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[This story contains major spoilers for the series finale of NBC’s This Is Us, “Us.”]
This Is Us has revealed its ending. But if viewers have been paying attention, they will realize that the Pearson family story doesn’t end — it continues with the next generations.
The final scene of the series between dad Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) and his young son Randall (played in flashback by Lonnie Chavis) brings to life the show’s underlying theme. To hear creator, writer and executive producer Dan Fogelman summarize, “You carry this stuff forward with you without even thinking about it.”
Speaking to reporters, including The Hollywood Reporter, during a conference call ahead of the series finale on Tuesday, Fogelman spoke about his final vision for the generational family saga as it signs off after six years.
“As we speak today on the day of the finale, I’m feeling a lot of things, and for the first time, it’s kind of sinking in,” Fogelman told THR during the call. “Seeing the core group of people who I made this show with watch these final two [episodes] and react to them has been the most I have allowed myself to feel. When I finally show it to people where I care so much about their opinion, and they react positively, it’s been especially meaningful and probably the thing that’s been moving me the most in this entire exhausting ending.”
Below, THR rounds up Fogelman addressing some of the biggest lingering questions — despite tying up the show neatly and with a satisfying simplicity, just as he had promised.
There was no series finale backup plan if the previously filmed footage didn’t work.
More than half of the series finale took place decades earlier, during a lazy Saturday spent with Rebecca and Jack and their young children. The flashback day was filmed three years earlier and during production on season four, so Fogelman could capture the actors who play the Big Three (Lonnie Chavis, Mackenzie Hancsicsak and Parker Bats, who are now preteens) at a specific age. Fogelman said he put away the footage and never looked at it again until a couple of months ago when he was approaching filming the finale. Thankfully, his nerves were calmed when he saw that what they filmed was “really good,” including the final shot of the episode, with a young Randall (Chavis) watching his father Jack (Ventimiglia) watching the family.
“I didn’t have a big, full-fledged backup plan, which is what made it all a little bit terrifying,” Fogelman admitted when speaking to THR during the call. “I felt confident because I had been there on the days when we shot that footage all of those years ago, and [director] Ken Olin and I had been intensively on top of it because we knew how important it was going to wind up being. The thing I was worried about was never that it wasn’t going to work — I knew how good Milo and Mandy and the kids were going to be. It was more the question: Is it all working as I planned, or do I need to make slight adjustments? Do I need to consider altering a storyline in the present day to accommodate for something small that might not be working in the past? I had to watch the first cut of the past footage with my wife [Caitlin Thompson, who plays Madison], which I’ve never done before because I was too scared to watch it alone!”
Randall is the Pearson sibling in the final shot, but he is meant to represent the show’s larger theme.
Fogelman has long had his ending in mind, and what he envisioned was a child looking at a parent watching his family. That vision played out in the form of a young Randall catching eyes with Jack, who is truly satisfied to sit on the family sofa and watch his wife and children run around the living room.
“The theme at the end of the episode, which is what the entire series has been about, is that you carry this stuff forward with you without even thinking about it,” explained Fogelman of that flashback moment between father and son hitting Randall decades later, when he receives the news that he is going to become a grandfather. But, Fogelman says, Randall is meant to be representative of the Big Three: “Milo, in that moment, is representing a parent who is taking in his entire family. The older Randall is indicative of the grown children, or how a child has fully grown. I just wanted the simplicity of the shot — of the child taking in the parent at a moment when the parent is taking in something bigger and knowing that child will carry it forward in their own lives. In that exact moment, it was less about Randall and Jack — these two men who have been cornerstones of our show, obviously — and it was more about child and parent.”
The all-knowing, mystical character of Jack Pearson is a conglomeration.
