This Is Us Creator Unpacks Rebecca's 'Fitting Conclusion' and Her 'Meaningful' Stops on the Train

·14 min read

Warning: This article contains spoilers from Tuesday's episode of This Is Us.

There wasn't a dry eye in the house after the latest episode of This Is Us.

Tuesday's episode, "The Train," brought fans on an emotional journey through the final hours of the life of Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore).

Ahead of her death, viewers were taken inside Rebecca's mind, where she was guided through a train by the late William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones) and shared brief conversations with family and friends in each of the cars, before reaching the caboose a.k.a her death bed.

As this was happening, all of Rebecca's family members — aside from Kate (Chrissy Metz), who was urgently rushing home from a work trip in London — gathered at her home and individually said their goodbyes.

Though Rebecca's nurse said she likely wouldn't make it through the night, she ultimately hung on long enough for Kate to arrive and say her final goodbye. Then, with The Big Three by her side, Rebecca drifted off into a peaceful, eternal sleep.

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Below, This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, who also wrote Tuesday's penultimate episode, breaks down Rebecca's final moments, why he included two beloved characters, and what's to come in the series finale.

Justin Hartley as Kevin, Sterling K. Brown as Randall, Mandy Moore as Rebecca in This Is Us
Justin Hartley as Kevin, Sterling K. Brown as Randall, Mandy Moore as Rebecca in This Is Us

Ron Batzdorff/NBC Justin Hartley as Kevin, Sterling K. Brown as Randall, Mandy Moore as Rebecca in This Is Us

PEOPLE: You wrote the episode and knew what to expect, but how did you respond seeing it all come together with the actors on screen? Did it exceed your expectation? Did it make you cry?

DAN FOGELMAN: It did exceed my expectations. That's happened pretty consistently for me since the show started. Every time I get really excited about a big [episode] and think I know what to expect, when I see it up on a screen, the actors always really surprise me. And the way our crew puts things together makes it all so seamless and beautiful. It always catches me a little off guard, especially when I think I know exactly how it's going to look and feel.

Sterling K. Brown as Randall, Mandy Moore as Rebecca on This Is Us
Sterling K. Brown as Randall, Mandy Moore as Rebecca on This Is Us

Ron Batzdorff/NBC Sterling K. Brown as Randall and Mandy Moore as Rebecca on This Is Us

In terms of crying, this past month or so has definitely been, everything's at the tip of your throat right now for all of us, because we've had such a life-changing experience from the show, and we're treading in content that is obviously very emotional and, for me, very personal. I've developed a way of creating a little bit of a forcefield around myself so I can do the job properly and look at it as a piece of work rather than letting myself just fall to pieces and not have any perspective.

That being said, yeah, the first time I saw it, as we started getting into the train and Beth was starting to say her goodbye to Rebecca, I was starting to go, "Oh wow. This is about to start bubbling out of me." I think we really executed this device the way we talked about for so long, and it's really effective, and it feels really special. So yeah, it definitely got me.

Justin Hartley as Kevin, Mandy Moore as Rebecca in This Is Us
Justin Hartley as Kevin, Mandy Moore as Rebecca in This Is Us

Ron Batzdorff/NBC Justin Hartley as Kevin and Mandy Moore as Rebecca in This Is Us

Why did you select a train to symbolize the final journey of Rebecca's life?

I always had in my mind that Rebecca was going to pass at the end of our penultimate episode. And I knew that we would potentially be revisiting a family and the child who survived on the night of Jack's death. I just wasn't sure about what the device would be in terms of how we would show Rebecca's mind's eye and crossing over.

Then at the beginning of this season, I was taking my little boy to a place in Los Angeles called Travel Town, and that's where they have a lot of trains. You ride on these trains and look at trains, and he was very into it. I've always been kind of struck by the magic of trains and when you ride on a train — the romance of the entire thing.

I was talking about that and setting our first episode at that very Travel Town and how Rebecca would start losing her first word, "caboose," and not be able to find it. And then one of our executive producers and writers who's been with me since the beginning, K.J. Steinberg, said, "I have a crazy idea. What if that's the device you've been searching for, the train? And as we walk through the train, this thing she romanticized as a child, we're kind of walking her to the last car on the train." I immediately jumped up, and I said, "That's it. That's what we're doing." I wish I could take credit for the original idea, but it K.J.'s.

