Back in March, This Is Us left us on a cliffhanger of sorts — in that Randall and Kevin essentially threw their relationship off of a cliff, where it’s now hanging on by a fraying thread. In the season 4 finale of NBC’s multigenerational family drama, the Pearson brothers allowed their complicated history to rear its jealous head as they hurled vicious verbal darts at each other, insults designed to pierce the skin and burrow deep into the bone. This being This Is Us, true healing and reconciliation will arrive in due time, but that spirit-crushing spectacle won't soon be forgotten, and it's one that will reverberate with significant aftershocks for Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley).
“It's gigantic for them,” creator Dan Fogelman tells EW. “This is a fight that resets these two men, it resets their positions towards one another in the family. Randall is a man who has defined himself by his role in his extended family. With that fractured, what does that do to him? And Kevin is a well-meaning but slightly narcissistic, privileged movie star. What does becoming a father for the first time do to start opening up him a little bit more in the midst of also having been separated from his brother, who was always the one who had his s--- together?... It's the type of fight that is not just resolved with a handshake two seconds later or one meeting later. There's stuff here, stuff that's borne out of decades of competition and family and fighting. They have a journey ahead of them.”
First stop: a milestone birthday celebration. Two, actually. Viewers have already glimpsed a few peeks at the Big Three’s Big 4-0 party at the cabin — attended by Kevin, Kate (Chrissy Metz), Miguel (Jon Huertas), Rebecca (Mandy Moore), and, unfortunately, a police escort — but you’ll also see Randall back at home in Philadelphia, being feted by Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and his children. (Things take a somber turn in a different direction at Randall's household, as the family processes a Black Lives Matter protest on TV.)
“This is not only a birthday, it’s their 40th birthday, which obviously for people holds a lot of meaning,” Fogelman tells EW. “Our show is going to be covering a lot of ground in our big two-part season premiere. It's fair to say that a lot of it will be difficult and bittersweet, but we always try to present a version of the world that leaves you some feeling of optimism or hope.”
The two-hour premiere was difficult to write, too. “I know I’ve worked harder on it as a script than I've ever worked on a script of the show,” says the creator, who penned the two-parter with Kay Oyegun and Jake Schnesel. “We have really been pouring over it, to try to attack what we're going to do and get it right. Even in the wide landscape of five seasons of the show, this one's a big one for us.”
That would be for several reasons, including that it sets the tone for This Is Us to address the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. “We’ve made the decision to bring our world events into the show this season,” he says, “which has allowed us to stick with our plan for the shape of the characters’ storylines, but obviously makes present a whole host of different feelings and issues as we all try and make sense of where our world is right now.” (Fogelman had much more to say about how the show will incorporate COVID-19 and the country's racial reckoning over here.)
The season premiere also covers another milestone birthday — the Big Three's very first one. It’s a day that viewers have revisited over the years, but they don’t know everything. “We’re seeing that day through prisms of Jack and Rebecca's experience, [but there are] parts of the day and things we didn't see,” he says. “It's a story line we've been talking about doing for a while.”
When Fogelman thinks about the stories of season 5, what comes to mind? “Births and rebirths,” he answers. “There are a fair amount of babies.” One's mind instantly wanders to Kevin and Madison (Caitlin Thompson), the latter of whom is expecting twins, or Toby and Kate, both of whom are planning to adopt a second child. But think of other Pearsons, too. “For Randall, this is a man who's defined himself by keeping the peace for this family and being the kind of man who holds his family together,” notes Fogelman. “And this fight, his brother has stripped him a little raw of those things, and where that finds him and where he comes out on the other side vis a vis his life, his family, the Pearson family, is a really interesting story line for us, and yet another birth that doesn't involve necessarily a hospital.”
Randall will indeed embark on a journey to another city in one special episode. “I can't really say too much,” demurs Fogelman, “but it does feel big in scope.” His sister, Kate, will be at the center of another key episode. ("We didn't know that she was dealing with this," Metz cryptically told EW, "and it was something that she went through.'") “It's going to be a real powerhouse episode for Chrissy,” says Fogelman. “I think it's going to feel very much built in underneath the show for a while, which it was. And you'll go ‘Oh! Okay.’… There's not a lot I can hint at, other than it's rare that I call one of our actors and say, ‘Are you on board for this?’”
Meanwhile, Kevin — who seems to be engaged to Madison, according to this trailer — might surprise his family and viewers as he braces for the impact of fatherhood. “Justin has always reminded me in this role a lot of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire,” says Fogelman. “It's this well-meaning dope who continues to get in his own way, but there's somebody just waiting to blossom and bloom out of that cocoon, like a butterfly waiting to just come out. I think fatherhood is going to be a really good color on him. It's going to be a journey to get there, and that's going to be a lot of the season. But people are going to like where we're going.”
At one point, season 5 also will shed light on those fresh faces introduced in the season 4 finale, including: Kate and Toby’s adopted daughter, Hailey (Adelaide Kane); Madison’s ob-gyn, Eli (Josh Hamilton), and his wise daughter Sadie (Glory Rose). “We have a couple of [characters] this season that play big roles in our family's lives,” he says.
But with the world as it is — with the pandemic able to shut down Hollywood again at any time — Fogelman & Co. are taking things episode by episode. And that first one back is not only important — “as we talked about the series as a whole, you have a few stakes in the ground that you know that things will rotate around, and this is one of them,” he says — it contains a trademark surprise or three. “It feels like a big, gigantic episode with a couple really big reveals and moments that I think will have people talking, ‘Wait, whoa! Did they just do that one?’"
Find out exactly what they did do when the season 5 premiere airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NBC. Looking for more preview intel? Chrissy Metz also dropped hints about the new season, as did Chris Sullivan. And you might want to hear what Milo Ventimiglia had to say. Susan Kelechi Watson, too. Oh, and Sterling K. Brown. Plus Mandy Moore.