SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s This Is Us episode “Memphis”
Milo Ventimiglia warned us today on Twitter: We’re going to need that day off from school or work tomorrow after tonight’s This Is Us episode, “Memphis,” which is among the series’ biggest tearjerkers to date in its 16-episode run. This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman also chimed in earlier today telling fans on Twitter, “Tonight is everything. Performances will simply blow you away.”
In “Memphis,” Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and his birth father William (Ron Cephas Jones) have the ultimate bonding moment, embarking on a road trip to the city where the latter grew up — Memphis, Tenn. It was a high-stakes trip: William is in Stage 4 of cancer, while Randall just weathered a major nervous breakdown. Despite the cancer getting the best of William at the end, hindsight was 20/20 for father and son. William returns to Memphis to make good with Ricky (Brian Tyree Henry), the cousin and leader of their R&B jazz band, who he walked out on several decades prior, embarrassed by his descent into drug addiction. Meanwhile, Randall is ecstatic to learn about his newfound extended family of cousins.
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Jones said that after reading the episode, he walked away “open mouthed” along with Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson (Randall’s wife Beth Pearson). “Up until a certain episode, there was still the question if [William] was going to die or not, and if there was going to be a cure for him,” says Jones, “Then up to a certain point I realized through Dan [Fogelman] that William was going to definitely pass away and it was about learning how we got there.”
Executive producer Glenn Ficarra, who co-directed tonight’s episode with his creative partner John Requa, reveals that William’s endgame was in the cards since the pilot, which the duo also directed.
“As we like to say on This Is Us, ‘Death is not a release.’ Our main character [Ventimiglia’s Jack] has never even been alive,” says Requa.
That said, Requa and Ficarra confirmed that we’re bound to see the younger and older William (as played by Jones) in future episodes but remained mum about the younger William’s interactions with the Pearsons. Rebecca (Mandy Moore) knew of William and kept him away from Randall for fear that he’d take him back.
We also see Laurel (Jennifer Holmes), young William’s love and Randall’s mother. Like William, she also descended into drugs. Is she still alive? Will she re-enter Randall’s life? “She’s a lovely, talented actress and hopefully she can come back; I think she will,” hints Requa. But like William’s character, whether Laurel returns in the past or the present remains up in the air.
But William’s death couldn’t come at a worse time for Randall. With pressure mounting from work, coupled with his father’s condition, Randall was coming apart in last week’s episode “Jack Pearson’s Son.” Speaking about how William’s death will impact Randall moving forward, Ficarra says, “I think he’s going to look for meaning in it and eventually he’ll find it. In a way the episode completes Randall, but also tore something else open.”
He adds optimistically, “We created a world in Memphis, the question is do we play there some more?”
“There’s a change of direction,” adds Requa about Randall’s path, “We tried not to make it a sad episode, but give it some hope. Life is about transitions and death is just one of them. Maybe this is a trajectory of change for him.”
Following William’s death, if there was another reason to pull those Kleenexes out of the box tonight, it was the touching final shot of the ducks crossing in front of Randall’s car. The moment was a nod to a story that William shared with Randall earlier in the episode. William was hoping to see the ducks at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. The historic venue is renowned for a ceremony where the ducks march on a red carpet atop the hotel’s roof, as well as inside where they exit a fountain. William tells Randall that as a child, the hotel was segregated, but thanks to his uncle who was a bellhop at the Peabody, young William was privy to a show that many African American kids his age could not enjoy. Per Requa, it’s a story detail that was culled from Fogelman’s story research for the episode.
The ducks bring to mind another show that utilized the animals in an emotional, symbolic way: The Sopranos. In the pilot, Tony finds them in his pool, and when they fly away, the mobster has a panic attack. His therapist Dr. Melfi assesses that the fowl represent his family.
But what do the ducks mean in This Is Us? Requa’s take: “They’re lost moments in life. Death is permanent and there are moments that will never return. So, there’s a permanence to death and you have to let go of death to a certain extent and the people who died; but they will be around forever.”
The Season 1 finale of This Is Us will air on March 14. The series has been renewed for a second and third season, and the writers room starts up in June, with production eyed for July.
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