When asked who inspired Jack Pearson, America’s #1 Dad, Fogelman joked that his own father — “a giant Jewish guy from Brooklyn” — is convinced he is the inspiration. (“I’ll let my dad take that one to the grave,” he added with a laugh.) “I think Jack is representative of the parent, and for some of us, the father that we always hope we can be. But he’s also representative of the stuff we carry inside that isn’t great. The trauma of our childhoods, the failings as a man or as a father. And that combined with Milo’s sheer charisma is what made people latch on,” he explained, adding that he relates more to Randall and Kevin. “With Jack, he’s a culmination of a lot of friends I have who are wonderful dads and great people but who fail in a lot of ways that they don’t like. He’s just a culmination and conglomeration of a lot of people, but no one person in particular.”
Rebecca and Jack have the last spoken line because of their epic love story.
Rebecca and Jack Pearson speak the final lines in both the penultimate and the finale episodes. In the series finale, they trade I love yous. “In the back of my mind, I always thought the final, actual scripted spoken dialogue in the episode would be Jack and Rebecca simply saying ‘I love you’ to one another,” Fogelman said. “The show was always about family and time, and just the way family loves one another, and I thought this original love story, sentiment-wise, was the right language to end on. And then the final shot would be some version of a child taking in their parent and carrying something forward from what they’re watching their parent watch. I knew those were the two final things: the final words and the final imagery.”
One of Jack’s final lines is also offering praise for Rebecca. That line — “You did so good,” he tells her of raising their family — moved Fogelman the most. “For me as a new parent and having had parents, the idea moved me that you get to sit down and potentially be told, ‘Job well done,’ by somebody, because it’s so hard. It just got me.”
The decision to keep the Big Three eulogies for mom Rebecca from the audience was inspired by Fogelman’s experience at his own mother’s funeral.
The creator, writer and EP has spoken about how losing his mother and not having the opportunity to say goodbye to her has helped shape Rebecca’s journey with her children. (When talking to THR recently, Moore spoke about the moment it dawned on her that This Is Us is a tribute to his mother.) When it came time for the Big Three to deliver their eulogies, Fogelman wanted to accurately represent the “fog” of a funeral when laying a parent to rest.
“So much of the previous episode is about people emoting and saying stuff to Rebecca, and lord knows Randall, I’m sure, gave the world’s perfect eulogy. But what else is he going to say about his mother at this point that he hasn’t already said in the show?” Fogelman said of the logistical motivation for keeping the eulogies muted. On a personal note, he added, “I lost my mom and very similarly sat up all night deciding that people are waiting for the perfect eulogy from me; it had to be the right levels of touching and funny, and it had to be well-written, and I had to deliver it well. And I stayed up all night like a lunatic, and frankly like a martyr, trying to write my mother, who I adored, the perfect eulogy. And my experience of the day, and frankly the week or two after, was as I described it in the script. I just kind of floated through space and time and didn’t hear anything. I worked so hard on that eulogy. And I don’t remember a single word that I said, and I don’t remember saying it. I wanted to visually capture that.”
On the day of filming, Fogelman had his three actors improvise. (Brown spoke to THR about the experience and what he wrote.) “There had been nothing scripted — the guys didn’t even know they were going to be doing that,” added Fogelman. “It was always about a son floating through the funeral of his mother as if it’s almost in slow-motion, and a bomb has gone off, and he can’t hear anything anymore.”
The farthest the show travels into the future is around the year 2040.
Mysterious flash-forwards are a staple of This Is Us. But Fogelman says the major jumps ahead — like to a grown Jack Jr. who has his own family (he was shown pushing his daughter on a swing in the finale) — were never intended to be more than a glimpse into the next generation of Pearsons.
“We never planned on living heavily in 2040, or whatever year that would be,” he said. “This show was always about this generation of the family and the sprawl of their family in a lifetime. Obviously, there’s more story to be told in the adult lives of their children and grandchildren, but that was never the intent of the series. Every book has to end. Every generational novel can go back further or go forward further if you so choose. We had the beginning, middle and endpoints of where our timeline starts, centers and ends, and this was always the plan.”
Exploring a This Is Us: The Next Generation spinoff is likely not in the cards.
