'This Is Us': Inside the NBC Drama's Biggest Cliffhanger Yet

The Pearson family's biggest season three mystery revolves around Jack's younger brother, Nicky, as co-showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger reveal that there's much more to come following the midseason finale's major cliffhanger.
Brent Lewin/NBC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from This Is Us' season three midseason finale, "The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning."]

Tuesday's winter finale of This Is Us, "The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning," ended on one of the series' most shocking cliffhangers yet: Pearson family patriarch Jack's (Milo Ventimiglia) younger brother, Nicky (Michael Angarano), did not actually die in Vietnam. In fact, the younger Pearson brother is very much alive — and living in Pennsylvania.

The episode followed Kevin (Justin Hartley) continuing his journey in Vietnam with girlfriend Zoe (Melanie Liburd) as they visited one of the villages where his father and uncle spent time during the Vietnam War. While he was disappointed that he didn't find out much about his father's time in the country, he did learn that his uncle wasn't on a list of soldiers who died in Vietnam. (And a present-day shot of some mail on a table addressed to Nick Pearson makes it clear that his uncle is actually alive.)

A flash-forward also revealed a few major pieces of information: Future Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and eldest daughter Tess are going with wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), now a dance teacher of some sort, to visit Rebecca (Mandy Moore). But there's a possibility that Future Randall and Future Beth might not still be married.

The scene before, in the present-day, showed Randall and Beth's biggest fight yet: Randall, knowing he can't win the Philadelphia city election he's running in, still wanted to stay in the race. Beth wanted him to drop out, and the clash could mean the couple is in danger.

Also in the episode: Rebecca talked granddaughter Tess into telling her parents that she might like girls; Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) learned they're having a boy; and Kate decided to go back to college and earn the final credits she needs for her degree.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to co-showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger about the cliffhanger, the flash-forwards, and what's in store for each of the Big Three when the show returns from hiatus in January.

When you were writing the Nicky storyline, did you always know he was going to be alive?

Berger: It's always been part of our plan. We came up with the entire Vietnam story within the first few weeks of our season this year. We had Tim O'Brien, our Vietnam consultant, in the writers room with us, and we always looked at it as this one big story. From the very beginning it's been our plan, and then it's just been what always is our challenge: When do we impart that different information throughout the season? [The winter finale] felt like the most exciting time to reveal that he is indeed still out there.

How soon into the upcoming episodes will you reveal what actually happened?

Aptaker: Pretty immediately. We're going to pick right up in the new year with Kevin continuing on this quest to get answers. He's armed with this tiny shred of information that he's gotten from this hotel clerk, that his uncle didn't in fact die in Vietnam. It's about what he does with that nugget of information to start peeling back the layers of this mystery and trying to get some answers. That's the immediate drive of our first couple of episodes back.

Is he going to share this information with his siblings or his mom?

Berger: That is going to be something that we're actually going to want him to grapple with. They are such a close-knit family that it's hard to imagine him not telling them, but at the same time, obviously it's a family where everyone comes with very strong opinions and a lot of emotions. He knows that when he tells them everyone is going to have a strong point of view on it, so it's definitely something that he's going to have to think long and hard about. But it's hard to imagine that the others won't find out eventually.

Will we be seeing grown-up Nicky in the new episodes?

Aptaker: Yes, we will be. We will be seeing grown-up Nicky relatively soon in the back half of our season.

It the same actor with age makeup, or is it a different actor?

Aptaker: That we are not allowed to discuss just yet.

Zoe is a documentarian. Does she see something in this story?

Berger: We read the Twitter fan response and there were a bunch of people saying, like, she's only in this journey for this great documentary that she's gonna make. While we agree that it is pretty documentary-worthy, what actually is unfolding, I think she really was on this journey for Kevin, to get closer to this guy that she's been crazy about and provide emotional support. But who's to say what she's going to do in the future with all of this?

Aptaker: Yeah, she has her own documentary that she's pretty focused on right now about the global water crisis. So I think it'll appeal to the part of her brain that loves a good, true story, but it's not something that she's thinking of capitalizing on in a career way.

This trip did solidify them as a couple, right?

Berger: Definitely. I think it's a big step for any couple to take their first international trip together and I think this one could not have been more loaded. Obviously Kevin is going for this deeply personal reason and for this very specific journey, and obviously it brought up such emotionally loaded issues for her that she revealed to him. So yeah, I think it's safe to say that they're coming home closer than ever. But obviously, Zoe has a really complicated past and closeness in itself may continue to be an issue as they move forward together.

The flash-forward revealed that Beth is still alive, and that in the future Beth, Randall, and Tess are going to see Rebecca. The number one question is, is Rebecca still alive? And then the number two question is, are Randall and Beth together? Will you be revealing those answers anytime soon?

Aptaker: I think those are both really fair questions that, of course, we can't give you answers to right now. But those are the right things to be wondering. What exactly are the circumstances after going to visit Rebecca and because they're certainly not grieving, based on Beth and Randall's demeanor. And then, Beth and Randall, what is going on there? We see in present day they're in the scariest place we've ever shown them, marriage-wise, relationship-wise. And then in that future flash, it's pretty hard to tell what their current relationship romantic status is. Those are questions that are going to be a little bit of a slower burn for us. They will, of course, be answered eventually. But not just yet.

Speaking of Beth and Randall, their relationship has always been strong. Have any of their previous fights really been as intense as this current one?

