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'We missed the shot': 'This Is Us' boss breaks down that deceptively simple finale

Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES — It's a couple of days into filming the final episode of "This Is Us" — the present-day scenes, anyway — and the show is at its home base on the Paramount Studios lot in Los Angeles. Just outside Stage 30, which houses the interior of the swanky home Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) built adjacent to the family cabin, the show's creator and emotional architect Dan Fogelman greets me with a bit of multilayered gallows humor: "Get ready to see everybody die!"

The passing of the show's beloved family matriarch, played by Mandy Moore, is still fresh. The day before, the cast and crew were still shooting parts of the tearful penultimate episode, partly set on a metaphorical train where a younger version of Rebecca Pearson reminisces about her life and her impact on her loved ones before taking her final breath.

But that's not how the story ends for "This Is Us."

The heartfelt series finale, titled "Us," feels like going through old photos after the death of a loved one. It's a fitting conclusion to the NBC drama's tender and often surprising story, steered over six seasons of twists and turns — a way to show that everyone in the Pearson family will be OK. And that we will too.

Directed by Ken Olin, the bulk of the episode takes place in the past, with the show's beloved mom and dad, Rebecca and Jack, enjoying a day free of obligations with their kids, including playing pin the tail on the donkey, a memory older Rebecca was fearful of losing. In the present, her adult kids and their families are grappling with her death and trying to make sense of how their lives will continue on.

On this late April day on set, some of the cast — Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Sullivan and Chris Geere — are on deck for brief scenes. Before Metz and Sullivan, who play ex-spouses Kate and Toby, begin their heart-to-heart, they pull Fogelman aside to make sure they understand that the tone of their interaction is platonic: "We're not alluding to anything, right?" During a brief break between shots, Fogelman hands me his phone. Playing on the screen is footage of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) guiding a young Kevin (Parker Bates) and Randall (Lonnie Chavis) through their first face-shaving experience.

 

Fogelman is seated behind media village, where an array of screens display what's being filmed, inside Rebecca's room. Blankets and quilts are tucked into her hospital bed, which is pushed up against the wall. At one point, Fogelman shows off a gift he's just received from a crew member — a miniature replica of the Pearsons' living room that plays the pilot episode on the tiny television: "It's pretty cool, right?"

That wistfulness about bringing a beloved family drama to an end is shared by all. "I just have to open the lever on the way home and the way to work," Metz said. "I listen to sad music — our soundtrack — and let it out. I don't want anyone to hospitalize me on the last day 'cause I know how I am. Shooting the funeral stuff, there's no need to prepare, because we're all grieving the death of the show."

Shortly before Tuesday's series finale aired, Fogelman and I talked again about "This Is Us," executing the vision he had for the finale and the moment he finally let himself get emotional about the ending. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Since these final two episodes worked in tandem, I want to start with the train. What did you want to capture with Rebecca's transition of life? How and when did the idea of the train metaphor click into place?

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