This Is Us writer breaks down Rebecca's slap, Randall's blunder, and Miguel's spark
After last week's poignant funeral episode, This Is Us lightened up the family festivities with an installment that flirted with romance and comedy: Rebecca (Mandy Moore) was persuaded by Miguel (Jon Huertas) to try her hand at dating — and speed dating, no less — which sparked unexpected feelings on both sides. Kevin (Justin Hartley) asked Cassidy (Jennifer Morrison) to come to the cabin for companionship or sex, while Nicky (Griffin Dunne) was approaching unchartered (or at least not chartered for a while) territory with his new girlfriend, Edie (Vanessa Bell Calloway).
Things were not all calm in this romcom, though: Deja (Lyric Ross) and boyfriend Malik (Asante Blackk) pitched Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) on a plan that would have Deja graduating early and moving in with Malik in Boston, which Randall clumsily tried to squash. Kate (Chrissy Metz) continued to navigate life with a long-distance husband, Toby (Chris Sullivan), and looked for the best way to tell her mother — who suffers from dementia — that she wouldn't be able to babysit her grandchildren alone. And in the past, long after Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) had passed, teenager Kate (Hannah Zeile) was so unhappy with Rebecca's attempt to try dating again, she sneered, "He wouldn't be happy for you running around town like a slut," to which Rebecca responded by slapping her. After some necessary apologies, Kate and Rebecca's complicated relationship ended on a (bitter)sweet note, with a montage of three different eras of Kate and Rebecca sitting at the piano, playing "Heart and Soul."
Let's charter a modest yacht, order some underdog ice cream or sexy branzino, open our mystery folder, and phone a friend who also happens to be a real live woman — This Is Us co-executive producer and episode writer Julia Brownell — to dissect "Heart and Soul."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This episode is lighter and contains the best jokes in a while, but it also delves into uncomfortable areas of parenting. What was the biggest challenge in writing it?
JULIA BROWNELL: There were a couple of parenting moves that we haven't seen on the show before, with some of our beloved characters. Rebecca slaps young Kate, and Randall makes a move with Malik. Balancing the story so that you really were with them in that moment and didn't hate them for doing what they were doing and that you understood what they were doing — that was [the challenge].
Which of the two stories sparked more debate in the writers' room?
Definitely the slap, because the thing with Randall is it's a matter of language. So we knew that we could always take that language back and make him less overt — although I think what we decided on actually is pretty overt. But the slap really left a lot of debate in the room. A lot of us are parents now. We're looking at it perhaps from a 2021 lens, and this was 1999, and I think slapping your child was a slightly different thing. We also reminded ourselves that Kate is an adult at this point, and this is years of tension between the two of them building up. We were talking about the scene where Kate really unloads on Rebecca and I think Dan [Fogelman, TIU creator] was like, "What if she just slaps her?" It was a very Dan Fogelman moment because he was like, "You guys are gonna hate this idea!" There was quite a bit of debate about that one, but I'm ultimately glad that we went for it. I think pairing it up against such a beautiful story between the two of them in the present helps you so much.
What were the discussions about that scene with Mandy and Hannah?
You know, they were both really game. We were shooting all those scenes together — the slap, the crying phone call with Miguel and the scene at the piano with the two of them. We actually decided to go longer and to keep shooting [into lunchtime] because they were in such a heightened emotional place. They wanted to sit there at that piano together and have that moment, because they were really feeling it. This is the sixth season of the show, we do a lot of emotional stuff, the crew can be sort of just doing their job at times. But this was one where a lot of people were in tears watching the two of them together at that piano.
Did Randall lay the groundwork for his own misery here by forbidding Deja to travel to Boston to see Malik? Now she's offering up a radical solution to this problem.
It's a good question. Maybe he did. I think Randall is fumbling here. We addressed a little bit in episode 3 about how he's only had her for three or four years, and all of a sudden he's faced the idea of losing her and that is terrifying to him, and he's doing everything he can to stop it. When he says to her, "You can't see him," and she says, "That's gonna be a problem," I think that was such an interesting moment of the series and set up such an interesting problem.
When Randall has something in his head, he can't let it go. Having now told Malik to break up with Deja, how strong-headed will he be here — even with his trusty advisor, Beth, trying to steer him to safety?
I will say that this is an issue that the writer's room is very divided on. Some people are like, "Deja's absolutely right. She's 16, 17 years old. She's old enough to make this decision." And some people are like, "Absolutely not. Randall is the parent." So that's been really interesting for us to discuss. I think this will blow up for Randall. Saying to an 18-year-old boy, "Don't tell your girlfriend," probably will have bad results [laughs], if the way I was when I was a teenager was any indication. So I think it's going to blow up in his face.
We're finally starting to dig in to the origins of Miguel and Rebecca's relationship. Miguel seems interested in helping Rebecca find love and is encouraging of her during the speed date. When Matt (Matt Corboy) asks Rebecca for coffee during the speed date, is that the very moment when he realizes his growing feelings for her and it all changes for him?
