“Toby” is an unusually scattered installment of This Is Us, advancing nearly every major storyline that the show has going right now but without a cohesive, unifying idea. Following the tightly, thoughtfully structured “Vietnam,” a little less clutter may have done the episode some good.
The episode also provides our first in-depth look at Toby, as the title evinces, and yet because there’s so much action around him, his arc never feels central — instead ripe for further exploration that never quite comes. (Toby has long been one of the show’s more divisive, less-liked characters; miraculously, “Toby” left me wanting more of him.) We flip through Toby’s life of battling clinical depression: Cheering up his similarly sad mother as a young boy while showing the beginning signs of his own troubles; watching his father pack up and leave as a teenager; listening to his ex-girlfriend Josie explain why she’s leaving him; and finally hitting rock-bottom, unable to get out of bed and with a long, shaggy beard. At his mother’s encouragement, he finally gets himself out of his rut, starting medical treatment, cleaning up his scruff, and attending various meetings — including the one where he’d meet his future wife.
The timing feels right for this window into Toby’s lifelong struggle — he, of course, decided at the beginning of the season to discard his antidepressants in order to improve his chances of getting pregnant with Kate and has been trying his best to shield his withdrawal ever since. In the present day, we see this becoming too much to bear. Each time “Toby” cuts from the past to the present, he’s staring into space with a mournful gaze, shouldering a considerable weight. He and Kate are in the process of finding out whether the IVF treatments will work: A series of calls from Dr. Jasper keeps hope alive until they finally reach the fateful day — with one viable embryo, they have a chance of getting pregnant and will learn the news at around 4:00 p.m. They just have to get through the day first. Before she leaves for work, Kate says, “Thanks for being my rock.” Toby says back, “Always,” but when he exits the room, his face tells the whole story: He’s barely hanging on himself.
While Kate goes to a gig (more on that shortly), Toby heads to a pharmacist where he rather desperately explains his predicament; he’s told, in response, to speak to his doctor immediately, and it’s suggested he reach out to Kate as well. “She can’t know,” he mutters to himself. He goes to an arcade to numb himself, but loses track of time, until a teen waiting for her turn at the game he’s stationed at snaps him out of his daze. She tells him it’s 3:45 p.m. He’s late.
Kate meanwhile spends her day working as a fully-glammed-up Adele-a-gram — really — at a birthday party. She’s got the wig, the makeup, everything. She performs “When We Were Young,” and is then greeted by the event’s organizer, a bit confused. “You’re seriously talented — you should be on The Voice,” he enthuses, before asking why she’s stuck in a gig like this. She says she does it to pay the bills, and adds, “When sad things happen to me, I tend to shut music out of my life … Fits and starts, right?” He responds, “I hope things stay happy, then.”
The episode also returns to the period following Jack’s death, a timeline which fits into Kate’s present-day arc specifically this week. Miguel shows up with a piano he found at a yard sale, lifting Rebecca’s spirits immediately. Teen Kate appears more conflicted about its presence — especially given what happened with Berkeley. She sits at the piano one night by herself, though, playing, only for her mother to join her. Kate can’t bring herself to sing alongside Rebecca, but it’s taken in stride. It’s a lovely, painful scene — yet another reminder that the Rebecca-Kate dynamic is among the show’s richest — which ends with a moving sentiment from Rebecca: “One day I know you’re going to sit back at this piano and start singing again, because it’s going to be a place where you can put all of that sadness — and because it’s what you’re meant to do.”
When “Toby” cuts to Kate in the present, crying as she plays the piano with Toby nowhere in sight, it’s a classic bit of This Is Us misdirection. Ostensibly we’re watching a moment of sadness, which would mean she’s learned she isn’t pregnant. But as Toby walks through the door, late and apologetic, Kate looks at him in tears, but also with a smile. “It worked, baby,” she says softly. Toby is overwhelmed — by the significance of the mistake he made, that he probably couldn’t have survived another round of this, and yes, that their dream may finally come true. He breaks down — certainly Chris Sullivan’s best moment on the show to date — and repeats “sorry” to Kate, profusely. She finally knows the truth and can work on getting him better. They can move through the next stage together. (Recap continues on Page 2)
This section of the episode is powerful and feels so much more significant than the various threads beside it that it deserves a more prominent placement. Instead, we check-in on several other plots half-heartedly, making the whole installment feel a bit off-balance.
