This postmortem contains spoilers from last night’s “The Most Disappointed Man” episode of This Is Us.
The Pearsons continued to bring all the feels in this week’s installment of This Is Us and with only three episodes to go before the series’ winter break, it seemed like a perfect time to check in with the behind-the-scenes team. Read on for showrunner /executive producer Isaac Aptaker’s take on Kevin’s downward spiral (Did he and Sophie just break up?), Kate and Toby’s possible wedding planning, and the big three’s twenty-something years, as well as his teases about possible due dates, Toby’s family, and mucho Miguel.
Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like there’s been an uptick in conflict in the last few episodes — from Randall confronting Deja’s mom and the social worker, William almost landing in jail, Kevin falling apart, and so on. Has this been a conscious decision?
Yeah, there’s definitely a lot going on in this episode especially. But in terms of William’s story, I also think there is a lot of hope and uplift in it. You have a story of a judge who really takes a chance on him, a judge who’s is so tired of throwing the book at people and who is inspired by something William said in that courtroom, so he decides to stick his neck out for this guy. And that inspires William to really get clean for what we learn is a number of decades. Then, when he’s at this very low point in his life after the cancer diagnosis and might use again, Randall just happens to show up and give him a new lease on life. I think that story, which is one of my favorites in the episode, really does have this incredible optimism to it, in the midst of, yes, a much darker story for Kevin and the very, very tricky situation that Randall and Beth find themselves in with their foster child’s mom.
At the end of season 1, it seemed like Kevin had gotten his act together — he got his play going, booked a job with Ron Howard, and went after Sophie again to right some past wrongs. Did you guys always plan to unravel his world and rip his painkiller addiction from the headlines?
Everyone in the writers’ room either knew someone in their family, a friend, or a friend of a friend who has been affected by pill addiction. Like you said, it’s so in the zeitgeist right now. Kevin’s flaw is, I think, is that he’s unable to feel. He sort of inherited that part of his father. He runs from the harder emotions and the scarier things. So this year with Sylvester Stallone, when Kate challenged him on never really grieving the loss of their father, and [then] he hurt the knee, pills were the perfect out for him because they numb him and allow him to escape from all those really raw emotions that he just doesn’t know what to do with. That’s what the last two episodes have been about for Kevin. He discovered the perfect drug for himself because it allows him not to feel.
Obviously, all of our main characters are messed up emotionally by the early loss of their dad, but for the longest time I thought it was Kate who was the most affected. But it is starting to feel like maybe it’s Kevin.
Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. With Kevin, it kind of snuck up on us. We didn’t realize that last year because he has this bright shiny veneer and he’s so charming and handsome and career-wise last season he ended on such a high note. But he’s been running. He hasn’t done the work that we saw Kate do last season. He has not grieved and he chooses not to confront these unresolved feelings about his dad. He’s still not really willing to do the work. He’s hiding behind the pills.
And his bravado, especially when it comes to Sophie. It seemed he would rather lose her again than ask for her help and face his past. Are they over?
Yeah, I think Kevin wasn’t quite in a place where he was ready for that kind of a relationship. He’s very accomplished in his career and he’s a great guy, but he has a lot of maturing to do, and a lot of that means confronting his demons, especially surrounding his father’s death. What I love so much about the episode is the way that Justin and Alex play that scene. You can see it on Kevin’s face. All he wants to do is to say, “I have a problem. I need help. I’m out of control.” But he won’t do that to Sophie again. He already destroyed her life once and came back and promised that this time around he’d be better. He can’t bear to bring her down into his dark spiral. It’s a horrible scene and he breaks her heart, but in a way, Kevin thinks he’s setting her free from even greater pain. What that means for Kevin and Sophie long term, we will have to wait and see. We adore Alex as an actor and love her on the show. Kevin has a lot to come back from to win Sophie back. He did it once, but the second time around it’s even harder to get someone to trust you again.
Fool me twice and all that. It is sad to me though because I wonder who will be there for Kevin, because Randall and Kate are very busy with their own lives.
That’s exactly right. Kevin flies a little bit under the radar. It’s easy to underestimate his problems because he is a wealthy, handsome movie star. But he really is hurting and he’s going a little bit unseen because Kate is so wrapped up in her engagement and her pregnancy, and Randall has this new foster child in his house and drama with her biological mother. Kevin is a going unnoticed as he spirals into this very dark place.
Going back to the Halloween episode last week, we got to see the big three in their ‘20s, which was the first time for that. How was shooting that new era of their lives?
Yeah, that’s always a fun thing for us, even though those episodes take the most amount of time to come up with in the room. For Halloween, we had to really challenge ourselves to invent this whole new period in the history of the big three and really flesh out what their worlds looked like ten years ago. It was so much fun to play with them in their late 20s because we got to use our same actors, just aged down a little. They all changed their performances in really subtle ways. I would notice in editing, “Oh wow, Sterling’s doing the tiniest thing, but now he feels like a guy who’s at a different time of his life.”
