This Is Us creator breaks down the Toby twist(s) in Tuesday's episode
[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”
Randall had some trouble wrapping his head around the fact that William is bisexual, but it also turns out that he was mostly stressed about losing that precious family time with William to Jesse (Denis O’Hare). And that time just got much more precious with William telling Randall that he’d like to discontinue the chemo as the meds weren’t working. Will the intensity of their bond ratchet up again, and will there be a pressing drive to pack as many memories in as possible?
There is. Randall’s story line in the first part of the season has not only been about finding his biological father but about discovering this truth to his origin story, and that cat has kind of come loose. And while he hasn’t fully repaired with Rebecca, that almost feels no longer, to me, as a writer, a story at this point of the season anymore. We’re going to turn a lot of our attention to his relationship with his very sick father. And for a guy like Randall who’s a fixer and a pleaser, somebody making a decision to potentially go off chemo and begin the last stage of the end of their life is a situation that’s going to cause a lot of different stressers. He’s having to give into something. He’s going to try to very clearly try to spend as much time as possible with this man — even in a new, more intensive way. And it unsettles him a little bit. That’s very much where a lot of our attention turns in this next batch of episodes, with regard to his story line.
How much more or how little time with William should we brace for?
We introduced this character as a very sick man without a lot of time left. Miracles happen and things happen, but we’re also trying to play in a reality of this show, where we’re trying to show real life. So in terms of bracing for things, we’re trying to stay true to the characters and what really happens in these situations. There’s a lot of different ways this can go, but definitely the next time we see William after this episode, he will have gone off the chemo, and we’ll see some of the effects of that over the next couple of episodes.
You seemingly just moved us closer to the end game for William — but as we’ve seen, dead people have a way of sticking around the show. Now that you’ve seen how audiences have favorably responded to this character, though, was there sudden talk in the writers’ room of not a miracle drug, but maybe having the chemo treatments be more successful?
Yeah, I’m not saying which way we’re going with William’s health and his future, but the notion of potentially not finding a prolonging of life, it’s an easy thing to want to do for a character and an actor who you like so much, so anytime you contemplate killing any character, it requires a lot of analysis and consideration. So there’s a lot still on the table, and there’s a lot to decide upon William — a lot will play out in terms of which way his story goes in the course of this first season, and then the last eight episodes.
We learned more about Jack and his father (Peter Onorati), who is not a nice guy. But when Jack is forced to ask him for money, in a heartbreaking scene of self-sacrifice, he takes off his wedding ring and pretends that the money is to pay off gambling. Does he not want his father to know anything about his life — and to serve as poisonous influence, especially with kids on the way? And does the gambling “admission” better pave the path to get the money by allowing Jack’s father to feel superior and that he was right about Jack? Because surely Jack would love to show his father that he was nothing like him — and prove his father’s expectations for him wrong — but that wouldn’t help him in that situation.
It’s the latter of what you’re describing. I don’t think he’s worried about his father being a poisonous influence on the family, I think that he’s not going to expose that part of his life to this man. It’s such a beautiful scene, and Milo is so beautiful in it, because it’s so selfless [and relatable to] any of us who have any kind of relationship like that in our life, not with a father but with anyone — a teacher who told us we’d never amount to anything or just a bully on the schoolyard.
The fantasy is that you get to go back and say, “See? I proved you wrong. I got the best wife, and I became the best father, and I’m going to become everything you’re not.” And Jack’s not even going to allow himself that victory because that victory both decreases his chances of getting the money out of his father that he needs for his family, but also he’s not just laying himself prostrate on the ground in front of this bad man, he’s kind of getting a victory for himself in the process. And that’s not what this moment is. This moment is, “I’m going to sacrifice myself and my masculinity and my goodness and bend at the knee to the person I want to bend the least to.
It’s one of my favorite things we’ve ever shot. That entire sequence of [Jack and Rebecca] hiding the truth of what they’re going through, it feels like… marriage. Even though they’re both sad and making sacrifices, it feels like the beautiful part of marriage to me. Neither of these two wants the other to see how badly they’re hurting in this moment. And Rebecca will never quite know, in that moment at least, what Jack did to buy them that house. I think it’s a really beautiful moment.
This was also the episode in which the love triangle between Kevin, Sloane, and Olivia turned rather pointy. Good intentions or not, which bridge has Kevin burned more badly — the Sloane or Olivia one?
They’re both burned pretty badly right now. What I love about what Justin does with Kevin is he reminds me so much at times of Jerry Maguire, which is always a touchstone movie to me. He’s a really well-meaning guy who just continues to step in it always at the moments when he’s trying to do the best thing. It seems like every time Kevin really tries to do something good, it’s when he winds up being perceived as the biggest dick. He’s just not good at being good, even though he is good. And I love that so much about him.
To read what Chrissy Metz had to say about the Toby twist leading up to the episode, click here.
To read Sterling K. Brown’s take on the first half of the season, click here.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.