This Is Us unveiled a paternity test of a different kind on Tuesday night, focusing on a quartet of dads who found themselves struggling with the weight of their responsibilities and their place in the family. And for a few of them, it was complicated by the fact that they sometimes couldn't be there.
Toby (Chris Sullivan) was living a bifurcated life, working a shiny new corporate IT gig in San Francisco during the week and flying back to L.A. on the weekends to cram a week's worth of memories into 36 hours. But he overcompensated with armfuls of gifts, when all that his wife, Kate (Chrissy Metz), really needed was for him to respect the kids' ever-changing schedule. (Their happy family-cookout pledge was undercut with foreboding for viewers, who know that divorce will be added to the menu.) Kate's brother Kevin (Justin Hartley) was also feeling the frustrations of outside-looking-in parenting: He butted heads with ex-fiancée Madison (Caitlin Thompson), lamenting the fact that he took a job on the Manny reboot to be at home near their infant twins but he still was missing too many magic milestones.
The other Big Three member, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), would find himself on the road to distress and discombobulation. While taking Deja (Lyric Ross) for driving lessons, he learned by accident (thankfully not the car-crash kind) that his daughter had lied to him, slipped out of town, and slept with her boyfriend, Malik (Asante Blackk). Worse yet, after a lovely moment in which Randall opened up to her about how he was trying to preserve this childhood in amber, he told her that she couldn't go back to Boston, and she responded with words that every parent fears to hear: "Well, that's going to be a problem."
Meanwhile back in the past, overworked Pearson patriarch Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) was feeling guilty that he'd been missing too many potentially formative moments and decided to take the young Big Three to their first movie. Alas, Jack fell asleep at the theater and Kevin bailed halfway through An American Tail, prompting an anxious search for Kevin that resolved quickly, but only because Rebecca (Mandy Moore) had written his phone number inside his shoes. She'd act as Most Valuable Pearson yet again by reminding Jack, "Until a day is over, there's always a chance you'll remember it for something else." And so Jack transformed into SuperDad mode and recreated a movie theater night at home, saving the day! Well, that is until he received a phone call that his mother had died.
Ron Batzdorff/NBC (3) Sterling K. Brown, Blake Stadnik, and Chris Sullivan on 'This Is Us'
The episode also transported viewers far into the future, where Jack Jr. (Blake Stadnik) smoked tasty meat in a Big Green Egg that Toby had purchased for the family long ago. When a memory suddenly washed over Jack Jr., wife Lucy (Auden Thornton) alluded to the physical (see: Jack Jr.'s forehead) and emotional scars left behind from a dark day in the Pearson past, leaving viewers to chew on a new mystery: What's the story with that smoker, which she called "the literal symbol of the day your mom and dad's marriage blew up"?
Let's clean the vomit out of our hair, make sure we have both our eyebrows, propel our body in a forward motion in an upright manner, try to avoid a double yam blowout, and ask co-executive producers and episode writers Casey Johnson and David Windsor all about the pivotal moments of "Four Fathers."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let's start here: How alarmed should viewers be that a fateful exploding-cooker moment is to come?
CASEY JOHNSON: Well, I think we can assure everyone that the smoker doesn't explode. That's not what happened. We can relax a little bit about that. But it is a moment that has stayed with Jack.
DAVID WINDSOR: It leads to a bigger story line in a future episode.
So the company that makes the Big Green Egg and is cowering in fear after the Crock-Pot tragedy can be reassured by what you're saying right now?
JOHNSON: They can totally be reassured. The only thing that happens in the future with the smoker is that it makes delicious meat that everyone enjoys.
The episode hints that Jack Jr.'s first memory is steeped in some sort of trauma, but when he's asked about why he still uses the cooker, he says, "I keep it because it's delicious." Does this speak to the idea we shouldn't be defined by any sort of tragedy, that we can find the good surrounding a painful memory, and that even painful memories can be worth keeping if they're put in proper perspective?
WINDSOR: That's exactly right. Even though it was difficult and literally painful for him, it still had purpose and shaped his life in a way. Maybe that's the reason why he's got this amazing life and this beautiful house and this huge career. Whatever that moment is served a purpose in his life.
What appealed to you about building this episode around these four dads who were dealing with different kinds of parenting angst and figuring out their place in their family?
WINDSOR: Both Casey and I are parents, and for me so much of this was a personal thing, because I'm going through this now as a single dad and raising my kids and realizing how difficult it is to balance life and work. All you want to do at the end of the day is be the best father that you can. And just as you feel like you have it under control and you understand how to do it, the next phase of a child's life happens and you realize you know nothing. And so it was really enjoyable to dive into all of those different emotions and feelings and heartaches that go along with being a parent.
We felt the responsibility of showing dads in this light of being these loving, caring parents. For the longest time, dads have sort of been "the second parent" in a lot of ways, and here we have these four incredible men that are doing an amazing job, raising children in very different ways. We knew we had the opportunity to do that with these guys — and hopefully we did.
