We’re gathered here today to mourn the loss of William, and let’s be honest, the end of an incredibly written, beautifully acted episode of This Is Us, “Memphis.” It’s time to pay our respects.
The episode was a standalone, featuring just Randall and William. In it they hit the road on a trip to Memphis so Randall could learn about who his father was, before he became the man he knows now. Along the way, William asks Randall about his panic attacks and how he learned to cope. This leads to Randall sharing a sweet memory of how Jack used to put his hands on either side of his face, look him straight in the eyes, and tell him to breathe with him. This leads William to ask where he is buried and Randall explains that he was cremated, (Kate has the ashes, which we know she sometimes watches Steelers games with), but they also spread some by his favorite tree. William asks to go pay his respects to the man who raised his son, but Randall being the sliiightly type-A human that he is, says it’s a detour. William, makes them go anyway.
When William is standing by the tree, he thanks Jack for raising Randall into the good man he is today. Cue your first set of tears. After that, they’re back on the road and on their way to their first stop: William’s childhood home. Through flashbacks we learn that William was raised by a single mother, his father died in war, and when he was younger, stashed away some hidden treasure behind a brick in the fire place. Randall is able to convince the new homeowners (it’s been 40+ years) to let him in, and William recovers his treasure: three quarters and a toy truck. It baffles Randall a bit, and understandably the owners, but William is so happy. He’s happy because even though so much has changed, this one part of his past stuck —and to him that’s something worth treasuring. So with that William is out, and Randall turns to the owners, says “Here’s your brick” and follows him out the door.
They make some other stops, great BBQ, the barbershop, and even drink out of the “White” fountain. But then they make the trip’s most important stop: the club where William and “Cuz” used to perform back in the day. You see, we learn via flashback that William set off to Memphis to pursue his dreams of music and poetry and after two years, finally wrote a hit song. The song is beautiful and it makes you appreciate why music is still so important to him so many years later. But just as the group is finally finding the groove (literally), William gets a call that his mother is sick. Being the good man that he is, he heads home to take care of her and that’s where we see him fall in love with Randall’s mother.
This show has utilized flashbacks so well this entire season, and this episode was really the epitome of how well it can be done. In the beginning of the season we saw William ride the bus every day, fall in love, and ultimately become an addict. What we never saw, until now, was why. The reason? His mother ultimately passed away. That’s why he got into drugs: the grief. And ultimately why he wanted to return to Memphis: the redemption.
Back at the club, present-day William and Randall walk in, and Cuz is sitting at the bar, now the owner. Randall is so excited to meet his family, but it’s clear William and Cuz have some breaks to repair. It doesn’t stop him from continuously chiming in with questions but he finally gives them their moment. You see, when William’s mom got sick, Cuz told him family always comes first, but he said it with the belief that family would also always come back. William never did. So today, he’s there to apologize, tell him he’s sick, and pay him back the money Cuz lent him way back then. Just as they’re about to leave, Cuz asks if he’s too sick to play. Spoiler alert: he’ll never be too sick to play. With that, we get to see what William was like in his prime; being in love with music. Randall is loving every minute, channeling his inner Oprah as he realizes he gets a cousin! And he gets another cousin! He even calls Beth, the chocolate sauce in his ice cream, to tell him what an incredible time they’re having. Watching Randall watch his dad on stage, shows you just how far the two have come, and makes what happens next even more heartbreaking.
The next day as they’re going to see the ducks, Randall finds William in bed and he’s not in good shape. When they get to the hospital the doctor tells Randall that this is it. William is not going home and Randall puts it together: William came here to die. So, as Randall is at his bedside William thanks him for knocking on his door that day. He tells him how he deserves incredible things. And that it’s not lost on him that the two best people he ever met have been at the beginning and end of his life: his mother, and his son. And on that cue, he finally gives Randall the “Poems for my son,” the book he’s been holding on to since his encounters with Rebecca in the past. It’s a beautiful gesture, and the perfect time. It’s after this that William makes a confession: he’s scared of what happens next. So, Randall moves on to the bed, places both hands on either side of William’s face, and tells him to just breathe. Fans were trying to tell themselves to do the same as this moment beautifully became full circle. From father, to son, to father. After a few breaths together, William takes his last one, and Randall is back on the road.
As he’s driving we’re watching him try to process the loss of his father… again. And then, because life has a way of doing things like this, he’s forced to stop the car as ducks make their way across the street. It’s the perfect end, to a beautiful episode that was made even more beautiful by the incredible writing and acting that took us from the beginning to the end of William’s life — with one incredibly important stop along the way. It was an episode that paid tribute to a man’s life, and an incredible bond between father and son. It made viewers cry so much that Papa Pearson gave us an emotional late pass, and the cast released an apology video. But like they said in that video, they don’t want to apologize for actually making us feel. Because that’s what this episode did. It reminded us what a truly powerful hour of TV can do. Yeah, it can make us cry and laugh. But it can also make us wanna roll our windows down, crank up the music and just… live. Just like William wanted us too.