Milo Ventimiglia: 'I Still Don't Think We've Seen the Worst' of Jack's Alcohol Struggles on This Is Us
[Spoiler alert: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s season finale of This Is Us, titled “Moonshadow.”]
When the hotly awaited, heavily anticipated season finale of This Is Us arrived on Tuesday night, it began by answering one question that had loomed and gloomed over the past week: Did Jack die while driving to Rebecca’s gig under the influence?
It turns out that he did not. So, how exactly did the gold-hearted family man meet his maker? Sorry, we did not learn how he left the planet (see you next season!), but he did make quite an exit at the end of the episode: He delivered a heartfelt we’re-down-but-not-out romantic speech to Rebecca (Mandy Moore) in the face of darkness and then left through the front door of the Pearson house with just a duffel bag full of clothes in hand.
“Moonshadow” showed viewers a flip side — a human side, an unpretty side — to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), who was wallowing in an alcohol-fueled spiral: He bloodied up Rebecca’s bandmate/ex-boyfriend Ben (Sam Trammell) before her big gig, which Rebecca decided to cancel, especially after Ben had misread the situation and tried to kiss her moments before Jack arrived. And after Rebecca drove her sloshed, embarrassed husband back to Pittsburgh, he found himself in a brutal fight of a different kind: The couple turned up the volume and unloaded years of pent-up frustrations and anger and sacrifices and resentments on each other before Rebecca suggested that they separate, or at least get “some air” while they sorted through the freshly tumbled rubble of their relationship.
Jack may have walked out that door without protest, but he was far from giving up on the relationship that sustained him. “You’re not just my great love story, Rebecca, you were my big break,” he told her before nodding to the wedding vows that Rebecca read to him many years before. “And our love story, I know it may not feel like it right now, but baby… I promise you, it’s just getting started.”
“Moonshadow” also showed us how it all started, affording us a peek into 1972, when 28-year-old Vietnam vet Jack had dreams of opening his own auto body shop but was saddled with the realities of living at home with an alcoholic father and having no money. The desperate son scored a big pay day at a poker game, only to be forcefully removed of his winnings, prompting him to seek revenge by plotting to steal the money from the cash register at the bar that hosted the game. And just as he was about to spring into illicit action, his life changed: Rebecca, who had excused herself from a blind date mid-dinner to find a stage to sing on that night, locked electric eyes with him on the stage in front of him. And the rest was history. Or the future.
What is Jack and Rebecca’s future? What did that fight do to their foundation? How much hope should we have for this marriage — and what state will it be in when Jack dies in this time period? Let’s slide a tall, sobering glass of water across the kitchen table to the man who plays Papa Pearson, Milo Ventimiglia, and get some answers.After watching the finale, I imagine some fans aren’t okay right now. How are you holding up?
I’m actually really good. This now prolongs that question of “How is Jack going die?” because that is not satisfied. But I feel that this last episode has showed a different side of the show, but it was a side that was necessary to show. With the light, you got to have the dark. With the good, you got to have the bad. With the happiness of Jack and Rebecca, you’re absolutely going to see the breakdown — the complete and total breakdown — of the relationship.
This was the bleakest side of the Jack-Rebecca marriage we’ve seen. What was your mindset in tackling that fight scene — much of which was going to be filmed in one take — and the morning-after scene?
I was excited. I knew that it would be a lot of heavy lifting for Mandy and I. We’d have to really roll our sleeves up on this one and play some notes to the character that we weren’t used to.
Dan had scripted that fight scene as a oner. He wanted it to run almost like a scene or a moment in a play. So we prepped it that way and performed it that way. I mean, there were some really vicious takes, and there were some takes that didn’t quite make it to where we needed to go, but at the end of the day, how it lived in the episode was as I believe Dan wanted it. After it had been filmed, he called me up and was just like, “I can’t — you know — you and Mandy, wow.” He kept saying how pleased he was and how happy he was, and how that might have been the best thing he’d ever been a part of — and that was a very good feeling to know that Dan — who created these characters and wrote this moment with [executive producers] Isaac [Aptaker] and Elizabeth [Berger] — was personally satisfied with what we had done with [director] Ken Olin, with Yasu [Tanida, the director of photography], with the crew. It was a very all-hands-on-deck episode, where everybody stepped up knowing that this was the topper to the season.
