This Is Us creator breaks down that gasp-inducing twist in the premiere

Dan Snierson
·14 min read

NBC (2)

This Is Us just unleashed the mother of all twists.

After a seven-month absence, NBC's emotionally turbocharged family drama returned on Tuesday with a two-part season 5 premiere, "Forty Part 1" and "Forty Part 2," that promptly soldiered into family and world affairs. Following their vicious fight in the season 4 finale, brothers Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) went their own ways without resolution in these pandemic times (which, yes, featured some mask-wearing and talk of tests). Kevin shacked up with Madison (Caitlin Thompson) — a.k.a. Kate's-yappy-friend-turned-one-night-stand-turned-expectant-mother-of-his-children — and Councilman Randall worked to supply PPE to constituents and, alongside his family, processed the Black Lives Matter protests unfolding on TV in the wake of George Floyd's killing.

As previously previewed, the brothers celebrated birthday No. 40 separately as well. Randall opted to stay at home in Philadelphia with his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), and their children, questioning whether he was born and adopted on the same day. Meanwhile, Kevin and his about-to-be-fiancée-in-a-really-weird-way Madison headed to the family cabin to reunite with his sister, Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Kate's husband, Toby (Chris Sullivan) — who as well as their quarantining mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and her husband, Miguel (Jon Huertas). But when Rebecca — who has been diagnosed with an early form of Alzheimer's — became disoriented while running an errand in town (and ultimately required a police escort home), Randall drove up to the cabin, leading to one awkward reunion. With Kevin, sure, but actually much more with Kate, as those two siblings had an uncomfortable, messy, pointed, heartfelt, and necessary conversation about the country's racial reckoning.

While the Big Three hit the Big 4-0 in the present day, their most important birthday — the very first one — served as the focus of the past story. Viewers learned that Randall's now-deceased biological father, William (the young version played by Jermel Nakia), had twice briefly crossed paths with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) at the hospital where a fireman had taken baby Randall, who had been left outside the firehouse. But a much bigger revelation was lying in wait — and on the floor. Throughout the two-part premiere, viewers learned more about the circumstances of Randall's birthday, as well as William's girlfriend, Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes), who supposedly died of a drug overdose after giving birth to Randall. Flashbacks showed Laurel — who William once described as a "warm drink, straight to your soul" — as a vibrant, determined woman who fell prey to addiction and had been dealt some bad breaks, but cleaned up her life as she prepared for motherhood. But after she gave birth, she was in such pain that she begged William, who also battled drug addiction, for one hit to ease the burden. He relented, she overdosed, and he frantically called out for help. After the paramedics failed to resuscitate her and prepared to call child services, William fled with baby Randall, dropping him off at the fire station, where the Pearson part of Randall's story began. But after William changed his mind and went to the nearest hospital, he became overwhelmed and fled on the bus again. Viewers then returned to his apartment, where the paramedics suddenly detected a pulse in Laurel and then… a flickering of the eyes, a gasp of life, and another jaw-dropping Pearson whoa-ment.

How will Randall — who was stunned to reunite with the terminally ill William in season 1 — react when he discovers this news? How would that even happen? When might we meet his mother, if she's even still alive? Let's heat up some seven-layer lasagna, praise Rita Moreno, make promises about our facial hair that we won't keep, and air-hug it out with Twist Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, who sheds light on the premiere, especially that episode ender. "Sterling texted me after he read [the script] in all caps: YOU MOTHERF---ER," recalls Fogelman. "So yeah, I'm excited." Don't take a rain check — read on.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The story of Randall's mother has been almost walled off as a dead end storywise, given that Randall was told she died of an overdose. But viewers and Randall have always wondered about her. Over the years did you find yourself increasingly curious about what kind of story possibilities lurked in that arena and you couldn't resist opening up that box in a surprising way — though in some ways it was a natural one to tell?