“One of the crutches I gave myself to avoid that conversation a little bit was the very nature of time and not setting the present-day story further in the past,” said Fogelman of moving through the present-day and into the future timelines in the final season, so viewers have seen the Pearsons years after 2022. “It’s always substantially enough in the future that it makes it very challenging and difficult,” he says of blending time, “and I think it lets me excuse my way out [of that question].”
The show launched with twists and turns but would always end in simplicity.
For Fogelman and the writers, the cliffhanger mystery around Jack’s death in the earlier seasons was less challenging to create. The “simple stuff” provides the bigger challenge and bigger reward.
“I always felt that amidst all the talk of twists and turn, and death and house fires — and appliances that cause house fires — where the show really lived was just with the family,” he said. Referencing the scope of the final two episodes (Rebecca’s death and the reveal of the family at the hospital, who Jack impacted before his death, into the flashback of a lazy Pearson Saturday), he explained, “I always felt like the boldest and most confident step and ending for the show would be pulling out one final magic trick at the end, and then one big, obviously, emotional ending and death, and then for the final episode to be a simple reflection on family. For us, the most ambitious and challenging stuff has always been the simple stuff. And that’s also the most rewarding.”
There are no loose ends left to explore — not even when it comes to Randall and his political future. At least, not for a while.
“I’m pretty set on this being it,” said Fogelman when asked about potentially revisiting the franchise in the future. “For the most part, we really answered the questions of the show. My well is pretty dry right now, and I think we wanted to end the show when we felt like we were at our creative strong point, or before it got too tiring or too hard for us to come up with ways to keep it special. I feel we hit the right endpoint. Who knows what change of heart my ensuing midlife crisis brings, but I really feel like we’ve put these stories to bed now. Certainly, for quite a bit of time.”
The most open-ended Pearson sibling to explore is Randall, who not only is becoming a grandfather but who is also potentially running for president. A throwaway line in the finale referenced the DNC inviting him to Iowa, which is traditionally the first stop in the White House candidacy journey.
On the first point, Fogelman doesn’t view the news of his family line continuing as open-ended. “For Randall and Deja’s story, this little girl who is adopted by him, to end her journey by calling him Dad naturally and casually, and saying, ‘I’m pregnant with my childhood sweetheart, and I’m going to be naming my son after your father [William]’ — that feels like a completion of that journey,” he explained of a grown Deja (played by La Trice Harper in the future, Lyric Ross in the past) marrying Malik (Asante Blackk) and sharing the news they are expecting a boy in the finale. “There’s always going to be another part of the story if you continue to go further, which is the whole theme of our show.”
And as for Randall potentially becoming POTUS, that’s This Is Us’ biggest burning question that Fogelman wants viewers to answer for themselves. “Randall’s political journey ahead of him is probably the closest we come in the show to our Sopranos going-to-black-at-the-end-of-the-episode moment,” he said. “You’re left to choose your own adventure as to what you think happened. Does he decide to run in the end? Do he and Beth decide they’d rather settle at home? If he runs, how much traction does he get? Does he win? In my mind, I know what happens to Randall and his family. But it’s meant to not be answered and to leave a hint of promise.”
He continued, “I think it’s up to the audience to think about what happens next with Randall. Did we watch an origin story, without realizing we were watching one, of a future leader of the free world? Or is the completion of Randall’s arc to not push further in his career and settle into a role where he’s comfortable? It was always more about Randall choosing to move forward because his mother has now freed him to do what he wants, to go for the big choices if it’s something he wants to do.”
And that is why Fogelman said they were never tempted to flash-forward and answer the question. “There were definitely conversations, a lot of conversations, about how we were showing the end of Randall’s political journey,” he said. “We all felt that if we hypothetically flashed forward to Randall sitting in the White House, that wasn’t what the show is, and it would have broken a little bit. So we love ending on the promise of a further start for this exceptional character, without going all the way there.”
For more of THR’s This Is Us final season and finale coverage, read interviews with Sterling K. Brown, Mandy Moore, Justin Hartley, Jon Huertas, Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan, the ensemble together and more from Fogelman.
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