It was a very telling line when Kate talks about Randall’s big house and how him doing so well meant they were only about five years behind getting their s**t together.
Absolutely. It feels like Randall’s always been the adult of the three siblings. He’s always the one who’s a couple of spaces ahead in life. There is that kind of reality check where you see where a sibling, friend, or a peer is at in their life and it’s like, “Whoa, I have some catching up to do.”
It also seems like you guys are headed toward a few events — like a wedding and a baby — that would be huge on any show, but given the emotional charge of a dead father, will be momentous for This Is Us. They also have a habit of ruining shows from time to time. Nervous? Excited?
We’re so excited. Whenever there’s a chance to get all our cast together for a big family event, we take it because it’s the most fun thing to write. Like last year’s Thanksgiving episode. Getting to make up all those really bizarre traditions that the Pearsons had for Thanksgiving was just so much fun. I think we’re very excited about doing a similar thing for a wedding and showing how we can take a real typical TV trope, the big family wedding, and make it uniquely ours. It will be emotional because having her father at her wedding was such a big part of Kate’s original life plan, and of course that’s not going to happen now. So how she finds a way to honor him [on the day] and deal with the fact that he’s only there in spirit will also be a big part of that story.
The first season, at least the present-day story, took place in a year. Are you guys working under the same timeline every season?
Yeah, it’s not like a mandate of the show, but it’s definitely how we think of the present-day storyline and how we’ve been planning this season out. We jump around so much in our other timeline that it feels nice that we’re operating roughly in real time in the present day. So Thanksgiving happens around Thanksgiving, the Super Bowl is around the Super Bowl. It starts to become spring around spring. We’re pretty much tied to our real calendar when it comes to our present-day stories.
So a wedding could technically happen within the year if they want to have that baby after getting married?
Yeah, that’s the question I keep getting this week. When’s the wedding? When’s the wedding? In the back half of the season, we definitely pick up the pace and there’s a lot more momentum building towards the wedding. Our stories get a lot more wedding-focused. Whether that means you’ll actually see it this year, you’re going to have to wait and see. But we definitely start on the path towards the ceremony, yes.
Ever since Miguel was revealed as Rebecca’s current husband and he gave Jack advice that included him saying how highly he thought of Rebecca, I have worried how you guys would explain their relationship. I worried that he’d been creeping around since Jack’s death and when you guys revealed the Facebook re-introduction I exhaled. It made him way less shady than he could have been, and it was also a very realistic way for them to reconnect.
Writer Bekah Brunstetter pitched that. It was always part of the plan that Miguel and Rebecca came together at a completely appropriate time after she grieved and that there was never any kind of creepy or inappropriate behavior on Miguel’s part. Once we had this episode set in 2008 and we heard the pitch, we liked it. Rebecca has mourned Jack for 10 years and maybe she’s ready to take the next step in her life. That was around the time all the moms were getting on Facebook. That felt like the absolute perfect way for them to reconnect.
It is also a way that will keep America from hating Miguel, who is already playing the stepdad of kids who lost their super awesome dad.
Jon Huertas, who’s the loveliest guy and just the most charming actor, definitely has his work cut out for him with this part. He continues to just amaze us with how likable he’s able to make this guy who a lot of people are uneasy about [especially in regard to how] exactly he got with Rebecca. Hopefully, after last week’s episode, America will be a little bit more willing to get on board with Miguel. It was 10 years before anything happened. There’s a lot more Miguel. In an upcoming episode, we tackle head on the Kevin/Miguel animosity and where it comes from. We get really into the world of Rebecca and Miguel in a way that I think is really interesting.
Speaking of extended family, when we chatted with Chris Sullivan a few weeks ago, he expressed his desire to introduce Toby’s family. Weddings usually mean family comes out of the woodwork. Could he be getting his wish?
Yes, absolutely. Toby’s family is something that we’re waiting to introduce until we have the right time and enough time. These shows are so short and we already have such a big cast. We want to bring in amazing actors to play everyone’s extended family, but you have to make sure that you have the real estate and the right story to showcase someone. We talk about it all the time [with Toby’s family] and I think you’re spot on in saying that pre-wedding and wedding festivities are when families tend to come out of the woodwork on television.
What can you tease about the next episode?
Next week we kick off three very special episodes to wrap up the first half of our season. Ken Olin directed all of them in this little epic marathon 25-day sprint of television directing. Each episode focuses on a different one of our big three. So they’re called “Number One,” “Number Two,” and “Number Three” and they focus on Kevin, Kate, and Randall respectively. They are set on the same day in the past and the same day in the present. So we’re doing a very cool kind of shifting perspectives thing where you’re going to see different scenes play out over the course of the three episodes from different characters’ perspectives. It was this incredible feat of production, blocking, and writing to make it all line up so we can tell these intersecting stories. If you watch them really carefully and go back on your DVR, pause, rewind, and re-watch, you will really see all the ways that these three hours of television intersect and compliment each other in really unique and surprising ways. We’re really excited. It’s totally different from anything we’ve ever done on the show before.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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