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Mandy said there was an uncomfortable vibe on the set.
She said you two purposely kept your distance, literally and figuratively. What was that like?
In the Pearson home, we have this back room — a den, if you want to call it that — and that’s where she and I usually keep our chairs. Wherever we happen to film, we’re always right next to each other. That day, we walked in, and we didn’t really talk to one another, let alone make eye contact with one another in the morning getting ready going through hair and makeup. And then when we stepped onto set, I saw our chairs in the room, and I walked in the back, and I picked up the chair and I walked out. And in a way, I needed to establish that we aren’t necessarily together, and create some distance between she and I, when we’re usually pretty close and pretty chatty when it comes to the work in a work day.
But I had to separate us from that, and I think she knew that. And I moved my chair up into the upstairs portion of the set, and when the cameras were setting up, I remember just walking around the upstairs, thinking about Jack’s world and what we’d built over the last seven months of the show, and 18 episodes, and how that one moment, that argument was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was walking around looking at his bedroom, Kate’s bedroom, Kevin and Randall’s bedrooms, just thinking, like, “Wow, his world is crumbling.” And he can’t take it back — his mistakes, anything…
It’s one of those things that even though in the scene Mandy and I weren’t communicating, we weren’t talking, we were doing everything we needed to for the work, I couldn’t wait until a scene was done, so that I could just go over and give her a hug, and be like, “Oh my god! That one moment when you did this, that was amazing!” Or just talk about it, you know? Finishing that brutal moment between Jack and Rebecca, I could get back to my friend Mandy and have a conversation, and smile and laugh about what we had just done because it was very powerful work that we don’t get to do all the time in the context of an argument for Jack and Rebecca.
Speaking of that fight, you watch that, and both sides have good reason to be frustrated and angry. I’m wondering if you automatically side with Jack, or you’re able to get a more macro view of the situation. And were people on the set debating who was more in the right?
I don’t know if there was any conversation or debate on set, but I know in the moment, I had to back up Jack. I have to. I have to believe in what he’s feeling, I have to believe in his rationale in the situation. But it might have been the toughest work that I’ve done on the show as of yet because his position on Rebecca going [off] and performing, I personally didn’t agree with, you know? (Laughs.) If my wife wanted to go perform onstage, I’d be like, “That’s great! Hey, have fun! Tell me where the shows are! I will be there.”
But it was tough finding that angle that I needed to play and that I back him up. But in the moments of the actual argument, 100 percent from action to cut, Jack wins from my perspective.
Do you think fans will be pretty evenly split on this fight?
Here’s a couple that you’re rooting for. I don’t know if people are going to attack Jack or attack Rebecca. I just believe that the audience is probably going to be heartbroken. Why did Jack have to go off, get drunk, and punch the guy, you know? Why did Rebecca…? I don’t know if anyone’s going to pick a side, other than just be heartbroken for this couple that everybody wants to see happy and together.
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Jack calls Rebecca a “40-year-old woman singing covers in pubs”, and says “That is not a career — that is ridiculous.” Too far?
Jack is very protective of his family, and the possible perception of that as a career, that seems like in his heart of hearts, something that’s more of a hobby or a pastime than an actual career. Career is clocking in and clocking out, punching the timecard, and that’s what Jack knows. But for Rebecca, she’s as passionate about that work as she is her family, and she’s been away from it for so long. So, for her to call it a career, it’s heartbreaking that he doesn’t support it, but he [sees] a difference. He does punch the clock, and he has to make the money so that the family can have a home, and go to private school, and have everything that they want. Jack is the one in the career. It’s not apples and oranges, it’s apples to hammers; they’re completely different things. Maybe he could have softened the blow, but at that point, he’s getting attacked by her.
She’s after him, and he’s going into that scene almost like a wounded puppy who s—the carpet. He knows he made the biggest mistake ever. So, he’s going to hang his head, but the second that she digs in on him — what right does she have to dig in when he’s been carrying the load, and she just wants to go off and sing? It’s a precarious situation, you know? It’s a heated conversation that didn’t have to be heated, but it got there, because they’re both passionate about their positions, and also one another.
On the flip side, Rebecca dismisses this drinking problem as “this alcoholism of yours,” and then she questions the timing of it, saying it’s convenient. Too far?
