Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, and Dan Fogelman share with EW what it was like to create that emotional afterlife reunion.
This Is Us - Season 3

The last words spoken on This Is Us probably won't come as a surprise to anyone who religiously watched this show (or anyone even vaguely familiar with this show): "I love you." But who said those words — and more specifically, under what circumstances they were said — was probably enough to add a few extra dozen tear drops to the puddle at your feet.

The end of the series finale of the hit time-warping multigenerational family drama saw Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who was finishing her luxury train ride into the afterlife, take a final rest on the bed in the caboose, turn over, and… see the face of husband Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), who'd died decades earlier. Here they were, rejoined in the nethersphere, giving complete wish fulfillment to the viewers who had six seasons of investment in the couple of destiny at the core of this feelings fest of a show. And now Jack would reassure her (and the audience) of our place in our family long after we are gone. (And by the way, he told her: "We did good. You did so good.")

This scene was somewhat of a surprising continuation of their reunion in "The Train," which had ended on those comforting "Hey"s. Here, back on the bed of a lifetime, Rebecca expressed fear and then lamented that there was so much left she wanted to do with her family. "You will," Jack responded knowingly, as the surviving family was shown playing a Pearson family tradition, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, after her funeral. "It's hard to explain, but… you'll do all those things with them."

"It's quite a thing, isn't it?" she asked Jack. "Us finding each other in the bar that night." His reply? "I don't know. I mean, when the world puts something that obvious in front of you, you don't just walk away." When he asked her if she was "ready," Rebecca looked pained again and explained that she didn't want to leave her family. (Back in the living world, Sterling K. Brown's Randall, Chrissy Metz's Kate, and Justin Hartley's Kevin waited at her deathbed.) Jack once again reassured Rebecca, "You don't. You'll see," and a teary smile lit up her face. They exchanged "I love you"s, and then she squeezed his hand (thus resolving the show's final mystery wondered aloud by Randall: What was Rebecca thinking of when she squeezed her son's hand right before she passed?).

Sorry! Not trying to make you cry again. Anyway, viewers of This Is Us had already been told that even when you die, you never leave the painting, but this intimate caboose conversation took that concept a step further — a step more literal or... metaphysical. How did this capper of a scene come to be? Did creator Dan Fogelman find himself wrestling with how to give comfort to those leaving and those left behind, while visually expressing a profound concept: What does it mean to no longer/always be here?

This Is Us
Milo Ventimiglia as Jack and Mandy Moore as Rebecca in 'This Is Us'
| Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

He did. Jack is "speaking abstractly, but it is also at the core of something I believe in," Fogelman tells EW. "I'm not an intensely spiritual person, but I've experienced enough loss and trauma in my life to speak on it. What the show is saying quite literally is you carry this stuff forward with you — those who survive — and you pass it off to your kids and they will pass off versions of it to their own. That's the most direct way that we're saying you participate in all this stuff with those who continue to live after you've passed."

Hang in there, it's about to get deep in here. "There's a slightly more abstract version of it, which I always believed, which is that you're kind of living in multiple timelines of your life at any given moment," he continues. "So, you and I can be sitting and having this conversation on a Sunday afternoon, but I am also still living in that third-grade classroom of mine that I've just been thinking about where something happened, and I had a conversation with my mother or father afterwards about it. That's a really abstract complicated philosophical notion. But also a little of that in this ending — and in this television show — is the way we play in time and tells stories of time. If you think of time as only linear, then of course, when somebody dies at the end of their life, they're no longer in the story. But if you think of time as something more abstract and Christopher Nolan-y, then you are with your mother and your father in that childhood kitchen, just as you're with your husband or wife and children in your own kitchen. That's a little bit more of a complicated [idea]. So we treated it more simply with just Jack saying, 'You'll be there,' and we'll let the audience apply their own spirituality and belief systems on top of that."

TIU executive producer/go-to director Ken Olin, who helmed the final two episodes of the series, spent a fair amount of time before, during, and after filming this scene reflecting on Fogelman's intentions. "I believe this is deeply, deeply embedded in his person, his soul, his thinking, and his creative life that there is a totality to experience — however we can wrap our brains around it.' And if we have to do it in a linear way, that's probably limiting. It's hard to explain, but the scene is saying that there is a totality, whether he's saying, 'Well, you will experience this as Rebecca,' or whether he's saying, 'The experience of you will be carried always by your children and therefore you will exist and whatever the definition of that is.' He's after something about why it doesn't make sense to be afraid of death."

Whatever the case, the scene resonated profoundly with the two actors bringing it to life. "I loved that sense of comfort," Moore says. "That no one could have gotten Rebecca through that moment but Jack. And the fact that in the end, as she's crossing that threshold and transitioning, he's there to hold her hand and to walk her through it, as an expert in a way. The idea of, 'Don't worry, I've been here for however many decades now living this and you can trust me in this. I know it seems strange that we're saying goodbye, and you are in one way, but you're also never gone.' I think for all of us who are fearful of the unknown, it's just such a beautiful note to end on, like, 'Oh wow. I really hope that that's the case.' And I believe it is some degree — that energy never really dissipates and we carry around those people, and maybe they're there, maybe they're not. I feel like it's such a fitting note to end on."