Berger: Actually, when we come back for the second half, we're going to be moving through the years with them in a really fun way and seeing some little snapshots of different, difficult moments of their relationship. But this is definitely a really scary one. I think that it's very rare that they've been at this crossroads where Randall really wants something that he's just not willing to compromise on. I think this is a couple that almost always considers both of their needs and moves forward together with every decision. So this is a particularly difficult and scary moment in their marriage for both of them, because they can't seem to come to an agreement on this.

Is Randall going to question whether he wants to drop out of the race? He seemed pretty certain in their conversation but maybe now that he sees how Beth is feeling he'll reconsider.

Aptaker: I think, at least in this episode, as we see, he's pretty bullish on this commitment he's made to this community and to this race. But, at the same time, it's really scary to say you're doing something without your partner's support, especially in a marriage like Randall and Beth's where it's so much about communication and being on the same page. So, whether or not he sticks to his guns or makes a turn and agrees to step back is something we're going to be dealing with in January when we come back.

Tess coming out to her parents seemed like a short arc for such an important story. Will you be revisiting it at all?

Berger: Definitely. I think for us it's something that's going to continue to play throughout the series. Obviously she's so young, and this is just the beginning of her even asking herself these questions and feeling the need to talk about it out loud and express what's going on internally, but it's a situation that's going to continue to evolve for her over the years. It's something that we're going to be just checking in with from now on. It now is officially part of the fabric of the family and of our show.

Her parents started fighting just after she told them this news about herself. Will she worry that it's related to her when obviously it isn't?

Aptaker: I don't think she's going to blame herself for the tension in their marriage. It's more a case of between Tess, and then Deja wanting to reconnect with her mother, and Beth still searching for a job and what her direction is in life — there's so much going on in the home front. For Randall to be saying, "I am doubling down on this unwinnable campaign," that's her feeling like that's a very selfish decision, that's a very irresponsible decision, and it's not what she wants in her husband. Tess is just one of many factors that are making their home a really tumultuous place right now.

The flash-forward showed that Beth is a dance teacher or owns a dance school. Is that something you'll lead up to?

Aptaker: Right now, that should be a little bit of a head-scratcher for our audience. But it's something that we're going to be definitely exploring and explaining in the back half of our season. We have a really, really special episode coming up that is pretty much entirely devoted to Beth and her life outside of Randall and who she was before she met him. That will answer a lot of questions about why future Beth was presiding over all those ballerinas.

Berger: Obviously right now we're at a moment where she's not working and where her future is wide open, so we're going to slowly telling the tale of how she ends up in that building.

Kate took a lot of hits this season, but this episode ended happily for her, with her and Toby finding out they're having a boy, and Kate deciding to go back to school to finish her degree.

Berger: It was really important to us to end them for now in this joyous place, and to really give them a victory in finding out this happy news together. They've really been through so much that if anyone deserves to win, it's this couple. Which isn't to say — because it's our show — that we'll stay smooth sailing forever, but yes, this is definitely a joyous victory that we just wanted to let them have fun with and embrace.

Obviously Toby is not better. That's not how that works. But he does seem to be on a path toward recovery, right?

Aptaker: Yeah, I agree that cured, I guess, is not the right word, but I think he's in a really good place. I think he's back on his antidepressants; he's found the proper dosage. He's feeling really, really positive about this baby and this pregnancy working out, and his future with Kate and their soon-to-be family. In a very, very crazy, tumultuous, jam-packed last five minutes, having one story that's completely about excitement and looking forward and, "Wow, we're having a boy, and I'm gonna get these last eight college credits," is a really nice balance to some of the sadder moments.

A lot of the past storyline this season has focused on Jack and Rebecca's courtship. Will that continue in the upcoming episodes?

Berger: It is going to continue. We absolutely loved them in this time period. We were excited about it before this season began, and then when we saw just how romantic and incredible Mandy and Milo were to watch in this time period, we fell in love with it even more. So we're definitely going to be showing a little bit more about how their courtship unfolded in this chapter of their relationship, and it's likely going to carry into next season as well.

Aptaker: Yeah, there's so much of that time period and that story left to tell. I mean, they didn't have kids until 1980, so this courtship and childless marriage went on for quite a long time. There's a lot of story there that we haven't even begun to touch on that, like Elizabeth said, we're just so excited about. With the music, and the clothes, and them not having to put on any prosthetics or wigs, everybody loves doing it. We love the time.

Are there any other time periods that you will be visiting again?

Aptaker: We haven't been with the high schoolers in a bit, so we're going to be jumping back there and finishing out our end of senior year with the Big Three, post the fire, post Jack's death, and showing how they got on these paths in early adulthood, post-high school, that really determined their futures.

Berger: Yeah, and we are going to be meeting a young Beth soon, which we're really excited about, and spending time with young Beth and Randall, which we think will be a whole other romantic chapter that we haven't yet explored.

Aptaker: Yeah, show me some more romance.

What else can you say about the first episodes back?

Aptaker: I think people should be really looking to some answers, especially on the Nicky front and on the Randall campaign front, pretty immediately when we get back. We're dogging right back into those stories in a big way and answering the question, what happens with Randall's political race? And who is this Uncle Nicky? And where is he? And are our Pearsons coming into contact with him? Those are the first two episodes back and I think they're going to answer our hiatus questions in a big way.

This Is Us returns with new episodes in January.