“You were broken, you know, in all the right places,” Marc told Kate in the first This Is Us episode of 2021. “I wasn’t broken,” Kate retorted. “I was grieving.” And in "The Long Road Home," Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) communed with the pain caused by this toxic ex-boyfriend and did some personal rebuilding.
The episode resumed Kate's difficult conversation with her husband, Toby (Chris Sullivan), one in which she revealed that she found out she was pregnant at age 18 and chose to have an abortion because she was not ready to be a mother or to be “tied to” Marc (Austin Abrams) for the rest of her life. This was something that teen Kate (Hannah Zeile) hid from her family, that she endured alone, and that came in the wake of the guilt she had cloaked herself in over Jack’s death. Even though adult Kate claimed that that traumatic Marc chapter was "all in the past," Toby posited that her lack of disclosure until now suggested otherwise. And before she knew it, she was driving to San Diego to finish old business and confront her abusive ex from a lifetime ago. Now a dead-ended dude toiling at a music store, Marc (played by Dusty Sorg) didn’t say much or have much remorse for his appalling actions, chalking up his misdeeds to youth. But Kate rose to the occasion, and her own defense, pointing out that he was a 24-year-old man at the time: “You’re the one that’s broken, Marc. You’re the disease. And I’m not carrying it a moment longer. So I give it back to you. Good luck with it, Marc.”
In other Big Three news, square-peg-in-round-hole couple Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Madison (Caitlin Thompson) may need more than luck to turn their one-night-stand into a fully realized family unit. When Kevin told his fiancée that his latest gig would require him to relocate in Vancouver, discussion and dissension ensued; suddenly there was trouble in pandemic paradise. Madison accused Kevin of wanting her and their future kids to be his “international roadies," and she asked him to “take the moment” when he was up north to figure out “how these babies and I are going to fit into your life.”
Meanwhile, a man always looking to add more family into his life — Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — learned a little more about his biological mother. Vietnamese grandfather Hai (Vien Hong) tracked down the councilman after seeing his shirtless viral video; following some handwringing and a consultation with his therapist, Randall opted to open the door and see what he could learn about Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes), whom he was told had died shortly after giving birth to him. Hai explained that she actually passed away only a few years ago from breast cancer, and he seemed ready to divulge many more details, which prompted Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) to plot a trip to New Orleans to discover how Laurel lived — and what she loved. (And maybe who.)
Before we set out for the Big Easy, shall we update our MySpace page, take ourselves to Funktown Music, ask Shirley if she could be serious, and speak with This Is Us co-executive producer K.J. Steinberg about the pivotal moments of "The Long Road Home," which she wrote? Look, we’re already in it, so let’s get in it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a key episode for Kate in facing down the past. Why was it important for her to face down Marc now? The pandemic has been a time for people to reconnect with those from their past, but a situation like this — getting in touch with an abusive ex — can be pretty fraught.
K.J. STEINBERG: Kate is a character who has fought through a lot of trauma — the loss of her father being chief among them; losing him at such an early age. And I think a lot for Kate is buried deep, deep down, has been buried for her since that fraught time of grieving. And when things crystallized for her as an adult and she was ready to stare down and take control of the rest of her life, there was an urgency to it. And getting that direct line to face the demon himself for her was, in her gut, the only way to do it. Was to look at him and see that he is even smaller than life-size.
Teen Kate decided not to tell Marc her plans to have an abortion after being disgusted and hurt by his behavior. In confronting Marc and letting him know that it was not okay for him to have treated her such a toxic way, adult Kate never mentioned the abortion that she had years ago. Did she plan to tell him, but again change her mind in the moment, feeling that he didn’t deserve to know?
I think as writers, it's our job to reflect the human experience. Kate's experience was organic to her character and true to her character. With even as young as she was when she made her choice, as lonely as it was when making that choice, she was unequivocal in that that decision was right for her. It was an experience that was hers and it was an experience that was actually separate from the long-lived trauma of the relationship with Marc. And so when going to confront Marc, for her, he didn't have claim or ownership to any part of that choice. That was very much about her and her life.
Back in the past, if Marc had said responded better to teen Kate when they reunited, is there a chance that she might not have gone through with the abortion? Or was that just the final straw, seeing that he was so toxic and was never going to change?
I don't think anything would have changed her mind. I think the choice was right for her and her life. He was who he was. Especially in our youth and in the haze of toxic relationships, we're always hoping to get milk from a hardware store. The hardware store don't sell milk. Yet we keep showing up looking for that dairy section, knowing in our hearts that no matter what words come out of that person's mouth or what kind gesture that at the core they are, who they are and our values are our values, and never the twain shall meet.
It gave her further clarity that she was making the right decision for herself.
Yes. I think in her heart of hearts, she went to reinforce what she already knew was the right decision for her, not to look for a way to not have an abortion.
Kate is at home in tears after the procedure, and it's heartbreaking to see that she's unable to share with Rebecca what happened. And we see her, soothing herself with ice cream. What does that do to a teenager, having to keep this massive event to herself while she's still recovering from the death of her father? That is so much to bottle up.
It is so much to bottle up. And what we were trying to show was a rubicon for a character — a point of no return, a tragic missed opportunity. If she had felt that felt she could open up to Rebecca in that moment, would the trajectory of her life had been different? Would the healing has begun sooner? So it was a very important moment for her character, which was juxtaposed with the urgency of 40-year-old Kate having to face Marc now because she had held it for so long.
