This Is Us Season 1, Episode 16
Posted by Shannon
“Memphis” is the second episode of the season to narrow its focus to something smaller, less sprawling, than the usual story. But instead of focusing on a day, it focuses on a person – the life of William Hill, from birth to death. We’ve known this was coming, of course, and as much as I was hoping for William to receive a miracle cure, I’ll settle for the knowledge that Ron Cephas Jones will be back in the second season. The episode sends William off with the grace and style he deserves: on his own terms, surrounded by music, and in his old home. But first, we have the opportunity to learn a little more about his upbringing, and to paint the picture of William’s life before Randall was born.
Dorothy Hill, while pregnant with William, lived in Memphis with her husband. Their time together is summarized quickly, but it doesn’t take long to see that William’s dad had the same loving, kind eyes we know so well in his son (and his grandson, for that matter). Music rang through the home already too – William’s father would sing quietly to Dorothy and her baby bump, prompting a kick or two along the way. But just a few months before he was born, William’s father died in WWII, leaving Dorothy to raise him alone. And raise him she did; William and Dorothy lived happily in a home full of music, poetry and dancing. Their bond is strong and clear, but when Dorothy’s mother takes ill, she heads up to Pittsburgh and leaves William to his music.
Dorothy knows the temptations that surround William and his cousin Ricky, and as they say goodbye at the train station, she leaves him with a request: to make the best of his time in Memphis, and to choose the best possible future for himself. William is already well on his way – he and Ricky have a band and spend their nights playing cover songs at a club called Melvin’s. While Ricky parties and gets smacked upside the head by the female population of Memphis, William takes his mother’s advice to heart. He declines Ricky’s invitations night after night, plays records, works on his poetry and music, and writes often. It’s a quiet life, but a good one. Up in Pittsburgh, Dorothy’s mother passes away, but she decides to stay put after landing a job at the local library. She can’t quite bear to leave, since her job “pays well and I get to be around books all day.” (Dorothy, you’re a woman after my own heart. Stay with your books, girl.)
William has struggled to take his poetry and set it to music, but inspiration finally comes in the form of a killer soul number, “We Can Always Come Back to This.” He and his mother’s farewell at the train station was hugely impactful for William, even a few years later, and it serves as his song’s launching point. It took me a few times through the song to realize it, but the lyrics are a complete encapsulation of William’s life. It’s a song of goodbyes, hope, home, and loneliness. The refrain, “If I’m gonna be alone, then let it be with you,” is applicable to everyone William has loved and lost – Laurel, Jesse, Dorothy and of course Randall and his family. William has carried all of them in his heart his whole life, and even when he was physically alone, he’s been comforted by the knowledge that he has loved and been loved by a beautiful family.
The song, of course, is a huge hit. The crowd at Melvin’s grows and grows, and the band is poised to make a break just when William gets a call from Dorothy. She’s fallen ill, and he immediately heads up to Pittsburgh to take care of her. William knows this is the worst possible time to leave, but his priority is clear, and Ricky supports him completely. (“Never apologize for taking care of family.”) William heads off with a small loan from Ricky and the promise to return with a notebook full of 16 new tracks. Once he’s in Pittsburgh, William finds Dorothy in far worse shape than she let on. She sends him right back out again for the afternoon, off to the bus outside her apartment (“I know how you like the bus”) to explore the city.
And all of a sudden, with the familiar chords of Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game,” we’re back to the place where we first met William. The picture is more complete now; not only is he meeting and falling in love with Laurel on a Pittsburgh bus, but the two are taking care of Dorothy. They frequently decline invitations to hang out and party down the hall, focused instead on her care, but eventually, Laurel turns the corner. Slowly but surely, her drug habit becomes more serious. William can’t be distracted from his mother and spends every day at her bedside, reading her poetry and making sure she’s comfortable. Laurel used to paint Dorothy’s nails and keep her laughing, but as her addiction grows, she stumbles into Dorothy’s room and can no longer make eye contact to say goodbye.
Dorothy hadn’t even wanted William to know how sick she had become, so it’s no wonder that she was dismayed to have her son see her like this. Remembering all her years spent taking care of William as a child while she looked down at him from the bedside, Dorothy is heartbroken that the positions have been reversed. William wouldn’t have had it any other way, and I cannot imagine him leaving Dorothy to her illness alone. But the care takes a toll, and their second farewell leads to another pivotal moment in William’s life. His loss leads him to addiction and a life spent in Pittsburgh; he never makes his way back to Memphis.
