'This Is Us' Creator Reveals Game Plan Behind Big Jack Reveal

The first-year NBC drama finally reveals Jack's whereabouts in the present-day storyline.
Vivian Zink/NBC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, "The Game Plan."]

From the pilot episode of This Is Us, it was clear the family-oriented series was going to dole out emotional punches wherever it could squeeze them in. And so, after weeks of failing to answer where Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) was in the present-day timeline, the fifth episode of the freshman drama finally clued audiences in to his whereabouts: cremated in an urn at Kate’s (Chrissy Metz) place. At some point between the past and present, Jack passed away, which explains why Ventimiglia hasn't shown up in older makeup yet.

Critics who received advanced viewing copies of the original pilot knew the twist was coming for weeks; Sterling K. Brown’s Randall character originally threw a line in about his father being dead, but that line was taken out shortly before the premiere in order to hold the surprise a little longer for viewers.

“As far as I know, my character hits an end at a certain point, and, as [showrunner] Dan Fogelman said, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m gone off the show, but it’s a very real thing,” Ventimiglia previously told THR. “It’s been an ongoing discovery of how Jack influences his kids’ lives when they’re younger, but also in the present day. We’re hopefully going to see the way these characters all handle that and have to work through the trials and tribulations of life.”

“It is interesting that they decided to hold it,” added co-star Mandy Moore, who plays Jack’s wife, Rebecca. “I guess it just makes sense in terms of keeping people guessing. They won’t know when he died, necessarily. It could be that Jack and Rebecca got divorced and she got remarried and he died after that. I think they’re going to hold that story and what exactly happened until probably the end of this season.”

To learn the actual plan and to find out what else is in store for the series heading into the upcoming midseason finale, THR caught up with Fogelman. He discussed holding off that heartbreaking twist, using Moore’s voice on the show, what that ending with Randall packing up William’s (Ron Cephas Jones) things meant and the emerging timelines.

When did you decide to take the line about Jack’s death out? Leading into the premiere, some of the actors still were teasing that particular twist, not knowing it had been removed.

It was a decision we made not too late, but I failed to completely communicate it with the cast; we weren’t shooting because it was the summer. It’s not like we changed the story, we just changed the promotion of the story in terms of not talking about that part of it.

Were you looking to make the death reveal feel a little more heartfelt or heavy?

Yes. There is still a lot to learn. We’re spreading out the information of the family; it’s not a gimmick or a trick. But as an audience, you’re learning about things as you go, and the idea is that now you have another piece of information. In episode two, you find out that Rebecca has wound up with Jack’s best friend, Miguel (Jon Huertas), and there are a lot of questions. What the hell happened there? Now here, in episode five, we learn that Jack has passed away. But that still doesn’t tell you everything. It doesn’t tell you when he passed away, what may or may not have happened to their marriage in between. So there’s still a lot of information to come and to go. If you had known Jack had passed away when you were watching the second episode, Miguel showing up at the door wouldn’t have had quite the same impact after an episode where you’re watching them navigate the ups and downs of a marriage. I think it was the right decision.

How far in advance have you mapped out the show at this point?

We [have] seasons mapped out loosely, but pretty specifically too — especially when it comes to Jack and Rebecca. Hopefully when you’re watching the show, you can feel that there’s a plan and feel that confidence. We came in with a strong idea of where we wanted to go, and we’re mapped out for a couple seasons' worth of stuff — where we’re going to reveal stuff and how we’re going to reveal it.

What about in terms of revealing the situation surrounding Jack’s death?

At the end of episode five, you know he’s no longer alive, but when did he die and how? Did he die as an older man? Did he die in a formative way when these kids were younger? And what happened in the marriage? Did their marriage survive as beautifully and heroically as we had hoped? Or did it fracture and then he died? By the end of this season, you will have a lot of those details. You won’t know how things have happened, but you’ll know what happens and when.

Are there plans to see how his death affects the other children and present-day Rebecca?

Definitely. Even though we never really have spoken about it until now and have primarily focused on Kate in this episode, you can feel that Jack is kind of a superhero dad. You can feel that there’s something, in a romantic and melancholy way, broken in each of these people. You have to think that a big part of that has to do with whatever happened here. It’s something we start peeling back the layers of as we move forward. The death of any parent affects a family. The death of this particular parent, no matter when and how it happened, is clearly going to affect these three kids because he’s kind of the best dad ever. It’s going to be a big thing that we explore this season and seasons to come.

