SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us, titled “The Pool.”
While trying to enjoy a nice day at the pool on Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, the Pearson family wound up wading into some deep waters. For young Kevin (Parker Bates), it was literal. He felt abandoned by his parents after he paddled into the adult end of the pool and almost didn’t make it back safely. Randall (Lonnie Chavis) was becoming curious about his background, venturing to the other side of the pool, where the other African-American kids were playing with their families —and where Rebecca (Mandy Moore) would ultimately receive some unsolicited but needed advice (from guest-star Ryan Michelle Bathe, who’s married to Sterling K. Brown) about Randall’s hair. Meanwhile, Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicsak) was shamed by the other kids for dancing around in a bikini, injuring her self-confidence, which prompted Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) to cheer her up with an unexpectedly magical T-shirt story. (Somebody give that guy a World’s Greatest Dad T-shirt. Or even a mug.)
And those pool stories informed present-day drama: After Randall (Brown) apologized to the neighborhood security guard for his racially motivated vetting of biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones), he found himself defensive about having raised his kids in a white neighborhood — and that William (who said he was a junkie at the time of the firehouse visit) was clean enough to focus on civil rights activism during some of Randall’s formative years, when a little boy had questions about his father. And then came what Randall wasn’t expecting from William: No judgment, all affirmation — plus, an apology, a touch of the knee, the use of the word “son.” (“You are doing everything right, son.”) Free free to quickly brush away a tear and clear your throat in a manly way before we mention some other key elements of the episode: Arriving in New York, Kevin (Justin Hartley) immediately found himself in over his head, in the deep end of the theater world by having an audition-from-hell for an Off-Broadway play (only to land the part thanks to his Manny fame), and Kate put her insecurities on the showroom floor when she discovered that Toby’s (Chris Sullivan) ex-wife was svelte and attractive, which, funny story, led to her taking a job at Josie’s boutique before she discovered from Toby that thin isn’t necessarily beautiful. Want to go deeper into “The Pool”? Let’s snag not one but five pool chairs and wave over the lifeguard, a.k.a. This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman.(To read the cast’s thoughts on the episode, click here.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is an ambitious episode in that you are juggling so many story lines, but it’s rewarding to get actual stories in the past. Will this be something we’ll see even more of in the future, where an episode explores a relevant story for each of the Big Three as kids, in addition to their present-day adventures?
DAN FOGELMAN: Yeah, I think it’s definitely something that we’re going to be doing in episodes in the future, where each of the kids has a little story that is reflecting on their present-day story. The difficulty is within an hour of storytelling, you can only really do the stories when all of the kids are in the same location, otherwise we’re suddenly telling 15 different stories in the course of 42 minutes of television. So the pool is obviously a very natural place to be able to do little stories of all the people, because they’re all in the same area. For a future story, we’re talking about examining what birthday parties are like in this house for the three kids, in terms of: How do you do a birthday party when three kids all share the same birthday without it getting out of control and ridiculously expensive and too many kids? So, that feels like another area to give each of the kids their own little story that’s reflecting on their present-day adult story, too.
From the moment Randall apologizes for William’s run-in with the neighborhood security guard, Randall is defensive with William about his upbringing and the life he’s created for his family —and he seems to assign judgment from William that wasn’t there ultimately. Did you set out to explore the idea of Randall realizing that actually he is enough to William while solidifying their father-son bond?
Race obviously plays a big part in Randall’s life and his story, and we haven’t explored it in depth yet, but I was thinking initially: It’s an interesting thing for a guy to be suddenly confronted by this living issue in his life and now William is living in his home, so he’s feeling his eyes on him in a way that might not be necessarily happening, because he’s reflecting what’s going on in his own brain. That was kind of the starting place for the entire thing. They’ve lived these two very different lives — William’s life and Randall’s life have been very different — and I think when you get to the end of the episode, you realize that a lot of what Randall has actually been acting out against isn’t quite the racial aspect of the story, but it’s the fact that he learned early in the story that his father was out and healthy around the very same time that he was struggling with these issues as a little boy. And I think that’s where his story is stemming from and not just, “I was a black child raised by a white family and that was very difficult for me and you did that to me.” So they’re both having almost two different stories that are internal versus the one that you actually think is happening.
Randall perks up when he asks what year William was involved in that protest, so he’s doing some math in his head about figuring out where William was.
Exactly. In the initial scene, William’s talking about bussing, so our read is that by the time you get to the next scene Randall is feeling judged for the way he lives his life or for the racial makeup of his neighborhood and family. But really in that opening scene, William has revealed some new information to him on where he was during a crucial time in Randall’s life. So there’s multiple things going on — he is feeling a kind of judgment from William, but he’s also battling something else, which is what always causes us to act out.
In the end, he gets the apology that he wanted, but wasn’t expecting at that moment. Does this accelerate the bonding process? And do their different backgrounds put them in any more conflict in coming weeks?
There’s definitely still more conflict in the coming weeks, just because of the nature of their very different lives; you don’t just wash away all the problems of an event, of a feeling of abandonment overnight. But I think this is a huge step forward in kind of the arc of this series. They’ve gotten to know each other. In the previous episode Randall allowed himself to fall a little bit, and in this episode, we’re kind of getting in an unexpected moment and way, the apology that he’s probably been craving his entire life. And now it’s time to start watching these guys enjoy each other a little bit as opposed to hold onto baggage and start to get to know each other more. So the next batch of stories, that’s where a lot of that comes. He starts becoming a more natural part of the family, as opposed to somebody who every episode needs to explore some heavier stuff. I think we have a couple of episodes that are a little bit lighter with the two of them.
Race can be a tricky thing for any show to tackle. This episode showed Jack and Rebecca a little out of their element raising an African-American child. For example, when they aren’t sure if he truly needed to wear sunscreen like his white siblings, and then with the mother of Randall’s new friend giving Rebecca the name of a barber who can cut Randall’s hair. What were those discussions like in the writers’ room, and about finding that right balance of humor and honesty?
We just wanted to treat it real. The initial story came from a friend of mine, a white guy in L.A.; he and his wife have a daughter from Ethiopia. She was at a mall one day with her daughter and this African-American woman came up to her and handed her a note and it said, “Your daughter’s hair needs moisture.” And it was always one of my favorite stories because — they didn’t develop a life-long friendship necessarily like these characters are eventually going to do — she was not offended by it. She was grateful for the help for something that she wasn’t super aware of, and they were very early in their adoption of their first child. So that’s where that started from. If we can find the reality of it, there’s humor in the fact that it’s not 2016 Hollywood. This is 1980s Pennsylvania; it’s not super common at that time for this to be going on. And there will be informational challenges for this couple who don’t have an Internet to look things up on. [Laughs.]
I think we try not to shy from the race stuff. Our writers’ room has lots of debate and good discussions about what the line was here. We didn’t want to tread into afterschool special territory, but we also didn’t want to do something that felt familiar. What’s most interesting about this story is for Randall particularly, it’s a completely internal story for him. There’s this [incident] with the security guard that sets him off. One of my favorite scenes we’ve done so far is that scene, when he’s at the Snow White play and there’s no dialogue, and Sterling’s such a beautiful actor, he’s just looking around. That story is not a story about white people behaving badly or black people behaving badly; it’s not even a story about race in as much as it’s a story about this character trying to take stock of decisions he’s making and what they look like in the eyes of somebody else. Any race of person at anytime in their life can be having a moment like that. I think that’s what’s really interesting about this story: It’s about race and it’s not all about race, and I think that was the line we tried to tread.
NEXT: “It only adds more fuel to the fire that’s slowly going to burn and eventually explode.”