'This Is Us' Boss Explains Season 5 Premiere's Major Twist

This is Us
NBC

[This story contains spoilers from the two-hour season five premiere episode, "Forty Part 1/Forty Part 2," of NBC's This Is Us.]

The fourth season of This Is Us wrapped just as the pandemic lockdown in the U.S. began — which meant creator Dan Fogelman had plenty of time to figure out how he'd work COVID-19 into the series. The season five premiere was always meant to be an ambitious hour — he began writing it in February for that very reason — but it became an even more difficult task once he realized it would also need to cover COVID and the Black Lives Matter protests as well.

The two-hour episode aired Oct. 27 so it could premiere before the election — the series will return on Nov. 10 after taking a week off for Election Day — and managed to include several major developments for each member of the Pearson family as the Big Three siblings turned 40.

As seen in a flash-forward in season four, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) are spending their birthday at the family's cabin with Kevin's pregnant fiancée, and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) has an episode following her Alzheimer's diagnosis. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is conspicuously absent, which makes sense following his and Kevin's major fight in the season four finale.

But it's the new information in the premiere that is vital going forward: Madison (Caitlin Thompson) and Kevin become engaged while Madison gets checked out after a scary fall, and they also learn that they're having a boy and a girl. Kate and Toby get a call from an adoption agency about a baby. And finally, Randall spends his birthday with his daughters but makes an emergency trip to the cabin when Rebecca disappears; figures out that Rebecca's episode was a side effect of the antihistamine she'd taken for some poison ivy; has an awkward but tentatively hopeful conversation with Kevin about fatherhood; and has an awkward but necessary conversation with Kate about how the family handled the topic of race over the years. On the way home, he decides to find a Black therapist instead of the Freudian white woman he'd chosen.

In the past, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca preparing for their triplets' birth was juxtaposed with Randall's birth parents' story. But in true This Is Us fashion, what the audience thought they knew about Randall's entrance into the world was not necessarily the complete story. In the final moments, when William thought his girlfriend had died from a drug overdose and fled to surrender their newborn to a firehouse lest he be separated from the baby by authorities, she took a breath. Was she not really dead after all?

"There's obviously a story to tell continuing onward from that moment," Fogelman told reporters on a call about the episode. "Answers will be gotten pretty quickly. Without spoiling too much, I think well within the first half of our season. And certainly we're not going to drag out a mystery like that one over multiple seasons or anything. So there's a pretty quick answer, and I think it will be found to be elegantly done."

In other words, the answers will come soon, but the first part of the season will see Randall contending with the story of his birth mother for the first time. And that plays largely into the reckoning that Randall is experiencing when it comes to the way that race was handled in the Pearson household growing up — or, more accurately, the way that it was not handled at all.

The conversation that he and Kate had outside of the cabin as she awkwardly tried to see how her brother was feeling about the protests and about the world in general.

Said Fogelman, "This isn't just a Black man and a white woman having this conversation. These are family members who grew up in the same home, and it's a very specific dynamic. I think it's what the two characters do so well — there's so much love amidst this really intense conversation. And I think that on a macro level, yeah, at the end of this episode when Randall makes his move to change therapists and returns home to his family he's pulling away a little bit for the moment, not just from Kevin on the heels of the fight, but from his family in general. This man who loves this family, and loves them fiercely, but also is having a moment to kind of pull back and process a lot about his life. And so I think that's what's captured in that scene. In terms of an actual rift between Kate and Randall, I don't know that it's that as much as they're in a complicated, nebulous place right now and there's a reckoning required for this family a little bit, and some healing required."

Fogelman also spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the episode and about his plans for the final two seasons of the series, which you can read below. This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC, and returns on Nov. 10.

Aside from incorporating COVID and Black Lives Matter into the episodes, what was so difficult about writing this season premiere that you worked on it for so long?

I think initially, when going into it, there were already big things we were attacking before Covid. There was already a lot of complicated stuff we were going to be attacking this premiere. We were going to be embarking on this clinical trial with Rebecca with her health that's taken a very difficult disease. We were going to be pairing up Kevin with a complete stranger who he's gotten pregnant and figuring out what the ribbons of that look like. We had Kate and Toby beginning the process of adopting. We had a lot of complicated stuff, to say nothing of our big thing, which was how are we going to delicately handle Kevin and Randall after this giant fight they've had to end the last season? So we were already coming in with a lot of difficult challenges that were fun to attack and write to. Adding the pandemic to the mix, and then adding the Black Lives Matter movement into the context of what's being explored, it just created not even difficulty — it created opportunity for us to dig a little deeper inside of these characters. But it was also stuff that we really wanted to treat carefully. We wanted to color the right way so that it wasn't becoming a show about that, more about how these things that exist in the world are affecting these characters in this family. And so that took a lot of time and care to craft it and figure that out.

