The second and third episodes of This Is Us’ third season did not delve back into the flash-forward “Who is ‘her’?” mystery involving Old Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Adult Tess (Iantha Richardson). But viewers of NBC’s family drama still have plenty to process from that scene near the end of the season premiere, which returned to the ominous deep-future-set scene teased in the season 2 finale.
Sliding another piece of the puzzle across the table to us, Randall called… his brother-in-law, Toby (Chris Sullivan), to ask, “You coming down?” “I don’t know if I should,” responded Toby, wearing an unkempt beard and a sullen demeanor. “She wants you to be there,” said Randall. Toby agreed to come along, but the other side of this bed was empty, and as sharp-eyed viewers have noticed, he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Is Kate “her” — and is Katoby no more? Just how significant is that (lack of) ring detail?
“Well, you could read that he’s no longer married,” This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker coyly tells EW, before adding: “You could also read that it’s uncomfortable to sleep in a ring.” Let’s check in with executive producer Elizabeth Berger: “We know our fans, and that they watch really carefully, and we make our decisions really carefully, so people are noticing the right things to notice.” And over to creator Dan Fogelman: “We don’t do anything unintentionally.”
Sullivan, the man at the center of the season premiere’s mystery, was even more tight-lipped about those questions swirling around the scene. “I can’t say anything, one way or the other,” he told EW. “It’s a well-constructed storyline.” He did say that the scene was shot several different ways and was “hinting at different things.” Aptaker confirms this, explaining: “We just like to have a couple of different choices in the edit bay so we can decide how much we want to to reveal at one moment.”
Have other clues been planted in that scene that fans haven’t picked up on yet? Aptaker says no, though he notes, “More often than not, it’s things we didn’t even mean to be a clue that the internet is like, ‘Randall’s hand has been cut off!'” However, viewers are wise to study those flash-forwards — along with other scenes. “We break these stories very thoroughly and far in advance, so there are things happening that fall back upon themselves or are little pieces attached to something else that you may not even realize,” says Fogelman. (Take, for example, that season 2 fall finale scene with the little boy; he seemed to be the child who Randall and Beth might take home, but that scene turned out to be part of this distant flash-forward.) “Nothing is done haphazardly,” continues Fogelman. “People may not love every single decision that is made but the decisions are made carefully. I don’t think people read into things too much — I think they’re reading into things the proper amount.”
Mystery resolution will arrive a little later this season, and new puzzle pieces will be doled out in the meantime. (No, you won’t get one in Tuesday’s episode as it is focused on Jack’s past. But no, you won’t have to wait for an answer to this riddle as long as you did in the how-Jack-died mystery.) “We are really, really conscious of trying to walk that tightrope and toe the line between being exciting and having a bit of mystery to our show, and dragging things out too long and frustrating people,” says Aptaker. “We’re trying to be really, really carefully calibrated about when we reveal things in a way that’s going to be really satisfying and not tedious.”
As for what’s next, Brown hinted that Randall seems to be on a mission to gather the Pearsons. “The ‘her’ is someone that we all know and care about,” he told EW, “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.” Fair to say that he’s on a mission? “It feels like we’re in a mission,” says Fogelman, adding playfully: “It feels like that. That might not necessarily be the case.”
Fogelman is hesitant to reveal much of anything about where we’re headed, but prepare for a process of elimination. “The most pressing questions starts becoming who it is and who it isn’t,” he says. “Like you saw in the Toby [scene], obviously Toby is not a her, but unless everybody is living in the exact same house, they’ve barely aged a day and they have the exact same relationships with everybody in their lives, any answer is going to beg some questions. You showed Toby is alive — he seems different, Kate’s not in the bed with him — so even showing that Toby’s okay creates new questions. Where is Kate? Is it Kate who is ‘her’? Where is she is and is she okay? Are they still together? Anybody we reveal is going to also land some other questions: How are they in this place? What are they doing in this place? Who else is there? Why is that person not there? All those questions will be answered. And then, in the future, it will be a matter of the show exploring from how we got from here to there.”
Sullivan is simply happy to get from here to there, joking that the flash-forward clue revealed one thing to him: “Job security. 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.” Metz, meanwhile, warned viewers to brace for a surprising, not-so-happy revelation. “It’s not going to be what you expect,” she said, “but it will be difficult to digest, for sure.”
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
To read more clues about that flash-forward mystery twist from Chrissy Metz, Chris Sullivan, and Sterling K. Brown, head over here.