(Spoiler alert: This story contains details on Tuesday's finale of This Is Us.)
If the end of NBC's hit drama This Is Us seemed like the perfect balance of sadness and hopefulness — focused on all the ways the Pearson family has supported, loved and influenced each other through generations – that's because it's an ending that's been in the works for about four years.
That's when show creator Dan Fogelman says he first started filming the bulk of the scenes in the series' final episode, "Us" — which largely moves between a time when the program's lead characters were teens, enjoying a lazy Saturday with their parents, and the funeral of the show's matriarch, Mandy Moore's Rebecca Pearson.
"Half to two-thirds of the finale was filmed three or four years ago," says Fogelman, adding he wanted to capture the actors playing younger versions of the Pearson clan before they matured, unaware of the importance of the scenes they were filming. "I was convinced that those three children with Jack and Rebecca were such a part of the origin story of the show that seeing them at a younger age again...would feel so nostalgic for the audience and it would feel subconsciously like stepping into an old home movie of a family."
Tuesday's finale unfolded as a meditation on all the ways families connect and move on through loss over generations. Randall, a Black man adopted into the white Pearson family as a baby and played with earnest charm by Sterling K. Brown, mourns the loss of his mother while celebrating the impending arrival of a grandchild.
Chrissy Metz's perpetually insecure Kate has a final reconciliation with the ex-husband who once seemed like her soulmate, learning to live fearlessly. And restless actor Kevin, played by Justin Hartley, has finally settled into a strong relationship, building an enduring home with the woman he always loved.
Against this rueful adulthood, we also see the siblings together as teens when Jack – given a smoldering intensity by Milo Ventimiglia – teaches his young sons how to shave, foreshadowing the loss all of them would feel upon his death after a house fire a few years later.
"I thought that the show was never just about the passing of a parent or a parent dying; It was about how you move on afterwards and how you carry them with you," says Fogelman, recalling his reaction when his own mother died. "I've lost some people who have been some of my closest people and on the day of their death, I would have been very hard pressed to imagine a hypothetical moment in time where I could be happy again. At the end I wanted to show what happens as you move forward and give a message of hope there."
My last extended interview with Fogelman was back in 2017, as the show was ending its first season, already a huge hit for NBC. So it felt appropriate to reconnect for an exit interview of sorts, as the show wraps up after its sixth season, to reflect on the impact of a series which might go down in history as the last great family drama on broadcast network TV.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eric Deggans: This finale comes at the end of a very long road for you. How are you feeling now?
Dan Fogelman: When you've worked on a television series that has lasted this many years, it's a giant chunk of your life. It's not just six seasons, it's probably eight calendar years — maybe even nine — since I first put pen to paper [and wrote the pilot episode]. You don't feel any of the things you're really expecting to feel ... You're trying to keep yourself emotionally distanced enough from the material so that you can do your job and be analytical.
Only now, as we speak ... have I started to feel that thing welling up inside of me and a touch of perspective. It's so much of what the final episode is about, which is the regret of going, "I wish I had appreciated it all more while it was happening." That's very much the process of making a TV show, and particularly this TV show.
You've had a lot of landmark episodes leading up to this finale: the end of Kate and Toby's marriage, the death of Rebecca's second husband Miguel, and Rebecca's death. Do you have a sense of how the audience has received what you've done?
I knew that we had taken this big giant swing with the death of a beloved character. It was a big final twist in our storytelling. And my hope was to clear that out, and then sit with a family — which, at its core, is what this show has always been about. It does feel like this rewarding epilogue.
I'm an angsty guy and the show has been such a contact sport for our audience, as I call it. People who like this show, those who have stuck with it — they take in the show in a different kind of way. I wanted to do right by everybody and leave them with the right feeling at the end of it.
The final season was building towards the death of Rebecca. But that happened in the second-to-last episode, instead of the final one.
It was always my plan. I thought the show was never about the just the passing of a parent or a parent dying. It was about how you move on afterwards and how you carry them with you. It's literally the final message spoken on the show. So much of this show has been about just that: Sad things and bad things will happen to us ... We're going to experience hardship in various forms. But I didn't want to end on the hardship.
You guys have been pretty ruthless in this finale season, killing off Miguel even before Rebecca dies.
