'This Is Us' Creator Dan Fogelman on the Midseason Finale's Twisty Flash Forward

Dan Fogelman discusses keeping track of the various timelines, a Pearson sibling rift and the identity of Kevin's pregnant fiancee.
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[This story contains spoilers from the season four midseason finale "So Long, Marianne" episode of NBC's This Is Us.]

This Is Us wrapped its fall run Tuesday with its annual Thanksgiving episode during which the various Pearson family members gathered at Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth's (Susan Kelechi Watson) new Philadelphia home — before flashing forward nine months to the siblings' 40th birthday.

In the present day, Randall and Beth's adopted daughter, Deja (Lyric Ross), had complicated feelings over the fact that her birth mother is thriving in her new job and home. Their oldest daughter, Tess (Eris Baker), was worried about coming out to her classmates. Kevin (Justin Hartley) brought estranged uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne) to the family gathering, where he introduced a new Thanksgiving tradition from Jack (Milo Ventimiglia). Kate (Chrissy Metz) accidentally fed baby Jack his first solid food without husband Toby (Chris Sullivan), who received a text from one of his CrossFit buddies that made Kate suspicious.

And finally, Randall confronted Rebecca (Mandy Moore) about the memory issues he'd noticed. She left the house by herself to see a movie, and scenes seemingly showed her lose her phone and get lost, forcing the police to help find her and bring her home. But at the end of the episode, a twist revealed that that solo outing actually took place nine months in the future as she attempted to buy a cake for her kids' 40th birthday. In the present, she returned from her movie and acknowledged that she'd been having trouble remembering things and told Randall she'd see a doctor. In the future, Kevin revealed two important pieces of information: He had a fiancee in the other room who was experiencing morning sickness, and that he and Randall weren't speaking to each other.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with creator Dan Fogelman about the episode's surprising reveals, along with the plan for the rest of the time-jumping family drama's fourth season, which returns in January.

This is the first episode that has jumped forward to multiple future timelines, in addition to everything in the past. Is that something you'd always intended to introduce? 

We're at the beginning, in this episode, of a very long complicated journey. It's been part of the plan from go for this show, which is so much about six, seven and beyond decades of one family, when you really try to count backward and forward. As a show that deals with time and nostalgia and memory, that was always part of the construct. In terms of how I had it planned, you're very much seeing onscreen where I thought we'd be and how I thought it would feel at this point.

What you can't plan for is — for my money, Mandy Moore is doing something on this television show that's beyond extraordinary as an actor. She is seamlessly — just if you look at this half season of television — switching between various ages and incarnations of a character to the point where you almost recognize the different ages of characters as different people and different constructs of people. It's extraordinary acting work she's doing, and you see it in this episode and you've seen it in other ages of the character and other episodes. As a fan of what she's doing right now, I'm interested and excited to see what comes next. It's beyond what I could have imagined.

With memory issues or dementia or Alzheimer's, whatever Rebecca's diagnosis ends up being, it's something that starts gradually and snowballs, and that's something that's played out over the beginning of this season.

There's a lot of chapters ahead. I mean our show has tried always to explore the stuff that people go through and people relate to, but hopefully counter-balance that with love and joy and family and hope, and playing in time and the progression of things will allow us to do that so it's not a dirge. We're 12 or 13 years in the future. We've established a very old Rebecca lying in a bed. So there's a long journey ahead of us and we only have a couple of the TV seasons left to go. So it tells you that we're going to mainly live in a place where‚ I don't want to get too far into it because everything's a spoiler these days, but you know what I'm saying.

The timeline twist with Rebecca's grocery store outing — it turns out that took place nine months in the future — was a surprise. Why did you choose to structure it that way?

This was one of the ones that we talk about quite a bit. This season, our season premiere and our midseason finale and our season finale, we have these markers and stakes in the ground from the very beginning of what was going to happen in those episodes and where we were going to go.

The idea that you would be watching Rebecca have one day that you think is Thanksgiving, but realize only at the end of the episode that you've progressed almost a year in time, as a reveal was always something that we had planned toward the middle of this season in this range. Anybody who watches the show carefully knows that we typically begin each season with a birthday of our characters. Clearly, she's arriving at their 40th birthday at the cabin, so that tells you that you've got a glimpse of where things are at around the time of our season premiere next year.

It's the first time we've dived deep into the past into different generations and time periods, and we've gone into the future and even the deeper future. But what we haven't really done is set some markers for about a year from now and say, "OK, now we're going to watch the rest of this season and try and figure out how we get from here to there. Who is the fiancee that's sitting in the back of that room? What is going on with Kevin and Randall? Is this an incident with Rebecca or is this something that is manifesting in a more real way with whatever's going on with her medically?"

