This Is Us Season 3, Episode 5
Posted by Shannon
If you told me this time last year that I would be annoyed when an episode titled “Toby” focused on all our main characters rather than diving deep into the life of its namesake, I never would have believed you. But throughout season two, Toby’s character slowly course corrected, and this week I found myself a little mystified that we didn’t have another episode with singular focus. Instead, “Toby” has a few themes rolling through the hour – all of which I wish we had more time with. There’s a throughline of experienced racism, both subtle and overt. There’s an examination of mental health, and what happens when we force ourselves to ignore vital parts of our emotional lives. But ultimately, “Toby” is all about the impossible inevitability of taking two steps forward and one step back.
Rebecca and Miguel
In the past timeline, we’re staying firmly in the days and months immediately following Jack’s passing. The family’s a little more stable this week than they were the last time we saw them, but not by much. Randall is stepping up to a distressing degree, helping his mom sort the cable bill and assuring her that Kate doesn’t want to go to prom while his brother practices lines for the school play. We’ve known that Randall took an immediate paternal role after his father’s death, even sacrificing his position at Howard to stay home and help his family, but it still upsets me every time I see him so insistent on carrying the burden.
So it was a relief in a way for Miguel to swoop in with a piano he found on the side of the road. Our four Pearsons are in an impossible position. Each of them needs a hand to hold in one way or another, and Miguel is there to offer it – tentatively, at least. Rebecca needs the damn fridge fixed, Kate needs someone to provide her with a connection to music, Randall needs someone to connect with on race, and Kevin needs a safe bed to crash in when he gets too drunk on prom night. But only Rebecca is in a place where she can admit she needs that help. Each of the kids quietly – and understandably – reject Miguel’s offers of support. He’ll keep trying, though; he’ll keep trying for years.
Instead of letting their father’s friend support them, each of the Big Three hold closely to solitude, and to a lesser extent, each other. Randall does support Kate in her insistence that she does not want to go to the prom, while Kevin is happy to attend with his brother, talking him down from pre-meeting-the-parents-panic. But Kevin’s out of his depth. Seeing that dear, sweet child’s face when his date’s garbage father refused to acknowledge him was equal parts devastating and infuriating. It’s cold comfort when Allson’s mother offers Randall a hasty, ashamed apology. I can picture Randall insisting that Kevin and Sophie go on without him, insisting that he’s fine. The result is twofold; Kevin gets obliterated, unable to process the racism his brother faces every day, and lands himself back at Miguel’s house later that night. And Randall goes home early, catching Miguel as he heads out. I wish Randall had been in a place to have a real conversation with Miguel about his own upbringing, trapped with kids who insisted on making I Love Lucy jokes at him without caring to understand the difference between Cuba and Puerto Rico. But he just isn’t. And Miguel takes an overly paternal position here; I couldn’t help but wonder if Miguel would had ever found the time, as one of the only men of color in Randall’s life, to try to connect with him about their shared experiences before now.
Miguel’s two steps forward was, without a doubt, the piano offering. Both Kate and Rebecca are in need of a musical safe space, but when Rebecca finds Kate tinkering quietly on the keys, Kate immediately shuts down. Rebecca tries. She remembers her own mother (in a rare, kind memory) teaching her a lullaby, and connects with Kate on the reality that sometimes music is just too raw to be the kind of support structure they both need. She, too, had moments when she couldn’t sing “out of fear, sadness… lots of reasons.” Rebecca recognizes this struggle in her daughter and understands when Kate just isn’t ready. It’s no wonder, in a way, that seeing her mother be so free and so comfortable in music would be a turn-off for Kate. It must have been torturous to see someone so close to herself able to connect with the form they both love, able to find that freedom and be so at home in it, when Kate only felt farther away from everything that it represents.
Randall and Beth
Everyone’s favorite power couple is back on their lovable bullshit. Beth is set to go on a final interview at a new firm, while Randall’s launching his campaign against Councilman Saul Brown, taking advantage of a QUESTIONABLE AF electoral loophole related to William’s old lease. (“Am I a resident there? Nah.”) Randall has promised to stop campaigning the moment Beth voices a concern, but Beth is clearly still not in a place to advocate for her own emotional needs. She banters with Randall, acting as her usual self, and I don’t doubt that she’s insisted to him the whole time that she’s fine. But it’s clear that Randall is still her emotional priority. Beth doesn’t speak to the day she’s about to have, focusing instead on the (very real) fact that her husband is an emotional man and his potential constituents “do not want to see a rich man from Apline CRYING when he talks to them.”
Randall has taken the time to figure out the legalities of how he can run, but it doesn’t seem like he’s done much else. Chi Chi is there to help with the logistics, setting up a free BBQ party to fill a local restaurant with potential voters, but the rest is up to him – and by all accounts, the community is not interested. I’m from a majority white small town, and I can’t speak to the sort of loyalty that Councilman Brown’s constituents feel towards him. I do know that local politics is tough, and when people feel that a local politician has had their back through difficult times the way Brown’s constituents do, it’s almost impossible to pry a seat away from the incumbent. Randall has approached this newest project with a shocking degree of naivete. He’s thrown when a local recognizes “you are not from here, honey,” and doesn’t seem to acknowledge the problematic visual of a rich, unknown man who lives with his family in a DIFFERENT STATE swooping in to solve all the problems of a struggling urban center. It’s the kind of thing Jack Pearson would do without thinking it through enough, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
Still, Randall has heard some real complaints from the community, and he’s at a loss trying to marry that up with the refusal of the same community to consider voting for someone other than Saul Brown. It’s jarring to hear the restaurant owner, Mr. Jones, tell Randall to “go back where you belong,” but again – I don’t know how Randall didn’t expect this reaction. After all, Chi Chi has said gentler versions of the same thing to him already. Randall has put himself in a position to confront, daily, a personification of his most damaging internal conflict. Does he belong with William and his found Philadelphia family, or with the white neighbors in Alpine? Or somewhere else entirely? Randall has been struggling with this push and pull his whole life, and while I admire his drive to make a difference, to do something tangible in William’s community, I worry for the implications to his psyche living in this in between every day.
Ever the bass player, Beth is there at the tail end of Randall’s disastrous speech, ready to pick him up and brush him off at the end of the evening. Her interview doesn’t even come to the front of Randall’s mind until they’re climbing into their cars for the long drive back to New Jersey. Beth brushes aside Randalls’ inquiry, insisting that it went well but not offering any details. It’s only through a flashback that we see the truth. Beth has not mourned her job at all. Not for one moment. And after twelve years and essentially co founding the company with her old boss (which, by the way, FUCK THAT GUY how DARE he fire her), she needs some serious time to process what she’s been through. But she hasn’t given herself that, instead focusing all her support on Randall, doing exactly what William feared. So of course she breaks down mid-interview, holding herself together by the skin of her teeth.
Kevin and Zoe
Kevin and Zoe are taking their newly minted, official relationship status of “human being who’s a documentarian who you happen to be dating” (“kind of a mouthful”) and heading off on a road trip to Baltimore to meet Mr. Robinson. Zoe is still extremely cautious around Kevin, and I got the feeling that she was coming along on this trip mostly out of professional curiosity. He doesn’t do himself any favors when he doesn’t realize that Zoe’s irritation at forgetting her silk pillowcase doesn’t come from some sense of luxury, and his obliviousness at the rest stop especially doesn’t help. I would like to say that Kevin should know better, but his personality is such that I don’t think he would register anything other than overt discrimination. When they arrive at the Robinson’s home, Zoe finds herself in the kitchen, opening up about her conflicting feelings within the relationship.
I love that Zoe was given this space. Mrs. Robinson is the perfect combination of safe and separate that Zoe needed to open up; I got the impression that she would never have this kind of discussion with Beth. But Mrs. Robinson is a third party, entirely free from judgement or Zoe’s own personal history, and another Black woman who understands Zoe’s concerns about explaining her daily life to a white man (“He’s the first pure alabaster one I’ve dated seriously”) – not to mention, a rich, privileged, movie star. She gives Zoe the advice she needs to hear: only she can decide if Kevin is worth that exhausting effort.
It helps that Kevin and Zoe have entered this home on a deeply personal mission. Both of them are aware, at least on a superficial level, that the Robinsons are allowing them entrance to a time in their lives that is deeply private and unspeakably difficult, and that they are doing this for Kevin’s sake and Kevin’s sake alone. Mr. Robinson goes through all the motions, looking at photos of Jack and Rebecca with Kevin and showing his own purple heart before broaching the subject of Jack’s experiences in the war. Kevin believed, either out of naivete or blind faith to his father, that Jack had served as a mechanic. Mr. Robinson’s face, and his gentle insistence that “I don’t think you wanna go there, son,” set the stage for Kevin to decide, for once and for all, how deep into this he wants to go. And so he hears the beginnings of the truth: Jack “was not a mechanic. He was a staff sergeant with the alpha company’s third squad. A squad leader, in fact. And in October 1971, your dad saved my life.”
