The biggest mystery so far on This Is Us found a heartbreaking resolution in early February with the reveal of how Jack Pearson lost his life.
Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) wound up dying after a heart attack brought on by smoke inhalation hours after rescuing his family and dog from a tragic house fire, breaking the hearts of millions of avid fans.
"When I started to write this thing, in my mind's eye, there was a fire at the house, and the patriarch of the family heroically got the family out of the house, and then died in a really small way, without proper cinematic goodbyes, hours later in a hospital by himself," he said.
However, Fogelman says there is one key piece of the journey to Jack's death that he regrets.
Jack Pearson's death was first hinted at in the show's fifth episode, when Kate (Chrissy Metz) introduced the urn with her father's ashes to boyfriend Toby (Chris Sullivan).
Fans went crazy speculating how the beloved character had ultimately met his match as the first season progressed, reaching crazy highs after Kate confesses near the end of the first season that she thought she was responsible for Jack's death. The episode then flashed back to the era in which Jack died: he stepped out of a bar to call teenage Kate (Hannah Zeile) from a payphone to tell her that she was right — he needed to make things right after a fight he had had with his wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore) — and he drove off while drunk to Rebecca's gig.
“That was a head fake on our part,” Fogelman said, revealing he always intended to resolve the mystery later in season 2. “While I thought it was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool, interesting timing,’ and people might think that’s coming, I didn’t realize the narrative around that moment would get so strong. If I could take back a moment, that’s the moment I’d take back, just to have slowed the spread of our story.”
After that episode, viewers were convinced Jack had met his maker while driving drunk to see Rebecca, and that the mystery would be resolved before the first season ended. But when the finale got to a devastating fight between Jack and Rebecca instead of diving into the cause of death, fans felt cheated.
“I think that we thought — and I still continue to think — that the big shock with the finale to people was going to be, ‘Oh my god, this marriage is suffering! America’s sweetest couple is in a state of disrepair and separation,” Fogelman said. “I thought that was the big kind of twist or misdirect: This isn’t about Jack’s death; this is about something deeper and darker, which is: these two are on different pages.”
Now that everything is out in the open, Fogelman sees the audience's point after they were teased about a big reveal coming and it turned out to be the separation, rather than the cause of death.
"People are preprogrammed that characters die in finales, so that was something I hadn’t really contemplated to the same degree.” That said, “we didn’t lie about anything,” he said. “Kate feels very responsible for Jack’s death, and that [was] explored in this season… but you don’t want to use up your favor in that way.”
Fans' frustration inspired the plotting of the second season, Fogelman said, making sure to give clues from the start, like when Rebecca breaks down outside the burnt down house the day after the fire, as well as making sure fans would know exactly when to expect the big reveal about Jack's demise.
“[Viewers wouldn’t have to spend their time] wondering if every moment he’s going to get hit by a truck. That was really the only fear: I didn’t want it to become distracting where people aren’t following the stories they need to follow. And I think it was something people enjoyed.”
Now that the mystery is out, Fogelman says there are no plans to introduce a new mystery to the show, but since Jack will continue to play a central role on the show, the man himself is mystery enough to explore, including his brother and his time in Vietnam.
“In many ways, Jack might be the character we still have the most to learn about, because he’s kept so many secrets in this period before we’ve really known him,” Fogelman said. “We’re talking about the third season now, and I’m really excited about that, because we can do things with Jack and learn things about Jack that we really can’t with a lot of our other characters…. It’s one of the things I’m most excited about — where we go next in learning stuff about Jack. Which is ironic because the character just died in the most public way on national television.”