The return of This Is Us can be summed up in a moment between two of the Big Three.
“If the world stopped for the bad stuff, then everything would be dark,” Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) tells twin brother Kevin (Justin Hartley). “But the world keeps going so we can find that crack of light on the other side of the door. We have found the light before, big brother. And we’ll find it again.”
The touching scene arrives at the end of the premiere episode for the sixth season, which kicks off the final run for NBC’s award-winning family drama. Taking place roughly six months after viewers last saw the Pearson family in the show’s present story line, “The Challenger” flashes back to show how each of the Big Three — Kate, Kevin and brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — reacted to the 1986 space shuttle tragedy and how those traits remain with them as adults on their 41st birthday. The episode splits its time between the past and present, as the latter time period sees matriarch Rebecca (Mandy Moore) sharing with her family some more concerning news after a PET scan.
In present day, both Kate and Kevin struggle in their home life as they sit with the weight of their mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Since calling off his wedding, Kevin has been focused on co-parenting his twins with Madison (Caitlin Thompson), but finds himself grappling with the realization that his family, as well as his career, isn’t turning out how he once pictured. Kate, meanwhile, is a working mom of two toddlers of her own whose husband, Toby (Chris Sullivan), spends the week in San Francisco at his new job. As the two siblings lean on each other — with Kevin bunking up at Kate’s to create some healthy distance from Madison — Randall, too, is hurting as he confesses an ambitious goal to wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) about wanting to help struggling addicts in his city of Philadelphia, motivated by his own experiences with family members he couldn’t save.
Below, in a chat with The Hollywood Reporter, creator Dan Fogelman teases the “slow build” ahead for the Big Three as they embark to find the light and promises major payoffs as the final season unfolds, bringing the twisty, time-jumping and emotional drama full circle to focus on the nostalgia of growing older: “We’ve been teasing different glimpses into the future for seasons of television now, and we’re going to land in those moments and provide context and answers.”
In this episode, amid the weight of Rebecca’s looming prognosis, viewers glean more about the Big Three with the Challenger flashback. Mandy Moore recently spoke about the parallel journey of her saying goodbye to This Is Us as Rebecca starts her process of saying goodbye. What is your hope for fans as they embark on that dual journey of grieving?
Our ending here is operating on a couple of planes, for both us [who make the show] and the audience. The people who have stuck with the show for this long are really invested in the show and the characters, and in this family. The people who work on the show — whether it be the actors, the writers, the producers or the crew — there’s a real investment from all of us. We’re contemplating the end of this job that we’ve all loved so much and the end of this time together that we’ve all spent, while simultaneously watching characters go through the end of their journeys. It’s definitely a concurrent experience.
Chrissy Metz recently said the final season will see the end of the journey for “two very important characters.” What can you say about that?
I can’t say a lot. It’s always a difficult part of the show to speak about anything too early. But the show spans a lot of time and, especially where we’re going deeper into our final season, you’re going to see the completion of a lot of journeys. Whether that means life and death or romantically. Because we spend more time than just exists linearly, we’ll hopefully be able to complete all of our stories and journeys, however long that takes in the calendar time in the show. But in terms of who is going to live or die, I can’t really say that part.
Last season’s finale flash-forward confirmed that Kate and Toby will be meeting their romantic end. But this final season begins with them in a loving place — even though things are hard, they’re putting in the work. How quickly will their marriage dissolve, and why did you want to explore this with such a beloved couple?
Marriages not always working out over time is something that happens more frequently than not. It’s not something we’ve really done or addressed on the show. The odds are that not all couples make it. The filter through which we view life in the show, through which we operate, is that not all things have to be instantaneous or terrible, nor all good and perfect. Characters are flawed and make flawed decisions and have flawed relationships.
To your first part of the question, a marriage falling apart is not all bad constantly. It can get there, and certainly there are ones that are like that. I think Toby and Kate had come into this with a great love story, and to have them be at a 180-degree paradigm shift as we open the season, and ready to kill each other and on the cusp of divorce, wouldn’t be fair. We’re going to build it slowly. We’ve had a device we always planned on utilizing that will really help us carry through their relationship. I think it’s going to be a fulfilling and very sad but, hopefully, a little bit of an uplifting journey for the many people who go through this type of stuff — marriages and remarriages, and co-parenting. I hope it won’t all be traumatic and terrible!
Exploring that slowly is not something often seen on TV.
I think we have a tendency when we’re viewing marriages disintegrating on film or television that it can be so ugly, because so many parts of it are. With time, and because the show has the ability to span time, maybe there’s the opportunity to see different shavings of things — how certain relationships lead to future relationships and how certain things lead to other things. And while everybody talks about how much they cry when they watch this television show and how sad it can be, we’ve always kind of smiled because I’ve always found the show to be wildly optimistic about human nature, about people in general, and hopefully we can bring a part of that to what Toby and Kate are going through this season.
Kate ends the episode with her speech about how she and Kevin will find light again after darkness. The finale time jump showed that future Kevin does find light. How will Kevin in the present story line confront how his family life and career aren’t going as he imagined?
It’s an important part of our storyline. And it’s one of the things that playing with time on this show has allowed us to do. When you go through a low point in your life linearly — if you’re just going hour by hour and day by day — it can be a very bleak period for a long time. If you’re able to zoom out and look at the whole of your life, and look at years from now, maybe you see how one piece of the journey led you to another piece of the journey that was much brighter and lighter than the previous part. Having experienced a great deal of trauma and tragedy in my own life, but also just the ups and downs, I would have been hard-pressed at those low-point moments to ever jump forward a couple of weeks, months, years or decades and say, “Wow, I’m going to be that happy at some point? That seems impossible right now.” And I think that’s a little bit of what Kevin has in store for him moving forward.
