'This Is Us' Creator Discusses Toby's Fate, Jack's "Ultimate Sacrifice"

Dan Fogelman previews "hard and heavy storylines" to come in the second half of the season.
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, "The Right Thing to Do."]

Viewers had to wait five weeks to get a firm answer, but Toby’s (Chris Sullivan) fate finally was revealed during This Is Us’s winter premiere.

After an opening flashback scene in which Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) learned they were having triplets, the episode immediately jumped forward to Kate (Chrissy Metz) visiting Toby in the hospital where he had recovered from his holiday heart attack. He wasn’t completely out of the woods yet, as he still needed a risky surgery to repair a hole in his heart, but the storyline prompted a quick “I love you” and an eventual proposal once Toby’s surgery was complete.

Meanwhile, Kevin (Justin Hartley) was forced to choose between Sloane (Milana Vayntrub) and Olivia (Janet Montgomery); Randall (Sterling K. Brown) felt William’s (Ron Cephas Jones) absence, now that Jessie (Denis O’Hare) is back in the picture; and in the flashbacks, Jack and Rebecca coped with finances and finding a place to live.

The episode also introduced Jack’s parents (Peter Onorati and Laura Niemi) and Rebecca’s mother, Janet Malone (Elizabeth Perkins), in two emotional twists, as Rebecca contemplated moving her family-to-be back home and Jack was forced to confront his father and beg for money.

To break down the episode’s big twists, reveal the discussion that went into Toby’s fate and tease what's coming next, THR spoke with creator and showrunner Dan Fogelman.

Did you ever actually consider killing off the Toby character?

We had conversations early on about what would be Toby’s fate; we always knew he was going to have this kind of collapse halfway through the first season. We decided pretty early on that he would make it. We had a lot of illness and potential death touching this family, and it didn’t feel like we could let go of Chris Sullivan. Before we ever started airing, we knew he was going to make it.

What kind of a recovery process will it be for him?

He’s got a little bit of a recovery process, and it’s going to keep him in New York for a little bit because the doctor doesn’t want him traveling. Toby’s medical recovery isn’t where we spend a ton of our time this second half, but it’s all part of the bigger story of Kate and Toby’s relationship. It’s a lovely and often romantic-comedy-esque relationship between them. Decisions got made really quickly, and they’re very up and down. They continue to be struck by these obstacles that force their relationship to either move too slowly or too quickly. That’s the main takeaway from the heart attack in the episode, in terms of this bedside proposal and what comes next.

So that was a real proposal?

That’s a big thing that we follow up with the next time we come to their stories. What they are referring to each other [as] when they come back in their story is fiance, but as we get deeper into their story, it was just a couple of weeks ago that she felt that she had to break up with him to deal with her own issues. Those are issues that are going to start rearing their head in the back half of our season. So it all was really complicated for them, how their marriage is going to work and the relationship and the proposal.

Everyone teased a devastating episode heading into the return. Were they referring to Jack’s storyline?

That’s probably referring to Jack’s storyline, but also just generally speaking; we have some really heavy stuff coming up in the back half of the season and stuff that is intrinsic to this family. Stuff that deals with mortality, and so everybody is a little loaded up right now because what we’re working on and shooting is some pretty heavy-duty stuff. As we come back, we have a heartwarming and emotional path back into the series right now, and then we have some pretty hard and heavy storylines.

Are you balancing that out with some lighter stuff, or do viewers need tissues every week?

We definitely try to find the balance, always. It just seems heavy, but we undercut it with humor because that’s what we do in real life. Very often, I find that people tend to laugh the hardest after the moment that they’ve cried the hardest. We try to be aware of that on the show; we also try to be aware that if we’ve gotten really heavy with one story, we try to counterbalance it with other stuff. We want this to be a cathartic experience for people. We want it to feel real, but we don’t want it to feel exhausting. There’s a balance to always be struck.

How will Jack and Rebecca’s parents factor in going forward?

It’s a big theme of the show, that your parents are your parents and they have a direct effect on your life, even if they’re people that aren’t in your “story” all the time. We don’t spend a ton of time the rest of this season with them, but it’s a place we’re going to go back to or forward to many times. In this season, and particularly this episode, needing their parents in this moment in their lives gives a little more insight into Jack and Rebecca, and that’s what the purpose of the parents storyline is here. They add another layer to what made Jack Jack, and potentially, as we move forward, the good parts of Jack and a little of the dark parts are revealed. And here’s where Rebecca comes from, but also the world that she’s been trying to both resist and is tempted by. As we get into future seasons and future episodes, the parents will factor in.

Does Jack’s secret of getting money from his father factor back into the season again?

Not in the immediate future. It’s something that is talked about a great deal and will be explored. That episode was many years ago from the present day with Jack and Rebecca, so where is Jack’s father now, does he know about the family, what story has Jack told Rebecca? There’s that powerful moment where Jack takes off his wedding ring before knocking on the door and lays himself bare in front of his father and says, “I’m every bit the misfit that you thought I was going to wind up being.” And he’s clearly hiding his future family and his wife. What are the ramifications of that? It’s not something that is addressed in the next couple of episodes, but it’s very much a part of the series.

Were there other hidden meanings in the title of the episode, or was it a misdirect to make people think Toby might be on life support?

It’s interesting, everybody is so loaded with Toby’s stuff right now that people, rightfully and understandably, search for little clues and details like that. It was a little bit of a double play on Kevin regarding Sloane and Olivia, but it’s also really about what Jack and Rebecca are doing. This entire episode to me — the linchpin and highlight of it is when Jack finds Rebecca crying and she covers up the fact that she’s making this sacrifice. And he covers up the fact that he heard her crying and goes to make the ultimate sacrifice with his father. It’s well-meaning people and this well-meaning couple trying to do the right thing. It’s not for their benefit. That’s what a lot of these characters are always trying to do; they’re trying to do the right thing and often make mistakes doing it. Kevin, particularly — it’s one of my favorite things about how Justin plays Kevin. Every time he tries to do the right thing, it winds up biting him in the ass because he’s just not great at it. He wants to be. That’s where the title comes from. If people read into the Toby thing, that’s only good for us.

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

What did you think of the return? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling