It’s taken sixteen episodes, and five months, and thousands of words I’ve written on this show, but THIS IS US has finally delivered. “Memphis,” devoted entirely to William and Randall, is a heartbreaking tour de force of these two characters, these two actors, and the emotional bonds of family that this show tries so hard to convey. Time and time again, I’ve argued that this show would be best if, instead of being an ensemble, it framed Randall as the sole protagonist. A show about a black man raised by white folks, who is just now discovering another side of his family, only to have him be dying, is a heartbreaking and captivating story. If anyone could pull that off, it’s the sublime Sterling K Brown. Of course, This Is Us has firmly set roots in being about every member of the Pearson clan, but for one week, for “Memphis,” we get to have the father-son story that is the saving grace of this show.
Taking place a week after Randall’s breakdown, “Memphis” is the time honored tradition of a road trip episode. No better cure for severe stress and anxiety then some father-son bonding time. The two head down to Memphis so Randall can learn about William and their family, but also learn to let loose and live a little. From the moment they take off, it’s clear that this episode is not going to hold back on anything that brings the waterworks, and try as we might to deny it, all the pieces are in place for it to be William’s last.
Every flashback of this episode shows William’s past, which is doubly good. First of all, the bond that the show shows between William and is mother is pure and sweet, giving wonderful dimension to William’s character. Secondly, anything would be better than another week of the Jack and Rebecca melodrama. William and his mother bring a beautiful story to life, but I would have been happy with young William sitting alone in a room to a continuation of the storyline from the last few weeks. What we got, however was beautiful, if not tinged with a knowing sadness of what is to come.
The past gives a full history of William’s early life, almost up until he had to give up his son. His bond with his mother ties everything together, even when his mother has to leave to take care of her mother. There’s a continuing thread of dying parents this week, which is, of course, leading up to the inevitable. If This Is Us has something close to a mission statement, it’s that those who love you will be in your life forever. This episode shows that from William and Randall going to visit Jack’s grave, to William’s mother’s own passing, to the inevitability of William going himself, this episode was not one for subtleties. However, the lingering inevitability of death is done with such grace and care for life, that it makes for than just sadness. Funnily enough, the episode that did the past at showing what This Is Us truly stands for is the one that excluded 80% of the characters.
Besides just tugging at the ol’ heartstrings unrelentlessly, “Memphis” manages to have a lot of fun in the process. Fun is not often had on This Is Us and must be cherished. Particularly, drunk Randall’s joy at having discovered so much of his family, has to be treasured. It would have been so easy to insert some sort of drama or issue into either him discovering cousins or his excitement towards his wife about that. Instead, it’s all joy. Beth is happy for him, the cousins seem to like him, and Randall gets to be surrounded by family, watching his father play music. It’s just one of the small moments of happiness that William and Randall get together in this episode, a showcase of how these two really love each other, and how having William in Randall’s life has truly changed it for the better.
Then, of course, the inevitable happens. William’s cancer has long been at the untreatable point and it was only a matter of time before he eventually passed. The end of this episode brought out all the tears with Randall rushing William to the hospital, proclaiming that he still had months to live, only to have William slowly stop breathing. It’s crushing and beautiful at the same time. There is so much that is genuine about the relationship between the two men, that the sage advice given from father to son on a deathbed doesn’t feel cheesy but earned. William and Randall have been, no competition, the best and most real part of This Is Us, and that stays true through William’s dying breath.
Though this will in no way set a precedent for future episodes, “Memphis” was a lovely and powerful oasis in the desert of the standard This Is Us fare, and was an earned farewell to a beloved character.
Season 1, Episode 16 (S01E16)
This Is Us airs Day at 10PM on NBC
Raina spends most of her time watching television and trying to find the perfect bagel and lox, because she likes being emotionally distraught.
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Raina Deerwater | Contributor