Executive producer Isaac Aptaker offers insights into the events of 'The Pool: Part Two.'

By Dan Snierson
October 01, 2019 at 10:01 PM EDT
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
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Warning: This article contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, “The Pool: Part Two.”

After a curveball of a season premiere that focused on groups of total strangers who were eventually connected to our Pearson clan, This Is Us went big in a different way — back to the Big Three.

Tuesday’s “The Pool: Part Two” not only put our core Pearson family front and center again, it brought them to a familiar haunt in the past: the community pool, where issues of race and weight and identity bubbled to the surface in season 1. In the sequel to “The Pool,” Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) sought to capture one last breeze of summer by corralling the kids for a family outing. And around that man-made body of water, Kevin (Parker Bates) alienated Randall (Lonnie Chavis) from his black friends by mocking his cultural naiveté, while Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicsak) was fooled by the popular girls in school — though she still emerged from behind the snack shack with a kiss, even it wasn’t from the boy she thought it would be.

In the present day, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) organized his own last-hurrah-of-summer outing with Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and his three girls; it was a day that saw Tess (Eris Baker) feeling out her identity and a fresh start with a new haircut, and Deja (Lyric Ross) asserting her independence by persuading Randall to let her take the bus to school (which also conveniently allowed her to check out the boy she met at the barbecue, Asante Blackk’s Malik). Meanwhile, Kevin (Justin Hartley) finished up an M. Night Shyamalan movie and was courted for a Spike Jonze film in Chicago, but in the end, he opted to put the focus on his sobriety on hold to fly to Pennsylvania to help troubled Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne).

Back in L.A., Kate and Toby learned from a specialist how to ensure that their home was optimally set up for their blind son, and both parents were coping with the stresses and challenges of parenthood. Seemingly steady, Kate turned to overeating again while Toby headed in the opposite direction, hiding his weight loss and leaving the house for secret workouts. Let’s hand off the ficus tree to the nearest person in need, executive a high-five that we regret, get the meat sweats, argue over the cooler member of Kris Kross, and ask This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker, who co-wrote the episode, to take another dip in “The Pool: Part Two.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was a very disorienting episode in the wake of last week’s premiere. Where was Darnell? Kelly? Singing Jack? Lucy? Cassidy? What is this new old show you just gave us?
ISAAC APTAKER: [Laughs] It’s like, “Wait! Who are these people? I just got used to this whole other gang! Oh, I remember! These are the Pearsons!” Yeah, it’s a real return to the family. That was something that was really part of our plan. We know it was a long break [between seasons] and people are craving to find out what is going on with all of their favorites. So this is an episode packed with catchup, and almost like a what-I’ve-been-doing-over-my-summer-vacation kind of episode.

In season 1’s “The Pool,” complicated issues involving race and weight and self-confidence and identity were explored. These can be things that don’t resolve as much as they evolve. Why did you decide to return to this setting?
We had a bunch of new writers come in for this season and they had been watching all of the old episodes to catch up, and someone commented about how remarkably adult the Big Three seem now compared to season 1. And that sparked us to go back and check out some of those very, very early This Is Us episodes. You don’t realize it because we’re around them all the time; it sneaks up on you. And we were all a little bit rattled to see, “Wow, they really are so much more mature,” and we realized that we could do something that we’ve never quite done on the show before, where we’re essentially flashing back on ourselves and jumping between two times within the show, not newly shot footage. There’s just such a simple poignancy when you’re seeing Mandy putting sunscreen on little Parker, who plays Kevin, and he’s happy-go-lucky and “Whatever, Mom.” And then she tries to do it to him now and he’s like, “Ewww! Gross! Don’t touch me — we’re in public!” We can all remember being at that age where your parents go from the coolest people in the world and your superheroes to people you just don’t want to be around and don’t want to be seen with.

We’ve seen Kevin in flashbacks — and earlier in the show’s run — as a very self-consumed person. Lately we’ve seen him more consumed with caring about Nicky or Kate’s baby. Finding that balance is a real struggle, especially as he’s trying to remain sober. But he’s also aware of the dangers of being alone with himself. It seems like the hardest thing for this guy to do is put in the work that he needs to put in on himself. Is this one of those apply-your-own-oxygen-mask-before-helping-others situations?
I love that. Yeah, I think so. It’s easier for Kevin to try to fix people around him than to look inward, which is scary because he doesn’t have the strongest sense of self. He isn’t sure if he’s a deep person, if he’s a good person. So by constantly staying busy, by constantly moving, by constantly trying to attend to people around him, he’s avoiding doing that deep dive into “Who am I as a man?” which is probably the scariest thing for him.

