This Is Us wrapped up the first half of season 4 with a feast for the senses — specifically, a Thanksgiving feast and the sense that ominous things once again loomed ahead for the Pearsons. Leading up to the Nov. 19 fall finale, devoted son Randall (Sterling K. Brown) had expressed concern that his mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), was experiencing memory loss and mood shifts. While she angrily resisted his pleas for her to seek medical help — cue: an awkward Thanksgiving Eve and morning — after she returned from a head-clearing, air-clearing afternoon, she confided in him that she was in the movie theater watching the trailer for Cats and couldn’t even remember which film she had come to see. “I think I need to see a doctor,” she told her concerned son.
While Turkey Day proved to be all-around eventful — it included a reunion with Deja (Lyric Ross) and her biological mother, Shaunna (Joy Brunson), plus a road trip with Randall and Nicky (Griffin Dunne) to retrieve a Pilgrim Rick hat and to pick up five pounds of shrimp to re-introduce an old T-Day tradition — a flash-forward set nine months into the future also grabbed viewers’ attention and worry. A disoriented Rebecca was picked up by the police and returned to the Pearson family cabin, where Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Kate (Chrissy Metz) were preparing to celebrate their 40th birthday. Not only was Toby conspicuously absent, so was the other birthday boy, Randall. When Rebecca asked Kevin where his brother was, Kevin reminded her, “We’re not speaking, remember?” (Adding to the intrigue of the scene was the revelation that Kevin had a fiancée. Make that a pregnant fiancée.)
You’ve got questions. We’ve got something as good as answers: Sterling K. Brown. The double Emmy winner is currently everywhere — starring in the indie drama Waves, voicing a character in Frozen 2, and guest-starring in the just-released third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — but right now he’s here to analyze the big moves of “So Long, Marianne” and drop a few hints about the angsty action to come.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was quite the holiday for Randall — yet again. When will he learn that Thanksgivings don’t work out so well for him and he should just stop celebrating them?
STERLING K. BROWN: In season 1, just the ebullience that he has coming out of his bedroom, excited to get the holiday started — it’s gone down a little bit. Each year it’s like, “Oh boy, something else is about to happen in my house and I don’t know what it is right now.” [Laughs] By next season, you’ll see a completely different Randall. Like, “Oh God, I gotta get these damn crackers and cheese slices and hot dogs together again.” You’ll just see him eating in a corner by himself while everybody else is over at Kevin’s house.
It’s the first Thanksgiving in Philadelphia. I didn’t even pay attention to it until we were shooting; I was talking to Justin and to Chrissy, I said, “You guys know this is our first scene together this season?” And they’re like, “Oh my God, are you serious?” Because they’ve been together out in L.A., but I’ve been in Philadelphia and then Kevin’s been in Bradford… And then in the same episode, you hear that they’re not talking to each other anymore by the time that we get to our 40th birthday. So that’s going to be an interesting thing to unpack in terms of when that disconnect happens.
We’ve seen Rebecca forgetful, confused, and experiencing erratic behavior shifts. The show now seems to be telling a story about Rebecca suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, and [TIU executive producer] Isaac Aptaker confirmed that they are headed down that path, though they aren’t revealing a specific diagnosis just yet. For a show that traffics in memories and is obsessed with them, to lose one’s memory is a poignant story to tell, as Isaac has pointed out. What resonated with you when you learned that the family’s MVP was going into tragic decline?
I also have an aging parent. My mom is close to 80 now and it’s interesting because she needs more than she’s ever needed before. She’s a fiercely independent human being who’s coming to terms with the loss of that independence and that she can’t do all things by herself. And that she needs the assistance of her children while still wanting to be the mother — and still is the mother — and she’s sort of still in charge but also not at the same time. And how humbling a position that is for a parent to now have to take your children’s guidance into consideration and be okay with the idea that “I’m no longer able to do everything for myself.” That’s a tough space to occupy for both parents and child when the dynamic becomes flipped.
What is [the adult child’s] place in terms of being of help? How forceful does someone need to be in terms of insisting or not insisting and still letting them have their independence? It’s something that a lot of kids who are around 40 can relate to. And it’s something powerful. Mandy was absolutely wonderful in that Thanksgiving episode. I thought she was extraordinary in particular when she’s in the Chinese restaurant and she can’t find her phone. I started crying, like, right there.
Is there another dimension to this situation that we don’t know yet, which may explain why [This Is Us creator] Dan Fogelman has said that the answer here may not be as obvious as it seems right now?
Well, it’s Dan, so there’s always another dimension to everything that he does. But I do think that there’s something really interesting about the nature of memory. What’s real, what’s not. What we think we experienced and what we actually experienced that Rebecca’s declining cognition will give us permission to play with in a very particular way. I think he hesitates to define it exactly because it’s also going to be a way to play with the way in which we tell our story.
Will Randall effectively be adding another huge thing — albeit a very important one — to his already overflowing plate in trying to help Rebecca navigate this ailment?
He loves his mom like nobody’s business. And the idea of him not being at her aid as she enters into one of the more trying periods of her life is anathema. He will make himself available until he uses himself up. And that may be something that we see until he uses him up. That’s what Randall does. He does too much until he can’t do anything else.
What levels of irony did you see in Randall intervening with a family member about their mental well-being, and being shut down, when he very recently did the same thing to Beth a few episodes ago when she expressed concern about his well-being?
