'This Is Us' Creator Breaks Down Standalone Episode

Dan Fogelman on whether there will be more of Dr. K's backstory, bringing back that character from the pilot and what's next.
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Tuesday's episode of This is Us, "The Big Day."]

If viewers thought they were out of the woods in terms of This Is Us’ emotional episodes now that Toby (Chris Sullivan) is alive and well, they had another think coming to them in a tear-jerking, standalone episode of the NBC drama.

“The Big Day” flashed all the way back to Aug. 31, 1980, a day the story hasn’t really revisited since the twisty pilot episode. As a very pregnant Rebecca (Mandy Moore) forgot Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) birthday and kicked him out of the house for some alone time, the story also went a little deeper into the history of Dr. K (Gerald McRaney) and of the firefighter (Brian Oblak) who first brought Randall (Sterling K. Brown) to the hospital as a baby.

It was a big episode in particular for fan favorite Dr. K, as viewers met his son and learned more about his wife’s tragic passing.

“All I had to do was imagine losing my wife and I was there,” McRaney says of the gut-punching graveyard scene in the episode. “I was crying reading the episode.”

To dig a little deeper into the storyline, find out why now was the time to bring the firefighter back and to preview what’s coming up when the show opens back up to the present-day arc, THR caught up with showrunner Dan Fogelman.

Why was this the time to do a standalone episode?

I felt like we had this little break in the middle of our season and it felt like a nice place to come back to. We knew we were going to start the back half by going earlier to Jack and Rebecca’s pregnancy, so the natural place chronologically in the following week was to go a little deeper into the pregnancy. Even though we’re jumping around in time a lot, we don’t want to ping-pong so much that you get dizzy. The next episode we’ll pick up with the 10-year-old kids, so a little further down the line, and then the next episode we’ll pick up with the older kids — so even further down the line. Then that’s pretty much where we’ll remain for the rest of the season with them. We try and always make it so we’re not going all over the place.

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In crafting the back half, are you looking to answer the “where is Jack” mystery or is that a season-two play?

We’ve always had a plan for how we were going to sparse the information about Jack and what happened to Jack. We want it to be fulfilling for the audience in that they’re getting information bit by bit and not frustrating, but at the same point not show everything too quickly. It’s fair to say that by the end of the season people have an understanding about a lot of the details of what happened to Jack but not a complete understanding of the how. They might know the when, but now how or what the situation was or where the marriage was at the time. It will be a discovery as we move forward into the second and third seasons of the show.

When did you know you wanted to bring Brian Oblak back as the firefighter?

I always knew I wanted to do more and I always wanted to do this particular episode. Brian had two or three lines in the pilot; he worked for half a day. So whenever I would be pitching the story, I’d say, “I want to do three stories: the 24 hours leading up to Mandy’s water breaking, the 24 hours leading up to Dr. K getting the call to come deliver the babies, and the 24 hours of the fireman who found Randall at his fire station doorstep.” And everybody would be like, “Who’s the fireman?” I couldn’t quite remember Brian’s name, it was six months ago. I wrote the script and had Brian come by the offices and just kind of talked him through it with the director and read the pages a little. It was just right in his wheelhouse. He was fantastic and it worked out. It was obviously a big opportunity for Brian, and he took it and ran with it. It’s a real highlight for me, he’s a working actor who didn’t audition for a part of this size but he held his own with some of the best actors out there and just killed it. It was a really exciting part of the episode for everybody.

Now that Dr. K’s backstory is open, is there a possibility of revisiting his family life?

That’s it for now, but there’s a lot of possibility and it’s always been a little bit a part of the show, this idea that we’re all together – especially the family and things that touch the family. We’re all in this singular, gigantic life as a whole. Our lives touch others and that’s generational. There’s a real opportunity that one day deeper into this series, we’ll not only be exploring more of Dr. K, but what he was like as a young man. People would be interested in going back 30, 40 years and seeing what Dr. K was like when he was 30 years old, and met his wife. That’s a really interesting thing about this series, is our ability to be able to do that as we move forward.

Will Miguel ever get a big backstory?

We’re getting a lot of Miguel coming up actually. I’m editing right now and I’m editing a ton of Miguel in upcoming episodes. You’re going to learn a lot more about Miguel, about his relationship with Jack, about his own marriage. So yes. There’s a lot of Miguel stuff coming.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

What did you think of the episode? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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