By going to help Nicky instead of taking the movie in Chicago, he’s not prioritizing his own well-being while still being in the early days of recovery. Do we call this act both noble and a little bit dangerous for him?
I think we call it admirable and reckless. Because if you think about that last season, seeing Nicky was what set him off and he fell off the wagon. So he’s really headed right back into the eye of the storm here with what triggers him.

Jack tells young Kevin that caring for people won’t turn him into the man he wants to be — Jack seems to be referencing his own journey — but the fact that Kevin is already asking these questions is a good sign. When you look at where Kevin is in the present day, did that speech imprint on him in a different and perhaps even incorrect way?
Interesting. That’s a totally valid take. In this season, we look at that a lot. He has this tendency to try to fix people around him because he doesn’t know how to fix himself. And he’s on this very complicated, existential quest to get validation from a man who’s no longer alive. There’s really no way to achieve that. But I think that what Jack is saying about young Kevin is that he is having this existential crisis junior, and to be thinking those things and asking himself those questions at such a young age suggests that he is a guy who is constantly going to be pushing himself to outrun his worst instincts, and we see that every week with the adult Kevin.

Young Kate was played by the popular girls again. But this time, it resulted in her learning that someone liked her — even if it wasn’t who they told her it was — and she decided to kiss this Stewart fellow. Can we call that a bittersweet victory, an example of turning lemons into lemonade, to quote a wise old man from this show?
I don’t even know if I’d call it bittersweet. I think it’s straight-up sweet. That’s one of my favorite moments of the episode. I love how Mackenzie and that little boy play it. My favorite part of that scene is he did think he was going back there to kiss her, he wanted to kiss her, and she was going, “There’s this sweet, adorable boy who wants me to be his first kiss, and just because this was set up to be a mean prank, why should I let it be a mean prank? Why can’t I take ownership of this moment and make it into something really wonderful?” And that’s exactly what she does.

Rebecca’s concern is always interpreted as a buzzkill in Kate’s mind. Kate doesn’t want to her mom to bring her down — and here, she doesn’t give her the satisfaction of telling Rebecca what happened. Are they both right?
Yeah. Rebecca is totally right, but I think what’s so interesting and complicated about this new age that our kids are in that we’re going to continue to explore is that Rebecca never finds out whether she was right or wrong. Jack never finds out why exactly Kevin was coming to him with this crisis. They don’t get the answers in the way that when the kids were 8 or 9, they would come to them and say, “Here’s exactly what happened, here’s exactly what I need from you,” and Rebecca and Jack would have all the information.

Toby has had health issues — from the heart attack to depression — and the idea that he’s working out would seem to be a positive thing. But he’s lying about it to his wife. What’s behind all of this? Is it because there’s been so much in his life that he hasn’t been able to control and losing weight is something that he can? Is he focusing on being healthy for the long run, given his new responsibilities as a parent? And does he feels guilty that it’s something that comes more naturally to him than it does to Kate? Some or all of the above?
It’s a combination of all that. Remembering back to season 1, Toby had a pretty serious heart incident. So now that he has a baby, he’s thinking, “I want to be on this planet as long as possible to be there for my special-needs son and to be able to provide for him.” At the same time, I don’t think he’s trying to flaunt in his wife’s face, “Look at all the weight I’m losing,” especially given how busy she is with the baby and taking care of a newborn. So he’s made the choice of keeping this on the DL and flying under the radar here. Certainly Kate is aware that he’s smaller, but she doesn’t know the extent he’s going to [in order] to lose the weight. And I think he’s doing that to try to protect her.

You play that moment in which he’s working out a little bit ominously, though. Is that because he’s losing weight, maybe in a way that’s obsessive or in a way that we should be concerned about? Or is it just in the fact that he’s hiding his workouts?
I don’t know if I’d say obsessive right now, but I think that’s an outlet for him. He’s a guy, like you said, who’s had significant mental health problems and struggled with clinical depression and now he’s faced with this massive curve ball finding out his son is blind, and he’s found an outlet for himself for all that anxiety, for all of that pain, and that is at the CrossFit gym.

