'This Is Us' Explores Realities of Being a Parent — and Sets Up Big Changes for the Pearson Family

"We love playing with that idea of you want certain things to go the way he dreamed they would. When they don't, how do you adjust?" This Is Us writers Casey Johnson and David Windsor tell PEOPLE

Milo Ventimiglia; Justin Hartley; Sterling K. Brown; Chris Sullivan
Photo: Joe Pugliese/NBC (4)

This Is Us showed the realities of fatherhood.

Tuesday's episode, titled "Four Fathers," highlighted Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) as each navigates the ups and downs of being a family man and having their own lives.

One can dream of wanting to be the perfect dad, but when life happens, the struggles of actually being a present father are more challenging and real than ever.

Below, producers Casey Johnson and David Windsor, who co-wrote the episode, tell PEOPLE what each father is learning and what's to come in season 6 for him, including which characters we will soon be seeing (and learning) more of.

PEOPLE: Why bookend the episode with Jack Damon (Blake Stadnik) and that Big Green Egg smoker?

DAVID WINDSOR: He's obviously the future of the Pearson men and it's sort of a longer-term story. We liked the mystery of setting up that Big Green Egg with them that comes back to play at the end of the episode. Down the road, we're actually... we may come back to that storyline a little bit and find out a little bit more information about whatever that injury was that he suffered, however that went down and sort of setting up the mystery of that for the show.

As This Is Us fans can attest, there's a long game in terms of keeping track of unanswered questions and Easter eggs.

CASEY JOHNSON: It's a literal egg! This Easter egg is a literal egg [laughs].

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Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Getting into each Pearson father, why did you focus on his struggles of a work-life balance and his worries about memories?

CJ: We kind of love that thematic of memory, it kind of peaks up in all the stories. As a parent, you have these moments that you look forward to that you think are going to be so amazing. The first movie you take your kids to, the first time you take your kids driving, all of that. Sometimes those memories are perfect, but often something happens that changes the situation. That's what we loved about this episode. All these fathers have these visions of what fatherhood is going to be like, and what their role is going to be like to their kids. And it changes.

For Jack, it's work. For Kevin, his relationship with Madison didn't go the way he thought it was. For Toby, he's traveling. And for Randall, Deja is changing and he's not quite ready for that. We love playing with that idea of you want certain things to go the way he dreamed they would. When they don't, how do you adjust? That was something we wanted to carry through.

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Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Speaking of adjusting, Randall learns of Deja's (Lyric Ross) trip to Boston to see Malik (Asante Blackk).

DW: It's funny, Casey's going through this right now with her teenage kids. Just when you think you get a handle on where they are, they're already sort of at the next step. I think that's what Randall is suffering with, getting a handle on where she is. Malik plays a big part in that. At the end, Randall gives her this amazing speech about how he realizes he needs to grow, change and adapt to how she's growing up. But at the same time, she broke the rules and is gonna have to pay the consequences. Then she doubled down and is even stronger again [when she says not seeing Malik for a while isn't going to work for her], and sets up more conflict for her and Randall going forward. I would say that Malik will continue to be a storyline between the two of them. He's such a good kid. At the same time, his daughter is only a teenager and still in high school. So it sets up a really good dynamic and conflict for the two of them.

Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) even told Randall, 'That was like me and you when we were each other's first real loves.' Beth understands what Deja could be thinking more than Randall.

CJ: Absolutely. I love showing that conversation between Beth and Randall in the kitchen. I feel like that's so much of parenting, where you admit to each other that we don't really know what we're doing. We have to figure it out together. Beth is coming from a little bit of a different point of view than Randall. We're gonna play that out in the next couple of episodes as well.

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Ron Batzdorff/NBC

On to Kevin, he took The Manny reboot so he can work and be near his twin babies. He wants to work to support his kids, but that means missing milestones, including Franny's first steps. In telling ex Madison (Caitlin Thompson) how she's always there to witness everything, you can feel how he's conflicted because he isn't the father he imagined himself to be.

