[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 this as she read the penultimate paragraph of This is us, she had such an emotional reaction that she vomited. Chrissy Metz said she could not breathe, and Chris Sullivan said he has not even been able to get himself to read it yet.
These reactions may seem shocking, but the boss of the series is not surprised.
“We’re all done a show we’ll love deeply for six years, and now everyone’s starting to feel the end is really close,” says co-showrunner Elizabeth Berger The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s a lot to process.”
Hit The NBC family drama most recently aired its 100th episode, “Katoby” Hour, which explored one of the Pearson family couples, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan), getting divorced. The series – which is famous for its time-consuming storytelling – told the moving story in a non-linear way by booking timelines. The episode opened with Kate, five years into the future and on her second wedding anniversary, receiving a phone call from Toby to tell her that he finally understands that breaking up was the right decision for both them and their family, which includes two children. The episode then traveled back in time until the encounter with the present to show the pain of the decision, heartache at moving forward, and hope of moving forward.
Berger, who wrote the episode with co-showrunner Isaac Aptaker, speaks with THR below about their backwards “Katoby” approach (“When you look back on life … it does not necessarily feel completely linear. It’s just a whirlwind of all things at once”) and how, with only six episodes left to post last season begins the final saga for the Pearson family – and why she “broke down in the sob” when she read the Dan Fogelman-written series finale.
Let’s first talk about the episode “Saturday in the Park”. [that aired April 5]. What was it like filming with baby Jack (Johnny Kincaid), and where did that story come from to lead into “Katoby?”
It was very important for us to have that kind of representation with Johnny [who was born with albinism and low vision] plays the character. He is absolutely wonderful and just such a natural. Honestly, when he’s on set, I can only stand that we’re taking two or three shots because I want him to 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 are just absolutely crazy about him and are regularly blown over by him.
I am the mother of a small child and I watched the episode again last night and experienced the feeling of how awful it is to sit and know that he is going to get hurt. Real life was, as always, where it was drawn. People with children talked about the experience of the first time your child is really hurt. We talked about the feeling of who is to blame for this injury. And we also talked about the fights you have and the 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 wounded and angry. One of the jumping points was: “Let’s talk about the struggles where something goes wrong and this terrible schism arises, and how do you get back from it? And can you get back from it?“
How early was the plan for Kate and Toby to divorce – did you always know that they would not make it through the series together?
We’ve known this for a really long time. I can not say that we have known it from the very beginning, but it has certainly been in the plan for many seasons now. With our show, we always strive to be close to life, and we felt that some couples in life – even couples who really love each other and who set out with the best intentions and really, really want to make it work – sometimes just do not hold. Toby and Kate both met at really vulnerable points in their lives and we have seen them change and we have seen them grow and transform over the years. It has been really beautiful for both of them, individually, but it has also created some distance. And it felt like a very real thing to us. Sometimes you grow and stretch, but you do not 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 supposed to be this solid and iconic TV couple, were you looking for another Pearson sibling to tell this side of the marriage coin?
We certainly wanted to feel the balance, as some couples go a long way and some do not. It really felt to us baked into Toby and Kate’s DNA that they might not. They really met at an uncertain time in life and they tried their best to grow together, but it just ultimately was not in the cards for them. It felt really true in relation to the characters and the relationship that we saw them build over the years.
I know Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan knew early on about their marital destiny, but they did not know the details. At what times were they filled out?
Yes exactly. We always give them broad strokes, and then the details are a surprise to them, and indeed to all of us, until we are in the weeds of each episode. We always operate with the big lines and the big plan, and when we then approach an episode, we dig in and all the little details come into focus.
I do not know exactly what season we told them [the broad strokes]. They were definitely aware that this is where things are starting to get worse and it will be a slow burn in the last few seasons. At the same time, we still had so many joyful chapters to play with and so many beautiful moments. So it was not like we were saying, “Now, be ready, everything is starting to fall apart!” It was more that we will continue to watch this relationship ebb and flow for another few years, but this will be our ultimate end point.
In the last six seasons, your audience has grown with the show, and I imagine that many have experienced these milestones in parallel – marriages, babies, losses and all in a pandemic in recent years. With all of this in mind, did anything change along the way for Kate and Toby’s story as you approached this past season and completed the details?
I don’t think anything significant changed as we approached the season. We really had our plan. But our writers have gone through formative years of their lives also on this show and with this couple, so it has been such an interesting, deep experience for many of us who have been there from the beginning. We have been married, we have had children, we have gone through losses together, we have been through great joys together. And doing it with this couple has been so interesting.
As we wrote this episode, Isaac and I both found out that at the end of the day, we felt so tired and so bored because it really was like writing about people you know so well and so intimately. It was a truly unique experience as a writer and one that left us very, very drained! But also very happy that it was us who had to write the episode and write goodbye as a couple.
The details of a divorce are a lesser-known story on television, and you also told it with a non-linear approach. As Kate notes, “Life would be a lot simpler if we could live it backwards.” How did you decide to tell “Katoby” this way?
It was an idea, like Dan [Fogelman, creator] was very excited about and we were also very excited about 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 truly brutal, sad moments and chapters in Kate and Toby’s story with these truly joyful, uplifting, and hopeful moments from Kate and Phillips’ (Chris Geere) story – completely honestly, to make the episode more bearable, but also to capture that this is how life works. You go through these brutally painful chapters, but then other chapters begin.
There’s an effect that the episode has as a whole that I really love, where at some point things just start to spin together. You less compulsively follow the timeline and instead just say, “Well, now I see people who are insanely in love, and now I see the sad chapter.” Looking back on life, this is how it feels. It all does not necessarily feel completely linear. It’s just a whirlwind of all things at once. That’s what Toby and Kate are able to reflect on when they speak at the beginning of this episode, and that’s the kind of feeling we’re trying to capture.
A lot of guilt is thrown around – just as Toby feels he can not live up to the Pearson men, and Kate accuses him of seeing Jack’s blindness as a limitation. How were the conversations in the author’s room when it came to presenting these arguments: Were there any on Kate’s side, some on Toby’s; would you flip flop?
It was really interesting, because with every script and every clip of an episode that would come in, we would ask ourselves collectively, “How is everyone doing? How does this episode feel weighted?” And there were always different opinions. You always had half the room that said, “Oh god, I’m with Toby about this.” And half the room said, “I’m with Kate.” And it was exactly the zone we would like to live in.
We did not want to feel like there were any villains or villains here. Only two people who have gone through the ringtone, and have seen life in the eyes and made decisions along the way, and who are now in a dead end. But it was very important for us to balance them equally, and we always felt that we succeeded when we quarreled with each other about who was right and who was wrong.
How will the format of the show unfold from here? While sitting with Kate and Toby’s story, there were little hints along the way in the flash ahead (Kevin is serial dating, and Randall is exploring a Senate race) – how will the rest of the episodes unfold?
We made our “Big Three” trilogy for the season [with the three episodes leading into “Katoby”] and we’re a little done doing things that way. There will be a significant amount now playing out in our five-year spring wedding period. Other than that, we will continue to play on time, as we always do.
So things get wild.
Things are going crazy! I could not even begin to describe it! But we are going to play more during the wedding period, of which we have so far seen little hints of.
Are you filming the 16th episode (out of 18 in total) now?
Mandy Moore said she threw up reading the penultimate paragraph, Chrissy Metz said she could not breathe, and Chris Sullivan can not stand reading them yet. Do these answers surprise you, or are they just right?
They are completely on point. There is a lot to process that we have to say goodbye to these characters, and there is a lot to process that we have to say goodbye to these jobs that we all love a lot. I do not cry when it comes to reading our sections because I have lived so intensely with them since I get them. But I will say that Dan [Fogelman]’s last script made me completely collapse in the sob. It’s a really beautiful and, I think, perfect goodbye to these characters.
When he talked to Chris Sullivan and Chrissy Metz about “Katoby,” Chris talked about how This is us zooms out to the big picture to show that after all the ups and downs ends OK. He said the show could even be called, Everything will be fine. How should viewers prepare for the ending?
I think that is kind of right. I think, hopefully now, that the perspective and point of view of the show has really shown itself. It’s a show where we’re definitely trying to show that life has these really hard, sad chapters, but there’s also so much beauty to have around you, and that kind of beauty never ceases to exist despite that sadness. being thrown at you. And I think you will hopefully feel that feeling as we move into these final sections.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The last season of This is us airs Tuesdays at 9pm on NBC. Read THR‘s chat with Metz and Sullivan on “Katoby” here and a 100th episode conversation with Fogelman and the cast here.