I think it’s a little lopsided, her view on that. She’s looking for a reason why he’s doing that, and she’s believing that it’s because of her finding this newfound passion. She’s looking at it from her perspective. He’s looking at it from his perspective, and the two just are not eye-and-eye. And I think they are individually thinking about themselves in the situation, so how can they actually hear the other person?
What was the line from either one of them that just totally gutted you — and made you think that a line had been crossed that would be hard to walk back over?
The fact that she walks away from the conversation in the kitchen, when he’s just saying, “So, what happened with Ben?” and it kind of blows her lid, but it also opens the door to her saying to him that she’s a ghost… In a way, he’s sacrificed everything for her, and the culmination of that, where they’re both yelling at each other at the end, from Jack’s perspective, in Jack’s eyes, it sounds like she’s ungrateful for his effort into the family — his hard work, the things that he’s had to sacrifice.
There was a line — I don’t know if it’s something that was crossed, but to be heard is a very important thing in a relationship. And when Jack says, “You don’t know the things I’ve had to do, the crap I’ve had to eat,” she doesn’t know that he took money from his father when they were having kids. She knows that he sold his car, but there are certain sacrifices that I think go unmentioned by him, that he doesn’t ever need to tell her, because he may not want her to consider it, or feel bad about it. That’s just not Jack. He doesn’t need someone to pat him on the back for him making a sacrifice for his family. But when his wife is pushing him, the elephant in the room to him is like, “You have no idea what I’ve been through.”And she feels that same way on the opposite side. The marriage has worn down the lines of communication over time, and it’s sad to watch.
Is Jack an alcoholic?
I don’t think he is, but it’s definitely in his blood, and I think it’s something that probably scares him a little bit. I know people that don’t have a drink of alcohol, and a lot of it comes from how they were raised. They saw their mother or their father captured by alcohol and what it turns them into, and they just don’t do it. So I think the idea that it’s in his blood is a fear that he has of himself. He doesn’t want to become his father.
I know that we still haven’t even really seen the extent of his father’s drinking. We kind of touched on it a little bit in episode 18, and then again a little bit previous to that, but I still don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it, and Jack doesn’t ever want to see the worst of it in himself.
At the end of that fight, Rebecca challenged him to tell her one thing that he loved about her now, not of the Rebecca he conjures up in his mind, but he comes up with nothing and is silent in that moment. What were you thinking as a fan of the show? Were you like, “Save this situation!”?
Yeah, but Jack leads with his heart. He’s all heart. He doesn’t always have the words, it takes him a moment sometimes to have those words. By the way, who knows if she would have listened to him in that moment if he started saying these things? If he gave her the exact same speech, who knows if it would have landed? I don’t think that it would have. At that point, I think when he was trying to step away from the conversation after they both yelled in one another’s faces, and he said, “This is crazy. We love each other.” That’s the way Jack operates.
He gets to a certain point, he realizes it’s about to go too far, and he backs off. There were moments from episode 18, but also episode 15, that first little scuffle in the hallway. It got to a certain point where Rebecca said to Jack, “I needed something for myself without you getting in the way,” and I remember while we were filming it, and it didn’t make the edit, I heard that, and said my line, which was, “I never realized I was in your way,” and I kind of put my hands up, almost in surrender, and just walked out. And I think Jack doing that — putting his hands up in surrender, deciding this has gone too far, I’m stepping away from this —it was him knowing that anything beyond that point is just bad. Yet it wasn’t enough for Rebecca, and she kept pushing on it. “What do you love about me?” And you know what? The next day she got her answer. (Laughs.) After she kicked him out of the house.
He certainly didn’t seem like he was going to suggest separating. She cut him off and told him not to apologize—
The funny thing is, again on the cutting room floor, there’s a version where I kept talking, I kept engaging. I feel like Jack was ready to say everything that he was about to say. I don’t think Jack was expecting that he was going to get kicked out …
That conversation opened with Jack apologizing, and then Rebecca cutting him off and saying, “I know you feel bad, I feel terrible. We can’t take away what we said in the light of day just because it’s daytime. We meant it, and we can’t take it back.” And I remember Ken having us just sit and let those words land, and then I started to open my mouth and speak, and then it was, “I think you should just go stay at Miguel’s.”… It was a more condensed moment in the edit, but I remember when we filmed it, I was taking in everything, everything about that room, everything about that house, everything about that space that was now going to be gone, you know? But also, he knows he crossed a line. He crossed a line that needed some distance, that needed some space, and they need to work their relationship out because it had changed from that late-twentysomething couple that met in the bar, that had a whole hopeful world ahead of them.