For starters, there’s Randall and Beth: Last we saw them, Randall announced he was running for City Council just before Beth told him she’d been fired from her job — the job keeping their family afloat. “Toby” opens on them in brighter spirits, with Randall gearing up for his first big campaign event and Beth prepping for a splashy interview. “I am coming home with nothing less than a six-figure offer,” she says confidently. They split off as Randall attends a community gathering of his own making at a local barbeque joint he’s rented out to get his campaign rolling.
Yet, for both, things don’t go according to plan. Initially for Randall it seems to be a matter of getting attention — there’s a healthy crowd at the event, but all anyone seems interested in is the food. Then he tries giving a speech without giving a “speech,” but loses the crowd completely when he tries bad-mouthing his rival Saul Brown; the community essentially walks out, offended by Randall’s characterization of Brown as a complacent politician disinterested in improving their quality of life. The purveyor of the restaurant bitterly explains to Randall why he was so wrong to handle this the way he did, telling him a story of how a landlord came in and raised rents on black folks astronomically — until Saul came in and, in one way or another, talked the landlord down to a reasonable price. “We don’t owe Saul Brown our loyalty,” he tells Randall. “We owe him our lives.” Crucially he also jabs at Randall, telling him to go back where he “belongs.” One of This Is Us’ more intriguing thematic strands so far this season is really interrogating Randall’s sense of identity, his feeling that he exists between two worlds without a real place in either one. He gets slapped in the face with it once more here, and it’s intensely emotional to watch.
As for Beth, well, she tells Randall at the beginning of the episode not to cry at his event, but she herself breaks down into tears at her interview, when she’s forced to talk about her old job, and botches her chances of securing the position. She doesn’t tell Randall, though — trying to keep this very painful process to herself.
We also get a bit of Randall in the past timeline, as he and Kevin head out for prom night while Kate stays behind with Rebecca. Teen Randall shows up at Allison’s home, only for her father to refuse to take pictures of him with his daughter, not realizing Randall was black. He later finds Miguel outside his family’s apartment when he returns, confessing to what happened; Miguel tells him about his own struggles, growing up a Puerto Rican immigrant in Pittsburgh. (As if this episode weren’t overstuffed enough, we also get a bit more origin story on how Miguel and Rebecca ended up together. In this episode he dedicates a whole day to fixing the Pearson fridge, then takes in a very drunk post-prom Kevin when he shows up at his door.)
And then, lastly, there’s Kevin trying to learn the truth about Jack’s time in Vietnam — a journey illuminated this week by what we learned (and, more importantly, saw) last week. He’s driving to Baltimore with Zoe as “Toby” begins, preparing to connect in-person with Donnie Robinson — the man, “Vietnam” revealed, who was close to Jack in the war until he was medically evacuated after his foot was blown off. He survived, and as Kevin and Zoe show up on his doorstep, we see him leading a peaceful life with his wife. Further, Donnie is delighted to meet Jack’s son — though a bit reluctant to divulge too much.
And — understandably. Donnie reveals what happened to him, showing Kevin the Purple Heart he received and, eventually, explaining that Jack “saved” his life. Kevin takes it all in but tries to go deeper. He asks if his dad’s alcoholism was a consequence of what he experienced in the war. “How deep do you want to go here, son?” Donnie asks. He tells Kevin the truth: Jack wasn’t actually a medic, but a staff sergeant. Donnie then says Jack never wrote him back, and that further, he doesn’t recognize most of the people in the photo Kevin dug up. “In my experience with this particular war, sometimes the answers are so dark you’re better off not having them,” Donnie adds.
(There’s yet another side-plot here about Zoe’s ongoing romance with Kevin; in this episode, there are two instances of him disregarding her blackness: Once when he doesn’t realize she uses a special pillowcase to keep her hair from getting dry, and again when a gas-station cashier treats her racistly, not realizing she’s together with Kevin. It’s interesting material, watching Zoe try to navigate this, but feels thrown into an episode already spinning too much.)
Donnie backtracks, though, a little — feeling that Kevin perhaps deserves to know Jack’s story. He hands him some letters that Jack did, in fact, write back to him, meaning he’d lied earlier. And he passes on a few photos too — including one that undoubtedly constitutes a bit of a twist: Jack with a woman in Vietnam, who’s wearing the infamous necklace which Kevin now holds close. As we hear more warnings of darkness ahead in the show’s Vietnam timeline, this mystery woman cliffhanger only adds to the intrigue. What happened over there? Do we, as Donnie asks, really want to know the answer?