Fair warning, readers: If you did not watch This Is Us yet, it behooves you to watch “Memphis” before reading this recap. And no, it’s not about Jack.
Episodes like “Memphis” make me wish there was some way I could reach through the screen and give all of my fellow This Is Us fans a nice, long hug. If everyone’s viewing experience was anything like mine, you’re in need of one. Sometimes This Is Us makes you cry, and sometimes This Is Us MAKES YOU CRY. It’s definitely a case of the latter in this latest installment, a beautiful and moving send-off for a beloved character. After taking a father-son trip down to Memphis to show Randall where he grew up, William dies in the hospital, looking up at his teary-eyed son. His beautiful boy.
Okay, now I’m crying again.
“Memphis” gives us a break from the drama of the Pearson clan in order to focus on one man’s life. It’s a gorgeous episode — from the music to the editing — and it really soars thanks to moving performances from Ron Cephas Jones and Sterling K. Brown. Not like we expected anything less. Those two are national treasures and the show will be a little bit less without Jones in every episode.
It’s only been a week since our dear Randall’s anxiety-fueled breakdown, and already the guy seems better. He’s feeling so much better, in fact, that he would very much like to go on a road trip down to Memphis with William. Beth is against the idea, and so they bring it to Randall’s psychiatrist. It’s a wonderful scene that immediately shoots to the top of the Why Randall and Beth Are the Best list. Even the psychiatrist realizes how adorable those two are! He also recognizes that a trip away, where Randall might meet some extended family, could be good for him.
And so, the boys are off! Before they leave, William goes into Tess and Annie’s room to say good-bye while they’re still sleeping. This is the moment I knew we were losing William. That good-bye felt way too final.
Then it’s just Randall and William on the open road, from New Jersey to Tennessee. It’s not long before William brings up Randall’s episode; it was alarming for him to see Randall, who seems to have it all together, so vulnerable. “Too together,” Randall explains. He’s been having these kinds of attacks since he was a kid and Jack was the only one who could help him control it. He would take Randall’s face in his hands and the two would breathe together. William wants to know more about Randall’s father, and before long, they make a pit stop at the tree where they scattered some of Jack’s ashes. William wants to pay his respects.
There are many lovely scenes in this episode, but William thanking Jack for raising his son to be a good man will stick with me for a long time. How do you beat a line like, “I would’ve like to have met my son’s father,” in the soul-stirring department?
Once in Memphis, William takes Randall to all of his old haunts. His childhood home. His favorite BBQ place. The barbershop, where the guys reminisce about their old hairstyles. This entire montage feels so authentic, and so intimate, that it’s like we are encroaching on something very personal.
The flashbacks in the episode are equally as wonderful as the present-day timeline. We meet William’s war-widow mother, who seems delightful. We watch as young William (Jermel Nakia, who also deserves a huge shout-out) says a tearful good-bye to his mother when she has to move to Pittsburgh to take care of her ailing mother. It is this good-bye and separation from his mother, the most important relationship in his life, that inspires him to write his first song for the cover band he’s in with his cousin, Ricky (played by Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry, in a role I wish we could see again). The song brings the band to the brink of a big break — but suddenly, William is off to Pittsburgh to care for his own sick mother. He promises he’ll be back, but we already know he’ll break that promise.
Once in Pittsburgh, we see the story we know: William going from a young poet on a bus, to a young poet in love on a bus, to a young drug addict on that bus. This time, the story expands to include William taking care of his mother as she dies, and we see that he resisted drugs for a long time. As William tells Randall later, his was a life of almosts and could haves.
Randall isn’t the only person William owes an apology to for his choices. He certainly left his cousin Ricky hanging. When William and Randall walk into his old bar, they find Ricky sitting there, as if he’s been waiting for William to return since the day he left. There is some tension at first, but eventually, Ricky asks William to play with him. And so they jam, one last time. Meanwhile, Randall meets his biological family, watches his father in his element, and is the big ol’ nerd we know him to be. I mean, his Oprah impression is a delight, but he is correct to apologize to his newfound cousins (COUSINS!) for it.
It is the perfect day, which makes the following morning all the more tragic.
Randall, ready to take William to see the ducks at the Peabody Hotel that he can’t stop telling his son about, finds William sicker than we’ve ever seen him. This is the end. At the hospital, there’s nothing left to do but wait. Oh, you guys. The whole final speech is so gorgeous, it feels like blasphemy to even recap it here. But here goes nothing. William gives Randall some final advice: “Roll all your windows down, Randall. Crank up the music. Grow out that fro. Let someone else make your bed.” William could sit there and lament on all those almosts and could haves, but instead he tells Randall that he’s not sad because “the two best things in his life were the person in the beginning and the person at the end,” and that’s not too bad at all. What more can I even tell you? I’m weeping over here!
Finally, as the end is apparent, Randall takes his father’s face in his hands and they breathe together. Just like Randall used to do with Jack. They breathe until William takes his last breath and watches all the important people, his people, flash before his eyes. He walks into a room where his mother is waiting to embrace him. After he passes, Randall is left to make the trip back to New Jersey alone. On the highway, what should he see but a family of ducks crossing the road. A sign from William, perhaps? Maybe so. Randall cranks up the music, rolls down his windows, and drives home.
This Is the Rest
• “Man, that was a hell of a thing you did, knocking on my door that day.”
• The music on This Is Us is always pretty great, but the show outdid itself with “Memphis.” The new version of “Blues Run the Game” for the repeat bus montage is a nice touch and Brian Tyree Henry’s vocals on William’s “We Can Always Come Back to This” straight-up moved me.
• “You Are My Sunshine” already makes me teary on its own. Now I have to have this whole thing attached to it? What are you doing to me, This Is Us?
• Of course Randall would think it’d be fun to do a road trip only using hard copies of maps. And of course William would promptly take those maps and toss them out the window. These two!
• The most powerful moment of the whole William-and-Randall-do-Memphis montage is their stop at the segregated water fountains. Randall takes a big ol’ sip from the white fountain, and encourages William to sneak a sip as well.
• My kingdom for a photo of Randall with his ramp fade.
• Nerd Randall is the best Randall. He loves making beds, even in hotels, and he’s a very enthusiastic performer of the robot. Be still my heart.
• William’s final gift to Randall is that book of poems we saw him write all those years ago, hoping to give to his son after Rebecca’s second visit. Poems For My Son by William Hill. I hope we get to hear some of it someday.
• “Everything’s better with a little Beth on it. You’re the chocolate sauce on my ice cream, girl.”