RELATED: This Is Us: Mandy Moore on Rebecca's Health and Her 'Meaningful Song' at Kate and Phillip's Wedding

Justin Hartley as Kevin, Sterling K. Brown as Randall in This Is Us
Justin Hartley as Kevin, Sterling K. Brown as Randall in This Is Us

Ron Batzdorff/NBC Justin Hartley as Kevin, Sterling K. Brown as Randall in This Is Us

What about choosing William (Ron Cephas Jones) as the conductor/guide? Why him?

He's just been such a part of this thing from the beginning. I always talked about how in the very end of the show and in the final season, I wanted to go back a little bit. It was very important to me to get William as this spiritual guide, taking Rebecca from the front to the back of the train, and have Dr. K (Gerald McRaney) be a big stop on it, and get those two guys and to show them in a meaningful and important way, and not just as a flash.

I feel like when your life is flashing in front of your eyes, it's often these giant figures who I believe would [come up]. So it felt to me like this man, William, whose story was so tied to Rebecca's, even though they were virtual strangers, and even though they crossed in a very unusual way that wasn't always perfect, it felt like a fitting conclusion that he would be there at her side, driving her along, because it was such a complicated and fraught relationship and co-existence for the two of them.

RELATED: This Is Us: Chrissy Metz Breaks Down the Pearson Family Meeting — and What Part Made Her 'Pissed'

What was it like bringing back all of these actors whose storylines have essentially ended on the show, including Dr. K, Toby, Miguel, and even the younger Big 3 cast interacting with the older ones?

This train set was a big nostalgic set for us. A lot of actors were shooting their final shots of the series on those train sets, so it became a bit of a celebration down on stage, where we built the trains. All the kids were pretty much wrapping up on the train, so then we would call out varying wraps for the series to all the kids, and people gave little speeches each time. It was a really lovely gathering — almost like, in a weird way, the way people gather around a loved one who's not going to be around forever, which is very much what this episode is. Susan [Kelechi Watson] and Sterling [K. Brown] came down to see off their TV children. I believe Milo [Ventimiglia] and Mandy had come around. People were stealing stuff from the sets in a cute way — not in the way that will send them to jail! — so there was a bit of a kind of sad, celebratory quality to the entire train set.

Dr. K, for me, I don't get to be on set very often because my job doesn't often allow it. I also prefer to watch things when they're sent to me in a cut, rather than getting distracted by what I may have seen or known about that particular day of shooting. But when Gerald was shooting his train scene with Mandy, I was taken back to six years earlier with him shooting his big lemonade scene with Milo. Because that was the first time I was on set and I was watching Dr. K give that speech and how beautiful they were together. And I noticed the emotion that our camera department was having as they were watching this scene, and I was realizing how effective it was, and how wonderful the actors were, and I just said, "Oh, we might have something really special here."

And then, watching Gerald a couple of weeks ago be that special with Rebecca again, it gave me a similar feeling that did bring it back to six years earlier shooting the pilot.

Mandy Moore as Rebecca, Chris Sullivan as Toby in This Is Us
Mandy Moore as Rebecca, Chris Sullivan as Toby in This Is Us

Ron Batzdorff/NBC Mandy Moore as Rebecca, Chris Sullivan as Toby in This Is Us

I love the way that it also came back in a full-circle form when Jack gives Dr. K's lemonade advice to another family at the hospital. Did you always have the idea to bring in Marcus' family and have a parallel of how one life ends, another begins or restarts?

I did. I always thought that this second to last episode, in a way that hopefully surprises, would tell the story of another person, potentially a child, who had survived in that same moment that Jack had been lost. It's very much at the center of the show.

There's a lot of talk about how much the show makes people cry, and that often comes with it being sad. Obviously when you're dealing with the death of a beloved character and the matriarch of the family, it's going to be sad, but we also wanted to try and capture something that's beautiful and a little hopeful about the human experience. Which, even in death, there's laughter and a family can gather in ways that are sad, but [that] are also joyful. The human condition is that we keep moving forward and stories keep moving forward.

So, on the very night that the beloved patriarch of the family died, he passed on advice that translated to a whole other family he'd barely know, for the family of a child who was saved that night. It felt important to us to have that story inside this very episode.

Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth, Sterling K. Brown as Randall in This Is Us
Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth, Sterling K. Brown as Randall in This Is Us

Ron Batzdorff/NBC Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth, Sterling K. Brown as Randall in This Is Us

In terms of having Kate be in London and not there for most of the episode, why was it that you selected her to be the person who Rebecca was waiting on before she dies?

I've always been so enamored with the relationship between Kate and Rebecca, this mother-daughter dynamic that is equal parts fraught and complicated, and in the later years of their lives, really incredibly beautiful and simple.

I always thought Kate would have to race to get there in time, because she has taken the steps in her life, based off the advice from her mother, to spread her wings and fly. That very advice has taken her out of the room when her mother is about to pass. I thought that was just a really simple story that doesn't even need to be spoken about to see it. She's off doing something big and fantastic and fabulous that was spurred on by her mother's "Go live your life to the fullest" speech, and now that very thing may prevent her from being at her mother's bedside as she passes. And then the fact that in our story, her mother is able to hold on until she gets there, it felt like a full-circle realization of their entire relationship.

RELATED: Mandy Moore 'Wasn't Braced' for Rebecca's Fate on This Is Us: 'I Think It's Surprising'

I have to ask: why didn't we get to see Nicky say his goodbye? We all love Nicky.

There was a version of their goodbyes where I was going to shoot every single character saying goodbye, and I just realized everything was going to be fantastic. I was never going to be able to fit it into 40 minutes of television. I really debated setting up the camera and throwing every single character into that room.

And I just realized it was going to create a giant mess for me of what to put into the television show. So we chose a couple of targeted people. Nicky, in his own very Nicky way, gets a version of that goodbye, but in a completely different way in the finale.

Justin Hartley as Kevin, Alexandra Breckenridge as Sophie in This Is Us
Justin Hartley as Kevin, Alexandra Breckenridge as Sophie in This Is Us

Ron Batzdorff/NBC Justin Hartley as Kevin, Alexandra Breckenridge as Sophie in This Is Us

At the end, William gave a speech about why being sad when something ends is a good sign because it means it was worthwhile and special. When you were writing that scene, were you pulling from your own emotions of being on the show for so many years and working with everyone and now having to say goodbye?

It's funny because I wasn't actually thinking about this show. Obviously, when you watch it now, you think about the show and the fact that it has this meta quality because he's speaking about something that you love coming to an end, and that's okay. It's just at the exact time that the show is coming to an end.

I think at the moment when I was writing it, which was quite a while ago, I was actually thinking of my experiences losing people and how in the moment, when I've lost somebody, I would've been hard pressed to believe I would've been able to smile again or feel the joy that would come to me weeks, months, years, decades later. Only with time and a bit of perspective, you say, "Hey, the reason that loss affected me so deeply is because it was a really, really good person in my life and a good force in my life." That perspective doesn't come necessarily on the day of the funeral or the week of your loss.

But it comes often with time. It's why people are able to move forward with their lives, trying to live their lives in service of what their parents may have wanted for them or their children or their siblings. So I think that's what I was thinking about when I wrote it.

RELATED VIDEO: Susan Kelechi Watson and Sterling K. Brown Wrap Their Final This Is Us Scene Together

As for the series finale, what can fans expect? You said we might get a little bit of Nicky, but is there anything else you can hint about the final farewell of This Is Us?

I'm really proud of it. I'm finishing it as we speak. I think our cast and crew and writers and everybody that works on the show put together a very confident finale that was long-gestating and long-planned. It's very simple.

So much of the conversation about the show has been about the twists and turns, and how did Jack die or why are Kate and Toby divorced, and what questions need to be answered in the future. I feel we've answered those questions now, and we can live in the simple experience of being a family with this family. That was the goal here, and I think we set out to make an ending that felt like when you close a big giant, sprawling family novel. You feel sad because you realize the end of the book is getting thinner and thinner, and you're running out of pages to read, because you've been so absorbed in the book. But hopefully when you close it, you also feel you've had a complete meal.

I think this show hopefully will leave people with the feeling that, of course, has a little bit of melancholy in it, because it's about loss and time, but it's also something beautiful that I think is captured and said at the end of it all, and I hope it speaks to people who have stuck with the show for six years. I'm excited and sad at the same time for the end, but I think it's going to be really good.

The series finale of This Is Us will air Tuesday, May 24, at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.