A This Is Us winter premiere — or any new episode, really — wouldn't be complete without new revelations about the Pearsons.
The NBC series kicked off 2021 and continued season 5 with "A Long Road Home," which saw the Big Three dealing with big shifts in their present-day timelines. Randall's (Sterling K. Brown) viral dancing video led to an unexpected message and photo from Hai Lang (Vien Hong), the Vietnamese grandfather in New Orleans who fans previously learned was close friends with Randall's biological mother Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes). And the fan theory about Laurel still being alive is now defunct as Hai confirmed he was by Laurel's side when she died of breast cancer in May 2015. Furthermore, Randall's biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones) didn't know Laurel was still alive after she gave birth to their son.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Kevin (Justin Hartley) arrived at a crossroads in his relationship with Madison (Caitlin Thompson), who is preparing to give birth to his twins, after production for the actor's Glass Eye film was moved to Vancouver, Canada, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The father-to-be must decide the best path for his future, both professionally and personally, so he called Randall for some W.W.R.D. advice, making a skosh more effort to repair their brotherly bond after their fight.
The last episode's cliffhanger showed 18-year-old Kate (Hannah Zeile) in Pennsylvania discovering she was pregnant, and the father was ex Marc (Austin Abrams). Then, at age 40, Kate (Chrissy Metz) in California confided in her husband Toby (Chris Sullivan), for the first time in their four-year relationship, about having an abortion. Audiences learned that pregnant Kate went to the clinic alone while Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Randall (Niles Fitch) visited Kevin (Logan Shroyer) in New York — but not before Kate saw Marc again and attempted to tell him about their baby on the way.
Fast forward to the present, Kate and Toby drove to San Diego to stand up to ex Marc and confront her past for the betterment of her future and adoption journey. While Kate may have finally moved on from Marc, Metz, 40, and Zeile, 23, tell PEOPLE that the abortion will lead to the "beginning of another chapter" for their character.
PEOPLE: What was your first reaction to hearing about Kate's abortion? Chrissy, you said creator Dan Fogelman spoke to you about it beforehand.
CHRISSY METZ: So many of the writers bring their own true lives and true stories, they also reach out to people who experienced different, really big, traumatic life events. When Dan talked about Kate getting pregnant, I was like, 'Wait, what does this mean? Did she not want to be intimate with him?' And [Dan] was like, 'No, no, no!' Because that's a whole other thing, there's a stigma around [abortion], of course now, with everything happening politically and people even having the choice for themselves. I was like, 'Holy smokes, this is not something to be taken lightly.' This is Kate's story and this is a story that needs to be told because there are a lot of people who've experienced the same thing, whether they are 18 or whatever age when they made that decision.
HANNAH ZEILE: Last season, we filmed the pregnancy test scene. We actually filmed me holding the [pregnancy test] box last season so I was left on my own cliffhanger coming into season 5, not knowing what they were going to do with that storyline. Then, once I got the script for this [episode], it was really awesome because I got an email from Dan [Fogelman] saying that I could call him if I had any questions. And when I was on set, it was awesome because the director Anne [Fletcher] and the writer K.J. [Steinberg], both women, were on set with me and talked me through the heavy material.
A first love, particularly in your teens, is so formative, but especially for Kate given that Marc entered her life after Jack's death. How life-changing was the Marc relationship and the abortion, and does it all impact how Kate deals with trauma?
CM: I think that's part of the reason why Kate stayed with Marc, even though she knew in her heart that he wasn't the right person for her. He has his own troubles, his own issues and how he would manipulate her. Of course, that had nothing to do with her, but because she was so raw and vulnerable he had access to her in a way that a lot of people wouldn't. She felt so much pain and guilt around her father's death. I don't know that if her father were still alive would she have ever been in that relationship, or at least not for long. I think when are experiencing such trauma and sorrow, we make decisions and continue to make decisions that are probably not the best for us.
HZ: I've really been blessed to play this time in Kate's life because it's really cool how the writers have made her a really multi-dimensional character and the different traumas leading to how she is as an adult, like the death of her father and then now we learn about [the abortion]. It's been cool to fill in some of the puzzle pieces because now we see she was with an abusive boyfriend and it actually went even further than that, which kind of led her into spiraling.