Kevin’s discovery of Randall last week was as dire as it looked – worse, even. Randall had suffered a nervous breakdown, landing in the hospital for a few days after once again losing his vision and struggling with paralysis. Now that he’s home, he and William have decided to take a road trip to Memphis. But Beth is having none of it. She insists that Randall first speak to his therapist, Dr. Lee, to be talked out of the notion. Instead, though, Dr. Lee sees the opportunity as a positive. Randall already looks worlds better than he has in weeks; he’s attentive to Beth during their consultation with Dr. Lee, joking and flirting the whole time, his shakes are gone, and his eyes are full of their usual warmth. He has the time off work already to recover, and now that William has ended his chemo, their time is limited. William and Randall celebrate Dr. Lee’s okay with a downright gleeful fist-bump, and it couldn’t be clearer that this is exactly what the two of them need right now.
They waste absolutely no time before heading off early the next day. Beth sends them off with a car full of food, and William promises to send her a postcard in return. But before they go, William takes a few moments to say goodbye to Tess and Annie. Annie sleeps through their farewell, but Tess wakes up just in time, and William asks her to promise that she’ll “keep up with your chess while I’m gone.” It’s the first of many moments that make William’s intentions clear; for him, this trip is about saying goodbye, and leaving his family with the best possible memories of him before he passes.
Randall, though, is all too excited about an old school road trip – no GPS or Waze apps allowed. His purchase of what can only be a AAA TripTik makes two things perfectly clear. One, Randall sees nostalgia as paper road maps (which is just another piece of evidence that he is the perfect man); and two, he intended on making this trip no matter what Dr. Lee thought. (My family relied on these when I was a kid, so let me assure you all that TripTiks are not bought on a whim.) Paper maps require a navigator, and Randall asks William to stay one step ahead of any upcoming turns as they make their way from Jersey to Memphis.
William knows the way to Memphis in his bones, and the last thing he wants is an authority of any kind leading this time with his son. Before long, the conversation turns to heavier topics and William asks about Randall’s breakdown. (“Is it okay to call it a breakdown?”) Despite Beth’s initial warnings, William couldn’t have comprehended the depth of Randall’s anxiety. Seeing his son, who always seems to have everything under control, lose that control so completely was shocking.
But this kind of anxiety is all too familiar. (And on a personal note, it’s the type I struggle with as well, so I’ve felt Randall fully these last few weeks.) Randall has always felt the need to be perfect: that’s not new. His drive to be the perfect son to his adopted parents, lest they regret their decision; the perfect brother to Kate and Kevin, making Kevin’s dismissal during their teen lives particularly brutal; the perfect husband and father to Beth, Tess and Annie; the perfect professional at the office all the at the same time. And now, to be the perfect caretaker to William, despite the fact that their relationship was so new and so full of challenges. He MUST do it all, perfectly, and without admitting that he needs help. It was at a breaking point in the present, but as we’ve also seen, it originated during his childhood. Jack had a method to keep Randall as focused and clear-headed when his obligations became too intense for him to bear: he would place both hands on Randall’s head, look him straight in the eye, and lead him in a breathing exercise.
While Jack must have come up in conversation before, this is the first time we’ve seen Randall speaking about his father to his father. Between his handling of this scene and asking if it was alright to refer to Randall’s episode as a breakdown, William’s sensitivity and consideration is on full display. William has been the stand-out character of This Is Us because he personifies the very best of what the show CAN be: careful and intentional with language, respectful of family (blood or chosen), emotionally attuned and entirely good-hearted. He listens to Randall speak about Jack with the utmost care, and asks if they can take a detour to pay his respects. As we know, Jack’s ashes are with Kate, but there is a tree in his favorite park that has served as a more formal resting place. Randall’s hesitant to make the stop – he claims it’s because the trip will take too long, but I suspect he didn’t want to take focus away from William. But William has never seen Jack as competition. Despite their having never met in life, I think William sees Jack as family, too. After all, at their very first meeting, he calls Jack “brother.”
