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[This story contains spoilers from “Katoby,” the April 12 episode of the sixth and final season of NBC’s This Is Us.]
“Life would be much simpler if we could live it backwards.”
This Is Us took that idea and applied it to an emotional final season arc that viewers have been bracing for: the dissolution of Kate and Toby’s marriage.
In the NBC family drama’s 100th episode, “Katoby,” Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) speaks those words to her ex-husband, Toby Damon (Chris Sullivan), several years in the future on her second wedding day. The poignant, non-linear hour then flip-flops from the present to the future timeline — where it was revealed, in the season five finale, that Kate remarries to her boss Phillip (Chris Geere) — as the episode travels back in time until meeting up with the present.
The bookended storytelling device gives viewers a complete picture as to why Kate and Toby couldn’t make their marriage work — a decision that was not without effort, pain and resentment, or heartbreak — and how, eventually, they each make it to the other side to see their fate more clearly. Their marriage didn’t work, but, as Kate tells Toby when they sign their divorce papers, this isn’t the end of their story. They were brought together to make each other better and to co-parent their two children.
“People think it’s a failure if you’re not with someone. But it’s really a success that you come out of a relationship better than you were coming into it. But, of course, you can’t always see that forest through the trees,” Metz tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Kate ultimately makes the call to end their marriage following a near-tragic event in the prior episode, “Saturday in the Park,” which was told from the perspective of baby Jack (Johnny Kincaid), who was born visually impaired, as he suffers a fall at the park while his parents were home arguing and didn’t realize he went missing. “Katoby” then follows the pair going to marriage counseling but too much has been said (Toby, blaming Kate for his not being able to live up to impossible Pearson expectations; and Kate, accusing Toby of seeing their son’s blindness as a limitation and not being a present enough father). Years pass before Toby finally sees it, too, as he settles into his new life and accepts Kate moving on.
“This show is about getting a look at the big picture and realizing that you’re not going to get to do that until time has passed,” adds Sullivan. “This show could be called, Everything Is Going to Be OK.”
Below, in a chat together with THR, close co-workers Metz and Sullivan unpack their characters’ points of view leading into Katoby’s split, reveal how the final season will move on from here and explain why this lesser-told story of divorce can still be hopeful in the end.
You have three episodes of the final season left to film. How are you each feeling?
Chrissy Metz: I just read [the series finale episode] yesterday. I don’t know if you’ve read it yet, Chris?
Chris Sullivan: I haven’t read it yet. I haven’t read [the final three episodes], if I’m being honest. I am in full denial.
Metz: Maybe just hold off, then? (Laughs.) It’s beautiful, it’s heartbreaking. It’s all of the things you expect Dan [Fogelman, creator] and the writers to provide. It really hit me yesterday when I read the finale. Dan put a little note at the end of the episode.
Sullivan: Oh, dear.
Metz: I was like, “Oh my God. It will be over.” I think that was the first time I realized that he really meant it, and that we’re going to be done soon. It’s been very emotional. All of the feelings that you could possibly feel.
Last week’s episode, “Saturday in the Park,” going into “Katoby” was this double-whammy for Kate and Toby’s story and exploring their divorce. How did you prepare for these episodes?
Metz: Coming right off of “The Hill” [the Kate-centered episode in the Big Three trilogy] and then having Randall’s episode and then coming into all of this Kate and Toby stuff was quite a feat, emotionally, to stay in those places. There’s resentment and disappointment; but then there’s heartbreak and also, your child is lost. I was just speaking to my sister, because her son, my nephew, recently fell and hurt himself. And she said how true the episode was to life. It was difficult. I always say this, but it’s been difficult having this unravel between Chris and I, because it’s been all love for six seasons — five and a half, anyway. So physically, mentally and emotionally it’s challenging and fun as an actor — but not as a person! As a person, I don’t love this so much.
Sullivan: We spent six seasons trying to build this thing. But, ironically, that’s how real life feels. You spend all this time and energy trying to build something that works and it seems like, all of a sudden, things fall apart. So it’s a bummer of a way to go out. But it’s the portion of human relationship that Chrissy and I have been tasked with communicating back to the audience.
Metz: There are some really sweet, tender, beautiful moments between Kate and Toby, like when she tells him, “This is not the end of our story.” That for me was a wow moment. Because, they are going to be co-parenting to the best of their abilities. And there are some cute, little conversations that are being had throughout the rest of the series. So, Chris, getting on the other side of it will feel better, I think!
Sullivan: Alright! I’ll read [the episodes], I’ll read ‘em.
The choice to first tell this story from baby Jack’s perspective and then to tell “Katoby” backwards, I imagine, makes for a different experience when filming and then watching the episodes. What was the filming process like, and have you seen “Katoby” yet?
Sullivan: No, I haven’t. Did you watch it, Chrissy?
Metz: I have and boy, oh boy. It’s really cool because we are going back and forth in time and starting from the end [in “Katoby”] and going back to how it all happened. It’s sort of this melding [of time]. It was tricky because you have to remember where you’re at in the time before and after the scene you are actually shooting, because it’s not linear — much like the show. So for me, it did pose a challenge. But it was very difficult to watch. I love Chris Geere, who is Phillip [Kate’s second husband]. But Chris Sullivan is my OG. So, even that part was hard to watch. But I think people will understand. It’s just very tender.
Sullivan: The filming of it was exhausting. The number of timelines and the level of the varying emotions that we had to travel through. By the time we were done, I was spent. I haven’t been that spent in the entirety of our shooting.
Metz: Agreed. I think I had 36 changes and I was like, “Holy smokes, I don’t think I’ve had 36 outfits in six years!”
“Katoby” opens with Toby calling Kate on her wedding day, to show how he eventually gets to a place of acceptance. Did you film that scene when you filmed the wedding flash-forward at the end of season five, or was that newly shot?
Metz: That was new. Only the reveal from the finale of season five was already filmed — when we find out that Kate’s remarried and Kevin walks in asking about the wedding speech and Madison and Beth are there. We filmed that a year ago. The phone call between Kate and Toby was newly filmed. And then they continued on through, as if it was all shot together.
If you had filmed that phone call last season, I was thinking these episodes might have been emotionally easier on you because you would know where future Kate and Toby sync up.
Metz: No, no, no. (Laughs.)
Sullivan: We kind of got to talking about this the other night, Chrissy. That episode and the takeaway is what this show is about. This show is about getting a look at the big picture and realizing that you’re not going to get to do that until time has passed. And what this show has done is play with the passage of time and to show the audience extreme tragedy but for the audience to also know that everything is going to be OK. This show could be called, Everything Is Going to Be OK.
Metz: When we’re going through something, we just want to know it’s going to be OK. And it will be. But in the moment, you’re so in it that you don’t think it will be, and you don’t know what it’s going to look like on the other side. That’s the beauty of the show but also the comfort. We can get through this hard stuff because we know on the other side we’re going to be better for it.
Sullivan: And, oftentimes, with those hard times, we forget about the good things. We forget where we come from and how good things have been because of these difficult moments.
Metz: I lament about something that’s wrong forever. And when it’s good, I’m like, “Ok, great. Next.” And I never sit in the joy of how great it really is. I always say that I need to enjoy the joy a little more.
Kate and Toby hurled a lot of brutally honest things at one another. After their arguing led to Jack’s fall, Toby says he’ll do anything to make their marriage work, and they go to counseling. Is that a last-ditch effort, is it denial — where is Toby coming from when he makes this commitment?
Sullivan: It’s probably all of the above. There is the last-ditch effort kind of angle. You never really know 100 percent if something was meant to be or not if you don’t try everything, if you don’t give it your all. There were times in my life where I didn’t prepare fully for an audition. And when I don’t get that role, I can’t know if it’s because of my ability or if it’s because I didn’t do everything that I could to succeed. There’s that same mentality with a relationship, where you need to arrive fully and in every way you possibly can to figure out if this is right or not. Otherwise, you’ll never know if it’s character defect or lack of trying that is to blame.
So much of what Toby vocalized was this impenetrable Pearson sibling bond and not living up to Jack Pearson [Kate’s late father, played by Milo Ventimiglia]. How much do you two agree with that sentiment and why do you think it became such a problem for them?
Metz: Kate and [her father] Jack had this amazing bond. Much like Rebecca and Randall, where it’s sort of indescribable. When you put somebody on such a high pedestal — as a parent or a mentor, someone that important to you — it’s really hard to ever live up to those expectations. Kate often references Jack; so much of her pain and anguish of losing Jack is entangled into who she is. And that feels pretty impossible for Toby to not think that he’ll never measure up to him. Essentially, nobody can. That’s the hardest part. It’s not because Toby isn’t good enough. It’s because Toby isn’t Jack. There’s this thought, “You won’t be able to measure up because you’re not him.” And it shouldn’t be that way but, of course, we’re humans. You’re sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place. There’s nothing you could ever do, and you’re not supposed to. It’s difficult.
Once Kate made up her mind and vocalized the marriage was over, she seemed so sure that it would end up being the right choice. Toby doesn’t see that until several years later. Why was Kate able to get there faster?
Metz: Generally, women process things differently and in a longer thought or scope. I only say this because of personal experience with my marriage and my ex-husband. I had already been processing things for quite some time before I said, “Now I’m ready. There’s nothing we can do; I think we’ve exhausted all efforts.” And when I came to him, he was like, “Wait, what?” People process things differently and I hate to generalize with a gender but, in my case, I know that to be true.
I think she had seen the writing on the wall for a long time. And, as much as they wanted to try — and they did try and try and try — it gets to a point where you say, “What are we doing? We’re torturing each other, our children. Maybe it’s better to have a healthy, loving relationship, just not together as a couple.” Nobody ever wants to fail at anything. And I think people think it’s a failure if you’re not with someone. But it’s really a success that you come out of a relationship better than you were coming into it. But, of course, like we were saying earlier, you can’t always see that forest through the trees.
Maybe Toby saw it for a while, too, and they were in denial. But I think Kate felt like, “We can’t keep doing this. We’re not going to be on the same page, we have grown apart. And somebody has to say it.” And because Kate has come through so much and is finally coming into her own, and trusting herself and having been bolstered by her mother’s decision for her to be the appointed guardian, all of these things have helped Kate to understand that not only are all of her feelings valid and necessary, but she’s deserving of being happy and, unfortunately, it might not mean in that relationship. Neither one of them are happy. It’s a culmination of lots of different moments.
When we see Toby making the call to Kate on her wedding day, what is it that you think he’s finally realized?
Sullivan: Clearly, so much time has passed that we’re unaware of, but it felt to me like this was the one bit of unresolved business between the two of them — for lack of a better word, business. And for Toby, it feels like it lands that resolving that is the most loving and appropriate gift that he could give her in that moment, on that day. You tell me Chrissy, you’ve seen the episode.
Metz: Yeah. [Especially after] seeing how they finally finish the divorce paperwork and she says, “I’m telling you, you’re going to see it.” And he says, “You’re wrong. I’m never gonna see it.” There is such a love for each other that is never, ever going away. Ultimately, she wants him to be happy. And that’s why I think they both decide they need to part ways, because they’re not making each other happy in the ways they deserve and need to anymore. So for her to get that phone call on her wedding day, that’s a huge moment and a huge deal for two people on such a special day. Now he sees it — even though it’s obviously into the future. It meant a great deal to her. Not everybody has the courage to say that to someone else. I think it’s one of the most special moments between them. It’s very subtle, but it’s so deep.
Is there anything that either of you gave input on or changed that wasn’t exactly on the page?
Sullivan: I don’t think so. I think one of the things that maybe bleeds through is that, through all the days of the divorce proceedings and the mediator — because we spent the whole day together and because we enjoy spending time together — I think a little bit of that love and that playfulness was bleeding through.
Like in the elevator scene, when you two awkwardly crack up over the blaring Whitney Houston song, “I Will Always Love You”?
Metz: Just, the timing of that. And also, the foreshadowing. If you go through the lyrics, the song could not be more perfect. They’re always going to have this bond and connection. And they will always love each other. And for it to play after the divorce, in the damn elevator together? That couldn’t be more Kate and Toby-quirky. But also, those moments happen. It would have to go out like this; we’d have to leave the divorce proceedings in this kind of a way. It makes it lighter and fun and more appropriate for them. And I think that brought them back to realizing they will always love each other.
This ties up a lot of their story because we see how things evolve for them up until Kate’s wedding. And then we see in the second flash-forward, to Rebecca’s bedside, how Toby is there and future Jack is thriving. How will we see Kate and Toby’s story evolve as the final season heads to that far future timeline?
Metz: They’re always going to be there for each other and since they are co-parenting, they are very much in each other’s lives and very supportive, which is so lovely to see. Because to get to see that positive part of someone and of two people divorcing proves what she was saying: We’re always going to be in each other’s lives. And to make that promise to each other, I think, is beautiful. We will definitely see how they are very, very much in each other’s lives.
This episode also makes clear the connection between Kate and Phillip and what brings them together. What do you think Kate was looking for that she found in him?
Metz: I don’t think she was looking for anything.
Sullivan: She needed that British accent.
Metz: That’s all that was ever missing! (Laughs.) But no, I don’t think she was looking for anything. I think they had common ground with the work they do, and then she came out on the other side of the divorce saying, “Look, I’m great with my kids and I’m happy, so, if you’re going to come along for the ride, this is what it’s going to be.” That’s what’s cool about Kate’s evolution: that she says, “I don’t need somebody. I’m good on my own. But if you’re going to come into my life, we have to be on the same page and on common ground.”
They are both working in the school system, at the blind school, and Kate is more confident than she has been before because of Toby — because of the love they shared, which is so bittersweet. In any relationship, you evolve into the next relationship and the next person sort of benefits from what everyone else contended with. It was that kind of confidence and that connective commonality. And Phillip is a really nice guy. We come to see who he really is and what he’s about, because up until now, we just thought he was a jerk. For the first time she feels, “I don’t need somebody.” And that might have brought them together, and the confidence was attractive to Phillip.
In our cast interview, Chris, you spoke about how the specificity of this family makes them universal. What do you hope viewers take away from Toby and Kate’s story?
Sullivan: People have had such a visceral reaction to this show because I think it’s accurately reflecting back to them some portion of their life. So I hope they can take the emotional feedback they’ve received from this story and continue to move forward with it, and that they don’t just let it sit. I hope that people ask themselves, “Wow, this show is over. Where do I go from here? Now that I’ve been given this emotional feedback, what about my life do I love? What about my life am I grateful for? What about my life do I need to change, and how can I change it?”
You two knew this was coming for a while but didn’t talk much about it in the lead-up. What has your personal process been since filming these episodes — have you made peace with it?
Sullivan: I mean, it is what it is. That’s not a statement of giving up, but a statement of surrender to the reality of the situation and I think a lot of times, our pain and suffering comes from our resistance to the reality of the situation. Chrissy and I, over the course of the season, we sit and we talk. We talk about these scenes and we talk about how painful it is. I can speak for myself and from what I’ve witnessed from Chrissy, we both have eased into the surrendering to the reality of the situation.
Metz: Because, like you are saying, the more you resist the more it persists. So you can continue your suffering or you can say, “Well, what can I take from this and how can I move through it?” As beautiful as it has been for Kate and Toby to stay together, dare I say, how much more rich are they in their lives and their evolution to have had the hardships and the tough stuff?
Sullivan: It’s our hardships that form us. It’s our hardships that evolve us into the more realized versions of ourselves. And the joy and the joyful parts of life are the reward for moving through those things.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The final season of This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Read THR‘s 100 episode conversation with Fogelman and the cast here and a chat with co-showrunner Elizabeth Berger on “Katoby” here.
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