"Moonshadow" gave audiences something that they perhaps hoped they'd truly never see, unspooling the toughest, darkest depiction of a marriage in crisis that they've seen on the series to date

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s season finale of This Is Us, titled “Moonshadow.”

Hold onto those necklaces, folks. We’re entering unchartered territory here.

The season 1 finale of This Is Us did not reveal the manner of Jack’s death — though it did rule out death by drunk-driving to Rebecca’s gig. But “Moonshadow” gave audiences something that they perhaps hoped they’d truly never see, unspooling the toughest, darkest depiction of a marriage in crisis that they’ve seen on the series to date. Even Milo Ventimiglia admitted to PEOPLE at a finale screening on Tuesday that right after reading the finale script, he immediately began texting creator Dan Fogelman about “the apparent dissolution or the apparent breakage of a marriage.”

And even the stars’ momentary panic raises the question: In what kind of state was Jack and Rebecca’s marriage when he departed this Earth?

Ventimiglia admitted that he has “an idea based on a little information” about where Jack and Rebecca’s relationship will lead, “but I think the idea is that they got to a breaking point and sometimes you need to regather yourself and get a little bit of distance. Then you can hopefully get back on track.”

Despite their heated argument, Ventimiglia doesn’t think that Rebecca’s mind is made up about the future of their romance. “These are two people that love each other very much,” he said, and added, “They got to a heated place where you need to step back. Get perspective and understand that you can right the wrongs.”

The season 1 finale of did not reveal the manner of Jack’s death — though it did rule out death by drunk-driving to Rebecca’s gig. But “Moonshadow” gave audiences something that they perhaps hoped they’d truly never see, unspooling the toughest, darkest depiction of a marriage in crisis that they’ve seen on the series to date. And it raises a now-smoldering related question: In what kind of state was Jack and Rebecca’s marriage when he departed this Earth?

Jack and Rebecca — a.k.a. the heart, soul, epicenter, and nexus of the Pearson family — have been treading on thin ice for awhile in the mid-to-late-’90s, their foundation cracked and worn down by years of compromise and sacrifice and kids and bills and flus and carpool rides and sleepovers and just, you know… marriage. But when Rebecca decided to do something for herself for once and resume the music career that she’d back-burnered in 1980 to raise the Big Three, tension suffused her marriage: Threatened by something that would take time away from the family — that something taking the form of Ben (Sam Trammell), her ex-boyfriend who asked her to sing with him on tour for two weeks — Jack began to fall apart and return to the drinking that he gave up in the late-’80s when it began affecting his marriage.

Although he did survive the inebriated drive to her gig at the beginning of the finale, there was no time to sigh in relief. He punched Ben into a bloody mess, just a few minutes after Ben had tried to kiss Rebecca, just as Jack had feared, so Rebecca’s big night was twice ruined. When they returned to Pittsburgh, Jack and Rebecca had the messy, nasty fight that had been brewing for a long time: Whose sacrifices had gone less noticed?! Who had lived life in service of the other?! Ben?! And when the dust and bad feelings settled the following morning — with Jack not taking his normal post-fight position on the floor outside the door — Rebecca found him waiting for her downstairs and asked him to stay at Miguel’s place to give them “some air.” Jack solemnly agreed and packed his bags to leave, but not before delivering a speech that showed he was in this thing for keeps, telling her that their love story was “just getting started.” (Although his ticking life clock would beg to differ.) With a wink, he exited, leaving Rebecca to ponder the whole of their relationship while holding onto the moon-shaped jewelry Jack gave her — something she said she’d never take off. (And if she does at one point, she ultimately puts it back on, as we’ve seen her wear it in the present day while married to Miguel.)

