This Is Us producer breaks down Kevin and Madison's cold feet, return of Sophie

·17 min read

In the penultimate episode of the fifth season of This Is Us, Kevin and Madison split up.

Sorry, should have phrased that a little differently. In the romcom-winking "Jerry 2.0," Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Madison (Caitlin Thompson) — our most unconventional couple who had a one-night stand, made two babies, and pledged a forever commitment — went their separate ways for the weekend to celebrate their approaching nuptials in a most traditional matter: bachelor and bachelorette parties. And, surprise!, neither of those events was as festive as hoped.

At the family cabin, a too-tame gathering of Kevin, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Toby (Chris Sullivan), Nicky (Griffin Dunne), and Miguel (Jon Huertas) turned awkward following a rewatch of Jerry Maguire. During the guys' armchair analysis of the romantic drama-comedy, Nicky observed that his nephew was essentially Jerry, "sticking by her just because he's trying to do the right thing," prompting Kevin to show his uncle not the money but a defensive side of himself. Luckily, Miguel lifted Kevin's spirits by unspooling a campfire tale of a different sort: his underdog love story with Rebecca (Mandy Moore). While two people may have their story written in the stars, he explained, two other people "that the universe had no plans for" may wind up "writing their story in the stars together, and that's pretty fantastic too, isn't it?" Later that night, Kevin deleted the new cell number for on-again, off-again ex Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge), clearly moved by her surprise call at the beginning of the episode. (Moving in what direction seems to be a rather pressing question.)

Ron Batzdorff/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal (3) Caitlin Thompson, Justin Hartley, and Alexandra Breckenridge on 'This Is Us'

Meanwhile, back in civilization, BFF Kate (Chrissy Metz), Rebecca, and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) set up a paint-the-nude-model-at-home activity for Madison, though they probably weren't expecting said model to be an ex-boyfriend who had ghosted her. The bachelorette party also featured a Newlywed Game-esque How-well-do-you-know-your-betrothed? contest in which Kevin (via recorded video) was supposed to guess his fiancée's answers. But when Kevin struggled to answer an easy question about their future and hid behind humor, Madison was left later that night to glumly rewatch that part of the video. Ummm… let the wedding festivities begin!

Let's leave our boots on, put the uh-oh in Pocono, debate the future of Jerry and Dorothy, toast Cuba and Regina, and declare this an "all hands on deck" non-explosive-poop situation, because we've got plenty to unpack about "Jerry 2.0" with This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker, who co-wrote the episode.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This episode showed us some cold feet, warmed them up, and then cooled them off again in the final scene. We've been dancing around this "all-in" idea for so long with this couple — the early hesitations, the lack of a ring — so… how cold are all four of these feet at the moment?

ISAAC APTAKER: I think you could do a cold-feet ranking, and it would be live, and they would be constantly switching and flip-flopping and trading places. I'd say we're in the 50-to-60 degrees Fahrenheit [range] of cold. Make of that what you will.

What I love about this episode is, we're all huge romantic-comedy fans at This Is Us. We're all huge Cameron Crowe fans. We were so excited to do an episode that used a staple of rom-coms, such as Jerry Maguire, to explore all of our characters' own love stories, and how some of them were really by the books and traditional boy-meets girl stories, and some of them were much messier, and involved first marriages and unplanned pregnancies. There's not one type of love story that's any more valid or real than the others. They all look very, very different.

Kevin relates to Jerry in many ways: the impulsive moves, leading with his heart, wanting to do the right thing. Viewers are left to wonder if Sophie is actually still his Dorothy, and/or if Madison can be his Miguel. When Kevin re-read that mission statement he wrote, did it set off something inside him that he should be feeling these upcoming nuptials more passionately?

It definitely confused him. Sophie is someone that he grew up with. She was this very traditional lifelong childhood love, the one he thought he was always going to be with. So whenever she comes into the mix, it's really, really complicated for Kevin. But he also has this incredibly powerful connection with Madison. They're raising a family together. They're living together day in and day out. With Sophie, whenever they are together, it's not always that easygoing. There's quite a lot of drama whenever Kevin and Sophie try to make a go of it, if you recall.

Whose words do you think ultimately resonated more deeply with Kevin, Nicky's or Miguel's?

Oh, man. I think they both really landed with him. That's what's so complicated and interesting about the episode. If I had to pick one, Miguel makes such an interesting, complicated point around that fire when he talks about how an unplanned, unexpected relationship can be equally fulfilling and powerful and rewarding. And especially in the last couple of years, Jon [has been] so great in those scenes with him and Mandy. They really have found this incredible second act and second marriage that is incredibly rewarding and real.

Kevin has now walked off a TV show, a play, and the movie. He's backed out of romantic commitments before. Now that he's been told that the industry doesn't trust him because of his penchant for bailing, is that nagging at him as well — that you can't walk out on this, too, because what would that say about you?