Huge levels of irony. It’s so interesting. I’m reminded of the biblical proverb, “You have to remove the plank from your own eye so that you can see clearly to remove the splinter from someone else’s.” We never are able to see our own blind spots, but we’re always so quick to pick out those blind spots of other people. That will be something that will be delved into further on in the second half of the season. And yeah, the parallels are uncanny.
Dating back to childhood, Kevin has had issues with the tight bond that Rebecca and Randall share. Is it fair to assume that Randall’s secret-keeping contributes at least partially to the fracture between the brothers?
That’s fair. Rebecca asked him on a couple of occasions to make sure that he kept this conversation between them to himself. And there’s a couple of times in which Kevin at Thanksgiving asks him point blank, “Where’s Mom? Why is she not here?” Et cetera. And he honors his mother’s wishes, but in honoring his mother’s wishes, he purposefully obfuscates the truth from his brother. He doesn’t like not being able to share, but he also doesn’t want to disrespect what his mother has asked him directly. It’s a difficult position that she has placed him in, and he’s trying the best way he knows how to honor her wishes. But given the nature of Kevin’s jealousy of Randall and Rebecca’s relationship — “Kate had dad and you had Mom and where did that leave me?” — now that they’ve gotten older and that the family is feeling more whole, the idea that he could keep something from his brother, like decisions should be made together, not by himself [is hurtful].
If you remember the past when Jack first passes away, Randall steps up like he’s going to be the man of the house and Kevin had his issues then with Randall asserting himself into that position. I think anytime Randall tries to become the forefront of the family, Kevin will have an issue in terms of like, “Yo. Dude. You are my brother. I love you. But don’t ever act as if you get a chance to steer this family in one particular direction. If anything, the three of us need to make these sorts of decisions together.” … That’s going to be an interesting thing to unpack in terms of when that disconnect happens.
Are there other events to come that might factor into fight, including all these changes in Kevin’s life?
There may be. At this point in time, I’m not 100 percent clear because there have been a few things that Dan is really playing around with. He has an overall view of how he wants story to play out, but there are things where he’s like, “Maybe I’ll put that in season 5, maybe I’ll put that in season 6, maybe I’ll put that in now.” He’s really playing around the idea of when things happen and how he can milk them for dramatic effect. There may be some other things that come into play, but I can’t comment on them because I’m not sure whether or not there’ll be after or before.
We know that they turn out just fine in the deep future, but how bad is this fight? On a scale of Randall and Kevin’s fight on the streets of Manhattan to Jack’s Nicky-is-dead lie to his family, where will this Pearson sibling estrangement rank?
Let’s see. If the fight on the streets is a 2 and then definitely Jack and Nicky is a 10, I would put this around a 6 or a 7.
Kevin told Randall he’d have a wife and kid and the whole shebang by his 40th birthday. Nine months later, he got his wish. We know Kevin to be a fairly impulsive guy, so for him to go from completely single to already engaged to a woman who’s pregnant in nine months could be telling. One read on this situation is, “Good for him for pulling it together so quickly!” But another is, “Um, what has he done this time?” Which way should we lean?
For such a long time he was unclear. And even to the point where when he was back with Sophie [Alexandra Breckenridge], when she brought up the idea of children, he had nightmares. Like, “I can’t see myself becoming a father. That would be awful.” Then he finds someone who doesn’t want children, he’s like, “Cool, we’re on the same page.” But then he’s like, “Eh, maybe I do want children,” now that he’s with Zoe [Melanie Liburd] and she’s like, “This is never going to be a part of the equation.” And I think it took him to age 39 to be clear on what it was that he wanted for his life. He has all the trappings of fame and fortune, and he’s still feeling empty. And this time in Pennsylvania with his uncle and with Cassidy gave him a sense of family, a sense of responsibility to other people outside of themselves. And it felt good. So now I think it’s not so much of an impulsion, it’s a recognition of “That thing that I wasn’t clear on, I finally have clarity.” So I lean towards it being a positive.
We seem to have gotten a peek at the season 5 premiere, given that premieres always start on a birthday. Does the second half of the season spend a lot of time setting up that tense birthday? What’s in store?
First of all, when Dan thinks that you have him figured out, he often likes to flip it a little bit. So whether or not that is indeed the season 5 premiere on our birthday remains to be seen. Yeah, we will set it up. Structurally, we have some interesting things coming up where, so in season 2, when we had the episodes that focused on Kevin, Kate and Randall, they were called 1, 2, and 3, we’re going to be doing something similar towards the beginning of the second half of season 4. And then those things will intersect and then they’ll have an episode together… The last couple of episodes will really set up what’s going to be happening in the season to come.
What’s a final tease about the second half of season 4 that you can leave people with?
There’s discomfort. Rebecca’s cognition and the state of the matriarch of this family is going to be something that’s tough to watch for most people and how they come to terms with it, accept it, how they move forward with it. It’s uncomfortable to watch someone that you love start to fail themselves. Their body, their brains starting to fail themselves is something tough to watch. But what I love is that this family never forsakes: They show up for each other, and you find a way to move forward together. That’s something that most families can relate to and will find hope in, that you come together. Even when you fracture — and you may fracture for a period of time — you ultimately, at the end of the day, come back together.
To read what This Is Us co-showrunner Isaac Aptaker revealed about the fall finale and what happens next, head over here.