This Is Us finale: Sterling K. Brown breaks down Randall and Kevin's nuclear fight
Warning: This article contains plot details from Tuesday's season 4 finale of This Is Us, titled "Strangers: Part Two."
This Is Us has uncorked season finales with some dramatic and dark moments — but oh, brother was that dark.
The season 4 finale of NBC’s time-hopping drama featured one of the bleakest moments of the entire series, which is saying something, given that viewers once watched America's couple spit fire each other before splitting ever-so-briefly (and in the post-Super Bowl episode, they saw the Pearson patriarch perish after running through a house fire). “Strangers: Part Two” brought the Pearsons together for baby Jack's first birthday — and the simmering tension between Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) to a boil. And it will take a looong time for that fight to be water under the bridge. Because right now that bridge is burned worse than, well, the Pearson home after that aforementioned fire.
The siblings clashed over how to best care for their mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who was beginning her slow descent into Alzheimer’s. Whereas anxiety-riddled Randall — who was just beginning to work out his issues in therapy — desperately wanted her to participate in a clinical trial in St. Louis for nine months, Kevin wanted to respect her wishes to spend that precious time with her family instead. But Randall kept advocating, ultimately and secretly guilt-twisting her arm into signing on. But when a suspicious Kevin wrung the truth out of Randall, a hideous fight followed. Randall spared no verbal punches, telling his brother that their father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), died ashamed of him, that he was selfish, and his interest in Rebecca was nothing more than another performance — “a tired, stale performance, like all of your performances.” Kevin fired right back, telling his brother that the day that Jack died wasn’t the worst thing that happened to him, but rather, the one on which Randall was adopted by the Pearsons. "Hand to God, Randall," said Kevin, "the worst thing that ever happened to me was the day they brought you home.”
Yes, the episode ended with the brothers sharing a much warmer moment by old Rebecca's bed years later, but the damage done in the final episode of season 4 would appear to carry deep consequences. (We know, months later, Randall is not at the family cabin to celebrate the Big Three's 40th birthday.) Here to sift through the wreckage with us is 50 percent of the fight and indefatigable standout actor Sterling K. Brown, who conducted this interview mid-workout without missing a beat or a breath.
Did we just witness one of, if not the, darkest moments in This Is Us history?
STERLING K. BROWN: Yeah, we did. Even to that, to that point, so in season 1, “ Moonshadow,” [This Is Us creator Dan] Fogelman showed me the episode before it aired. I said, “Dan, are you sure you want to end the season like this?” He's like, “Yeah! Yeah!” And I was like, “It doesn't have a very feel-good vibe to it, man. It's not very This Is Us, and we're going to send people away for four or five months. Are you positive this is it?” He said, “Look, we have to be willing to show the darkness in order to really emphasize how important the light is.” So I said, “Okay.” And he goes, “You remember when you called me when you're shooting Predator about the finale of season 1?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “This is worse.” [Laughs] I said, “Oh, really?” And when I watched it, he has a point. Because there's such an investment in the relationship between these two brothers, and you've seen them go through their ups and downs and find themselves in a good place — and now to see that sort of fracturing once again.
The way in which we finally wound up using the edit, it wasn't the most impassioned of arguments. It wasn't two people yelling at each other in the heat of the moment. It was a more thoughtful, like, “No, I'm meaning everything that I'm saying right now.” And it sort of cuts you to the quick in a way that something that would have been more bombastic may have been like, “Oh, they'll recover from that relatively easily.” This one seemed like, “No, f— you. This is how I really feel.” Yeah. [Laughs]
Those words spoke louder than yelling, for sure. Both sides deliver some death blows in what they say, but whose words feel more wounding in your opinion and might leave a greater scar on the other?
Okay, so it's interesting because you tell somebody that the day they brought you home is the worst thing that ever happened to me, that's kinda ice-cold, right? But I am an actor, and if anybody in my family tells me that everything I did was just a performance and not a very good one, that s— would be pretty awful too. [Laughs] I'm going to give the death blow to Kevin in this one, but Randall was throwing some heat, too.
What do you remember about filming those scenes? Justin indicated that a healthy dose of levity and trash talking got you through it.
We did. Justin and I — sorry, I’m doing pull-ups — we love each other. He is my brother. My wife asked me, if you have to be stuck on a desert island with somebody from your cast, who would it be? I said, “It'd be Justin and Sue.” There’s just a connection that we have and an affinity for one another as human beings and the way in which we approach the work. So we can be in a very cordial and loving place with one another, and I think that allows us to go after each other with that much more veracity because we know that we can recover from it. There's never a fear that someone is going to take it personally and actually mean that they don't like Sterling or Justin. We know that what we have to do for Randall and Kevin is go to these very dark places in order for the story to have resonance, and for that moment at the very end when he puts his hand on his shoulder to yield such relief. It wouldn't have been the same if we didn't go there, so to speak.
