Recent episodes of This Is Us have featured major twists (Kate’s pregnant!), new reveals (Miguel and Rebecca didn’t re-connect until 2008—on Facebook!), and surprise siblings (um, hello Nicky Pearson). But tonight’s episode, titled “The Most Disappointed Man,” didn’t need a cliffhanger to leave us speechless: It was a beautiful, raw, and uncomfortable hour of television that centered on timely topics of race and class.
The decision to focus most of the episode on Randall’s adoption—and, subsequently, Déjà’s new reality—had been in the works for a while, according to executive producer and co-showrunner Isaac Aptaker. “We always knew we wanted to do a story about Randall’s adoption, from Jack and Rebecca bringing him home to when he’s their kid.”
But it was writer Kay Oyegun who discovered a piece of history that dramatically informed the episode. Aptaker notes that “Kay brought to our attention that in 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a statement very much condemning transracial adoption, and not at all recommending that black children be placed with white homes.” (You can see that document here.)
Once the rest of the writing staff heard that only happened eight years prior to when Randall’s adoption takes place, “that felt like a really interesting area to tell that story,” Aptaker says. “We all know in the end Jack and Rebecca end up adopting him, but there was this really interesting wrinkle with this judge, who just has a very different opinion of what’s right for young Randall. Now, obviously, times have changed and [transracial adoption] is much more accepted.”
Accepted, yes, but still equally as difficult, as evidenced by Déjà’s journey in the foster care system and a mother fighting against her daughter’s best interests. So, with plenty more to discuss, Aptaker filled us in on how the past informed the present and where the show is heading before the winter finale later this month.
Let’s begin on a lighter note first: We need a This Is Us after-show with Jack and the toddlers. Seeing Milo Ventimiglia try to juggle little Randall, Kevin, and Kate is priceless.
Isaac Aptaker: [Laughs] It was chaos. I wasn’t there on set that day, but Kay Oyegun [the writer of the episode] gave me a full report, as did Mandy and Milo. Neither Mandy or Milo have kids of their own, but they were so patient with the kids, who are toddlers. They aren’t trained actors, so they can’t take notes and they won’t stop crying if you need them to. It’s always a long, slow process. And when you’re on location in a courtroom with that many pages and actors, it’s an added challenge. But they were such good sports. Although they were like, “So next week is with the teenagers?”
Speaking of the toddlers, there was such an acute awareness to the moment where the family photographer says, “I’m having trouble balancing the skin tones.” It’s so rare to see that kind of dialogue on TV.
IA: That was our way of saying that back then in Pittsburgh, for a white family to have adopted a black kid, it was not something you see a lot. On a very mundane, technical level, no judgments, [the photographer] was just trying to do his job, and it wasn’t something he was used to encountering.
Let’s talk about the scene where Judge Bradley tells Rebecca and Jack that he doesn’t believe Randall belongs in their home. What was it like crafting that narrative?
IA: As is sort of the world view with our show, no one’s in the right and no one’s in the wrong. There are people expressing different opinions based on their world views and beliefs. While of course we know that Jack and Rebecca do an amazing job raising Randall and gave him so much love and such a good home and did their best to be sensitive to the unique issues that he would experience as a black kid growing up in a white family, this judge didn’t know that. He makes a lot of really, really valid points that come from a place of wanting what’s best for the baby. So it’s three people who all ultimately want the same thing, which is what’s best for this child, but have completely different versions of what that is.
The dialogue was so honest and raw. I have to imagine these were some of the toughest scenes to write.
IA: That scene with the judge and also the scene between Randall and Déjà’s mom [in jail] were in a constant state of being re-written and perfected until we had to turn them over to the actors to memorize them. But yeah, these are scenes that I don’t really think you’ve seen on network television before. You want to respect everybody’s point of view and honor the reality of the time and what people thought about a transracial adoption, and also make it a compelling and dramatic scene. They were definitely some of the trickier [scenes] to get right.
The n-word is used in this scene by Judge Bradley. Was that met with any hesitation from the network, even though it was delicately used as a means to explain his own upbringing?
IA: The Carmichael Show did an episode last season where they said it a bunch, and NBC really understood what we were trying to do. They understood the context. The context is so important, and it really felt like the judge would probably use that word in that specific scene, so it felt like there was a reality to it. It was important for him to say that for the honesty of it. I think NBC really understood and supported the use of it in this specific situation.
Later in the episode, Judge Bradley assigns the case to a fellow judge, who happens to be a black woman. Was there any discussion about whether the judge would be white or black?
IA: There was, and it was very important for us to show that this is a story about one judge’s beliefs. That was one person’s belief at the time, but it was not everyone’s belief. It was not every black person’s belief. We wanted to be really, really clear that this was one person, and he was not a person representing all black judges everywhere. We wanted to show that there was another black judge out there that was incredibly glad that this child wound up with this family and was willing to grant that adoption.