Those answers all get provided in the back half of the season, which is a nice device for us. And it's something we've always had planned. I think we did similarly with — this is going way back — but in our second season premiere, we had shown a glimpse of the night of Jack's death, but then we spent the rest of the time catching up to that. So suddenly they're buying a dog, and you're like, "Oh, shit, what is the dog going to have to do with it? Because it was referenced and I saw it." That's more of the model here.

What's really challenging and fun for us as writers is we lock ourselves in. We plan so far in advance that [you can't make] the alterations that sometimes you want to make in a writers room. You have to commit to a plan and stick to it and be very confident in it, because we've now shown glimpses of what's ostensibly going to be part of our season premiere for season five that airs a year from now. And that doesn't go away. That's on TV. So that's how far along we need to be as writers and as actors to know where we're going.

The writers room must have an insane murder board with string and arrows to keep track of it all.

It's pretty crazy. Part of our tour when family and friends come to visit is we bring them up to the room. The wall looks like A Beautiful Mind a little bit because we have timelines up, we have dates. Dates are a big thing for us, just to remind ourselves, "Could we go to William right here?" And we remind ourselves, "No, William was not in the picture at that point." We have quite a lot of timelines and materials and then we have to take it down at the end of every season when we're leaving the offices and our writer's assistants take a million photos of it because we're afraid to leave it all up in the room when we're not here.

The episode included a flashback to Jack and Nicky instituting a new Thanksgiving tradition before Nicky heads to Vietnam, and Nicky introduces it to the Pearsons this year. What will that character's role be now that he's become more involved with the family in the present day?

Nicky has obviously, along with Cassidy, provided such a needed family and next-step push for Kevin. I think for the moment he's sending Kevin off to his life. Obviously we've already established that Nicky is in the room with a very old Rebecca deeper in the future, so he's going to play a part in this family's lives. I think what Griffin has done this season as an actor has been tremendous, so he's not going anywhere. But for the immediate future, we have some other stories to service. He will be back in a big presence in their lives. There's a lot more story to tell with this guy, including what happens to him next in the present personally, but also what happens to him as it relates to the children, and Rebecca and the family.

For Kevin, the only person he's been romantically involved with recently is Cassidy. Since the ending of the episode revealed that he has a pregnant fiancee, it appears that she's the most likely person for that role.

We're definitely heading in an area where we're getting to pair Kevin up. We're seeing less than a year in the future. He has a fiancee in the back room who's experiencing morning sickness. So we've got a back half of the season and an offseason to get him there.

It's fair to say that you'll know who that person is by the end of this season. Like a lot of this stuff in the show, I think every time Kevin has a cross with an old flame you'll wonder about Cassidy and where she is. You'll wonder about any old flames, you'll wonder about any new flames who come along. I think it's just fun to watch a 40-year-old television and movie star feeling his biological clock ticking, and sending Kevin on that course to try and become the family man that he's always admired in his father and his brother is going to be a fun journey for him. I think people will have all kinds of opinions on who it is he should wind up with, and I think that's a good thing for a television show.

Just to clarify, when he said "we're not speaking" in the flash forward, he meant he and Randall aren't speaking, not Randall and Rebecca aren't speaking, right?

Yeah. The insinuation is that Kevin and Randall are not really on speaking terms. Certainly it's a relationship that's always been fraught and complicated. We've been in a really great space with the two of them for a year and a half and so you have to wonder what goes on. And like all of our relationships with our immediate family members, the primal wounds don't just go away because you're in a good pocket of a couple of years.

Sometimes all it takes is that powder keg moment to explode to bring back the core issues, which all stems from their childhood and their relationships to their parents and their places in the family as kids. Again, it's been another place that we always planned on going particularly next season: watching what happens when these brothers fracture a little bit and what would cause them to fracture that way.

Kate and Toby seem to be fracturing as well.

It's interesting because on a week to week level, things happen and they're big and dramatic. But we're speeding through, in 18 episodes of television a year, years and lives of people. And we're now entering the fourth year we've sat with these people, but because of the way we traverse time, it's actually a lot longer than that and you're seeing the ebbs and flows of relationships. Right now certainly we're in a precipitous place with Toby and Kate and a lot of our characters, but we're also in the middle of a season and we're really still in the middle of a journey for these characters overall. And so who they wind up with, where they wind up with, what state their relationships will end up is all very much in play right now.

Where will things pick up when the show returns in January?

We tend to have a long break over the holidays every year just by the nature of the way we air, so we typically pick up in roughly, in the present-day storylines at least, relatively where we would be in the calendar year — meaning a month or two have passed and the holidays have passed. We typically try to do a good job of catching the audience up on what's happened in the time they've missed. Kevin's been on his hypothetical search for true love and partnership for a month and a half, and we'll see how that's been going. Toby and Kate, what's happened since she's seen that text message? What's been the status for their last month and a half? We'll catch up on all of that stuff.

This Is Us season four returns in early 2020 on NBC.