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This Is Us

This Is Us creator breaks down the Toby twist(s) in Tuesday's episode

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Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[Spoiler alert: This story contains plots details from Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us, “The Right Thing to Do.”]

Something bad happened on Christmas Eve, but, as it turns out, something tragic did not.

The midseason premiere of This Is Us answered a big question on which audiences had been left hanging for five solid weeks: Is Toby six feet under or alive and shticking? Yes, Kate’s jester boyfriend, played by Chris Sullivan, was last seen at the end of the fall finale unconscious and tubed up in a hospital ER after flying across the country, emptying his heart, winning back Kate (Chrissy Metz), and then collapsing on Randall’s living room coffee table. And, as promised, the NBC family dramedy’s midseason premiere addressed the cliffhanger very early in the episode, showing Kate anxiously visiting her boyfriend, who was not only conscious, but already back to his wisecracking, inappropriate ways, suggesting that they celebrate his new shot at life by her mounting him for some hospital bed sex. (She not only nixed that, she did not immediately return his heartfelt “I’m kind of in love with you” admission.)

But this being This Is Us, there was a twist. Or two. Suffering from arrhythmia, Toby was advised to undergo a surgery to fix the hole in his heart (all metaphorical analyses welcome), which he would ultimately weather. While recuperating, he feigned being asleep as Kate poured out her constipated heart, declared her love for him, and said that she’d like to spend the rest of her life with him. He opened his eyes, and then essentially proposed to his new girlfriend, who broke up with him on the eve of Thanksgiving and reunited with him on, and she essentially accepted. Just like that. (More on that below.)

In less festive and more poignant news, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) struggled with the revelation of the sexuality of his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones) — or was it that William was spending all of his time with his boyfriend, Jesse (Denis O’Hare)? — before they had a heart-to-heart, in which William relayed that he was not responding to the medication for his terminal cancer and wished to stop the chemo, a move that Randall respectfully supported. (He also insisted that William stay with him and not a nursing home for his final days.)

In slightly more upbeat news, Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Sloane (Milana Vayntrub), deepened their romantic and professional connection, which even seemed to survive the return of barely-former flame Olivia (Janet Montgomery). That is, until Kevin’s I’m-with-her speech to the mercurial Broadway star (“Sometimes you gotta do the right thing, even if it’s not what you want”) was overheard by Sloane, which left him with not two but zero girlfriends — at least for now. Hot librarian and intense artist, out!

And back in the past, there were some matters of the achy heart as well. We watched as Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) learned from their doctor (not Dr. K, but he was there for a pleasing cameo) that she was pregnant with not one but three babies! A housing (and financial) crisis ensued — a two-bedroom apartment would not cut it with three kids — and both Jack and Rebecca sought to shield each other from the pain that they were feeling. With Rebecca considering her judgmental mother’s move-in offer with resignation, Jack switched into superhero self-sacrifice mode, selling his beloved Chevelle and showing up at his a-hole of an abusive dad’s house, begging for money to provide proper shelter for his family. In the end, Jack secured the funds, purchased the house on which he had been working as a construction foreman, and showed off their new home, which at the moment was filled mostly with just drywall and hope (and the promise his mother wanted him to make). “Yeah, this could work,” Rebecca told Jack, surveying a very unfinished nursery and envisioning the next few years with multiple bundles of joy and hard work.

What would work for you right about now? Perhaps a tall glass of Japanese whiskey and a meaty Q&A with series creator Dan Fogelman about “The Right Thing To Do”? Keep reading.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Rounding off to the nearest dozen, how many gift baskets have you received from Chris Sullivan for not killing Toby?

DAN FOGELMAN: Sully knew, because the scripts were right on top of each other, so there was never a moment of him waiting to find out his fate. In terms of shooting, the scripts for the 10th episode and the 11th came back-to-back, so there was never any misdirection for him.

And he’s thrilled to be alive, I assume?

He seems very happy to be alive. He also seems to be taking great pleasure in teasing everybody about what happened to him.

So, Toby escaped the grim reaper, twice — after the collapse and then the surgery. How did this story line come about? And at any point when you were working out the story, were the lives of Toby and Dr. K (Gerald McRaney) in true jeopardy?

There was a lot of different talks of different things we could do. The show has a lot of heaviness and a lot of sadness — and some sadness forthcoming — so we wanted to strike that balance and also do what was just what we felt happened to the characters — and it didn’t feel like either of them died to us. With Toby, if I was a sophisticated television viewer, I might make him survive only to kill him at the end of the episode in a different way. So I thought it was an interesting thing to re-bring in the tension and see how an audience followed that and handled it. Because at this point, you have to be aware of how sophisticated your audience is getting, so sometimes in order to play with expectations, you need to get ahead of guessing what the expectations of the audience might be.

Sort of like with Glenn on The Walking Dead, where you thought he might be gone — and he wasn’t — and then he was.

Whether you liked that or not, it was a masterful job of an entire country talking about what’s going to happen, and they surprised everybody, which is no longer easy to do. So we went the opposite way by surprising everybody with, “Everybody lives. Multiple times.”

To end that 10th episode, we always had the idea that it would seem like the older guy undergoing life-threatening surgery is the guy that’s on the line, and we’ll surprise everybody by out-of-the-blue dropping Toby, which hopefully also makes sense for a guy who’s clearly had issues with weight and health and eating and a lot of different things in his past, too, so it’s not just somebody else dropping. That was always in the plan — the misdirect/head fake of Dr. K versus Toby. … I always thought something potentially catastrophic, health-wise, would happen to Toby in the first season of the show.

 

There was some other, almost equally big news on the Toby front: It seems like we just witnessed Toby and Kate deciding to get married after he said that he’d “marry the hell out of her.” Should we consider them officially engaged?

As we move forward into the next few episodes, yes, they are calling each other fiancé by the time we return to them, but there’s something underneath their relationship which is slightly unsettling but still in a charmed way. They’re both going through this relationship of extremes together, where they’re up and down, and Kate is making a lot of big life decisions and going through in subsequent episodes a lot of stuff at her core and a lot of heavy-duty, emotional, therapeutic-type stuff. They’ve always been playing in their own version of Toby’s romantic comedy where things happen really quickly and decisions are made really quickly and without a lot of thought, and I think this “proposal” continues that path. They act before thinking, and they act before analyzing, and that has both charming and positive consequences but then also can lead to problems. So I think you’re meant to feel a little easy about the proposal in terms of the very question you’re asking: “Are they really engaged?” [It’s] something we return to many times in the upcoming episodes.

This is obviously happening too fast, and she’s also declared that she’s having gastric bypass surgery. I’m guessing both of these big decisions are going to be revisited — and that different family members might have different feelings about this?

Very much so. Not only revisited, but plans will get changed. And arguably they’re two of our most lovable characters on the show, and clearly people and we are really like Toby and Kate together. But there are also reasons they’ve broken up. Toby has alluded to a history of depression in his life. There’s clearly something unsettled in Kate internally, and there’s been plenty of hints that it has heavily to do with some stuff in her family and some stuff in her upbringing. So there’s a lot to explore, and quick decisions aren’t necessarily these two’s best friend. Yeah, there’s a lot to come. A lot of plans that go astray and change and evolve — some for the good, some for the bad.

NEXT: Fogelman on William: “There’s a lot of different ways this can go”