Warning: This recap of the “Memphis” episode of This Is Us contains spoilers.
No matter how much you tried to prepare yourself, and even though you knew it was inevitable, the loss of William on This Is Us, much like an actual death, punched you squarely in the gut and then lingered in your heart. It was a touching and thoughtful rendition of the circle of life when child becomes parent, and a sentimental yet realistic capture of the end of the journey when you are forced to say goodbye to someone vital far too soon.
The episode opened by jumping further back than ever before when we were treated to William’s origin story, back to his humble beginnings as a baby bump. His father is seen singing “You Are My Sunshine” to his mom’s bulging belly. Apparently, he liked music from the beginning as the tune encourages him to do a little dancing in utero. But dad ships out for service soon after, and despite promising to write every day and see Junior soon, it is not in the cards; there is the knock at the door that turns wife into widow and the mom of a newborn into a single parent. Now it is her turn to make a promise — he will be okay — and sing him his theme song.
Flash-forward to William, now in his late teens or early twenties, seeing his mom off at the train station. She’s headed to Pittsburgh to take care of his ailing grandma. He offers to go with her, but she encourages him to stay in Memphis to focus on his art and music. “You have a gift, baby. You have so many beautiful futures in front of you. Pick a good one for me, and make sure that cousin of yours follows your lead; not the other way around.”
They stay in touch by letter and by phone. William sends her poems and stays out of trouble as promised. Eventually his grandmother passes, and his mom stays to take care of her affairs, getting a good job at the library and settling there permanently. William plays keyboard in his cousin’s band. His cousin, Ricky, is busy talking trash with the boys, drinking, smoking grass, comparing women to plates of ribs, and teasing his straight-as-an-arrow cuz.
“If we were all as good as my cuz, Memphis would be a hell of a lot safer — a lot less fun but safer,” jokes Ricky, played by Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry.
William lets it roll off his shoulders as he’s been writing and believes he might have a “good” song. His cousin is eager to take it for a test drive immediately: “I’ve been waiting on your talented skinny ass to take us to the big time for two years. Drinks down. We’re not sleeping on this.” Afterward, Ricky declares that William has “officially ended our days as a cover band.” And he’s right — they start drawing sold-out crowds and reaping the benefits of becoming a local celebrity, like late nights and ladies. Except for William, who is still a good boy. Ricky jokes, “You know all this is because of you. You should try to enjoy it.”
Just as things begin to take off for the band, William is called to Pittsburgh because his mother has fallen ill. He promises he won’t be gone long and that he’ll come back with 60 songs. Ricky lends him a wad of traveling money, tells him to pay him back with platinum records, and sends him off with parting advice: “No more looking away. You see something you want, you go get it.”
But his mom is sicker than she let on over the phone. She’s pretty sure death will be swift though. “I don’t want you getting stuck here. Your life is in Memphis,” she insists. She suggests that he go explore the city so she can nap, and luckily there’s a bus stop in front of the building. There’s a montage of William doing just that in between playing chess and reading to her. Eventually, he meets Laurel, Randall’s birth mom, on the route and the two become thick as thieves. Unfortunately, they also get closer to the bad influences down the hall. In fact, Laurel’s getting pretty lit alone when William comes home to find his mother’s time has come.
“I used to love waking you up in the morning, and now I am down here and you are up there,” his mom recalls before asking him to recite her a poem. Her passing sends William into a grief spiral, and that’s when he starts messing with the hard stuff.
WILLIAM AND RANDALL, NOW
Beth and Randall are sitting in a psychiatrist’s office, hashing out whether Randall is ready to take to the road to return his father to his hometown for a last hurrah. Beth is concerned because it has only been a week since he saw the return of high blood pressure, spotty vision in and out, partial paralysis, and tremors. On top of that, he’s going to be transporting his father, who is in the throws of stage-four cancer.
Randall understands she’s scared, but he’s taken time off work and he’s been passing stress tests and working the low-stress lifestyle. There’s also the obvious: “My father doesn’t have a lot of time left. He’s going to show me where he is from and maybe introduce me to some extended family, which would be a really big deal for me.”
As they leave the office, Randall fist-bumps William to signify that they’ve gotten the go-ahead. Beth packs them road snacks (“A whole produce department with instructions!”), and William says goodbye to the girls as they are sleeping. He pets their heads and makes Tess promise to keep up with chess. (It’s pretty much at that moment that you realize he’s not going to even make the finale, and if you’re like me, you are already bawling.)
