'This Is Us': Inside the Family Drama's Darkest Episode Yet

Showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger talk with The Hollywood Reporter about the big Vietnam reveal and address the criticism that the time-jumping family drama has received in season three.
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from This Is Us' Jan. 22 episode, "Songbird Road: Part One."]

The bombshell that Jack Pearson's younger brother, Nicky, was actually still alive — not killed in action during the Vietnam War — served as This Is Us' midseason cliff-hanger in November. Now back from a winter hiatus, the NBC series is diving back into the storyline head-on. Pearson sibling Kevin (Justin Hartley) has spent the third season looking into his father's past in Vietnam, and now that Randall's (Sterling K. Brown) election is over (and won), he has let his brother and sister, Kate (Chrissy Metz), in on the shocking family secret.

"Songbird Road: Part One" saw the adult Big Three team up for a road trip to Nicky's Bradford, Pa., address to see if he was, in fact, alive, and if he actually still lived at that address.

He did — and the elder Nicky (Griffin Dunne) seemed both bemused and at the same time completely unsurprised that his nephews and niece had finally found him. While he intended to respect his brother's wishes and not have contact, he ended up telling them his version of the event that caused the siblings to split forever: he was fishing with grenades and accidentally killed a local boy. It was the final straw for Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), who only spoke to his brother one more time, in the early '90s, to tell him to stop contacting him.

The Pearsons left after their uncle was seemingly overcome with emotion and kicked them out, but Kevin decided he didn't want to give up on Nicky and the trio drove back to his house. When they walked inside, they saw Nicky at his kitchen table with a gun.

Below, executive producers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger speak with The Hollywood Reporter about the episode, which they agree is the show's darkest outing yet. Below, they discuss genesis of the Pearson brothers' split, how Rebecca (Mandy Moore) will react when she meets Nicky and future episodes — including one Aptaker describes as "essentially a stage play on TV."

When did you decide that Nicky would still be alive?

Aptaker: That goes far back to the origin of the character. We knew that they were going to have this tragedy happen to them in Vietnam that they couldn't bounce back from, and we even knew the rough details of it, that it was going to involve the death of this woman's son. And what Tim O'Brien helped us with was the specifics. That grenade fishing is something that he and his fellow soldiers over there did, and he witnessed. He was saying it was so dangerous, and so fraught, that you don't have to take a very big leap of the imagination to [see] how that could go so wrong. So once we had that we knew exactly how Jack would react, and that that would be the end of their relationship as brothers.

Obviously if there's something that Jack Pearson couldn't forgive, clearly it would have to be bad. Why this child's death?

Berger: For Jack, it's insurmountable in two ways: One is what Nicky actually did and the loss of that child. And the other is that Jack sort of failed, in his mind, as his brother. I think he was so confident that he could go over there, and that he could save him, and that he could get him home, and that the two could resume their life happily, and the fact that the not only did that not happen but it led to this horrific tragedy is just more than he could bear.

Were there any other ideas about what could've caused their rift?

Aptaker: We talked about a lot of different versions and what would be too horrific and didn't feel like our show. When Tim started talking about the realities of being over there and telling us about this grenade fishing, it just felt so specific and so unique to this place, and so realistic, that as soon as we heard that we all felt in our bones that's the thing. We could understand how Jack could have one interpretation of those events, and Nicky could have another reality.

Berger: We wanted their fracture to exist in this gray area where you understand both points of view. You understand why Jack couldn't forgive him, and you're also frustrated with him for not being able to forgive him and move past it. There's no total villains or heroes in this story, it's just a terrible situation that led to this heartbreaking falling out.

When the Big Three go back to the cabin that night, they find Nicky at his table with a gun. What will happen when the story picks up next week?

