Families are spending more time than ever under the same roof due to the COVID pandemic — including the Pearsons.
Tuesday brought the latest episode of This Is Us, titled "I've Got This," which featured new COVID-related storylines in the present-day as well as return appearances by Phylicia Rashad, who plays Carol Clarke, and Griffin Dunne, who portrays Nicky Pearson.
In Los Angeles, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) were adapting to parenting two kids while the new dad was struggling to find a new IT job after he was laid off. Their kids, Jack and Hailey, were finally able to meet their baby cousins when the couple had an "awkward sushi squirmish" during dinner with Madison (Caitlin Thompson) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), who were enjoying their life with newborn twins and a nanny.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) expanded their quarantine pod for dinner with Malik (Asante Blackk) and Carol, who prolonged her stay after babysitting granddaughters Tess (Eris Baker), Deja (Lyric Ross) and Annie (Faithe C. Herman). The tension between the mother-daughter pair hit its peak when Beth raised her voice at Carol after feeling judged and criticized.
All the while, audiences saw the early days of Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) as cash-strapped first-time parents to the Big Three. And towards the end of the episode, Kate called her mother to thank her and reflected on how she hardly noticed her mom and dad's scarce financial resources because Rebecca made things work, especially after Jack's death. Following the uplifting phone call, Kate told Toby they were going to be okay money-wise because she accepted a job at their son's music school for the blind.
Below, the episode's writers, Casey Johnson and David Windsor, as well as director Ken Olin, tell PEOPLE about the "very, very confident transition" to the end of season 5 and how the COVID pandemic will affect the fictional family as the real world gets vaccinated.
PEOPLE: I couldn't help but think of new mom Mandy Moore and what she must be experiencing these days with her baby boy August. There are lots of parents and first-time parents in the writers' room. Did any real-life experiences inspire the script?
DAVID WINDSOR: It's really funny. There are a lot of parents in there. The opening scene is very specific to that experience and we are all talking about, 'God, you really don't understand what that's like unless you've done it.' We realized we had this opportunity to put that into the show and in some way, it's a universal thing. Those sleepless nights, the panic of coming home with a new baby. Then we have all these families we can use to tell this universal story with. It was fun to be able to do that.
CASEY JOHNSON: And particularly with giving that baby a bath for the first time. We were talking about how they send you home from the hospital with that little pink bucket and they're like, 'Good luck!' We just loved that showing that experience and how they handled that differently. Especially Kevin joking about using palm olive [oil], it was such a universal, wonderful, terrifying experience.
DW: Casey, I don't know if you remember that palm olive joke came because I had just came from washing my face with palm olive and I'm about it. [laughs]
CJ: And it was interesting because we filmed this right before Mandy left to go have her baby. It was neat thinking about her having a newborn and that in a couple of weeks, she would have her own newborn for the first time.
Also curious to know if COVID has largely changed or delayed the order of the stories or production of season 5, or even season 6?
KEN OLIN: I don't know how much it actually delayed the story, the writers all seem determined to tell these stories even though it's very challenging because there are so many restrictions on dealing with babies. And then dealing with Mandy's pregnancy, how we were going to accommodate her and make sure that she was safe. We actually started shooting this episode, I think, in December so that we could accommodate Mandy's pregnancy before she got too big. Then we finished a week, 10 days ago. … To Dan [Fogelman]'s credit, he's just determined to do it and we continue to figure out ways to do it. Filming the little babies has to be separated from the main unit shooting, so we figured that out. It's more clinical than it appears. Our show is a warm, affectionate place to work and we had to restrict a lot of that. Everybody is really cautious, we've been incredibly fortunate. … As far as the future goes, we're all looking forward to some of these things easing up as more and more people become vaccinated. It looks like we're getting a handle on it. I don't think we're anticipating having to restrict ourselves too much for next year.
CJ: I also wanted to give a huge shout-out to production. This is a difficult show to shoot anyway with all the different timelines and all the different characters, it's really an intense show. And doing it under these restrictions has multiplied that. Coming from a Zoom writers' room where we're staring at a screen all day and coming on to the set where people are making what we write happen under these conditions, I'm just constantly so impressed by this crew. They've just done an incredible job making great work and keeping everyone safe. It's really been something to see.
As the real world anticipates the end of the COVID pandemic with the vaccine rollout, will the show's present-day storyline also reflect a sense of normalcy? And does This Is Us plan on straying away from anything pandemic-related in the future?
DW: A lot of conversations we've had in the [writers'] room are, first of all, what is the responsible way to portray what's going on in terms of masks, vaccines and social distancing. We really wanted to get that right. As things have gradually loosened up so has our outlook of what we want to do and how we want to incorporate all of it into the show. You sort of hit a point where it becomes a little fatigued. We're already living in this space, if we can get out of it as the world opens up, we want to. But at the same time, we're not out of this yet. It's one of those things that we're constantly trying to navigate and get right and be responsible with.