Why didn’t he fight more for the marriage during that speech and say, “No, I’m going to stay!” Does he think the best course of action right now is to let things settle down? As he says, “We’re just getting started.”
Yeah. Jack may be all heart and Jack may be not quite as eloquent as Rebecca is at times, but I think he’s using his wisdom. He’s a 52-year-old man who’s seen a lot, he’s been through enough life to know the moments where, “I need to pull back. I need to hopefully give some hope to a crumbling situation, and know that it’s not best to force my way into a conversation that may not have the best resolution.” I think at the moment he’s just being smart. He’s playing chess, he’s not playing checkers. I’m quoting Denzel Washington playing Alonzo in Training Day, which may not apply, but you know, same thing.
In his big speech, he says, “I’ve never told you this, but I was on the way to a blind date when I met you.” What’s interesting is it’s 8:30 p.m. when the heist is going down. That date was at 7:30. He realizes he already missed the date. He didn’t mention to Rebecca that he was about to rob a bar that night.
[Laughs] By the way, again, “You don’t know the things I’ve had to do, the crap I’ve had to take.” Those are things that she doesn’t know at all.
Right. Why did he not tell her that? He painted a different picture of what happened that evening. I could see him saying, “I was so low when I met you, I’d hit rock bottom, I was just about to rob this cash register, you saved me. I was about to make a series of bad decisions like my dad.” Did you find that interesting that he told her a different, cleaner version?
Maybe Jack is trying to preserve a little bit of that good side that she sees of him, she doesn’t need to know everything. Not that after 20 years of being together, that would ever be something that would split them up. “I was about to rob from some very dangerous men.” That’s a piece of information that Rebecca doesn’t need to know. Where Rebecca comes from, she doesn’t need to know things like that.
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Jack says, “Our love story’s just getting started,” and walks out of the house with a wink, and it ends a little bit with hopefulness in the darkness, with Rebecca holding the necklace. How hopeful did you read that ending? How much darkness did you see at the end of that episode? What were you left with?
When Dan was talking about the episode — just the trajectory and what he was looking to do — he was saying how Jack does something so horrible, but he thinks he’s almost forgiven by that speech at the end. I kind of felt the same way. I felt like Jack knew he’d messed up, he knew he had some work to do on himself, he knew he had a lot of work to contribute to the marriage getting back to a good place, but Jack is hopeful. He is that man that wants everybody to be happy, and wants people to feel supported and loved, you know?
It was one of those speeches he’d give it to his kid. [Chuckles] He just had to give the better, adult version to his wife, you know? It was no different than the magic T-shirt, or no different than him apologizing to Kevin at the pool as well, saying he’s going to be there, he’ll always watch him, no different than saying to Randall, “I want you to be as different as you can in all the best ways possible.” Jack is an optimist. He is going to, in the darkest days, let everyone know that he’s going to get them through it, no matter what, and he’ll fight and kick and claw to do that, because that is his existence — the Pearson family, his kids and his wife Rebecca. They are him, and he’s nothing without them.
What about the necklace? Did you take that as optimistic?
As an audience member, I take that as optimistic. As Jack, he doesn’t know — he walked out! [Laughs] As an audience member, it’s absolutely hopeful, and what a beautiful shot that Yasu Tanida got. I really personally have to compliment Yasu, and Ken Olin, and this beautiful script that Dan and Isaac and Elizabeth gave us to make…. Everybody really stepped up with this special story, and even the smaller moments you got with Kevin, Kate, and Randall, and the offshoot, Randall and Beth adopting a baby, and Kevin having to say goodbye to Sophie, just for a brief part of time, so he can go and have his big meeting back in Hollywood, and Kate telling Toby she wants to sing. I mean, these are all springboards of what’s to come, and they were beautiful moments. If anything was going to make me cry when I’m watching it, it was seeing the kids, and hearing Jack talk about his family.
