“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)