By episode five, there are roughly four timelines. Are there plans to add more?

In the seventh episode, we establish a completely new past time frame in the family. Then that one goes away for a little while and comes back big at the end of this season. So that will be another one. And yeah, we’re playing in a couple more as we move forward. Our goal is to be really ambitious and really challenging, but also to keep the show really accessible so that your mom and dad don’t get lost watching it. We try to be really careful with how we jump around in time and give markers for where we are moving forward.

Does that include plans to reveal how Jack and Rebecca first met?

That is a time frame we’re going to explore, but we’re going to actually move into the future in the seventh episode, where the kids have gotten older but they’re still not teens yet; they’re like 13. And we’re going to move forward from there.

Did that involve casting new actors?

We’ve cast new kids and then, as we come back and continue on, we tend to stick in our pregnant Mandy and Milo period generally, or the 8-year-old period until the back half of the season, where we’ll jump forward and catch back up to the future/past storyline, where the kids are 13 years old. It makes your brain explode a little bit, but it makes sense when you watch it.

Was the Steelers winning the Super Bowl in 1980 a long-standing part of the plan in regards to your story, or was it a happy coincidence?

That was a happy coincidence, that they won in 1980. I knew I wanted to do this story and revolve it around something iconic for a family, like a sport. The Steelers won that year, so that was one of those happy coincidences that happen when everything is kind of breaking your way on a television show.

Was having Moore cast as Rebecca another happy coincidence in regards to Rebecca’s singing ambitions, or did that come after she was cast?

Singing had been in the back of my mind since the inception; it wasn’t because of Mandy. It’s good that she can sing so well, obviously, but there’s something about the family and the fact that Kate can sing and Kevin (Justin Hartley) went out to L.A. to become an actor. There’s something artistic in the family that doesn’t feel like it comes from Jack’s side as much. And so I’d always thought it was an interesting story to tell in the late '70s, early '80s of a young woman with a really artistic dream that kind of got set aside to raise a family. It was a different time back then. It was most interesting to go back and see her before children with a life and career that was so opposite of being a mom. We thought of everything from acting to singing to performing in some way, but then kind of locked in on her being this kind of lounge or bar singer.

Can you clarify if William actually died, as well, in that montage ending?

The ending is meant to be purposely ambiguous, but you’ll see in the next episode that that’s not real time; Kevin was talking about a hypothetical future there. You don’t know exactly what you’re watching, but you’re definitely watching Randall packing up William’s stuff and crying. When that image is being shown, Kevin is talking about how people you love will die, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. You’re hypothetically looking at a glimpse of an ambiguous future, but you’re not to know exactly what that is yet. But you can make your own conclusions from it.

Do you have big plans for the midseason finale?

There’s some big stuff coming. Our midseason ends on Christmas … with a really big Christmas episode. There are a couple of big things that will be resolved, but that will also be looming by the end of it. What’s cool about our last episode, which we haven’t done yet, is we’re really playing in a bunch of places with structure and time. Usually we have this six-act structure where we plop between characters and storylines. In this one, every one of our main characters kind of gets their own act, so it’s like six little one-act plays that all come together at the end of the episode on Christmas. I’m really excited about that one.

Then, when we come back, we’re doing a couple of really structurally ambitious episodes, where we go back to the moment Rebecca and Jack found out they were having three babies, and we get to meet their families and their parents. We’re actually doing one storyline that I’m really excited about in the back half of our season, where you go back to the 24 hours leading up to the birth of The Big Three and see the sliding doors of life and how different characters came together to basically make this entire television series happen, seeing characters that you didn’t even know were part of it and how they became part of it. We’re playing with ambitious stuff like that that will be fulfilling as we get deeper into the season, now that we have our audience and people that are invested and willing to go with it. We’re going to be playing with some really interesting stuff.

Are you able to announce any casting for those episodes?

We haven’t gotten there yet because we’re not shooting. It’s been a very cool thing though. Giant people have reached out who I would not have expected: movie stars and people who are so infatuated with the show and kind of want to be a part of it. I think we might have some really cool castings coming, but I don’t know what they’re going to be yet.

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

Were you shocked by the death reveal? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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