This Is Us has explored issues of weight for several seasons now. Each person copes with stress differently and has a different relationship to food. In this episode, we see that Toby is losing weight and Kate’s not, which is something that also happened in season 1. What intrigued you about this moment in their journey?
We thought it would be a really interesting place to pick them up after a break because we could believe that Toby’s lost a bunch of weight off-camera. If you remember back from season 1, we decided to go off the diet and Kate actually breaks up with him in that moment because he’s sabotaging her journey. So the idea that all of these years later he would actually be the one to find a path that works for him to lose a significant amount of weight felt really, really interesting and unexpected to us. And also the fact that he’s doing it behind her back. She’s breastfeeding, she’s tending to an infant around the clock, she’s not at a place in her life where she is necessarily most suited to being on a strict diet or on a strict weight-loss plan. But Toby has found this path that’s working for him, and because he doesn’t want to rub it in her face he’s making the choice to keep it a secret. That’s dangerous in any relationship, keeping secrets like that.

There was a plan to have Kate lose weight, and obviously it can be a difficult journey. Toby expresses concern to Rebecca about her overeating. Now that you’ve told other parts of her story, is this something you’ll be leaning into again?
Yeah. It ebbs and flows how much we put it in the spotlight, but it’s always an aspect of her identity. She wants to be healthy too, and it’s a lot of work to have a young child. And she wants to be able to do all of the things that moms need to do. So it’s always a part of her story, and how much it comes into focus versus where we’re paying attention to other things in the episode is just an ebb and flow for us.

The blind specialist opened up Kate and Toby’s world as they realized all the challenges ahead, but it saddened Kate too. She’d been stuffing down some feelings, but she pushed back on the idea that her child would have any limits. Will we see how this became the beginning of the building of the foundation for Jack to become a successful musician later in life?
Absolutely. Her parenting was a huge part of what led Jack Jr. to be so successful in the future. We’re determined to tell an optimistic, hopeful story here about a mother who has determined to give her child a joyful, meaningful life. And this is Kate declaring that attitude to Toby and to everyone who’s going to be raising her child with her — [this] is the beginning of us telling a hopeful story about what it means to parent a special-needs child.

We’re starting to see the challenges that go into raising a blind child. What can you hint about what awaits them — and is this the type of thing that can bond these still somewhat newlyweds or drive them apart? There are indications that there’s strain between them down the road.
Totally. A newborn baby is a challenge for any couple. Blake Lively had some great line about how a newborn is like living with a psychopath all the time that you have to feed. It definitely puts a strain on any marriage, and the blindness is an additional level of stress and challenge for Kate and Toby, and we already see that he’s hiding a big part of his life from her. Which is a bit ominous, as you said. We’re certainly asking the question: Are they going to rise to the occasion to co-parent this child, or will it drive them apart?

Tess decided to cut off her hair, and the last scene where she’s alone is left a little ambiguous, as she’s trying on a hat in her mirror. We know she’s someone still learning about her emerging identity, but how should we read that? Is she getting used to her new self in that moment?
I think she made a big choice for herself and she was struggling to say, “This is who I am. I’m going to declare to the world: This is my look.” But we all remember it’s such a scary age. Middle school is so, so fraught. You care so much about what people think of you. You’re not sure who you are, you’re trying on identities. And I think that looking in the mirror and realizing, “This is what I’m going to look like when I introduce myself to this new school tomorrow,” all of a sudden the reality of it hit her, and she was feeling a little less confident than she was earlier in the day.

Young Randall seem to think that he had the Bookathon in the bag against Stewart. Did Stewart make a surprising comeback, or did Randall close him out in the end?
No way. After Stewart got his first kiss, that was all he could think about for the rest of the day, and he didn’t finish this book and Randall crushed him.

What can you tease about episode 3?
We are diving back into Randall’s new City Hall career, which has been a bit on the back burner as we’ve handled some of our more pressing issues on our show. But we’re going to bring back a fan favorite, Jae-Won (Tim Jo), who’s Randall’s chief of staff, and dive into the work world with him for a really fun story. We’re going to continue to see what it’s like for Kate and Toby to be raising blind Jack Jr. And we are going to begin a series of episodes of Kevin in Bradford trying to get his uncle Nicky back on track and out of trouble for throwing that chair — which turns out to be a pretty serious charge when it’s a government building and a room full of people that you’ve thrown a chair at.

Fans want to know when they might see more of adult Jack. Any hints?
It’s a little tricky for us because it’s so deep into the future, and we don’t want to be a show that has robots and flying cars and stuff. We always want to be mindful of being realistic but not straying from the tone and feel of the show. That said, Blake [Stadnik], who plays him, is incredible. It popped for us, the music was so amazing, it’s such a great relationship, and we know people are wanting more answers. So it’s something that we’re always talking about.

By the way, can robots cry in the future?
If they’re on our show, they can.

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NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.
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