These fathers had another thing in common: Behind each of them is a mother holding down the family, doing a lot of invisible work that these dads don't always see. What were those discussions like in the writers' room?
JOHNSON: We did talk about that quite a bit in the room as well. We have a lot of moms, we have a lot of dads. Especially for David, the Kevin story was really important to tell because that is the one story — I mean, Kate and Toby are separated because of work right now — where the parents are in two different households. One thing we talked about was the expectation of what it's all going to be like. For Kate and Toby, their expectations have changed and the day-to-day pressures of everything are put on Kate right now. So their roles are very different, and there's conflict between them because Toby doesn't know the schedule. Even if he wants to know the kids' schedule, he can't right now. It's similar in that way to Rebecca and Jack right now: She's the one who has to take the crying kids to the park and deal with all of that all the time, and Jack's the one that's missing out on that. We loved playing with that idea of what you expect parenting to be like and what you think your role is going to be, put up against the reality of your life and how it's never what you think it's going to be.
Just curious, I know that Jon Huertas was busy directing this episode, but was there ever talk of doing "Five Fathers," with a second flashback story featuring Miguel and his other family?
WINDSOR: Jon had his hands full.
JOHNSON: There will also be a Miguel episode this season, which we're very, very excited about. But I'm glad you brought up Jon — he was so much fun to work with and the relationship he has with all the other cast members just made it a delight to be shooting this episode with him.
When Kevin bemoans his status as outsider parent to Madison, she explains how this isn't a picnic for her, and he… apologizes. Then when he's feeling vulnerable, he doesn't medicate with the booty-call text. Three seasons ago Kevin didn't have that maturity or skills. Can new Kevin solve his unhappiness and figure out how to make this co-parenting venture less stressful?
WINDSOR: It's amazing what children will do to you and how they'll help you grow and mature. Once he realized he had these two little babies that he was ultimately responsible for, it really puts everything else in perspective. I know it certainly did for me. You realize that nothing else in the world really matters as much as your kids. And that's why becoming a dad, even though it wasn't the perfect circumstance, was ultimately the best thing that could have happened to Kevin, because it gave him a purpose in life and something to focus on. And I think of all the characters, perhaps he needed that the most.
JOHNSON: For Kevin, he's always been chasing the legacy of his dad. That's been a driving force in his life, and having kids is something that brings him closer to his dad. But like David was saying, it's still not the way he envisioned it. It's not the four of them sitting around the table, like he thought it would. So while he's closer to the man he wants to be, he still feels a bit unsettled. And that's what we want to play with this season — this grown-up version of Kevin who, like you said, isn't as reactive, but is still searching for his footing a little bit.
WINDSOR: I do think Kevin is on a good path. And as hard as it is, he's really realizing like, "Oh, you know, maybe it is this triangle." That scene between him and Toby, and him realizing like, "Oh, it's not the four of us" — there was a very specific moment in my life that I realized that it was me and my kids, and it was the three of us tackling life together. It was very cathartic, and that hopefully that's the case for Kevin.
Just when we think we're done with Cassidy, you drag us back in. So… was that a friendly check-in, or are you laying the groundwork for something else?
JOHNSON: We love that Cassidy is the person Kevin calls. They have a lot in common, even though on paper they're totally different. He's a movie star, she's a vet, they come from very different worlds. But they've been through similar challenges and they really can meet each other where they are. So we love that when he is about make a booty call, he calls Cassidy. There's more story we want to tell with Cassidy, and there's more story we want to tell between Kevin and Cassidy.
Toby has the best intentions in taking this long-distance job, but isn't this a bit overwhelming for a guy who's battled depression and felt overwhelmed with responsibility and now seems to be burning the candle at both ends and is overcompensating with gifts?
WINDSOR: You're absolutely right. At the same time, he's been wanting to find his own purpose a little bit, and having this job maybe achieves that for him. But it's not in the best circumstance. It's in a different city and he's really going back and forth, and that's wearing him down a little bit. But as hard as it is, I think he's also finding some satisfaction in this new job, and he's finally at a company that he really enjoys. That's going to continue to be a story line for him — that struggle between not being in the same city with his kids and his wife but then also being very satisfied at work. That's a really difficult thing for him to reconcile.
Phillip starts to open up to Kate, advising her to take it as a good sign that she's still talking about the little stuff in her relationship. That triggers some kind of emotion in Kate. What can you say about what's going on in her head now?
JOHNSON: We saw from the last episode last season that they end up together. Talking to him in this moment, you maybe think, "Uh oh, is this a moment where they connect?" But we loved that Phillip actually turned Kate back to Toby. And his words really landed on her, like, "We are still talking about it, it's okay. I need to go back to Toby and we need to connect." It's so interesting to watch them try to connect, try to have this date night, but it's forced, they only have so much time and they're tired and they're holding these little resentments with each other. But that moment — for us, at least — was Kate wanting to put down her little resentments in the moment so that they could come back together. But when we flash to Jack Jr. in the future again, we know that this little repair doesn't hold.