Oh, for sure! Between Zoe [Melanie Liburd] and his agents last week, Kevin's really been on a roller coaster of, "Who am I? Am I a guy who bails on things? Am I a guy who goes for whatever's in front of him?" His whole journey has been a man trying to know himself, trying to believe that he can live up to the gigantic shoes his father left behind. And I think this is just another instance of Kevin not being totally sure who he is, but really wanting to do right by everyone — and by himself.

Madison is uncomfortable watching Kevin dodge the empty-nest question. How conscious is Kevin of this behavior?

I don't think Kevin's conscious of that at all. When people have defense mechanisms like that and retreat behind a joke, they don't even realize that that's what they're doing. Because they're so used to doing it.

When he deletes Sophie's number, you can look at it as a sign of his commitment, his focus, and his effort to clear his brain of distraction. Some might also say that if this were a healthy situation, he would not have to do that; it's like he's tamping down something inside of himself. Is Kevin's act of deleting her number a way for him to try to tell himself that everything's fine when maybe it's not?

If he didn't feel anything for Sophie and if there was no — threat is the wrong word, but if there was no pull there from talking to her, then he wouldn't really feel the need to delete her number, like you said. If you fully trust yourself and you don't have an addictive personality and you're not a little worried about what having access to that person means, then there was no need to delete the number. So I think that's another instance of Kevin trying really hard to do the right thing, but not fully trusting himself.

Sophie changed her number. When Kevin asked her why, she said it was "a long story." Does that story involve a fiancé who is no longer in the picture?

Maybe she's just found a really good data plan. Who knows? But it does certainly seem like there are some questions.

You certainly didn't want to show her hand with a possibly missing ring, did you?

Exactly. I mean, my dad changes his number like every two years to take advantage of a new contract. So she could just be, you know, frugal.

Toby feels so motivated by work now, when he didn't really talk about it so much before. But this move to be considered for a job in San Francisco — how much of him is aware that he is putting his relationship at risk? He's been going down this dangerous road of bottling up his feelings and not sharing them with Kate…

Yeah. He's been presented with a really, really difficult choice, which the best career option on the table happens to be several hours away from where his very, very new family is. But at the same time when he's not working, he is mentally not in a good place, and he knows that he needs to get back out there and feel like he was bringing in value to the family, which he gets through his career. So he's in a real catch-22, because the only offer on the table happens to be quite a ways away.

Did Toby glean the wrong lesson from Jerry Maguire because, in a way, he's choosing work over his relationship?

[Laughs] Yeah, it's possible. And at the end of the episode, we just see him reaching out to the possibility of the job. It's not like he's signing a contract or anything. But he's not adjusting well to the stay-at-home dad thing — it's not suiting him — and he's really worried about how to go on in that role.

Toby posits that Jerry's grandiose speech to Dorothy is just words, and Jerry is going to continue his patterns and it doesn't bode well for them. Isn't that what happened with Kevin and Sophie when they were younger? Kevin makes the great mission-statement speech and Sophie is happy, but he'll still be selfish and he'll still choose his career over her, leading to their divorce.

That's a totally fair point. As much of a bummer as it is, Toby's read on the movie and the story is a totally legitimate one. When Kevin does that big grand gesture to Sophie in the '90s, we know he goes on to choose L.A. and to end their marriage because he isn't willing to put it first.

Where did people in your writers' room land on whether Jerry and Dorothy lived happily ever after?

Everybody rewatched the movie, because it had been a minute for some of us. People were really, really split. And that's always what gets us excited about telling the story, or in this case interpreting someone else's story — when we're really divided and it feels like we can live in an interesting, ambiguous gray area and there's no clear answer. Just like hopefully our audience is split on: Kevin and Sophie haven't worked out many times. Should they be together? Are they meant to be together? Or are we happy that he deleted her number? Hopefully people are divided because it is messy and complicated.

So, in this split room, where did you fall?

I love a romantic comedy. I love a happy ending. I believe that they are living happily ever, raising little Jonathan Lipnicki in wedded bliss.

Kate has an uncomfortable look on her face when Madison talks about her hopes of being an older couple who's still in love and hasn't run out of things to talk about. Later, Kate wants to make sure that Madison is getting what she needs from Kevin as a partner. But how worried is Kate that she doesn't have that type of relationship with Toby?

Interesting. I think she's definitely been feeling the strain. We've seen little moments of it. It's not like they're getting in these blowout fights or anything. But there is a distance that's creeping in. And she's feeling really, really fulfilled for the first time by her career, which hasn't traditionally been the case for her. And he's feeling like he's not providing for the family in the way that he's used to — a lot of his self-esteem was wrapped up in that job and being the traditional provider. So there's this disconnect between them where, of course he's happy for his wife, of course he's thrilled that she's finding professional fulfillment., but he's also feeling the lack of it on his side of things.