William throws out the maps, preferring to wing it and get there when they get there. He wants Randall to see The Peabody Hotel’s famous ducks. They discuss Randall’s anxiety disorder, which William had a hard time believing when Beth first mentioned it to him. “It was quite a shock to see you so vulnerable the night Kevin brought you home,” William says. “You seem to have it together.”
Randall responds, “Too together. Always been like that, putting pressure on myself since I was a little boy.” He tells William how Jack always helped him keep it in check by holding both sides of his face and sitting there breathing with him until it passed.
This memory prompts William to ask what Jack was like (“Larger than life,” Randall says with a great laugh) and where he is buried. While Kate has the bulk of the ashes, it turns out they spread some at a tree in Jack’s favorite park. They amend their course half a day out of the way because William wants to meet him and pay respects.
William asks for time alone at the tree and gives Jack the gratitude owed: “Thank you for doing what I couldn’t, for raising him to be the man he is. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you, brother. I would have liked to hear that laugh. I would have liked to meet my son’s father.”
The next morning, William is having a rough start as Randall makes the bed, which he proclaims he likes to do despite there being people for that at the motel. But when they arrive in Memphis, William’s spirits lift and they head to the house he lived in with his mom so many moons ago. The subtle differences in the exterior throw William for a loop, which brings up a story where the audience learns that Randall once had a fro in his pre-partner days. (Can’t wait for that hair wizardry to come up in an episode!) William wants to go in to see if a treasure he hid in the fireplace is still there. The current residents are a little weirded out by the discovery that a few toys and three quarters have been living behind a brick for all these years. Then, they hit William’s favorite barbecue place (Payne’s, a real smokehouse in Tennessee), the barbershop, and Beale Street, and drink out of the historically segregated water fountains with abandon.
The next stop on the magical history tour is the hardest — the joint he used to play at. His cousin, now bald and bespectacled, is sitting at the bar, but he is none too happy to see him. Randall, on the other hand, can barely contain the glee about meeting a potential relative and being told he looks like William.
“Get the hell out of my club. You was dead to me a long time ago,” Ricky barks. “Years I waited to hear from you. What the hell happened to you, cuz?”
William admits he was ashamed of what he had become. “I am well aware I ruined everything. I needed to say I am sorry. You were good to me. I owed you that, and I owed you this,” William says as he hands him back the money he borrowed.
That made things right again, and Ricky wonders if he’s “too sick to play.” Never. It turns into an all-night jam session with cousins and second cousins coming out of the woodwork. A slightly drunk Randall tells Beth over the phone that he’s “up to 12 cousins of various forms, a whole other family” down there and that he’s thrilled to be watching his dad perform on stage, but he does wish she was there. “Everything is better with a little Beth on it,” he says. “You are the chocolate sauce in my ice cream.”
But you know it’s too good to be true. Randall tries to rally his dad to go visit the ducks, but it’s obvious that their next tourist trap will be a hospital. The doctor informs Randall that his dad’s organs are shutting down and he’ll likely be gone within the day. There’s no time to transport him back to Randall’s house. Randall offers to get Beth and the girls there, but grandpa already said goodbye and doesn’t want them to have the memory of looking down at him as he is dying.
Randall realizes, ”You knew you weren’t coming home?”
William shakes his head yes and struggles to have one last conversation. He starts by gifting Randall with a book of poems he wrote for him years earlier (judging by the yellowed pages done with a typewriter). Then, he doles out the advice: “Man, that was a hell of a thing you did knocking on my door. Roll all your windows down, turn the music up, grow out that fro, and let someone else make your bed. You deserve the beautiful life that you made, my beautiful boy, my son. I haven’t had a happy life — bad breaks, bad choices, a life of almosts and could haves. Some would call it sad. Not me, because the two best things in my life were the person in the very beginning and the person at the very end, and that’s a pretty good thing to be able to say.”
He admits he’s scared, and his breath gets more frantic, so in a gorgeous full circle moment, Randall utilizes his other dad’s calming technique. He cups the sides of William’s head and tells him to “just breathe” as he slowly drifts off to reunite with his mother.
A watery-eyed Randall is driving home. With his poems on the seat and William’s treasures lining the dash where he left them, Randall stops as a family of ducks waddles across the street. He decides to dive into his dad’s advice now: he rolls down the windows and turns up the music.
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