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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.]
Mandy Moore recently shared that when she read the penultimate episode of This Is Us, she had such an emotional reaction that she threw up. Chrissy Metz said she couldn’t catch her breath, and Chris Sullivan said he hasn’t even been able to bring himself to read it yet.
Those reactions might seems shocking, but the series’ boss is not surprised.
“We’ve all been making a show that we love deeply for six years, and everyone is starting to now feel that the end is really near,” co-showrunner Elizabeth Berger tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s a lot to process.”
The hit NBC family drama most recently aired its 100th episode, the “Katoby” hour that explored one of the Pearson family couples, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan), getting a divorce. The series — which is famous for its time-jumping storytelling — told the moving story in a non-linear way by bookending timelines. The episode opened with Kate, five years into the future and on her second wedding day, receiving a phone call from Toby to let her know that he finally understands that splitting up was the right decision for both them and their family, which includes two children. The episode then traveled back in time until meeting up with the present to show the pain of the decision, heartbreak of moving forward and hope of moving on.
Berger, who wrote the episode with co-showrunner Isaac Aptaker, speaks to THR below about their backward “Katoby” approach (“When you look back on life, … it doesn’t necessarily feel all totally linear. It’s just a swirl of all the things at once”) and how, with only six episodes left to air in the final season, it kicks off the final saga for the Pearson family — and why she “broke down in sobs” when reading the Dan Fogelman-written series finale.
Let’s first talk about the “Saturday in the Park” episode [that aired April 5]. What was it like to film with baby Jack (Johnny Kincaid) and where was that story drawn from in order to lead into “Katoby”?
It was very important to us to have that kind of representation with Johnny [who was born with albinism and low vision] playing the character. He is absolutely wonderful and just such a natural. Honestly, when he’s on set, I can only bear for us to do two or three takes because I want him to go play! “He’s an angel and he’s perfect, let’s let him go!” He is such a great sport and little professional, and we all just totally adore him and are regularly blown away by him.
I am the mother of a toddler, and I watched the episode again last night and experienced the sensation of how horrific it is to sit through knowing that he’s going to get hurt. Real life, as always, was where it was drawn. People with kids talked about the experience of the first time your kid gets really hurt. We talked about that feeling of who is to blame for this injury. And we were also talking about those fights you have and those incidents you have in the house where you can look at it from both perspectives, and you can see how both people have a leg to stand on — and why both people are hurt and angry. One of the jumping-off points was, “Let’s talk about those fights where something goes wrong and this terrible schism occurs, and how do you come back from that? And, can you come back from it?“
How early on was the plan for Kate and Toby to divorce — did you always know they wouldn’t make it through the series together?
We’ve known for a really long time. I can’t say we’ve known from the very beginning, but it’s definitely been in the plan for many seasons now. With our show, we always strive to be close to life, and we felt that in life some couples — even couples who really love each other and who set out with the best intentions, and really, really want to make it work — sometimes they just don’t last. Toby and Kate both met each other at really vulnerable points in their lives, and we’ve watched them change and we’ve watched them grow and transform over the years. That’s been really beautiful for both of them, individually, but it’s also created some distance. And that felt like a very real thing to us. Sometimes you grow and you stretch, but you don’t necessarily grow together. And that was the plan with this couple from very early on.
Because you had Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), who were always going to be this solid and iconic TV couple, were you searching for another Pearson sibling to tell this side of the marriage coin?
We definitely wanted to feel the balance that some couples go the distance and some don’t. It really did feel to us baked into the DNA of Toby and Kate that they might not. They really did meet at a precarious point in life, and they tried their best to grow together, but it just ultimately wasn’t in the cards for them. That felt really true in terms of the characters and the relationship that we watched them build over the years.
I know that Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan knew early on about their marital fate, but they didn’t know the details. At what points were they filled in?
Yes, exactly. We always give them broad strokes and then the details are a surprise to them, and to all of us, actually, until we are in the weeds on each episode. We always operate with the big strokes and the big plan, and then as we approach an episode, we dig in and all of those little details come into focus.
I don’t know exactly what season we told them [the broad strokes]. They were definitely braced going into the last couple of seasons that this is where things start to deteriorate and it’s going to be a slow burn. At the same time, we still had so many joyful chapters to play with them and so many beautiful moments. So it wasn’t like we were saying, “Now, brace yourselves, everything starts falling apart!” It was more that we’re going to continue to see this relationship ebb and flow for another couple of years, but this will be our ultimate ending point.
In these last six seasons, your audience has grown with the show and, I imagine, many have experienced these life milestones in parallel — marriages, babies, loss and all in a pandemic in these later years. With all of that in mind, did anything change along the way for Kate and Toby’s story as you neared this final season and finalized the details?
I don’t think anything major changed as we neared the season. We really did have our plan. But our writers have gone through formative years of their lives also on this show and with this couple, so it’s been such an interesting, profound experience for many of us who have been there from the beginning. We’ve gotten married, we’ve had children, we’ve gone through losses together, we’ve gone through great joys together. And to do that alongside this couple has been so interesting.
Writing this episode, Isaac and I both found that, at the end of the day, we felt so tired and so sad, because it really was like writing about people you know so well and so intimately. It was a really unique experience as a writer and one that left us very, very drained! But also, very glad that we got to be the ones to write the episode and write their goodbye as a couple.
The details of a divorce is a lesser-told story on TV, and you also told it with a non-linear approach. As Kate notes, “Life would be much simpler if we could live it backward.” How did you decide to tell “Katoby” this way?
That was an idea that Dan [Fogelman, creator] was very excited by, and we were also very excited by it. But we said, “That sounds really hard!” It was a really cool challenge. It came from this notion that we wanted to be able to juxtapose these really brutally, sad moments and chapters of Kate and Toby’s story with these really joyful, uplifting and hopeful moments from Kate and Phillip’s (Chris Geere) story — honestly, to make the episode more bearable, but also to capture that that is how life works. You go through these brutally painful chapters, but then other chapters begin.
There’s an affect that the episode has as a whole that I really love where, at a certain point, things just start swirling together. You are less obsessively tracking the timeline, and instead just going, “Well, now I’m watching people madly in love and now I’m watching the sad chapter.” When you look back on life, that’s kind of how it feels. It doesn’t necessarily feel all totally linear. It’s just a swirl of all the things at once. That’s what Toby and Kate are able to reflect on when they speak in the beginning of this episode, and it’s sort of that feeling that we were trying to capture.
Much blame is thrown around — like Toby feeling like he can’t live up to the Pearson men, and Kate accusing him of seeing Jack’s blindness as a limitation. What were the conversations like in the writers room when it came to presenting these arguments: Were there some on Kate’s side, some on Toby’s; would you flip-flop?
It was really interesting because with every script and every cut of an episode that would come in, we would ask ourselves collectively: “How is everyone feeling? How does this episode feel weighted?” And there were always differing opinions. You always had half the room saying, “Oh my gosh, I’m with Toby on this.” And the half of the room saying, “I’m with Kate.” And that’s exactly the zone we wanted to live in.
We did not want to feel like there were any bad guys or villains here. These are just two people who have gone through the ringer, and faced life and made decisions along the way, and are now at an impasse. But it was very important to us to equally balance them, and we always felt like we succeeded when arguing with each other about who was right and who was wrong.
How will the format of the show play out from here? While sitting with Kate and Toby’s story, there were slight hints along the way in the flash-forwards (Kevin is serial dating and Randall is exploring a Senate run) — how will the rest of the episodes play out?
We did our “Big Three” trilogy for the season [with the three episodes leading into “Katoby”] and we’re kind of done with doing things that way. There will be a substantial amount now that plays out in our five-year jump wedding period. Other than that, we are going to continue to play in time, as we always do.
So, things get wild.
Things get crazy! I couldn’t even begin to describe it! But we are going to be playing more in that wedding period that we’ve seen little hints of so far.
You are filming the 16th episode (of 18 total) now?
Mandy Moore said she threw up reading the second to last episode, Chrissy Metz said she couldn’t catch her breath, and Chris Sullivan can’t bear to read them yet. Do these responses surprise you, or are they totally on point?
They are totally on point. It’s a lot to process that we’re going to say goodbye to these characters, and it’s a lot to process that we’re going to say goodbye to these jobs that we all love a lot. I’m not a crier when it comes to reading our episodes, because I’ve lived with them so intensely by the time I get them. But I will say that Dan [Fogelman]’s finale script made me completely break down in sobs. It’s a really beautiful and, I think, perfect goodbye for these characters.
When speaking to Chris Sullivan and Chrissy Metz about “Katoby,” Chris spoke about how This Is Us zooms out to the big picture to show that, after all the ups and downs, everything ends up OK. He said the show could even be called, Everything’s Going to Be OK. How should viewers brace for the ending?
I think, in a way, that’s right. I think, hopefully by now, the perspective and point of view of the show has really shown through. It’s a show where we are definitely trying to show that life has these really difficult, sad chapters, but there’s also so much beauty to be had all around you and that sort of beauty never stops existing despite what sadness is thrown at you. And I think you’ll hopefully feel that sentiment as we move into these final episodes.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The final season of This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Read THR‘s chat with Metz and Sullivan on “Katoby” here and a 100th episode conversation with Fogelman and the cast here.
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