When Madison opens up to Kate and says, "Girlfriends don't come easy for me… Nothing will ever get in the way of that," one immediately wonders if there is something that could get in the way. What should we brace for there?

Madison really is in that moment buying into Kevin, and she's feeling great about this relationship. But I think she's very sensitive to — as far as Kate and Sophie's relationship, Kate lost her first formative female best friend to Kevin. And I think this is Madison assuring her that that's not going to happen a second time around.

Sure. But it still feels —

Yeah, it definitely feels like if everything's 1,000 percent, why are you reassuring Kate, "You're never going to lose me"?

Exactly. In the past, when Rebecca told Miguel that for the first time in a long time, maybe there was some version of love out there for her, he said, "If that's something you're open to," before pausing for a second. Was he weighing whether to share his developing feelings for her?

It's always under the surface. Now we're a bit away from Jack's passing. It's not quite so fresh. At the same time, that is such a loaded situation. It's his best friend's wife. There's definitely this deep connection, this deep friendship, this deep care that Miguel shows for not just Rebecca, but the whole family. Whether that is romantic or not, it's something that he's certainly grappling with in his own mind. And for Rebecca, I don't think she's like, "I'm going to get back out there with Miguel." I think she's like, "I want to go on a few first dates. I need to see who I am, as a woman romantically apart from this marriage I've been in for so long." So I don't think she's thinking that at all just yet.

Kevin's fight with Nicky was nice — in that it showed how Nicky is now a full member of the family, that Kevin feels comfortable enough calling out Nicky and not walking on eggshells. When Nicky apologizes to Kevin, he explains his motivation involved his own situation with Sally, and he notes that it's too late there. But later, viewers see him google her — and just making that effort, allowing himself to be vulnerable would be a victory for him. So, do we meet Sally before the end of the season?

We only have one episode left in the season. There's quite a lot to do, so we're not going to meet Sally just yet. But I will say I'm so, so excited about the evolution, like you said, that Nicky has taken this year. He is starting to become more of a normal part of the family and more of a normal part of society. And I love how Kevin calls him out. You don't have this endless excuse for being a gruff weirdo and saying whatever you want just because you spent all these decades alone. And as Nicky takes these baby steps back into society — as we saw in my favorite episode of the season, which is the one where he flies out to L.A. — now he's admitting that he would love a love story of his own. And we're seeing him take these really small steps towards what that could be. And googling Sally for him is a gigantic emotional deal. Even though it takes two seconds and a few taps of the thumb, that is a huge, huge hurdle that he's just cleared. And I can't wait to tell the stories of what comes of it.

Beth encouraged Rebecca to ask Randall about his trip to New Orleans. Will we see Rebecca's conversation with Randall about Laurel [Jennifer C. Holmes] soon? Because that could be very therapeutic, if fraught.

I know. I'm very excited for what's to come there. That's really a series-long important story. We've told bits and pieces, but there's so much unresolved conflict there from last year, when Randall brought up what Rebecca did to him regarding William [Ron Cephas Jones], and he almost weaponized it in trying to convince her to go to that clinical trial. And then this year, he's been on such a journey and really hasn't had those scenes with Rebecca where he's sharing what he's learned about his birth mom. There's so much there that is waiting to explode — and I can't wait for people to see next week's episode.

For Beth, a recruiter is pointing her to the world of the rigid dance academy, which she sees as an institution in need of overhauling. Is this the setup for the endgame path to what we see in the distant flash-forward?

Absolutely. We've seen future Beth presiding over what seems to be this very prestigious, traditional style of dance academy in the future. She's had such a complicated relationship with dance, between giving up on it as a teen and how it's wrapped up in all of her mommy issues. And then trying to return to that and because of a pandemic, having her business fail. I think this is putting her on a path towards finally making peace with it and finding her place in that world.

Also: It has officially been announced that the show will conclude next season. We know that NBC had wanted more seasons, but it seemed after the three-season renewal two years ago that this was going to be the plan. Why does ending after six seasons feel right?

Dan [Fogelman, the show's creator] came in that first season's writers' room, and we landed on such a plan and a bird's-eye-view map for this family and this story. And this is a show that's about life and about life's moments — it's not a lawyer show, it's not a firefighter show. There are not crazy cases of the week to use as an engine to keep it going forever. And we never wanted it to veer into too overwrought or too sensational. So it felt like we had a really, really great plan that was six years of story for this family. Ending a show on the creative terms is so, so rare, and we're so lucky that NBC supported that decision.

Next week brings the wedding and the season finale. What is your one-word tease for this episode?

Together.

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