In the early seasons of This Is Us, weight loss was a prominent issue in Kate's storyline. But as the seasons have gone on, it appears to be less of a topic for her. Will bringing up the abortion make Kate resort to eating her feelings away?
CM: I'd like to think she's definitely more empowered because she stood up for herself. While Toby supported her, she did think on her own terms and in her own way. I'm really hoping this empowers her and changes her for the positive, and to take back the time that she felt wasted, even though we learn nothing is wasted because we learn something from it.
HZ: That's what has always been a thread in Kate's storyline, that she eats emotionally. I definitely think this is one of the pivotal points where that starts happening again, it gets bad. Chrissy mentions that in her monologue about how her father died and she had this abortion without the father of the child being there to support her. When she had no one to support her, she turned to food to cope.
Kate doesn't tell Marc about her abortion in San Diego, but her words for him seemed to bring her power. How does the abortion affect Kate's self-esteem both in the past and present day?
HZ: We will have to see, but it's been a common theme with teenage Kate of taking on shame that's not hers and carrying burdens that she doesn't really need to carry. It shows through her angst and she has a chip on her shoulder most of the time. She always wants to help and be the mediator for other people, but I feel like she carries a lot of stuff on her own and doesn't open up as she should. That's what is so awesome about her and Toby's relationship. We see that's who she finally is able to open up to.
CM: That was such an important monologue for not only Marc to hear, but of course for Kate to convey, because she even had epiphanies as she was saying it to him. I don't think we really knew what she was going to say — she just knew she had to say something and confront him. It's really the beginning of another chapter for Kate and her processing all the pain that she's been carrying, along with the shame and regret, for so long. She's been carrying that for so long and stuffing her feelings, literally, with food. I'd like to hope that she could have forgiveness for herself, and explore what it was and what it meant in the process of learning, evolving and loving herself no matter what.
Have we seen the last of Marc?
HZ: Honestly, I didn't even know when we did all the cabin stuff if we would see him again then. … But if I had to guess, I would think that it seems because they had adult Kate finish that chapter with Marc, it seems that book is kind of closed.
Kevin previously told Madison that there are things Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) don't know about the Big Three's past. Will we see Kate confiding in her brothers and their mom about the past pregnancy and abortion?
HZ: I know that when she tells Toby, that's the first person that she's ever told. She never told her family. She obviously goes to Marc's place and then ends up not even telling him, so I know she's carried the burden of that secret on her own. But I don't know whether she ends up revealing that to other people.
CM: I would think that it would have to come up again — I don't know if it's something she wants to keep with Toby. I don't know if as she processes it, she moves through everything, if she will feel more inclined to want to be honest. Or would she feel like it's just not necessary, because [Randall and Kevin] are going through their own stuff as is Rebecca?
In season 5, Randall dives deep into learning about his identity, while Justin Hartley told PEOPLE that legacy is top of mind for Kevin, especially with impending fatherhood. What will Kate be exploring as her and Toby's adoption journey continues?
CM: I think it's about letting the pain go and coming into her own. So much of Kate's journey, because she's been broken for so long, is all about healing. Whether it's through her being a mother or her being a wife, she's just finally owning her power and sadness, and grief, to turn it into empowerment and healing. She has a lot of love to give and she always has. As a mother, it's one of those selfless things that she's really good at doing. I think she understands her relationship with her mom better because she's a mom now. There's just a lot of healing, understanding and sympathy that goes along with, obviously getting older, but growing mentally and emotionally.
Filming for season 5 was a bit hectic in the beginning due to the coronavirus pandemic, specifically for the first few episodes. How has production been lately?
HZ: I started filming when it was episode 4 and our crew and team were so incredible and worked out the kinks, so by the time I came, it was a pretty well-oiled system. It still takes a little bit of getting used to — we're in these, what we call, Barbie plastic boxes, and I have my shield on all the time, because with the prosthetics you can't really wear a mask. There's a bunch of different regulations, but we're so blessed that we actually get to go to work and still make television. It's been cool to see people adapt to how life has to be.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays (9 p.m. ET) on NBC.
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