went into this with our minds pretty set that we wanted to tell this as a woman who genuinely has given this a lot of thought. And even though it's a difficult decision, she's made up her mind and knows that she is making the right call.
And after she delivers that really emotional speech to her daughter, viewers are left wondering: Will they see Ellie again? How much, if at all, will she be in Kate and Toby's life?
HERBERT: The next episode picks up with bringing the babies home, and we'll see immediately what the dynamic between them all is going to be.
How did you stumble across Nasir Ahmed's story?
HERBERT: Dan had an idea when we were breaking this episode: What if simultaneously we had a mystery runner and we found out it was the guy who invented FaceTime? Literally in our document, we just called him Joe FaceTime until we figured out what that was going to be. And then we just did some internet research and came across Nasir and his story. [Reading] the articles that he had come up with this idea for this DCT [discrete cosine transform], and we were like, "This seems like the guy." We reached out to him, and he was very willing to talk about his life and his wife, Esther, got on the Zoom as well. The story really evolved from there, and we tried to take as much as we could from their real life.
Did you end up using more from his conversation than you planned to?
HERBERT: Yes. The original video chat was just with him. It was me Dan, Jess Rosenthal, our executive producer, and Nasir. And then his wife kept weighing in from off screen. Either talking over him or correcting him in a very lovely way about a memory or a time, to the point where Dan was just like, "Does your wife want to join?" Once she fully came on the screen, it became very clear that, "Oh, this is a romantic story between this couple, and it's not the story of just a tech genius on his own." So that really shaped making it a loving family story.
Rebecca thanks Miguel for all the silent work he's put in over the years navigating Jack's death and being there for this family. I wondered if this episode might be the time when we learn more about their backstory, and how he came back into their lives after the estrangement. I know that there are plans to tell that story, but how close are we to seeing it? Or is that looking more like next season?
HERBERT: I think it's probably more likely going to be next season, because it's the thing that when we dive into it, we really want to have the room to explore it. But it's definitely coming — and it's a thing we talk about a lot.
The babies are coming home. What's in store for the Pearsons in the coming weeks?
HERBERT: We've had this string of episodes that have been a little bit focused on each character's journey. We had Kate and her story with Marc [Austin Abrams]. We had Randall and Beth in New Orleans, and then we had Kevin's mad adventure to get home. So now we're going to be able to dive into their real life and pick up the pieces of where everyone's story goes from here. For Madison and Kevin, and Kate and Toby, it's adjusting to new babies and what that reality is. And Randall will be able to pick up on some of the pieces of things that he learned in New Orleans and how that's going to thrust him forward in his life… It feels like we're kind of ramping back up into the back half of our season in a way that hopefully is fulfilling to the audience, based on what they've seen thus far.
What is your one-sentence tease for next week's episode?
HERBERT: It has a lot to do with cars. [Laughs]
OLIN: It has cars and babies. That's where we live now for two episodes — and then we'll get out of the cars.
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NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.