CJ: And you'll see with Uncle Nicky appearing at the end of the episode, you'll find out that he's gotten both doses of the vaccine so that he is safe to travel. We really are trying to mirror the experience that everyone is going through.
Speaking of Uncle Nicky, is his visit short-term or will he be there indefinitely? And did his trailer make it to the west coast?
DW: Without giving anything away, when we see him at the end of the episode we will continue to find out more about what his journey was getting to see the babies, Kevin and Madison, and the rest of the family. But I don't think we should give that away just yet.
Toby is an example of what could happen to someone who thought his job security was locked in but the pandemic changed everything, including the dynamic in his family. With Kate returning to work and Toby stressing to get hired, how will this new shift affect their marriage or relationship with the family?
CJ: One of the reasons we wanted to tell this story is because we wanted to be really honest about how this year has been to everyone and even as things are brightening up, there are going to be lingering effects. It's something that everyone's dealing with and we wanted to tell that through the lens of Kate and Toby. For Toby, it's really, really difficult, it feels kind of hopeless. And Kate is in that with him too but interestingly, it might open up a path for her that she hadn't really considered before. Maybe taking a chance in a direction that she needed, she needed a little nudge to go in that direction so it will affect them and we'll be on that journey with them of how this past year continues once we're all back out in the world.
KO: With our show, there's a rhythm. We ebb and flow with these emotional lives and we've gone through a period on the show where we've had a number of episodes that we really reinforced the connection and bond these people feel. We celebrated this unconditional love they shared. But what I love about this episode is, okay, now we're reintroducing while Kevin and Randall are going to begin to find a way to heal, we're also going to introduce the other issues that are part of any family.
Kevin name-dropped many stars (Glenn Close, Jessica Alba and Leonardo DiCaprio) and appears to be adjusting to fatherhood comfortably, in large part thanks to his "stupid money." Though he's not intentionally rubbing it in, it's clear Kevin is privileged.
KO: Certainly, many of us are in different economic places than our siblings and the rest of our family. Those are complicated dynamics. The issue of the economic disparity in the family, I love that we are just beginning to get into that. That's a real thing. And while everything has been very good, nice and safe for a couple of episodes, Toby is suffering and this pandemic is an issue that might not have come up, but because of the pandemic, it is going to come up. He and Kevin are in very different places. It's going to call into question a number of things in the family. All of those things, which is the genius of the show, we're going to start to see a number of places where maybe things aren't as copacetic as they have been for a little while in their relationships. I love that.
To me, this episode is a classic This Is Us episode in that it begins light, fun and funny. It's a delivery system for, by the fourth and fifth acts you go, 'Oh wow, okay. This is getting intense. This family dinner is getting intense.' We're starting to touch on things that are a little darker. We're introducing potential issues in the marriage with Toby and Kate, we're introducing something that could maybe be going on with Deja and Malik. You'll see that when Nicky arrives, Kevin's very safe haven with Madison is going to have some ripples there. You know this is the way we always ramp up to the end of the season and hopefully leave people going, 'Oh s—! Okay here we go, I'll see what happens in the fall.' This episode is a very, very confident transition to this ramp to the end of the season. So here we go!
As for the idea of bringing in Carol and Nicky, was that always planned or did the script change due to the pandemic? The concept of quarantine pods was very relatable.
DW: Listen, any time we can have Phylicia Rashad or Griffin Dunne in the show, we certainly love it. They're incredible. We've been talking about bringing Carol back for a while and couldn't quite figure out which episode and how to make this storyline work. It, kind of, organically happened. We started writing this back in the early fall so we weren't sure where we were going to be in the world, and we just thought, 'Let's try it and let's do anything we can to tell the story that we want to.' It just worked out really, really well.
CJ: The timing of it worked out really well in that people are able to see their grandparents and older relatives now. It's safe for them to come and see their family. And that we were always talking about, like, what it's going to be like in the future or three months. It's a little bit of a guessing game from when you're breaking the stories. For this one, it just happened that it turned out to be really well-timed in that it's what is happening across the country too.
Tess announces she's dating her friend Alex. What can audiences look forward to as Tess comes into her own and further shapes her identity?
CJ: That's a really exciting storyline for us. We are going to tell more of that story in the remaining episodes. We also loved that what we started in this episode is how that is becoming, not a source of conflict, but raising up some new issues between Tess and Beth. With Beth trying to find the right way to be there for her daughter. And then, generationally how Carol, who is an educator and has been around a lot of kids [as a high school principal], might even have more information than Beth does. We're really excited to get into that and tell that story for Tess.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays (9 p.m. ET) on NBC.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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