Ron Cephas Jones is phenomenal throughout the entire episode. But his delivery here, his grace and his quiet delivery of a line as simple as “Yeah. Cool.” is astounding. He embodies William with such elegance and peace. And I love how alive Jack is to William, who often refers to Jack in the present tense. (“I like him.”) The respect he has for Jack goes down to his bones, and I’d like to think that Jack would have felt the same.
Finally, William and Randall are off to Memphis. Their first stop is William’s old house; he’s in search of an old treasure he left there, and he can’t be stopped by a bricked up door or the bewildered current residents. Sure enough, his treasure remains, behind a loose brick in the fireplace. Once it’s recovered, they continue their Memphis tour; William buys Beth a postcard, just as he promised, and the two head to a local barbershop.
I can’t begin to fathom how much this moment of the trip meant to Randall. The community of a black barbershop is exactly the kind of thing that his parents would have tried to make available to him as a child (and Randall mentions in passing that Jack would bring him as a kid), but it’s also an experience that he would treasure sharing with his biological father. The vitality of sharing this experience with his black father is paramount. And it’s underscored by the next stop – to a preserved “whites only” and “blacks only” water fountain, kept as a remembrance segregation. Randall and William drink from the “whites only” fountain with joy and mischief; it remains a small act of rebellion, a refusal to forget our country’s history, and an honor of their identity. For Randall, who lovingly jokes about his white family and has spent his life in search of his black heritage, the importance of these moments can’t be overstated.
The last stop of their Memphis tour is Melvin’s. Ricky sits at the bar, recognizing William immediately. Forty years hasn’t dulled his sense of betrayal; Ricky nearly throws William out, not caring a bit that he’s sick, only vaguely curious about what kept William away all these years. William walks Ricky through what became of him after moving to Pittsburgh, pays him back for the loan, and turns to leave. Only then does Ricky fold, asking begrudgingly if William is “too sick to play.”
Ricky and William play their hearts out on stage, while Randall sorts out his extended family tree. This moment is the culmination of everything that Randall has wanted his whole life; twelve new cousins, the assurance that he does look like William’s son, a true sense of his blood family. He’s so overjoyed that he even gets on stage to scat, and when Beth calls to hear the band, she can hear in her husband’s voice just how vital this was for him. William’s face behind the keyboard has the same level of exaltation as his son. It’s a perfect moment.
And of course, it’s exactly what William was holding out for. The next morning, William can’t get out of bed, and Randall takes him to the hospital. The news is dire. Randall asks for the Doctor to be direct, but he learns that this isn’t a matter of days, but hours. There’s no going back to New Jersey. And William doesn’t want Beth, Tess and Annie to come and say goodbye – after all, he’s already said his goodbyes. The only one left is Randall.
Knowing that William didn’t plan to come home hasn’t made this moment any easier for Randall. But he’s centered enough to be able to complete the journey, even if it wasn’t the way he intended. (“I said I would and I will.”) After finally giving Randall his book of poems, William assures Randall that he’s okay, thanks to “the two best things in my life” – “the person at the beginning and the person at the end.” William is entirely at peace, but it doesn’t mean he’s not scared – he is. And after admitting as much to his son, Randall immediately knows what to do. He holds his father’s face in his hands, instructing him to breathe.
William’s last wish for Randall was not one of regret or fear. It was one of joy. To take pleasure in his life, and the things that make him happiest. To keep the windows down, and breathe air. As Randall makes his way back to New Jersey, he sees the first reminder of his father – a row of ducks, at long last. The music goes up, the windows go down, and Randall goes home.
Colors of the Painting
- “We Can Always Come Back To This” was written by composer Siddhartha Khosla and Chris Pierce (the band’s guitarist) and performed by actor Brian Tyree Henry (Ricky). Both the electric and acoustic versions are available if, like me, you can’t get it out of your head.
- A word of praise for Jermel Nakia, who embodies William with a perfect combination of Ron Cephas Jones and Sterling K. Brown, all the while making Young William a special, beautiful character of his own.
- It’s a small thing and it’s partially played for a laugh, but Randall preferring to make his own bed (even at a hotel) is yet another symbol of how important he sees his independence – and of the lengths he’ll go to in order to make everyone else’s life easier.
- A bit of logistical information: This is Us is off next week, but I’ll be taking the opportunity to go back and recap “Jack Pearson’s Son.” (Editor’s Note: GOOD.)
How did you feel about “Memphis”? Let us know in the comments!