In that moment, the walls really begin to fall for Kevin. And a word for Justin Hartley’s work in this scene; he’s often an unsung performance in This Is Us, and the way he quietly swallows, gearing up his eyes and his body for the truth of what Jack faced, was masterful. Kevin had suspected, in some part of himself, that there might have been more to Jack’s story. Or, at least, his memories have begun to shift with the new information he’s gathered, and suddenly Jack’s reaction to war movies and his haunted expression whenever the war was mentioned rings a different bell in Kevin’s mind. Mr. Robinson can’t offer any additional leads from the photos Kevin brought for reference, and assures Kevin that Jack “wasn’t haunted when I got pulled out,” but I also felt like he wasn’t painting a full picture. Jack wasn’t the type to just drop off the face of the earth when a friend reached out. He was hiding something, and right before Kevin leaves, he arrives at the hotel to pass along a final collection of letters from Jack. But his warning, that “in my experience, with this particular war, sometimes the answers are so dark you’re better off not having them” hit me hard. And Kevin is immediately confronted with a question that he might not want to know the answer to; within the letters passed on from Mr. Robinson is a photo of Jack with a woman, wearing the same necklace that Kevin keeps around his neck everyday.
Kate and Toby
This season’s timeline has been harder than usual to pin down. In this episode alone, Kate and Toby seem to speed their way through months worth of medical procedures; they move through a successful cycle of IVF with relative ease, taking phone call after phone call and changing up themed refrigerator posters accordingly. Kate’s her usual nervous, loving, jumpy self, relying on Toby to be stable, steady, a voice of reason when she wants to jump the gun and take a home pregnancy test mere hours before hearing from Dr. Jasper if they’ve gotten pregnant. (“At this stage it’s just not accurate and it causes emotional CHAOS!”) And Toby delivers. Until the moment Kate is out of his sight. Whenever a door closes, or she exists the room, or just before she walks into the kitchen, Toby is visibly struggling, his eyes vacant. He’s been off his meds – without properly adjusting – for weeks, and it’s having serious implications.
Toby has struggled with mental health and depression all his life. As a young kid, he would blast his room fan to drown out the noise of his parents fighting, biting his nails down and reciting Ghostbusters quotes to himself. Wendie Malick returns this week as Toby’s mom, and while she doesn’t have a ton to do, she still paints a full portrait of a woman struggling with depression in the face of a failing marriage. She can’t get out of bed, can’t bring herself to finish a shopping trip for Toby to get new school clothes, cheered only by her eldest son’s impersonations. Toby’s father has officially joined the long list of awful elder-generation This Is Us dads; I physically cringed when he declared to his CHILD “You’re a good kid Toby, but there’s so much of her in you it scares the hell out of me.” Toby’s dad is a stereotypical portrait of callous, toxic masculinity, dismissing Toby’s depression as “this sadsack thing” and insisting that he will himself to get over it. His mother, at least, was there to help decades later, when Toby’s divorce crippled him emotionally and he couldn’t get out of bed.
This Is Us is not a perfect show, but personally, I feel like they have consistently knocked their portrayals of mental illness out of the park. This episode had moments that felt painfully, perfectly true to my own experience. Toby’s mother insists that “the joy in you is as much a part of you as the sadness,” getting him the professional help he needs. Regular therapy, medication, and a focused practice of mental health turns Toby’s day to day around, until he was emotionally healthier than he’s ever been. Toby knows he should not have gone off his meds. He knows that was a dangerous, awful decision. So the moment he might be out of the woods, he books it to a pharmacist in an effort to get back on his prescription. It’s not that easy, and it’ll take a few calls to his old therapist to get back on track.
But that doesn’t help in the here and now. Kate and Toby both have hours to fill before the last call from Dr. Jasper; Kate has a gig as a Singing Adele-A-Gram and Toby uses the time to run to the pharmacist, and then to an arcade, where he loses hours playing games, just as he did before he started taking antidepressants. Once he comes to and heads home, he’s missed the call. Chris Sullivan’s performance in this scene was honestly breathtaking. The overwhelming feeling of learning that Kate is pregnant, that he’s in the clear, that he can go back on his meds – everything swirls in his mind until it’s too much to take. He snaps, hyperventilates, and Kate learns the truth. Which lands us back at the last scene of the season two finale; with Kate coming into Toby’s room, adjusting his meds, trying to get back to a sense of normalcy.
Colors of the Painting
- That cover of “Don’t Let Me Down,” tho.
- I had some serious questions about the commute from Alpine to Philly, and it turns out the good people of North Jersey agreed with me. For any geographically minded readers, may I present the following?
- The whole pillowcase problem was such a microcosm for Kevin’s character: he’s the type who would miss the reality of Zoe’s needs and make a dismissive crack about it, only to order the missing item to be delivered later that evening simply because it seemed important. He’s the type to be completely oblivious to subtle, everyday moments racism, but at the same time he’ll never doubt for an INSTANT that Zoe’s experience was real. Kevin Pearson, you’re a tough one, and I love you.
- “White collar and white agenda” is a hell of a turn of phrase.
- “Five people stayed behind to talk to you!” “They work here, babe.”
- Singing Adele-A-Grams have tough material to work with, but “When We Were Young” still feels like an especially vicious choice.
What are you thoughts on “Toby”? Should it have featured more of him? Let us know in the comments.