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While the finale hinted at an ending to Jack and Rebecca, it also contrasted that with the charmed beginning of their relationship and the not-so-charmed days leading up to it. We journeyed back to 1972, when Rebecca was an aspiring singer, while her friends were on a more traditional path, trying to get her to settle down — “diversify” as they called it. After her demo was rejected by a label, Rebecca agreed to be set up with Ethan in merger and acquisitions, but halfway through the date, she called it quits, saying that she needed to be singing on stage, which is where she met Jack, a young Vietnam War vet who had been living at home with his parents and struggling to make a paycheck. With life cutting him bad breaks, including being robbed after a poker game, Jack was juuuuuust about to steal the money at the register at the bar owned by the guy who took his money — you know, to get his fair share of life’s pot — when he heard Rebecca singing Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow.” And so we saw the beginning of the epic, high-rated love story — and possibly the beginning of the end.

Let’s ring up the woman with the golden voice and the silver necklace, Mandy Moore, to talk all about that potent finale.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How many ringers, gauntlets, and washing machines do you feel like you went through after reading this script and then filming that episode?
Oh, how many ringer, gauntlets, and washing machines? I mean, it was not a particularly fun episode to shoot just because Milo and I are so close, and we really sort of kept our distance figuratively and literally while we were filming, and it just felt odd. It really felt like a relationship is on the rocks, which I guess was necessary to kind of get there, but not comfortable by any means.Let’s talk about that fight scene. Were you intimidated to tackle that? What was your first thought when you read that in the script?
No, I think Milo and I were both beyond excited to get into things, literally. (Laughs.) I remember a while ago [creator Dan Fogelman] saying that he had this idea, and he’d known from the very beginning this is how he wanted the season to end, and he intended on having this major blow-out and it being five or six pages, and the episode just focusing on us and our relationship, and highlighting the juxtaposition between us first meeting and at this sort of breaking point in our relationship. I remember him pulling Milo and I both aside and he was like, “I just finished writing this six-page scene for you guys and it’s insane and I really, really, really want to try to shoot it in one take.”

So that was the goal initially — and we did it. Milo and I worked on it a tiny bit, just read through it together one weekend and then read it again together on set the next day or a couple days after that. And then the day before we actually shot it, Yasu [Tanida], our DP, and Ken [Olin], our director, and Milo and I and a couple other key players went through the choreography of it, since we were trying to shoot it in a oner. And it was really comfortable and exciting, but also the vibe on set the next day when we actually went to shoot it was like, I don’t know, it was unlike anything I’ve ever really felt before. The crew was handling the scene with kid gloves, but it was also upsetting for everyone to see Jack and Rebecca in this place. Yeah, it was an uncomfortable situation all around for everybody, and I think that tension really permeated the entire set.

Both Jack and Rebecca have legitimate reasons to be upset and feel that their sacrifices weren’t appreciated in this marriage. Whose side do you feel yourself taking in that fight when you watch that scene? Can you look at it at all objectively?
I can, but obviously, I have way more empathy for my character. And I understand the ramifications of this fight extends far beyond just this one instance in their marriage and their relationship, but it felt really close to the bone for me, personally; I feel like I’ve had iterations and versions of this fight in my life before, so it was particularly emotional for me. I’m getting emotional talking about it. (Laughs.) I found it really hard to disconnect and take Jack’s side because I felt so much empathy for Rebecca in this moment — I think just this particular instance really touched bone for me.

I think [there’s] the underlying sentiment of her values and her desires not being viewed as valid. And from my perspective, Jack really has only seen her through the lens of mother and wife. That was the deal that they struck when they got married and ultimately he wasn’t able to see past it. He wasn’t secure enough to be able to support this endeavor for her. [That is] so telling, and that insecurity has to have been underlying and it has to me, as an actor, have been something that Rebecca has known about, but he’s been able to manage, and they’ve been able to sort of finesse their relationship to a point where it doesn’t factor in all the time. But I can’t imagine that this is the first time it’s ever reared its head. But I was so disappointed in Jack — as Mandy and as Rebecca, it’s like, “Aw, f—k, man. Really? Really? You can’t be there to support your lady in this moment?” It just is, in a bigger picture sense, like, “Ohhhh, it’s really going to be your undoing.”

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When he calls Rebecca a 40-year-old woman singing covers in a pub and says it’s ridiculous to call that a career, and then Rebecca calls Jack’s drinking “this alcoholism of yours,” as if she’s questioning that he really has a problem, and calls its timing convenient, we’re hearing a lot of brutal stuff. Which were the lines that made you sick to your stomach and worried that they wouldn’t be able to recover from?
I mean, it’s hard to go back from that when he said, “You’re a 40-year-old woman singing covers in a pub.” It’s like. “F—k.” It’s ultimately, I think, the thing that was going around in her head all night, like, “This is how he sees me, this is how he sees me.” If we’re really going to distill it down, you can’t take that stuff back. There is a way to find forgiveness, but you never forget those things. We’ve all been in those fights and sometimes things get said and there is no pulling back from it. And they both come to that conclusion the next day; he doesn’t fight for it and she doesn’t fight for it. That line has been crossed, and the only way that there will ever be understanding or some semblance of reconciliation is if they take a breath and get some air, because, oooh, the things that were said were just so ultimately devastating and detrimental to the fabric of a relationship.

The morning after the fight, before Jack could get out the apology, Rebecca cuts him off and tells him not to apologize, because they both feel terrible, but they both said things that they meant, and she wants to separate for a while at least. He thought about it for a second and he agreed to it. Why do you think he didn’t stop her and fight for the marriage in that moment? Sure, he makes that great speech, giving her something to think about, but he did leave. Did part of you want him to insist on staying?
Yeah. I mean, in my mind, I assumed Rebecca had slept two or three hours, tops, walked out of the bedroom, and fully expected to find him asleep on the floor there next to the door, like he had when they had that fight eight years before, and it just was another sign to her: We need space. We both need to not be under the same roof and figure out where we go from here. But I ultimately think she walked downstairs thinking — in my mind as an actor, I was like, “I’m interested to see what his reaction is.” I think I wholeheartedly believed that he would fight for it, and the fact that he didn’t only further solidified like, “Okay — then this is truly what we need to be doing right now. The man that I knew would fight for this relationship, for his wife, for the marriage.” And the fact that Rebecca’s suggestion is taken with such a seemingly agreeable same-page stance says everything.

And when you factor in the moment during the previous night’s fight when — and granted, she’s being aggressive, but she says, “Tell me what you love about me now! Not the woman that you’ve conjured up in your head!” And he doesn’t deliver the goods in that moment. He stays quiet.
He can’t. In that moment it was like, “Wow.” I get all of that. It’s been building to this, unfortunately, for Jack and Rebecca. It has slowly but surely been building to this, and I can’t help but think this is a woman who’s like, “My kids are almost 18, they don’t need me anymore, I don’t have a life. And my first step into dipping my toe into having some semblance of an identity again, as a woman — just as a woman, which is think everybody is entitled to, especially somebody who was an artist and who really tabled that creative spirit for years willingly — but now that this has resurfaced in her life at a very appropriate time, the fact that he can’t honor that side of her, he can’t support it and give it to her has her thinking like, “Wow… what is this next chapter of my life going to look like if ultimately this is the kind of man I’m with?”

After Jack gives us that great speech and he says to her, “our love story is just getting started,” and he winks, Rebecca seems to almost hold in a bit of a smile, like she’s glad to hear him say that. Can you tell me about how you played that moment, and if you played it different ways? And how hopeful did you read that very last moment where she’s holding the necklace?
I found it incredibly hopeful, and I just improved holding the necklace. (Laughs.)

Oh, you did?
Yeah. I just saw that last shot, and it was the tear rolling down my face, then it landed on the necklace as I’m holding the necklace — all of that was not planned, I just did it in the moment. I honestly wasn’t thinking anything, I didn’t plan anything, Ultimately, no matter how tumultuous the relationship is, the end or seemingly the end of something is tremendously painful, and it’s just sad. And I think in that moment, that’s all I was thinking about. How are we here? How are these two people whose lives are just so intertwined and built around one another — they’re the fundamental foundation of each other’s worlds — how did these two people get here? And it was just so unendingly sad to me. That’s what I was thinking about: Where do they go from here? What is the next step? And I really just listened to Milo, and take after take, it was so beautiful, and it was so ultimately hopeful that I couldn’t help but have a little hint of a smile, that he would reference our wedding vows in that moment. And it was everything she wanted to hear the night before. It was a little too late, but I don’t think in the bigger picture it was too late on the relationship itself. Just in this moment, it was. Why couldn’t he have come up with that last night? (Laughs.)When Jack makes his big stand with Rebecca at the door and he says, “I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I was on the way to a date when I met you…” And he mentions that she was his “big break,” but we knew more what he means by that. The date was at 7:30, and he already missed it, and it was 8:30 at the bar, and he was about to steal the money from the register. Why did he not tell her that? It felt like a bit of a lie or an omission there. He was painting a slightly more rosy picture that night than what happened.

I agree, which I think is really telling of Jack, you know? I love these sort of darker tones that are coming in for him, and for all of these characters. It’s true to life, and I’m excited for people to get to know Jack more as a fallible human being and not just a superhero father and husband, because that’s just so much more compelling and interesting and it’s real. I definitely caught that as well. But as the actor reading the script, I was like, “Huh. That’s an interesting omission.” (Laughs.)

Do you think he feels a little bit ashamed?
Yeah. In the moment he’s painting a rosier picture — “It really was always all about you.” And in reality, like, “No, you’ve chosen to potentially rob the bar over going on this date.” He had made his choice already. It’s convenient to be able to add that little detail in.

I wonder if there’s a version of that speech where he said, “When I met you, I hit rock bottom. I was so off-course that I was going to rob a bar, but you saved me.”
You have to ask Dan, and I know everything is intentional on this show. Yeah, there was no other version, That was always it.

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How precarious are we saying this relationship is when he walks out that door? It’s very dark, it’s the darkest place you’ve ever been, but there’s a little bit of hope.
Things are pretty precarious. I really think this is a turning point in the story of this family, and this is a fundamental rift in the foundation of their relationship, and it really shows that darker, uglier side. I don’t know where it goes from here. I have an idea — I don’t know if things have changed — but I think it’s going to take a lot of work on both of their parts to figure out what the next steps are.

We didn’t learn how Jack dies in this episode, though obviously, we learned it wasn’t the car crash. But the story kind of repositions itself at the end, giving us a related question to consider: Were Jack and Rebecca together when he died? What was the state of their marriage? And did whatever state it was in have any impact on his death? That’s another burning question now.
It is a burning question. I’m so happy that the pressure will somewhat be off of like, “Is he going to die? Is he going to die? I’m like, “You guys, this is the end of the first season! Give us some time!” I think it’s far better storytelling, and I’m so excited that the story is sort of repositioning itself this way. I think it lends itself to far more compelling story choices and places — different directions for us to ultimately go with these characters.

I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t think Dan would want me to tell you anything (laughs) and I don’t have all the answers either! When Dan broke a lot of these stories for us, he really concentrated on the first arc of this season. I know how Jack dies and I know when it happens, I know how it happens and what the specifics involved are, but I don’t know how we get there yet.