Aptaker: Next week will pick up immediately where this episode ends with the Big Three coming in and seeing him sitting there. So we see how they respond to that situation, and how they attempt to bring their uncle back from the brink. I mean, in an episode that is...our darkest, there still is this hope and optimism at the end. Because Kevin does make the decision to not leave his uncle there even though they've only met once. He makes the choice that Jack didn't and he turned the car around, and probably saved this man's life. Next week picks up with the aftermath of that, and also with what Rebecca does when she finds out that Nicky's alive. Rebecca makes a decision that she wants to meet Nicky. So we'll see what their first interaction looks like.

Do you worry that people will be turned off if the show gets too dark?

Berger: I think hopefully they're along for the ride with the larger Vietnam story that we've done this season, and I think that if you're going to embark on telling a war story throughout a season you have to not be afraid to let things get dark sometimes or you wouldn't be telling a truthful version of the story. But we've tried to make it feel in the world of our show, and we tried to give the audience that glimmer of hope in terms of seeing a son not make the mistakes that his father made, and make a new choice, and hopefully move his family toward healing and in this new direction as we move forward. So, yes, this got very dark, but we hope people will stick with us because there's a lot of light still to come.

Aptaker: And I think they will. I think audiences are so sophisticated nowadays and they have so much choice that people give up on a show not when it takes a turn into something a little darker than they were expecting, but when it starts to feel false or it doesn't take risks. Hopefully people will feel like we've told a story where our characters behave in a way that's very organic to the people we've presented up until now, and that while this one was an episode that's maybe the heaviest we've ever done, there will be episodes that are lighter than we've ever done. The show is about the experience of being a human alive in the world, and that comes with really, really dark upsetting moments, and really, really joyous ones. The show covers all of that.

What do you think about the criticism and feedback you've gotten about the season so far?

Berger: What remains consistent throughout our seasons is that people are very attached to our characters — and in a really incredible way where they feel what they're going through very deeply, and they have very strong opinions on them. We get it. We get that people hate when Beth and Randall fight. We hate it, too. Or when Toby is down, and we hate that, too. We also feel like it's our responsibility to keep things compelling, and to tell these stories as honestly as possible. We're trying to give the people what they want, while also proceeding as honestly as possible.

The adult Big Three don't get to work together as often, so how will this impact the characters' relationships going forward?

Aptaker: Those three are so excited when they get to do stuff together. There's actually a lot more of that coming up this season. We just finished shooting an episode, but I think a couple people posted a picture of the whole cast doing a table read, which we never do on this show. It's our whole cast all together basically in one space, in almost real time, for what is essentially a stage play on TV. It's just those actors bouncing off of each other, and all the different energies and the different dynamics there. That's what makes us excited to do this show, and to keep doing it for years to come.

Berger: We could feel it in this episode too, especially in the later scenes when you get to see them in the car having fun together. It's so fun for us too to see them all together. And then next week we're going to be seeing Randall and Kate together, and having the story in a way that we don't always get to see those two together, so that's a really exciting pairing.

The big "Beth" episode is coming up in a few weeks, how does the story of this season lead up to that episode?

Aptaker: We see at the beginning of this episode that she's embarking on a bunch of rounds of interviews for working at different urban planning firms. She had a big crisis of facing herself this year — getting let go from her job and having the rug ripped out from under her. Now she's trying to get back on the horse and figuring out what's next for her career. Episode 13 is all about that. That deepens her path and explores where she came from and how it might impact what's next for her professionally.

Berger: We're just so excited about the episode. It feels like this play focused on her past and her present. Every performance in it is so killer.

Aptaker: We've been imagining Phylicia Rashad as Beth's mom for so long, since the beginning of the show when we talked about the character, so that we found a window in her schedule and actually got her to come in and play this woman is literally our fantasy filmed.

Have you read any of the criticism online about how people think it's unrealistic that Randall would drive two and a half hours from his home in Bergen County, New Jersey, to Philadelphia every day?

Aptaker: I did a Jason Katims show in Venice, and I lived in Silver Lake. I spent about two hours each way in the car every day, and it's something we're going to be dealing with head-on later in the season. I think it was a huge choice for him, but it's a lot of people's reality. People do it. We're aware, and it's part of the show, and you'll be seeing it on screen.

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