That was always the plan. Our one debate was always how closely we'd be able to tolerate Miguel's death episodically to Rebecca's. I always knew that he would pass before Rebecca and that it would create what I always referred to as kind of the Super Bowl of plot for a family, which is three children — three triplets — figuring out their mother's care, deciding who was going to be making the decisions. That's as high as the stakes get in our show; It's our Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.
So then the only debate left was, how do we bring this out so that there's not too much, to the point where you can't take it in, because you're feeling too much. The back half of the season deals with really tricky stuff: the death of two really loved characters, as well as the decline of a mother figure due to Alzheimer's, as well as divorce. Interspersing these lighter stories with Jack and Rebecca and having these beautiful uplifting moments, where even in the midst of Alzheimer's, something beautiful can happen with a relationship finally coming of age and people finding one another. And I think, as always, that was the amazing job our writers did, which was balancing out the sorrow and the joy.
One criticism I've seen from fans is the way Miguel — Jack's best friend who becomes Rebecca's second husband — is treated during the episode where she is dying. Rebecca imagines she's in a train, passing by all the important people in her life, and she kind of moves past Miguel to reunite with Jack in the train's caboose. What do you think of that?
For years, we would watch online and I would feel bad for the actor [who plays Miguel, Jon Huertas], when people would come after him. I had said early and often, go easy on Miguel; you're going to love him by the end. And what a tour de force by this actor and by our writing staff to take a guy who was, for many people, the villain of this story — the guy who kind of jumped on Jack's wife right after Jack [died] — and make him beloved to the point where people are going, "Why isn't he in that final caboose car with Rebecca?" I thought that was quite a turn. [The criticism] actually made me quite happy because I felt that we had done our job of not only redeeming his character but making him a fan favorite by the end.
It must have been an incredible advantage to know where the story was going to end up, four years before the finale would actually air.
It feels almost like a film you've been working on for four years. About two or three months ago, I wrote the stuff that wasn't filmed in advance. I wrote it inside a document where the rest of the script pages already existed. I always kind of knew the finale would be Rebecca's funeral, that there would be a final moment with Kate and Toby and a final moment with Uncle Nicky and Kevin and a fun scene with Randall and Beth. And I knew what the final two scenes would be almost exactly.
The show's very first episode ends with this reveal that what seems like two stories – the life of three thirtysomething siblings and a young couple having their first kids – is actually about the same family, shifting back and forth in time. That seems like a key element of the series.
After I made the pilot, I screened it for my sister and my stepmother and my father. My sister was crying and my stepmother was crying; she was saying, "This is the one. You've made a lot of stuff, but this is the one...I can feel it." Everybody's talking. And then like a minute or two later, my dad just screams out, "They're all related!"
It took him that long to get it?
That's always been part of the fun of this show. When we do those rare things, some people need their husband or wife to explain it to them afterwards. Some people will never fully understand it, but enjoy the show anyway. And some people really lock in and get it. And it's always been kind of delicious part of this experience for us making it.
I've often cited "This Is Us" as a model for how network TV can diversify writing staffs. You had significant diversity – something like 30 percent of your writers were Black at one point – and you've given them the independence to make the non-white characters feel authentic. Why was that important to you?
I think that I learned that your stuff gets better if you hire a lot of people whose life experience is different than yours. Traditionally, in any business you will hire people who you like because you have stuff in common with them at that job interview. So it would be very easy for me to sit and be very comfortable in a room of 40-year-old, upper middle class Jewish kids. But [diversity] makes your television show more interesting. I'm not doing it because I'm some wonderful human being. I'm doing it selfishly. It makes more people like the show, because they're recognizing parts of themselves in characters that I wouldn't have known. It needs to happen because people need to see themselves represented on TV.
I know you're weary of questions about how much the show makes fans cry. But it does seem to be a central part of the show's impact. And this finale is heartrending as anything I've seen on the series.
I've chosen to take the fact that people are crying so much as a sign that we're doing a good job of finding the relatable stuff that's underneath this human experience we're all living. The only time I ever really cried at the show was in [screening] the final five minutes of the finale. And it wasn't because it was the end of the show. It was so big and so sweeping and it made me start thinking about my kid and my mom and dad. It made me feel something big and hopeful, even as I was sad. And it made me start crying. I'd like to think people cry more for the melancholy beauty of it all, than they do just out of sadness.