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September 26, 2018 at 04:05 AM EDT

Season 3 of This Is Us wasted little time in delving back into the “Who is ‘her’?” flash-forward mystery. One of the final scenes in Tuesday’s premiere featured another peek two decades into the future, as Old Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Adult Tess (Iantha Richardson) prepared to visit that mystery woman, and both seemed to be dreading the mission. But as Tess pit-stopped in the bathroom, Randall dialed Toby, who was back in bed and not looking well. (He was in a similar state in that not-so-distant flash-forward in the season 2 finale.)

“You coming down?” Randall asked Toby (Chris Sullivan). “I don’t know if I should,” he responded. “She wants you to be there,” said Randall. Toby ultimately agreed to come along, and then we caught a wider shot of his bed, which contained no Kate (Chrissy Metz). Yes, this next piece of the puzzle begat more questions, including whether Kate might be “her,” whether Kate and Toby were even still married, and why Toby, of all people, would be tied to this Randall-and-Tess plot.

What was running through Sullivan’s head when he first learned that Toby would factor into the flash-forward mystery? “Job security,” he cracks to EW. “Thank god I survived to old age. He’s an old Toby, so we now know he’s in the future timeline. I was surprised.”

Sullivan notes that the scene was filmed with a few alternate lines of dialogue, so he was interested to see what made the final cut. “We shot in a couple of different configurations and a couple different lines, hinting at different things,” he says, noting that he does indeed know the identity of the mystery woman. The actor shies away from speculation that Katoby may be no more. “I can’t say anything, one way or the other,” he says. “It’s a well-constructed storyline.”

One thing Sullivan is willing to declare: Toby’s decision to flush his antidepressants down the toilet behind Kate’s back in hopes it would help with their fertility struggles was… not good. “That’s a terrible idea,” he says. “Inadvisable. And in the next few episodes, we’re going to find out it’s part of the reason [behind] that flash-forward we saw at the end of season 2.” Seconds TIU executive producer Elizabeth Berger: “We showed last season it does take him to a very dark place, so we know that’s coming. And we’re going to be watching him come undone throughout the beginning of the season.”

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Metz echoes this sentiment, noting that Toby’s decision is primarily driven by the couple’s mutual angst. “There’s so much guilt they both have, and they both share,” she tells EW. “It’s one thing when you want to have a baby and she feels inadequate, like she’s not doing her part as a woman. But then Toby’s like, ‘I’m not doing my part as a husband or a man to help her conceive.’ They’re both going through the same thing, but very differently. They’re trying to show up for each other, but it’s going to be challenging — really, really challenging.”

Almost as challenging as the ongoing guessing game about the identity of the mystery woman. “There’s no ‘her’ that’s off the table,” declares TIU executive producer Aptaker. “We were at [creator Dan Fogelman’s] house up north; the three of us went up there to work on this episode. We had a very impassioned debate at dinner. We knew it was going to be Toby, but how much do we want to show about his life? And what’s that right little moment to give people just enough of a window to be asking the right questions? And we just decided that him in a well-made bed without someone else there just feels so empty — that was the right amount of a tease we wanted to give.”

Despite Toby’s introduction in the deep-future flash-forward — and the absence of Kate — Metz is understandably mum on the possibility that Kate might be the “her” in question. “It’s not going to be what you expect,” she says, “but it will be difficult to digest, for sure.”

Over the course of season 3, the show will keep returning to Randall and Tess’ journey from her office to wherever they’re headed. “It’s always going to be told through this one day or one night,” says Aptaker. “We’re very conscious of not frustrating people and not spreading it out too long, but also part of what’s fun and exciting about the show is the way we play with time. So it’s something we’re going to get to sooner than later.” Adds Berger: “It’s that balance between fun-but-not-distracting and frustrating. We’re constantly walking that tightrope.”

Brown is the man leading the Pearson family along that tightrope, as Old Randall talked Tess into the visit and now just got Toby on board as well. Speaking to his role as family organizer, he tells EW, “The ‘her’ is someone that we all know and care about, so you’re going to see Randall trying to galvanize all the family because it’s a critical time and he wants everybody to be there.” It sounds like the next clue may focus less on identity and more on predicament, though. He hints: “It’s along the lines of ‘what is it that led her to this situation?'”

And as the puzzle pieces stack up, who knows? So might the Kleenex boxes.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

To read what Mandy Moore had to say about that mystery man at the end of the episode, head over here.

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3
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run date
09/20/16
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