Randall’s telling Beth that he wanted to adopt a child was a nice life-coming-full-circle moment.
Seeing the kids and what their launch pads are going to be moving forward, and echoing what Jack says: Sometimes they’re going to do things that exceed even our wildest dreams. And knock you off your feet. He was adopted, he had a great upbringing. He got a chance to get to know his biological father, for a few months at the end of his life, but what a beautiful thing to be able to do that for someone else, for a child that doesn’t have a home or a family.
We didn’t get the answer to how Jack dies in this episode—
But now the show seems to tilt itself to a new related question, which is: Where were Jack and Rebecca in their marriage — if they were in marriage — when he died? And we also wonder: Did the status of that have any impact and is that related to his death?
I may have just shot myself in the foot teasing it out, and the audience not getting the answer that they were looking for. I’ll have to hold strong with that answer until Dan wants to tell that story. But I’ve been saying, and I feel very strongly about this lately: Everybody’s concerned with the death, how it happened, when it happened. I think people should be more concerned with his life. How did this man live his life? How did he embrace his family, even in disrepair? How did he fight for his family when it looked like things were broken and going away? “How did this man live his life?” is more important than when he died, in my mind.
So you liked the way the show repositioned the question?
I love it. I think it was completely accurate — and necessary. It’s the family album, and you’re not flipping to that last page. You’re just picking up in the middle of the book.
Don’t you think some fans will be disappointed that they didn’t get that how-Jack-dies answer?
Oh, totally. The only question I’ve gotten from friends and people on the street: “How does he die? When does he die? Tell me it doesn’t happen right then — we just got over William.” And I’m like, “Wow, you already gotten over William? Man. I haven’t gotten over William.”
It’s a redirect, but in a way that expands what the show is. This show has never been anything that someone can forecast. Fogelman and crew have such a unique way to approach anything that we’ve dealt with from a different angle, and it makes the show unique and it makes the stories engaging.
Sterling and I had a conversation on Friday where he’s like, “Mi, I got to make sure how I feel about this episode is in line with how you feel about this. I don’t know that I cried, but man, it hurt! It hurt. It felt like you’re watching this train going to the end of the rails, and you know it’s going to go off the rails, and you’re just going, ‘No, please don’t, please don’t, please don’t,’ but then it just happens.” And I said the same thing, I said, “I know, Sterling. I’ve had the hardest time talking about it.” I think people were expecting this massive shut-yourself-in-a-hole-and-cry-for-a-week experience of an episode, but it’s different than that. But it doesn’t make it any lighter or any less relevant to the lives of these characters, you know? It’s stressful, and painful, and it’s just sad. It’s just heartbreakingly sad when you see this couple, and you see them come together, the moment they meet — and then you see the moment they split up.
Jack doesn’t know this, obviously, but it’s a bit of a race against time for them to mend the relationship. We know he dies sometime in this time period, so the question is: Can they repair in time?
Yeah. Very true, so, not to worry about his death, but worry about how this man lived.
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Rebecca talks about how Jack is in love with the idealized version of her, and the image that he’s conjured up in his head may be not who she is right now. A lot of the audience is in love with the idealized version of Jack, who they conjure up as Super Dad. Do you think this episode was a bit of a shock to the system for them, because it really shows some new sides of Jack, and really humanizes him? There’s some ugliness there, too.
Absolutely. As much as people have talked to me and said that Jack is that perfect man, I constantly tried to tell them, “He’s human. He is not infallible. He will make mistakes.” He is a man doing his best, and I think it’s good for people to see the side that just is ugly, you know? Getting drunk and getting in a car. Getting further drunk and beating a guy who doesn’t deserve that. Yelling at his wife in a moment that, of course, he’s fighting for his stance in the argument, but that doesn’t make it right. I mean, I wonder if people will accept him even more, knowing that he’s not perfect, even though they believe him to be perfect. He’s a man doing his best.
Let’s go back to the ’70s: Ditched date, aborted heist — I did not have Jack and Rebecca meeting that way on my This Is Us Meet Cute Bingo Card. What was your reaction to that?