Abortion is a divisive issue that TV shows have delved into, dating back to Maude, and more recently on such shows as Scandal, Grey's Anatomy, and GLOW. What apprehensions, if any, did you all have in exploring this issue?
There were no apprehensions. I'm very proud to be in a room where no issue, no story line, no line is handled glibly. But that is also to say that we've represented on this show a spectrum of women, some of whom were faced with the specter of an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, and some women were faced with the reality of an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy and made different choices for themselves. So there was zero hesitation in representing a woman who a lot of our audience will see themselves in.
And there was full support from the network?
You've seen how other shows have handled abortion. Was there anything you wanted to do differently?
I wanted it to be as honest as possible. I wanted it to reflect the seriousness of the decision without representing it as a life-defining trauma, because it's not. The trauma was the abusive relationship. The choice was one of empowerment and courage, despite how hard it was for Kate to make. And we're very proud of that.
Toby is so eager to be that No. 1 person for Kate. Were there any versions of this story in which Toby tried to be more involved, maybe even in the confrontation? It clearly needed to be about Kate having the agency in that moment to take charge of her life, but it must've been a challenge to sideline him in the car — which the characters even joke about.
We talked about it a lot. As I said, this room doesn't take anything lightly, and we go back and forth. But it was pretty clear that this was Kate's journey. The relationship was haunting Kate, the choice that she made was hers at a time when she didn't know Toby and her ownership of all of that and her isolation with all of that for better or worse — all of those elements were choices that she made, and therefore freeing herself from any of the feelings that were holding her down or holding her back. Toby was never the agent through which to do that. It was always herself. And it became very clear through every beat of the story that a loving partner's job, that Toby's job — because he is a loving and supportive champion of Kate's growth and Kate's happiness —that his role was to sit by her side and support her in what she needed to do.
By the end of this episode, it seems like Kate got most of the closure she was seeking. Fair to say that there will be reverberations from this?
Marc is put to bed. The devil is dead. And it's a moment of rejoicing for her. It's a freedom for her. I think the reverberations will be quite positive. She's going to be stronger and more decisive going forward.
Switching over to Kevin and Madison: They are at a relationship crossroads. She said, “You said you were all in and I bought that. Take this moment to decide if you really are.” When he said, “I am,” his eyes fluttered a bit and she said, “Take the moment.” How much should we read into his waffling? As she says, the Pearson men love a big speech, but "all in" is a tall order in this fast-tracked scenario.
Kevin is a man with great aspirations to be Jack Pearson. He's always chasing the ghost of his dad. And in that moment, Madison sees him more clearly than he sees himself. I think he wants so desperately to be all in and wasn't lying when he said he was, but sometimes he says things that he needs to catch up to.
Madison has a very strong reaction about staying put with the family. Will viewers learn more about her background and why she's so dead-set against traveling the globe with him, and is maybe even a little selfish about not wanting to do it? As he notes, she knew what his career entailed and what she was getting into, and he clearly has demonstrated commitment to her.
I don't believe it's selfish. I believe that along with him, she's on a ride that had an origin that was very unexpected. The notion of sharing children with someone before you even really know them and building a relationship from there is something that's been difficult for both of them. Living in a tiny, little, intimate, wonderful bubble with him because of not-so-wonderful circumstances, which is COVID, she's experienced almost a dollhouse version of what life could be — just her and Kevin in their home, intimate in this beautiful little cocoon without any interlopers, without the intrusion of his celebrity. So there’s been an unreality for both of them in their experience. And suddenly reality starts poking through in this episode.
That's a good way of putting it. Let's talk about that ending involving Randall and Laurel. Hai describes himself as a close friend of Laurel. Is there much more to that story and their relationship?
I don't want to spoil [episode] 6, which is an extraordinary, extraordinary episode, where you will get all of those answers. I would just say to the audience: make sure that you have a comfortable edge of your seat.
Hai seems like a lovely gentleman. What’s one thing you can tell us about him that we don’t know but we're about to learn?
He’s a Vietnamese refugee who finds his place as a fisherman in New Orleans Parish and meets Laurel in the most unlikely way.
I know you don't want to spoil too much, but among the big questions about Laurel coming into this episode were: Is she still alive? And since she did live for a while after he was born, why didn't she try to get in touch with Randall? And did William lie about her? This episode seemingly answered two of those three questions. Are some of the answers to come rather surprising and more complicated than viewers are expecting? Is that one way of setting it up?
That's a perfect way of explaining it. Everyone's life is an original. Laurel's life is a very specific, original and painful and beautiful tale. Her journey is one that I have not seen before.
We now know that she passed away from breast cancer a few years ago. Did the writers talk about any scenario in which Laurel was still alive, or did it just feel like that was one too many characters thought dead or long-lost coming back into the picture?
It was the latter. A twist or turn is never done for its own sake; it always has to come from an organic place. And it felt inorganic to have her be alive and out there. I mean, loss is a part of life. As I said before, as writers, we're supposed to reflect the human experience. Most people's experience is they lose a loved one and they mourn. And that loss is real and lasting.
How emotional do things in New Orleans get for Randall? Is the Big Easy anything but easy for him?
It's bittersweet. And is anything but easy.
He's working with a therapist now, but he's been through so much. Does he have the tools to accept this and process this and maybe even thrive in his life after what happens down there?
You're going to have to watch it, baby.