DW: Justin, I thought was so amazing in that scene because you really felt the struggle for him. A lot of that storyline came from my own life and having to raise my kids with my actual ex-wife, realizing like, 'Oh, gosh, there really are moments that I'm missing.' It's sort of heartbreaking because all you want to do is be there for all of the moments and I think Madison says in a really loving way: No matter what we're never going to be there for all those moments, all we can do is be the best parents that we can. It's sort of wonderfully heartbreaking for him because he's in this place where he loves these kids so much. I feel like being a father really has given Kevin purpose for the first time in his life. It hasn't been about all of the other things, work and women, and now he realizes that this is why I was put here on this earth to be with these kids. Yet at the same time, I can't be with them all the time. That's just so sad for him.

Then at the end, Kevin calls Cassidy (Jennifer Morrison). Why bring Cassidy back into his life, and not Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) or anyone else he's had history with?

CJ: We always feel like there's a real similarity between Kevin and Cassidy. The details of their lives are very, very different, but they really understand each other. Even though he can sometimes be this movie star guy that's so different, she has sympathy for where he's coming from. To us, it kind of made sense that she's the person that he calls. When he's ready to make fun of himself a little bit to be like, 'Oh my god, I almost called my 25-year-old costar for a booty call,' Cassidy is the one that he can be really honest with. We just love that connection, and she's going to be in future episodes. We're gonna do some stories with her, she's gonna fall back into his life in unexpected ways. We just love seeing her again this season. She has more stories to tell as well, we really wanted to dig into her character more too.

DW: Of all the women and people that have been in his life — we don't touch on it in this episode — but she's a parent also. He's just gone through this parenting moment where he feels alone. We've seen that with her too with her son and not being able to be there with him all the time. That's probably one of the reasons he called her as well because she can relate to that and be comforting during this moment for him.

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Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Finally with Toby, work and travel are taking a toll on him as a husband and a father. Are we seeing the buildup to Toby and Kate's breakdown, and him possibly having to choose between work and family?

DW: We know, in the future, that Kate and Toby don't stay together. At the beginning of the season, we were really talking about, how do we [do that] and what's the most interesting way to get there? How do we show that? What are the reasons for that? We're familiar, as TV viewers, with relationships that end badly and there's a lot of animosity. We kind of wanted to see what's a different version of that? How do we get to a place where they're not together, but maybe in a loving way, in a different way... It is maybe all of those things, are giving away too many specifics. I think people just sort of grow apart, it doesn't have to be hateful and bad necessarily.

CJ: But also we want to just start this early in the season to really give us time. Like David said, I think we've seen on TV, relationships that end badly. But we wanted to really dig into the why. These are two people that obviously care about each other, they have the same goal. But we know that it doesn't work out, and it's really, really complicated. We just wanted to take our time and really dig into how did that happen. We know that our audience is very invested in this relationship, too. We wanted to kind of give this story the time and the space to be told.

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Kate and Toby on This Is Us. Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Was Toby's speech to Kevin about the strengths of pyramid vs. cube with the Magna-Tiles, a premonition of his marriage to Kate ending?

DW: It's sort of a little bit taken from my life. It's Toby talking about his parents, but I think also it's a little bit of a premonition — he's maybe, without realizing, talking about himself. He and Kate have gone through a difficult moment in this episode, and you start to feel the separation between them. These two men who really all they want in life is to be family men and raise these kids. Realizing how important fatherhood is for them, it's sort of shining a light on nothing is as we expected it including being a parent, especially being a parent. Like Casey said earlier, that never goes the way that you think it's going to.

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Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Back to the Big Green Egg smoker, is buying gifts and things the way Toby will attempt to make memories and make up for not being there?

CJ: It's kind of doing the best he can in the circumstance, and I think buying the Egg is like he says, 'I want to make memories being together' and that's what he's trying to do. But the distance is making really difficult. Talking about memories, sometimes the simplest memories are the ones that stay with us forever, like the one of Jack doing the sundae bar with the kids, and squirting whipped cream into their mouth. Something that's so simple and easy to do is sometimes the ones who stay with you forever. I think Toby would rather be home and be able to do those things but circumstances aren't letting him do that right now.

I was thinking 'Why a smoker?' But I'm assuming that's gonna be answered soon.

CJ: We were hoping that the whole crew would get smokers if we put them in there, but we didn't [laughs].

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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