I didn’t know the details, but I knew that the day that they met went back to him wearing the Florida T-shirt — it was underneath his shirt; he was wearing the same magic shirt that he gave to Kate. But I didn’t know that it was at the end of the night where she’d been on a blind date and left, and he was going to rob a bar, and then he skipped out on a blind date. But I did know that their first meeting was around him hearing her sing and then locking eyes while she was still onstage. Production-wise, we’re talking about episode 2, the necklace she wears. It was always about: What is that song that she’s singing when they meet?
He saw his dad make the wrong decisions like clockwork, and he’s on the precipice of his life going in a very bad direction. That fortuitous moment with Rebecca saved him from a different life.
I mean, the moment in the car with Darryl [Jeremy Luke], where he’s saying, “No, I’ve been doing it the wrong way. I’m going to go the other way with my life. I’m going to take the life that I was supposed to have instead of waiting for it to come to me.” It’s a shift in the dial for Jack, but hearing Rebecca and seeing her, just leaning on a cigarette dispenser, listening to her — it saved his life.
We don’t see him notice the two guys that pounded on him the night before, walking to the bar, but I bet right after that, he had a conversation with Darryl, where Darryl said, “Buddy, I don’t know what just happened, but those guys walked in!” I can see Jeremy Luke, his version of Darryl, saying, “Oh my God! Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap!” That was a lot of fun to reunite with him [his former costar on Mob City] as well.
He says that he’s been doing the right thing and it hasn’t paid off, as if doing the right thing is a means to an end — as if you get some reward — as opposed to it is the end. We associate Jack with being the good guy it because that’s who he is, not because he expects great reward.
I agree with you. I don’t think Jack looks for the reward, but he’s got to catch a break at some point. Jack putting time and effort into little nickel-and-dime jobs so that he and his oldest friend getting back from Vietnam can have a decent job — something that they own, that they can build and grow — and it gets taken away, and he’s always done the right thing. You’ve got to question your approach, and at a certain point, I’m sure even the best of us have been in a position where you put out the good and you expect good back. That’s the only expectation. It’s God’s law to a degree, you know? If you’re good, someone will be good to you. If you’re bad, they’ll be bad to you. If you are someone who is just a good guy, you expect goodness back. You just keep expecting people to match you with that, and be decent. But when it doesn’t come back your way, you’ve got to wonder, why the f— am I doing all this? Seriously, why am I doing all this, you know? It’s got to just shake your whole system, and I know it rattles Jack.
And he’s coming back from the Vietnam War, so we know there’s got to be some amount of trauma there, even if he’s not showing it on the surface.
The unanswered question of what really happened in Vietnam with Mrs. Peabody, because he’s there, he’s happy, he’s fixing her car. Jack is looking forward. He’s not worrying about his past, but when she says to him, “How did you come back so well-adjusted? Most of the boys that come back aren’t like you,” he kind of brushes it off politely saying, well, he was just a mechanic. Maybe they just had it easier. But I know he didn’t have it easier. He’s in a war zone. You see bad things, you know? I guarantee he’s got friends’ names — very good friends’ names — on the wall in D.C. I know it.
But Jack doesn’t make it anyone else’s problem. That’s the nice thing about Jack. That’s why I really think this man with this golden heart is able to accomplish. He doesn’t make his problems or his history or anything that had been wrong in his life anyone else’s problem. And I think that’s a very powerful position for a man like that to be in, where he’s protecting people even from his wrongs, and I love that about him.
Great point. Did you talk to Dan about exploring more of that? Will we maybe even get a flashback to Vietnam in season 2?
Yeah. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but Dan and I have definitely talked about seeing that era of Jack’s younger years, and especially now that you have the introduction of a character like Darryl, that he was the guy that he grew up with, went to high school together, went to the war together. What was that existence like? And the nice thing about the show, it’s not always about Jack and Rebecca, it’s not always about how they are linked together. It’s about them as individuals. You want to know about Kevin and his drive toward being accepted in his business. You want to know about Kate and her individual struggles in life, in love. And same thing with Randall: He has the spinning cyclone around him, but at the same time, how does he personally exist in this space? So I think exploring Jack’s individuality even before Rebecca, before the family and the Vietnam era, is totally likely to happen.
Finally, when you think of this finale and the way this season closed out, what’s the one word or thought, or image that springs to mind?
The first thing that comes to mind is that I imagine that people are dying to know more. We’ve only given them a sip of water when there’s an entire ocean to know about this family. Here comes some fan fiction!