That's right. Jon Huertas would able to tell you specifically what he was feeling in the moment, but that's what we are intending. We're about to go into a series of several episodes where the relationship between Miguel and Rebecca, post-Jack's death, really will come to a head. And for Miguel, he will bury those feelings as much as he possibly can because he doesn't want to have them. So pushing Rebecca out there to start dating is both the solution and the problem, if that makes sense. He's trying so hard to not feel the way he feels, but the more he sees her out there, the more he can't deny how he feels. That was one of the most exciting things that we wanted to explore this final season, and I think viewers are really going to like it, and it's some awesome work by Mandy and Jon in that time period.
Rebecca and Kate apologized to each other, but these two are still in a volatile point in their relationship. Fair to say that Kate may not respond well to "stupid" Miguel getting closer to dating Rebecca? And is some of the guilt that Kate feels tied to the way she acted toward them as they move closer to a potential relationship, which, as we know, will be preceded by some period of estrangement?
I think so. In the next couple weeks, you're going to see all of those teenage kids responding to both their mom being in the dating world and their mom's feelings for Miguel, and they all have very different attitudes that will resonate today. And that we'll continue to explore throughout the season as they're seeing present day Miguel be this incredible caretaker for their mom.
It's heartbreaking to watch Rebecca's first romantic moment since Jack's death get immediately torched by Kate—
I know! I know!
Present-day Kate regrets that she didn't take more advantage of her time with her mother in the past. With the clock ticking on Rebecca — and also that this is the final season of the show — is time the most precious resource that the family will struggle with and try to maximize?
Absolutely. And the tricky thing about Alzheimer's is you just never know how much time. Of course, you never know how much time you have left — any of us — but I think what Randall and Kate and Kevin are all coping with [in regards to] their mother is wanting to make the most of this time and not knowing how much she'll have left. And Rebecca herself. We know that we have 13 episodes after this one. It's been interesting because I've been on set for episode 10, which we're shooting right now, and you can see everybody trying to appreciate those moments together in real time as they are on camera, you know? So it's interestingly meta in that way, because this is a cast and crew that really enjoys each other and gets along and has had a wonderful run.
Is Toby especially conflicted by this long-distance arrangement because he really wants to be in San Francisco? Are we going to see more of him finding purpose in his work, which comes at the cost of the other side of his life?
You are. And what we're going to see is Kate recognize that and try to meet him there, and try to see if she could imagine herself living the San Francisco life. The delicate thing about making a split like this on TV is we care about both these people. They're both good people. It's not working right now. So we want to see them both trying really hard to make it work.
Casey [Johnson] and David [Windsor] assured that the Big Green Egg won't be another exploding Crock-Pot. What else can you hint about that fateful day, which is tied to some amount of emotional and physical trauma for Jack Jr. as Toby and Kate's relationship fractures?
There are members of the family involved that you might not expect.
Moving over to Kevin: He was taken aback by Cassidy's comments, which were biting but true. How much of an eye-opener will that prove to be? He reaches out to Elijah (Adam Korson) to help him with Madison, but what else can we expect in the wake of that conversation?
He is going to take what she said to heart. This is his final season journey, and one thing if we're thinking about the questions of the show that we still owe is: Does Kevin end up with someone? How does Kevin find happiness? And I think that this is a definite step on his way to finding the person he's with. Seeing Madison move on so quickly with someone else made him doubt his decision at the end of season 5. And Cassidy calling him out on how quickly he creates these romantic comedies in his head is an awakening for him. And that putting it out in the open will help him a lot as he moves forward. But I wouldn't close the door on Cassidy just yet.
Okay then! When he tells Elijah that he should order the food for Madison because sometimes she says she doesn't want food but she does, viewers can say, "That's nice that Kevin is helping him navigate a relationship with her." But was it his place to mention her eating issues, even if he thought he was being helpful? Because he doesn't know what she has shared with Elijah.
I don't think there was any kind of sabotage there. I think he meant it in an entirely kind way. I do think our Pearsons sometimes open their mouths when they shouldn't. [Laughs]… I will say that Elijah has been very appreciative of Kevin up until now, but you might see Elijah standing up to Kevin a little bit in a way that you might not expect.
Are we going to pick back up at the cabin with Nicky and Edie? Based on his disturbing intimations to Kevin about how out of practice he was, it feels like there might be more comedy to be had as those two get more intimate.
Look, if it was my choice, I'd have an entire episode about that. [Laughs] I think those two are so charming together and fun, and Justin bouncing off of them is so fun too. I don't know if we're going to dive into Nicky and Edie's sex life, sadly — but we will see more of their relationship to come. In the cabin, actually.
Can you drop a hint for the next episode, which explores Beth's past and was co-written by Susan?
There's a very memorable character that you've seen only once before. From Beth's past.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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