Was the revelation about Randall's mother — that she might not have died in childbirth — something you'd always had in mind, or was it something you decided on later once you began to sketch how the rest of the series would play out?

Yeah, it was a part of our sketch. Exactly where in the last two seasons we would delve into Randall's birth mother's story was always, like many of our big choices, there's a general area for it. But you know, for us, here's this character, Randall, that has such a search for identity that now, heading into his fifth season of the show, he's in a spot where he's kind of broken from his brother, that is really exploring his relationship with his family internally. He's going to concentrated therapy for the first time. And so this felt like OK, now's the moment.

We have this character has been alluded to a lot, this birth mother who, as Pamela Adlon  [as Randall's therapist, Dr. Leigh] put it last season, has always just been a footnote in his story. He's always viewed his life as a battle between these two patriarchs, William and Jack. And then there's Rebecca, who he's close to, but his birth mother has always been a footnote. And it's less about, even though obviously it will get a lot of attention, it's less about her taking that breath at the end of the episode than providing us with the opportunity and providing Randall the opportunity eventually to hopefully learn a little bit more of her story.

Were some of the other reveals always things you'd plotted too? Was Madison always going to be the mother of Kevin's children, or was she a good option once you got to the point in the story where he was going to enter fatherhood?

We've always had Kevin's long-term romantic plan planned out in terms of where he ends, in terms of who his partners are and what his family situation looks like. One of the things that was occurring to us is Kevin is the one character we have who's single and we've watched his relationships evolve over the years and form him, as many of us are formed by relationships that do work out, don't work out, and grow into something. And we've found that a lot of our characters — almost all of the main characters — have these romantic and somewhat traditional love stories: love at first sight, these amazing meet cutes, then they have a courtship period where you're charmed by them, they fall deeper in love, then they get married and have children. It felt so interesting for us, for the one character who you've actually been in different relationships with, to do everything backwards and sideways, where it's a stranger, someone with whom he might have no chemistry with, a lot of chemistry with. But they are now bound together, partially because he is a traditionalist and wants to be there and be a present father and do the right thing. And so how interesting it will be to watch this relationship unfold and see where it goes, whether or not that's where Kevin ends or not is still to be determined. And that's the part that we really had planned out the most.

You have said there will be some more Rebecca and Miguel (Jon Huertas) stories this season and next. Does that mean there's still room for Jack stories? And will you be doing more flash-forwards and fewer flashbacks?

No, we'll keep moving in time the same way we always do. A later episode this season, I'm finishing the script of one that just came to me that has a big flash-forward that's a doozy. We're not backing off of that. And we're certainly not backing off of Jack. One of the things that's really interesting when you look at Rebecca and Miguel and this later in life marriage and courtship period, is it can always reflect upon the same with Jack and Rebecca. Meaning if you're — and I'm making this up, we're not necessarily doing it — but you could have somebody proposing in two different time periods. So Rebecca receiving proposals in two different time periods, one from Jack and one from Miguel, as an example. We don't lack for Jack's story. He's got a big arc in season, particularly in the back half of the season, and we don't have that much time left so we're gonna utilize our guy.

Kate and Toby got the call to adopt another child. Does that mean their marriage struggles are behind them, or is this just a temporary stay because they both want another baby?

No marriage is perfect, except for maybe, I don't know, Randall and Beth or Jack and Rebecca — and not even them. I think you saw last season and in the course of the relationship some stuff underneath the surface that was bubbling up. And then you saw it repressed as they repaired and moved forward with adopting a child. The genie doesn't always get put all the way back inside the bottle. I think that they have a big story right now about navigating this adoption and hopefully having another child via it, but I think, from the glimpses we showed in the flash forward, it's going to be an interesting ride for Kate and Toby. We've got a plan. I was just telling Chrissy about it just the other day, a plan for them that I think can really speak to people as they navigate the next stage of their marriage.