Phillip is very self-loathing and has a lot of demons, but he's surprisingly helpful here, and you're starting to humanize him. Fair to say this is a guy who's going to surprise in a lot of different ways?
WINDSOR: That's all of season 6, right there! We're going to figure all that stuff out. As Casey said, in that one scene where he finally shares something real about himself, I think that's surprising for her along with helping her heal a little bit with Toby. But she finally, for the first time, sees him as not just this snarky Brit but as someone who has gone through something.
I think it's also a realization like, "Oh, he was married? And that fell apart?" It's like, "Oh, this guy isn't necessarily exactly what we think he is." That's such a big part of this show — just when you think you have a bead on somebody, hopefully we take a different direction that makes you realize, "Oh, you don't have the full story." You never have the full story of anyone that you ever meet. That's going to be a lot of what this year is. We do know that they end up being together, so we want to find out how that happens and what it is that they see in each other and what Kate discovers about him that isn't just a smart-ass Englishman.
JOHNSON: On the other side, we really want to take our time with Kate and Toby's relationship, because we know it's a relationship that the audience really cares about, and it's complicated and it's delicate.
Randall really wants to spend time with his daughter, joking with Beth [Susan Kelechi Watson] that driving lessons are one way for him to force her to connect. Does he need to be careful what he wishes for, because he might find out what's really going on? And if he's going to have open, honest conversations, he'll need to restrain himself from judging, try to react more like Beth did, and realize that he can't ground the situation out of her.
JOHNSON: It's so funny, I have two teenagers and I feel like that's my daily experience: "Tell me everything, tell me everything! Oh my God, I didn't want to know that!" That just felt very real to us. And especially with Randall and Deja, because at the end he says he hasn't gotten as much time with her, so it feels so precious. That very normal teenage pulling away is going even be more difficult for Randall to deal with.
WINDSOR: So much of that story and actually a lot of this episode comes from my and Casey's lives being parents of these teenagers and pre-teenagers. Him realizing that he can trap her in a car to have a conversation with her is something that I did with my son. We started having conversations about the birds and the bees, and he just didn't want to talk about. I was like, "Okay, we have a 45-minute drive across town, we're in a locked car together, he's going to at least be able to hear what I have to say, even if he doesn't want to engage with me." We just thought that was a wonderful way for them to do that. And then it really becomes so much more than Randall bargained for.
After Randall forbids her from going to Boston again, she says, "Well, that's going to be a problem." We know Deja is strong-willed and independent, so is a skirmish or a war coming?
JOHNSON: I'd say… it's in between a skirmish and a war, whatever that is.
WINDSOR: It's a skwar.
Umberto Eco, who wrote The Name of the Rose, once said, "I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom." You can apply this to many This Is Us situations, and certainly to Randall thinking that his parenting comes in the driving lesson, when it's actually going to be how he handles this Malik situation.
JOHNSON: Absolutely. That's a beautiful quote. Maybe a less beautiful quote is "Life is what happens when you're busy making plans." All of these fathers envision these moments that we're going to remember forever and are going to make a big imprint on our lives, but that's never how it happens. It's the other moments that are really what life is about.
WINDSOR: That's what I loved about that Randall-Deja scene at the end, with him admitting to her, "Listen, I'm doing the best that I can. I'm a little bit behind where you are right now, but if you're patient with me and are understanding with me the way I will be with you, we'll be able to get through this together." It's such a wonderful, honest moment that then is cut with her being like, "But I'm still my own woman. And we're going to have issues if I don't get to be able to do that." I just thought that was so interesting and tense. Randall's in this place of, "Well, now what do I do?" Just when he started to get to handle on it! That seems like parenting to a tee to me.
Rebecca reassures Jack, "Until the day is over, there's always a chance you'll remember it for something else." That hints at the ethos of This Is Us, especially when Jack gets that phone call. But before that, Jack is concerned with how the kids are forming memories without him and what they'll remember for the rest of their lives, and you can't help but think about his tragic death, knowing how formative that night was for the Big Three. On the other hand, he's worried he isn't measuring up as a dad, but that's not how the Big Three remember him at all. He imprinted as SuperDad.
JOHNSON: I love the idea that he was so worried about not being there for dinner, that that was going to be hard for them. And here we all know that they have this, this other truly, truly difficult memory that's really going to shape all of their lives.
At the end of the episode, Jack gets a call that his mom died. There's a lot of complication wrapped up in that relationship; he saved her from his dad's abusive clutches but has had little to do with her since and kept her at arm's length. How challenging is it going to be for him next week to unpack his guilt and grief?
WINDSOR: Just you wait!
JOHNSON: It's a really beautiful, complicated episode that deals with all of that, written by Elan Mastai, who just did a fantastic job. A lot of it came from his own experience, but Jack's really going to have to face all of that — the good and the bad of his past with his mom.