DAN FOGELMAN: If you look back on the show, we've spoken about it in the show most recently vis a vis [Dr. Leigh, played by Pamela Adlon] in therapy, about how it's interesting that Randall has always viewed his identity story as a kind of battle between these two patriarchal figures of Jack and William. His closest relationship is with his mother and he's kind of a mama's boy with Rebecca, but his birth mother, Laurel, has just never been a door he's really opened up. I think it points to a bunch of things, but it was always something that in the back of our minds, we knew it was a part of Randall's story that would be explored towards the back half of his run. How we executed it and got there we've been bandying about for quite a while, but it felt like for a character who is constantly searching and constantly grappling with his identity, this is the last card that needs to be unfolded for him. And it's not just about: Is she alive in present day, or will he interact with her? It's more about: Will Randall get to learn her story? And if he does, what will that do for him?

William seemed stained with regret and guilt, and based on what we know about him, it would seem to track more logically that some of that guilt stemmed from his believing that he contributed to her death, not that he was hiding a secret about one of Randall's parents, like Rebecca did. Then again, since William was still living in Pittsburgh when Rebecca went to see him in the show's third episode, it would seem logical that he would know that his girlfriend had cheated death. So, how possible is that he did find out that she was alive?

I think it's very possible. Later episodes will speak to that. This was a man who was lost during that period and relapsed and fell, and hard. I think it's a combination of circumstance — just the butterfly effect of decisions made and not made that don't allow you to receive information as well as some stuff that's lost in the haze of a relapse. That becomes a big question for Randall that gets addressed pretty quickly head-on.

The audience knows more than Randall at this moment, that Laurel did at least survive that fateful day. What can you hint about the manner in which she might re-enter the fold ?

I can't hint a lot, other than to say there's no way to guess it. [Laughs] And not because it's, like, crazy. It's just so specific that if somebody guessed, it would mean that they're a psychic.

The most logical thing would be related to Randall's elevated profile as a politician.

That does play a part in it. I'm talking about the specifics of how stuff might get there or not get there. But that does play a role.

How soon might viewers get illumination on the big questions, such as, "Why Laurel didn't seek out William over the years to track down Randall?" or "Was she even capable of that?" Or "Is she even alive today?"

The first half of the season will give all the answers — and even before then. A bigger question coming is with those answers provided, especially for Randall, what does that do for him? And how does that effect change — or not effect change — in his life?

Poor Randall can only handle so much drama in one lifetime, and he has this uneasy alliance with his anxiety management at the moment. What could a revelation like this do to him? You think about how powerfully he was affected by his discovery of William. Do we need to find him that new therapist pretty fast?

Beyond even just mental health, I think many people who struggle with identity questions have certain boxes that they're willing to open at certain times and certain ones that they're not willing to at certain times because they're worried it might swallow them up whole. I think that it's fair to say for Randall — it would be a concern for me as an audience member and to him as a character.

You already had unspooled a surprising twist with viewers finding out that Jack's brother, Nicky [Michael Angarano], wasn't actually dead. What hesitations did you have about a similar type of revelation here? On the flip side, what excited you about the possibility of this one?

Sure. It's very different than the Nicky thing. Obviously it's a reveal that somebody that we've been told isn't around [is]. I mean, Nicky wasn't a prominent character in Jack's narrative for those first seasons. There were a couple of references to him having had a brother and then [we] revealed that Jack was keeping that information purposely away from his family. This is more of a direct [situation]. Nobody has the information that the audience is being given right now. And Laurel, Randall's birth mother, has been such an intrinsic part of this storytelling, even though she hasn't been a big part of the story from the very beginning. This is actually a much bigger reveal… I think when the Laurel story is told to completion, people will see that it's very different.

Sterling has mentioned that Randall goes on a journey of discovery and healing involving his past, something in the vein of season 1's "Memphis." What can you hint about this trip to a different city, which I assume is tied to this revelation?