I get a lot of questions about Kevin’s romantic journey and where that’s heading. It’s a big thing that people ask about. I think whatever happens to Kevin — whether he ends up with somebody, somebody we know, whether he ends up single, whether he ends up in some other form of relationship or non-relationship — I think it will be a very different place than we find him at the beginning of the season.
In the first few episodes screened for journalists, you reference some of the flash-forwards and breadcrumbs that have been teased throughout the series. Right out of the gate, it feels like you are filling in some answers — which follows up on your promise that all will be answered by the show’s end. What was your approach with this final season in terms of satisfying fans along the way?
The approach has always been the same. This season has — I think, as someone who works on it! — a nice slow build to how it starts. Things are teased out a little bit into the future, but there’s a journey still to go on, even in our final season. By the time we get to the end, I think we’ll have traversed a lot of time. As I’ve said in the past, I know that the questions in the show and the questions that people who watch the show closely might have about what happens to the characters or what was happening in this moment in the future, or far future, or past that they didn’t quite understand will have all been answered. To me, telling a complete story is to provide those answers.
There are two ways to go. You can provide the abstract ending, which is: “What just happened?” And leave people to chew on it. I think we’re going to very directly tell people what happened. We’ve been teasing different glimpses into the future for seasons of television now, and we’re going to land in those moments and provide context and answers for them. And then the debate that will be left will be if people liked the choices that were made for the characters. I think those are the fun things to debate. It won’t be the question of, “What just happened?” Or, “They left me hanging like that?” Because for this television show, we want to kind of close the book and complete the story.
Have you filmed the series finale yet?
No. As we speak, we’re doing a trilogy of episodes, which we sometimes do — interconnected episodes where we focus on one of the Big Three. Those are our eighth, ninth and tenth episodes that are in the process of being filmed right now. So, we haven’t filmed the finale, but there is stuff that we’ve filmed previously, as we’ve spoken about, that has been banked for later in the series.
You have also said that, since the beginning of the show, you’ve had moments, images and ideas in your head for the final season, as well as a clear idea about how the show will end. Now that it’s finally approaching, how much or how little has changed about the ending you always had in mind?
It’s exactly what we thought. The ending that we talked about conceptually is still the one that we’re planning and that I’m kind of noodling on a little bit right now. I’m waiting until the end; I’m going to get every single moment of all the other episodes [done] before I go off to write the final one or two. I haven’t actually put pen to paper on them in that kind of way yet, but I’ve known what they’re going to be for some time.
In non-spoiler and broad strokes, how would you describe what the final season and end of the show is building toward?
The reference point I give are those sprawling family novels that some people really dig into. I’m one of them, my entire life. I’m actually reading one now that I’m really enjoying, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The ones that have always spoken to me are the ones where you feel like you’ve gone on a real journey with the characters who are intrinsically linked, often by family. You close the book and feel like you’ve been told a complete story.
Along with that, my hope would be that there’s a positive and optimistic message for the show, in trying to put something positive into the world at a difficult time that would hopefully make people feel something. And, hopefully, the thing they feel isn’t just sadness or ugliness, but it’s also kind of beautiful and quiet. That’s my hope for the end of it. Whether we get there or not won’t be for us to judge. But, that’s the goal.
The first episodes in the final season focus on the struggle of the everyday aspects and unexpected challenges of life (parenting, health, love) that are relatable to people at all different stages. Was this theme an influence of the pandemic era?
It’s funny because the narrative about the show became something different than maybe was intended. Not in a bad way. But the part of the show that I always loved was it being about the little things. About the nostalgia of growing up and the nostalgia of being a grown-up looking back. That’s often really small. For me, when I think about my childhood, I do think about coming in from being out in the snow in Pittsburgh, and my mom slicing up hot dogs for us that she boiled in water with tomato soup. That’s the part of my childhood that’s still tangible to me. That’s a very small detail, but it feels very big to me now that my mom has passed away, and I’m a 45-year-old man with children of my own.
Somewhere along the line, the big mysteries of what happened with Jack’s death and what we were able to tease with moments in the future and mysteries arriving — these bigger, soap opera elements — always get so much of the attention when, at its core, the show was always about the really small and really simple stuff that comes with being part of a family. In the final season, more than ever, because there’s nothing left to throw forward to tease or surprise with after the season, we were able to go back towards that very beginning and sit in the really small, simple stuff that’s hopefully very relatable and that everyone can see a part of themselves reflected in. That was intentional — to get back to this very intimate, small place at the end that is laced with nostalgia for the past of these characters and the past of the show, and just the simplicity of it all.
In the beginning, you had to keep plot points top secret, particularly when you mention Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) death. Are you taking any extreme measures for the ending?
Jack’s death was particularly one that had me lying in bed at night worrying, “Did I send that email to the wrong person accidentally and suddenly release the information into the world?” We were in that kind of paranoia. I don’t really think how the show is going to end carries that [same level]. I think it’s more about people being curious, like what is that final image of Tony [Soprano] and the family sitting at the diner? I [don’t] need to hide script pages from people. I can’t imagine people wanting to get their hands on that and spoil it. So I think the paranoia has come down a little bit. My big thing that I was always worried about is that all of our cards with our entire game plan were up on a wall at the Paramount lot: “What if someone broke in and took pictures of that and shared that with the world?” Because we’re virtual, due to a pandemic; I don’t have to worry about those things anymore. So, that takes one thing off my plate.
Interview edited for clarity.
The final season of This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.