Let’s talk about Randall’s wounding words. He tells Kevin that Jack died ashamed of him. And that Kevin was chasing Randall’s shadow, not even his dad’s. And that his whole life was a stale performance because he’ll never know what it’s like to selflessly devote himself to someone else. Which of those things does he truly believe about his brother? There’s always that grain of truth.
There is truth and there is a kindness with which truth can be spoken. And in this particular instance, there was truth with a lack of kindness. I feel like Randall does see himself as the man who sort of duplicated his father's life. He found the love of his life. He has three children, he is successful in what he’s chosen to do, and he chose to do something else and is able to find success as well. So I do feel like the family gathers for holidays at Randall's house because he's the individual that brings folks together. He sees his brother going from relationship to relationship and not being able to make one particular thing stick. So the idea of him knowing what it means to take care of other people is anathema to Randall. Randall made sacrifices — not that he was asked to — but he chose to stay at home to go to Carnegie Mellon so he can be close to his mother, because he knew that this was going to be a very lonely and isolating time. Whereas Kev was like, “Oh, I just got to do me.”
And there's no shame and there's no shade in him doing him. He had to go to New York so he could pursue his career. It's very hard to do from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So there's no begrudging that on a personal level. But there's something real — a couple of episodes ago, he said, “You can take off to go to Egypt or Morocco to go shoot a movie at a moment's notice. And that leaves me where I've been this whole time, trying to make sure nothing fractures, nothing falls apart.” I think there's sincerity in what he's saying. But I also think he could have said it in a way that was constructive — and in this particular instance, he said it in a way that was meant to wound.
I heard that while these last few episodes were being filmed, the cast and crew were split on which brother was in the wrong: “I know what’s best for our mother” versus “our mother knows what’s best for her.” Where did you personally net out, rooting interest aside?
I probably agree more with Kevin than I do with Randall in this particular instance. And because in my life, I sort of function as the Kevin character, the guy who's out of town, who's made it good, who comes home and brings a breath of fresh air and levity to difficult, intense situations. And I know when my mom sees me, she's happy to take a break from whatever else is going on in her life, so that she can just enjoy the present moment. And I have an older brother who was very much like Randall, who only went away for four years of college and then came back home to St. Louis and has really been a stabilizing force in my family's life. And we will butt heads with one another. So it was a really interesting thing to step into my brother's shoes in a very real way, and then see my perspective articulated through Kevin.
I would definitely say at the end of [“After the Fire”] when he has that plea to his mother, I said, “Okay, whether or not you agree with his perspective on whether or not she needs this clinical trial or not, it was manipulation.” And I don't think that I would have employed that particular tactic. But my goal is not to judge him, but to understand why he's doing what he's doing, and the degree and severity of loss that he's experienced in life and the level of personal responsibility that he places upon himself for the loss he’s experienced in life, he’s like, “If I can do anything, I will do whatever it takes to give her the longest and best quality of life possible.”
Things appeared to be fraught between the brothers in the distant future at first, but at the end, by their mother’s bedside, Kevin puts his arm around Randall. Was this something of a fake-out like the Randall-Beth reunion moment at Kevin’s house in a previous flash-forward — or is this possibly another time when things might be strained for the brothers and that was another olive branch?
Good question. I actually talked to Fogelman about how to answer this question, and the company line is, “That will be illuminated over the next two seasons of This Is Us.”
How much of an impact do Randall’s cutting words have on Kevin stepping up with Madison about the baby and going “all in”? Do they hasten the evolution of thought he might have had?
Hands down. I mean, he was just unwittingly speaking to this individual who has not been able to commit in life to his ex-wife, then girlfriend, and then it didn't work out. Then he found somebody he wanted to spend time with, but then he like, “Maybe I want to have kids,” and she's like, “I don't want to have kids,” so then that was the end of that. You see him searching and looking for his tribe. The whole search for what happened to his dad and his past and that coming together with Nicky [Griffin Dunne]. There was a sense of calm, of usefulness, of being of service to other people that gave him a… what is the word?
Clarity and purpose?
Clarity and purpose that he had not had to that point in his life. He's a guy who just happens to be good at things, but it's not like he loves acting, right? He just happens to be good at. But football was what he wanted, football was the passion. And that got taken away from him. So now he realizes that this thing that he's been running away from, this idea of duplicating his father's life, which he thought was so boring and a waste of time, is actually the only thing that really gives him that sense of clarity and purpose. So now, after having that taste up with Nicky, with Cassidy [Jennifer Morrison], out in Pennsylvania, he’s like, “There's an opportunity that's been given to me.” Instead of seeing it as a burden or something to get out of, he recognizes after that “conversation” with his brother that the universe has just dropped an opportunity into his lap. I don't think he would have been able to reach that conclusion as quickly as he did if he had not had that argument.
One would think that the pregnant fiancée Kevin mentioned would be Madison, but this is This Is Us. Any hints, or just a devilish Santa laugh?
So… we know that Madison is having twins. We see Kev in the future with this beautiful boy and this beautiful girl. Ummm… [laughs]… that's all I can really say!
Kate [Chrissy Metz] and Miguel [Jon Huertas] were rather passive in this episode, which is sort of where Miguel has been living, supporting Rebecca from the sidelines. Will they forced to be choose sides in this serious family fracture?
I think Miguel is always going to do whatever his wife wants to do. He tries to be as Switzerland as possible when it comes to the Big Three. I think Kate is going to be in a more precarious situation because she loves both of her brothers dearly and loves her mother. And to a certain extent is going to miss her mom for those nine months as she is a new mom raising a child. We know that she and Toby [Chris Sullivan] are going to successfully embark on an adoption route, which leads to their lovely sister and that actress [Adelaide Kane] I never got a chance to meet, but I really thought she did a wonderful job. So it'll be tough for [Kate]. Tougher than it is for Miguel.
Kevin is now a year sober, while Randall is in the throes of therapy and anxiety. What does an explosive fight like that do to a psyche, especially Randall’s, as he’s in a vulnerable place in his life?
After his wife told him the level of stress that she was living with in her life and how she felt as if she couldn't share that with her husband because he wasn't taking care of himself, once he realized that like, “Okay, this is affecting my woman, my rock, I have to do this — not just because of my well-being but for the well-being of my family.” He is committed to that path in terms of trying to find healing. I know some things that happen in the next season that will further explore that. I sincerely hope we will be able to do it with the wonderful Pamela Adlon, who I absolutely adore, but that woman is busy. She got a lot of s— going on. So we’ll see.
What impact might this newly fractured family have on Rebecca, who just wanted to spend time with all the Pearsons?
That's going to be a source of sadness, for sure. There's no way for it not to be. When people start to approach the end, when they start to come to terms with their own mortality and whatnot, one of the greatest gifts that you can give them is harmony amongst family, right? To know that everybody is of one accord, happy, healthy, and whole, and enjoying each other's presence. So there's no way that that can't be a sense of profound sadness for her. And I’ll leave it at that.
Before we finish up soon, how’s the workout going? Are you still doing pull-ups?
Yeah, I got gloves.
You’re a machine!
No, man, it's really just one of those things where, for my own peace of mind and sanity, you got to get out for about an hour. You just do a little bit of running, a few push-ups, a few pull-ups, and then you go back home and kick it with the family.
We know Kevin and Randall are not talking at the 40th birthday party, as Rebecca is reminded that Randall is not coming. Given that all seasons have begun on the 40th birthday, what does Randall’s birthday party look like? Does he go big on his own? Any hints?
I have no hints. I have speculations. I speculate that time spent with family will be the thing that he has. And, listen, he's also accustomed to, in this particular situation, most of the time his brother and sister are in L.A. and he's on the East coast, be it in New Jersey or Philadelphia. So he's used to not being with the whole family together. I think it will be sad for him to not be with his mother. But he has his wife, and I mean that by saying that anytime he finds himself getting a little too down in the dumps, she has a way of gently lifting him up and reminding him of the man that she fell in love with, which is a good kind, generous human being. And while the tactics that he employs sometimes may not always be the right ones, his intentions are always in the right place. So he’ll be aight.
Does Randall get a cologne ad of his own?
Oh my goodness! That picture made me laugh so hard. There's claw mark — I don't know if you got a chance to freeze-frame or not — but there's claw marks that are on my brother's chest. And the nipple was just so perfectly placed; there’s just enough to be tasteful, if there's such thing as tasteful nipplets. Will Randall have a cologne ad? I think as a city councilman, fifth district in Philadelphia, that would not be a good look. [Laughs] But if he ever wound up doing a cameo in one of his brother’s movies, then maybe they could do an ad together.
That’s so nice! You brought the brothers back together.
There you go.
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.