[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Tuesday’s This Is Us season one finale.]
Perhaps it wasn’t the ending viewers were hoping for, but NBC’s breakout freshman drama This Is Us wrapped its first season Tuesday with a smallish cliffhanger.
The episode, titled “Moonshadow,” went back in time to when Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) first met — he was a handyman/mechanic while trying to get out of his father’s house, and she was a wannabe songstress performing in bars as her friends pressured her to settle down.
The episode also revealed what happened when a drunken Jack drove to see Rebecca’s show in a bid to get their marriage back on track. Unfortunately, Jack arrived and knocked a few more drinks back before learning that Ben (Sam Trammell) had attempted to kiss Rebecca. It prompted a threatened Jack to beat Ben up in front of the band, effectively canceling the show and tour.
With tensions brewing under the surface between Rebecca and Jack, the couple finally got into a massive fight as she drove them home instead of taking the stage. By the morning, they had each said things they couldn’t take back and Rebecca ultimately asked Jack to stay at Miguel’s (Jon Huertas). As Jack made one final impassioned speech professing his love for Rebecca, a montage featured The Big Three in the present day: Kate (Chrissy Metz) decided she wanted to pursue a singing career; Kevin (Justin Hartley) kissed Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) goodbye as he left for a meeting with Ron Howard; and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) decided he wanted to adopt a child.
Jack then walks out the door, ending the show’s first season and leaving viewers questioning the fate of the show’s central couple. To make sense of the finale and look ahead at season two, The Hollywood Reporter turned to creator and showrunner Dan Fogelman.
Why end this season on that note? Was that always what you’d envisioned?
This was always the episode we had planned. From the very first pitch, this was the ending we talked about for the first season. There are a lot of questions as we leave this marriage in the most dire place it’s been.
Last week’s episode made it seem as though Jack would die in a car crash. Would that have been too devastating? When will Jack’s death be explained?
It’s multifaceted. As we’ll see the setup that Kate talked about, how she feels responsible for Jack’s death, it’s not that that isn’t true. It’s just that the timing of that is now we’re starting to brace the audience that it’s coming and they should be ready for it. But it’s not necessarily going to happen in a way that people may or may not be expecting.
It looked as though Jack’s speech may have started a healing process, but then he walked out the door anyhow. Why is that a better ending than his staying?
It’s real life. One of the things that people are responding to in the show is how real it is. Ultimately, the characters are good, and flawed, and hopefully remind us of the best versions of ourselves. But in order to have a television series that can last for years you also have to show that people can make the wrong decisions that aren’t the best versions of themselves. Every time we’ve gone into this time period with Jack and Rebecca we’ve seen a marriage that is not broken but has kind of aged. This is their crossroads. We’ll come back next season to find out how they handle that crossroad and if they come out the other end. Real lives have marital spats; it doesn’t necessarily mean Jack and Rebecca are getting divorced or he’s not going to be in the house for five years. But this stuff happens in real life.
How do you balance Jack’s death storyline so as to keep the story going but not frustrate audiences?
I don’t know that a ton of thought goes into that. Without sounding highfalutin about it, Jack and Rebecca at this stage of their marriage had a severe bump in the marriage that coincides with a bunch of things that we set up in the past, so that’s why the story is being told now. Jack passes away in a certain point and in order to get to that point in the story that’s what will happen. These characters are real people who exist in our minds and this is what happens and this is their history. You can’t necessary change that timeline because it’s pleasing or displeasing, or not fitting in line with how the audience wants to witness it. In terms of the reveal of Jack’s death, the only balancing act we’re trying to be cognizant of is spacing it out in a way that is interesting for the audience and keeps people engaged and talking about it. But at the same point, not putting it to a place where it essentially becomes frustrating. That’s the balancing act we’re following.
Does that mean you have an idea of when that big reveal will happen or are you watching it unfold and going with the story?
No, I have. We’ve had a plan since the beginning. The last three episodes of this season were very much the plan. In the same way the where and how of Jack’s death is in our heads about how the audience is going to watch that.
The episode revealed Jack’s ties to the Vietnam War. Have you considered going that far back in a future episode?
We can go really far back should we want to; it depends on where we want to live. The show has now opened people up to our former story time and that gives you a wide berth to fly around in time in different ages, as long as we think we can execute it well. I don’t put it beyond us that we might want to go and see a young Dr. K (Gerald McRaney) at some point. That’s very much thematically in thinking with the show.
At this point you have a two-season renewal, but do you have an idea of how long you’d like to follow this family for?
It’s a little open-ended since it’s not just my decision but I definitely have a number in my head: 100 seasons. (Laughs.)
Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger have been upped to co-showrunners next season. Is that to help you tackle all of your various projects?
It’s just because that’s been the role they’ve been taking on already. This show is my entire life and I’m not going anywhere — I’ll continue doing the same job but we have such history together and they did such great work this year that it felt appropriate. But it has nothing to do with myself.
Is there anything that really worked this season that you’re looking to do more of next season? Original music, for example, given the strong reactions to the “Memphis” episode and Kate’s upcoming storyline?
That actually would be cool, I’ve thought very much about Kate from a storyline but I haven’t actually necessarily gone toward the actual music yet, so certainly that’s in our wheelhouse. We have a really talented composer who is also a singer-songwriter and she’s a huge tool for us to have at our disposal. So certainly, that’s a possibility. What we’ve learned from our show is it’s often about saying, “Here’s what doesn’t work, here’s what doesn’t work,” and trying to eliminate those things. For us we’ve been so pleasantly surprised by things that work that we weren’t even expecting to work. Things audiences have responded to that weren’t at the top of our minds. It’s almost a matter of taking what we’ve learned and not being scared of new things.
What have audiences responded to that you weren’t expecting?
In the pilot it’s not like Susan Kelechi Watson had a ton to do as Beth. But seeing how strongly audiences responded to her and to that marriage is such a great tool for us to have. It’s not that we didn’t know people would love them, but how strong that response is for that couple is obviously a really exciting thing for us as writers.
This Is Us is expected to return to NBC’s slate in the fall. What did you think of the finale? Sound off in the comments below. For more coverage, go to THR.com/ThisIsUs and click here for our postmortem with Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimigilia.