Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

This Is Us has always been an ensemble show, but this season seems to be using its ensemble in a new way. Back in season one, we’d often get episodes with a main flashback storyline, a present day story featuring Kate in L.A., and another featuring Randall and Kevin together in New Jersey. That boils down to just three main threads with the flashback usually introducing a theme that was also explored in the present day stuff as well. “Toby” is a far more sprawling episode that offers close to a dozen different plots and subplots with no real overarching theme to tie them all together. Instead they intersect in a bunch of complex, shifting ways. If the prototypical structure of a first season episode was a triangle, the prototypical structure of a third season episode is an intricate spiderweb.

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In particular, “Toby” feels like a spiritual sequel to the second episode of the season, “A Philadelphia Story.” Both explore the Big Three’s post-Jack teen years, both are largely Jack-free episodes that feature a brief cameo from Milo Ventimiglia at the end, both tell noticeably disparate stories in their present-day storylines, and both throw a whole other flashback timeline into the mix too—William in the case of “A Philadelphia Story” and Toby in “Toby.”

Since “Toby” doesn’t really give one storyline more prominence than the others, let’s just start with our titular hero. Toby’s storyline is a series of vignettes—both in the past and in the present—that capture the experience of depression. Much of Toby’s story echoes the conversation he and Randall had back in “Katie Girls”: Men are taught to bury their emotional struggles and become stoic rocks for those around them. Though Toby seems to have suffered from depressive states ever since he was a young kid, he internalized the idea that it was his job to cheer up his troubled mom with Rodney Dangerfield impressions. Toby’s dad is even more explicit about the fact that his teenage son can’t be a “sad sack” when he grows up. Through his parents and later his first wife Josie, Toby internalized the idea that he couldn’t show weakness or openly deal with his mental health issues, which is why he’s now trying to hide them from Kate. But after he receives news that their IVF treatment worked and Kate is pregnant, Toby isn’t able to hold himself together anymore. His depressive state reaches it peak just after he hears the good news he’s been hoping to hear for weeks, which emphasizes the idea that depression isn’t the same thing as sadness.

Emotional repression is a big theme of the week, as it often is on This Is Us. Like Toby, Beth feels compelled to downplay just how much she’s struggling in order to play the put-together partner for Randall. The scene where Beth breaks down in the middle of a job interview is some of the best work the always-excellent Susan Kelechi Watson has done on the show, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Beth’s story play out this season. Elsewhere, Jack’s war buddy Robinson is hesitant to tell Kevin too much about Jack’s Vietnam experience because he knows that Jack wanted to keep that part of his life private. In the end, however, he passes along some of Jack’s letters. Meanwhile, Zoe is struggling with her own questions about relationship honesty as she tries to decide whether she wants to invest time and energy into educating Kevin—the first white man she’s seriously dated—about her experiences as a black woman.

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Racism is yet another throughline that runs throughout “Toby.” Zoe experiences racism in the form of microaggressions—a gas station attendant is sharp to her when she thinks Zoe is invading the space of a white man; Kevin thinks she sleeps with a silk pillow case because she’s “fancy” not because it’s part of her hair care routine. Teenage Randall, meanwhile, faces more overt racism when the father of his white girlfriend refuses to even speak to him. Randall winds up missing prom altogether because of it, and Miguel—who’s doing his best to take care of the Pearsons for Jack—tries to use his own experiences with racist bullying to reach out to Randall. The Miguel/Randall dynamic is a fascinating one the show hasn’t explored before, but it doesn’t really go anywhere because teenage Randall isn’t interested in bonding with Miguel.

Randall’s present-day storyline isn’t about racism, but it is about his continual struggle to find his place in the world, which I guess ties into the Miguel scene in a way. Randall sees his campaign for City Council as a way to continue William’s legacy, but the locals just see him as an interloper who doesn’t have a history with them the way 30-year incumbent Sol Brown does. Though it raises some interesting questions about loyalty vs. complacency when it comes to politics, overall Randall’s campaign storyline is one of the weakest elements of the season. That’s especially true because of how impractical the whole thing feels. Randall is trying to make this huge political commitment to a city that’s miles away from where he lives, where the community is already loyal to the leadership they have, at a time when his wife is looking for work and they have three young children, including a troubled daughter they recently adopted. It’s a lot for Randall to handle and it’s a lot for This Is Us to handle too.

Perhaps I’m just too much of a traditionalist, but I tend to prefer This Is Us when it’s less freeform and more focused. To its credit, “Toby” kept me interested throughout, but it also felt like the show was continually cutting away from storylines just as they were starting to get good. Hopefully the rest of the season remembers that depth is as important as breadth.

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Stray observations

  • I found it super bizarre that teenage Randall had been dating Allison for at least a couple of months and yet had never met her parents. Is that normal for high school relationships?
  • Young Toby only appears in a couple scenes but there’s a great specificity to the character—right down to the way he acts out all the parts from Ghostbusters.
  • I really loved the scene of Rebecca and teenage Kate at the piano, but I could’ve done without the bizarre subplot about Kate working as an “Adele-o-gram.”
  • Like Kevin Pearson, I also starred in my high school’s production of You Can’t Take It With You. I guess this means I’m destined to co-star in a Ron Howard film with Sylvester Stallone.
  • Speaking of which, I sometimes forget that Kevin is supposed to be a pretty famous celebrity within this world. I wonder if the show is going to ramp up that aspect this season, now that he’s on the cusp of becoming a full-on movie star.
  • With the reveal that Jack’s beloved necklace came from that woman in the Vietnamese village, we’re one step closer to my “there’s a secret fourth Pearson kid!” theory.

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