Seeing Rebecca cut out the photo of Randall to pair it with one that had better exposure was such a moving moment. Talk about the idea behind that scene.
IA: That idea came out of the writers’ room, but it was something we wanted to start off the episode with—the [dialogue] about the exposure—to set up that this is not something people were used to seeing in the world, an interracial family like this. [It was the] idea that that would show how the Pearson’s would make it their own, and it’s not going to look like what you expected. They’re going to take people not knowing how to necessarily react to their family and make the best of it. It felt like such a great way to visualize what we think this episode is about. And then it was important for us not to do a tidy ending to this, because we didn’t believe that this judge, who has these deep-seeded beliefs, can be completely changed by one letter, but you do see him really look at that picture and consider it. You never know if he puts it up on his bulletin board or not, but it was enough of a message that in this specific instance, with this specific family, that he was willing to step aside and, at the very least, not stand in their way. It was our way of showing how these people with very different beliefs were able to meet in the middle and let this adoption go through.
Was there ever a chance that Jack and Young William could have crossed paths in the courthouse? We later see both judges talking to each other, which means it was at the same place, right?
IA: That’s entirely possible, but we weren’t necessarily saying that these things were exactly happening at the same time, like on the same day. One is criminal and one is family court, so they are certainly in very different sections. But yeah, I mean, it’s fun to think they could have walked past each other and had no idea.
Let’s move to the present day and talk about the scenes with Déjà. For the first time, we see her smile at Randall and tolerate his corny jokes. Do you have a foster care expert helping craft these stories?
IA: At the beginning of the season, when we started to plot this out, we had a bunch of foster people who run foster agencies or have fostered come in and tell us their stories. We got some really beautiful people, all across the board, talk about the emotions and specific challenges you face with foster kids, particularly older foster kids like Déjà. The common thread there is that it’s a slow, unpredictable process. You’re not going to get this kid to warm up to you overnight. Every situation is different. There are a lot of ups and downs. We wanted to make sure to show those baby steps, which makes those little moments—those smiles, those laughs—all the more impactful, because we know Randall has spent weeks and weeks building up that rapport.
What is it like for the actress who plays Déjà—Lyric Ross—to come in to this built-in TV family with Sterling K. Brown, Susan Kelechi Watson, and the young actresses who play Tess and Annie?
IA: Lyric just fell right in with this family, and I see them all on Instagram [following each other]. I think she was just in Disneyland with the girls a couple weeks ago. They were at the Cheesecake Factory, [too]! I feel like they’re hanging out all the time, so she fit right in with them. You would never know it, but she had done one episode of Chicago Fire, maybe, and this was her first real big job. Her first day on set, she completely nailed it. She has all the presence and skill of a very serious actor, while at the same time having never done this before. She is such a find.
Sterling is really involved with the writer’s room, so what does he have to say about some of these very heavy, intense scenes with Déjà’s mom?
IA: He was really excited about the story, and he just completely knocked it out of the park. I think he did such a good performance—as well as Déjà’s mom in that scene [Joy Brunson]—and he wasn’t afraid of making Randall all that likable in that scene. He’s pretty hard on this young woman, but then as we see in the next scene, he softens and lets her call Déjà. He’s not afraid of going there at all, and he does.
There’s so much more to talk about in this episode, but I can’t let you go without discussing Toby’s amazing proposal to Kate.
IA: Toby is this big, romantic comedy guy, and we kind of robbed him of that huge moment last year when Kate accidentally proposed to him when she thought he was unconscious in the hospital. So we thought if Toby could have done a proposal, what would that look like? Kay came in with that brilliant T-shirt/hoodie concept, which I guess is a spin on the Love Actually poster board. It felt so Toby. It was the right level of goofy and romantic, and that’s one of my favorite performances that Sully has ever given. Chrissy is amazing, too. It just gets you. I’m not a super proposal-y guy, but I can’t watch that without choking up.
Lastly, Mandy Moore just told us that episodes 8, 9, and 10 will be a trilogy. Episode 8 is called “Number One,” episode 9 is called “Number Two,” and so on. Will “Number Three” be the winter finale, and what can you tease about where we’ll be heading?
IA: Yes, that’s our winter finale. Our producer/director Ken Olin did all three [of those upcoming episodes]. He shot 24 days in a row. We nearly killed him from exhaustion, but each episode focuses on a different member of the big three. The first one is about Kevin, the second one is Kate, and the third one is Randall. And they are all set on the same day in the past, and on the same day in the present. So you’re seeing different perspectives on the same moment, and it’s really going to pay off. [You’ll be] DVR-ing, re-watching, pausing, and going back and seeing how these three separate stories and episodes of television all intersect in these really unexpected ways.