Do you think some fans though will be disappointed they didn’t get more about how Jack died? There is a big contingent of fans that is obsessed with that.
I think it’s sort of silly. I mean, why would they want to know it so early on in the show? We have at least 36 more episodes that we know of to tell this story, and I think it was really pretty smart of them to not let the cat out of the bag too soon. I remember, and you’d have to check with Dan or [executive producers] Isaac [Aptaker] and Elizabeth [Berger] on this. It was intentional because I think people know that he’s not alive present day, but there is a psychological shift. Once people know how he did pass, they’ll just be thinking about it every time he’s on screen, you know?And so, I think that that factors in a little bit to letting the story breathe. It is a huge turning point. It’s before Jack and after Jack, in the same way that Beth [Susan Kelechi Watson] said, “Life is before William [Ron Cephas Jones] and after William.” I believe that that’s so true for this family as well, but we don’t have to get there just yet. There’s so many other things to explore, and as people are only tuning in to see how he died in the finale, then I feel like they’re watching the wrong kind of show. [Laughs].

About the flashback scenes in 1972: What was your first reaction when you found out that Jack met Rebecca because she skipped out on a date and went to sing at a bar where he basically aborted a heist? I didn’t predict that one.
I loved it! I didn’t predict that one either… I knew that ultimately that’s how the episode was going to end, but I didn’t know the specifics of how they actually got there. I loved it. I think it just drives the point home as to the artistic spirit that Rebecca has always had and has been dormant in her for so long. I think it’s the other side of the coin and just makes this regrettable situation with Jack and Ben and this opportunity never really coming to fruition all the more heartbreaking. She never got to explore that side of herself, and maybe it never would’ve happened for her anyway, had she not met Jack and her life took a bit of a different direction, but the fact that even later in life she never fully got to live that out is pretty… you know, two weeks on the road touring with a band doesn’t seem like it’s too much to ask for. But I do love that it just really speaks to like the sort of free-spirited, driven, young person that Rebecca was before she met Jack. She was super independent, dodging the sort of societal norms that were put upon and still are put upon women — settling down and marrying and ultimately being a wife and a mother is the trajectory that everyone should try to emulate…. I love that ultimately this is a woman who does want that and sees that as part of her life, but she wants to find more of a balance than her sister and her mother have endeavored, you know?

It’s heartbreaking to watch her passion for music suffer so many setbacks in this episode. Her friends don’t exactly believe in the career, they ask her to diversify. She gets rejected by the label. In the ’90s, Ben ruins the purity of her passion by trying to kiss her, and then Jack totally torches the gig, and then calls her the 40-year-old woman. It’s kind of brutal to see her suffering all these setbacks about something she loves so much.
Yeah. (Sighs.) I agree. And I don’t know where it goes from here because clearly, that situation with Ben is over

Will she continue with music in some form eventually?
I don’t know if it’s going to be something that she picks up on her own and continues as a thread in her life from this point moving forward. That’s not something I’ve heard from Dan. But I agree. It’s like, “Ooof. Poor thing.”

What was your full takeaway from this episode? It does feel like the darkest moment that we’ve seen.
It is. I would say that it’s darker and uglier than any episode, but it settles on this bittersweet note of where these people find themselves in their lives and in their relationship, and I think it’s the perfect punctuation to the season, and it’s the perfect place to leave people. I think it’s going to be impactful, and it won’t sort of diminish over time. I think it leaves people with a lot to think about, not just with the characters, but, as this show has proven, it forces us all to hold up a mirror to ourselves and lives and the choices that we’ve made, so I think in that sense it will hopefully be fully satisfying for people.

Like you said, it leaves you with a lot to think about. What questions do you think the audience should be asking themselves over the long break before season 2 of This Is Us?
I don’t know, I think that’s in the hands of the viewers. I mean, I’m curious to see what their takeaway is. I’m curious to see what their questions are. I hope they’re not just focused on like, “Okay, but how does he die?” Or “How does Rebecca end up with Miguel?” I want to see the impact this has on the family, on the kids, and I want to see where they go from here, and what steps they take to mend this relationship, or what steps they take to end the relationship. I want to know where Dan is going to pick this up, in the same way that the pilot ends, and then we pick up the second episode eight years later. I’m curious to see what Dan has in his brain for where we start this next season.

  • With reporting by BRIANNE TRACY