And a satisfying/inevitable one, in Ventimiglia's view. "I think everybody's been waiting for that," he says. "If we're looking at Jack in the last several years as being very supporting — he's still in the conversation — but he just hasn't been as present. He's faded just a little bit, faded in a way that people want to see [Jack] and Rebecca. I was really touched by it. I thought it was beautiful. I loved how Fogelman put that in with Randall [saying to Rebecca]: 'Say hey to him.' Doesn't have to specify it. Doesn't have to spell it out. Those three know their dad passed away and their mom is soon passing. And boom, there we are. It's almost like if you're not paying attention and you're seeing Rebecca let go, then, in very Dan Fogelman fashion, you get that satisfying moment of Rebecca saying, 'Hey,' and Jack saying, 'Hey' back…. You read something like that, you perform something like that, you kind of embrace humanity a little bit more. It falls in line with a spiritual quality that I like to hang onto — the idea that we're all connected, energetically. And we don't really leave our loved ones."

He also gravitated toward the less-is-so-much-more ethos of the scene. "I felt like in its simplicity, there was so much that was said, and there was so much that was given to the imagination without it being specific, but you know exactly what's to come," adds the actor. "There was a confidence that I felt in it."

Recognizing the importance and potency of this scene that loomed at the end of "Us," Ventimiglia expressed interest in saving it for the final day of filming. Alas, there were concerns about the emotions of the last day tainting the emotions of the scene. "I was like, 'It's all going to start getting really overwhelming,'" Fogelman says. "The crew's going to be crying, not just about the scene, but because it's the end. And my fear is that everybody's just weeping… The people writing, acting and directing the show can't be ratcheted up to the same level that the audience might be. Because then the whole thing just gets overwrought."

Penultimate was perfect, they decided. "To be able to do that with my partner in crime on this show, even though it wasn't technically our last scene together, it kind of felt like it [was]," says Moore, whose final scene with Ventimiglia wound up being at the toy store. "It was the most important last bit of this show that I was part of shooting and I was happy that we got to be by each other's side for it. It was very emotional. I have such a deep relationship with Milo and we have such a deep sense of trust in one another that it really echoed what our characters were saying. I remember being so daunted by the script, like, 'How am I going to get through this? I've read it four or five times! And every time I'm just like an emotional mess!' But in the end, it was like, 'Oh!' I just locked eyes with Milo was like, 'I can do this. I've got him by my side. No problem.'"

While "omniscient" Jack is assured in the moment, Rebecca is apprehensive about the great beyond and sad to be leaving behind her family. To that end, Moore felt that a few tears were tonally appropriate. "The finality of it, of 'I don't wanna go, my entire life is there,' the idea as a parent, leaving your children, I can't even begin to fathom what that must have felt like, that pull from her," she says. "So in my heart of hearts, I was like, 'It would be okay to be emotional.'"

Ventimiglia was right there with her as stoic support, handing her tissues (which she wadded into a ball and kept hidden underneath her pillow to use between takes) and his dry pillow. "I'm sure [we] probably had some reserves, but I was like, 'Well, we've got four real takes with [our two pillows]. We've got front, back on her, front, back on mine. And I'm not crying right now because I'm omniscient Jack, so let me just flop pillows and there we go, we got two more to go.'"

Besides assisting with the drying of her eyes, what else was he thinking while filming that scene? "Honestly, the only thing that goes through my head was her —  just her," says Ventimiglia, who'd front-loaded all of his crying when he read the script. "I knew the words front and back. I didn't have to think about anything. I didn't have to do anything. Didn't have to worry about props. Didn't have to worry about crossing the room. Didn't have to worry about kids. I just was there, looking her in the eye, just saying the words. And also knowing the context of the scene and what Mandy and I have managed to build for this couple for so many years, there's no acting. That's literally just pure existing. At the end of it saying, 'I love you' is like… it's just real."

THIS IS US -- “Us” Episode 618 -- Pictured: (l-r) -- (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)
Mandy Moore as Rebecca and Milo Ventimiglia as Jack in 'This Is Us'
| Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

For Fogelman, to watch this scene come to life felt "rewarding, because you've thought about it for so long. Milo and Mandy are so special together that when you're watching what you know is their ultimate final scene together, and one that's going to end the series, you can't help but go, 'Wow, this is really moving.' I was like, 'Oh, I think this is going to be meaningful to people who have lost somebody.'"

Fogelman and Olin debated two different reveals for the moment that Rebecca sees Jack on the bed. "Version 1 was Mandy sitting on the bed in extreme close up, she lies down and you stay over her, and as she lands in her lying position, it reveals Jack lying there," Fogelman says. "And then the second way we shot it was over his shoulder and you stay on the same thing. As she goes to lie down, you're on Jack's back so you can just feel the faint shape of a body behind him. She turns to that shape and says, 'Hey,' and then you reveal Jack for the final line. And that's the one I chose. I wanted to save his reveal until his line. It was really powerful."

More powerful than he even thought. "I mean, you got these two beautiful people lying in a caboose that's clearly going to the afterlife in beautiful lighting in beautiful bedding," he says. "It was just a beautiful moment. And everybody was crying. Ken and I made a mistake — which we never made in six years of making the show — and actually had to call the actors back to grab one little piece of pedestrian footage, just to make sure we had all the angles and all the coverage, because we were so caught up in the moment that we actually weren't doing our job."

In fact, everyone had done their job when it came to creating the tragic magic of Jack and Rebecca. Ventimiglia says he felt it from the beginning, and definitely in the caboose that day. "We've given everything we could to this couple and at the end of it, words aren't enough," he sums up. "And looking at each other in the eye and really knowing the journey, recalling everything from moment one to the very end, it's a very full look. Yeah, it's everything."

Say goodbye to the Pearsons with EW's special This Is Us edition, available to purchase online or wherever magazines are sold.

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Episode Recaps

This Is Us - Season 3
This Is Us

NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.

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