Potentially. I can't speak too much about it, but there are reflections of the past in that. I think often, with many of our characters — and with many of our lives — it sometimes takes a little bit of a journey to figure out a story, the physical journey becoming both a spiritual and a figurative one. So that's on the table here.

The episode addresses both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement [which Fogelman talks about here]. The most intriguing conversation takes place when Kate cautiously checks in with Randall and he challenges her about what she's actually "sorry" for and how only now is she interested in understanding his pain, when Black people have been dying on camera for some time. There are so many layers to this conversation, and obviously there's love and history between these siblings. How did this scene come to life in the writers' room? Did it reflect some of the actual conversations that the writers were having?

For sure. I think our country is having complicated conversations right now. Our writer's room certainly was having them, both as it affected our daily lives as people who care about one another and have spent the last five years working together, and also as people who felt responsible to figure out what the story was for these characters inside of this episode. A lot of it was born out of that. A lot of it was also extra challenging because we kept reminding ourselves — and Kay [Oyegun, who co-wrote the episode with Fogelman and Jake Schnesel] was great at constantly reminding us that these aren't just people who are friends or work together. This is a family. So that makes for a very, very specific dynamic, right?

The protests after George Floyd began the night I was having my child in a hospital, and you could see the protests in Los Angeles happening outside our window. So when I came back to work pretty quickly, there was a lot in the air. Our staff, from assistants on down, are hopefully told to and empowered to participate in conversations so that we can have a collective conversation. And in the end, that scene was very much born from our brilliant writer Kay, but also there was a lot of back-and-forth between Kay and I, just figuring out what our levels were, and offering perspectives and being willing to be clumsy around each other — particularly me being clumsy around her. I'm really proud of what it turned into. When we were on set that day, watching these two wonderful actors read those words that Kay had written, I think we all recognized that we were watching something really special, just two actors really digging in on something that I hadn't really seen before. Our family dynamic, Randall's adoption story, his family, and these characters are really interesting. So for all those reasons, it felt very much of our show, even though we were exploring stuff that was in complicated thematic territory.

The show has thoughtfully handled issues of race, but the way you plant your flag in this moment of racial reckoning and aren't afraid to explore these issues — is the message here that the show will be staking out this territory in future episodes and viewers should be prepared for more raw and honest conversations?

Yeah. And I think particularly as it relates to the siblings here, there's a couple of things at play. It's complicated to speak to, but I don't think the show lives in a space where it's trying to just come out and voice social messages out loud. We more try to live in these really decent characters who love one another and they're wildly flawed, and we say, "Here's all the stuff that's going on. And if these characters were real-life human beings, here's how they'd be interacting against it, railing against it, loving against it." When it comes to race, particularly because our writers haven't been afraid to go there, we try not to shy away. But these are uncomfortable conversations, and frankly they're uncomfortable conversations for white people. And they should be. So no, we're not backing away from that.

And as we move forward, these things don't just get resolved in one episode of television. When eventually the family find the forum to dive into these things, we have to be willing to go there. And it's something even on set, while we were filming that scene, Kay and I were talking about. We have to be willing to go there, and we have to be willing to let our characters say the wrong thing and mess up or else it's not true to who the characters are… You want to just try to be honest with what you think Randall and Kevin and Kate would be thinking, saying, and doing in these moments.

The show is off next week for the election, but it's back on Nov. 10. What is your cryptic one-sentence tease for the third episode?

We get back to our little ones, our 13-year-olds. There's one of those story lines that plays like a little bit of a mystery in the course of the episode — and then provide the beginning of an answer by the end. [Laughs] That's very cryptic.

Looking for more season 5 intel? Fogelman dropped more hints. Chrissy Metz did the same, as did Chris Sullivan. And you might want to hear what Milo Ventimiglia had to say. Susan Kelechi Watson, too. Oh, and Justin Hartley. And Sterling K. Brown. And don't forget Mandy Moore.

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