*Fans of “This Is Us” are still trying to decompress after last night’s episode, “Memphis.”
The hour focused entirely on a road trip taken by Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and his ailing biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones) to the elder’s hometown of Memphis, a journey that turned out to be William’s farewell.
During the excursion, William was able to reconcile events from his past. Flashbacks showed his life from birth, through his close relationship with his single mother, to his eventual turn toward substance abuse.
The episode included an incredible guest appearance by “Atlanta” star Brian Tyree Henry as William’s cousin Ricky. The two were able to repair their rift after William never came back to their efforts to make it big as a band after leaving to care for his ailing mother. The hour revealed that William met Randall’s biological mother while caring for his mom. Following his mother’s death, Williams turned to drugs to cope. Ultimately it was his embarrassment over what he had become that caused his downward spiral.
At the end of the episode, William passed away in a Memphis hospital bed with Randall cradling his face to ease the transition.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with creator and showrunner Dan Fogelman to discuss William’s emotional goodbye, and the revelation that viewers haven’t seen the last of William, despite his death:
Was this episode always a part of the first season plan?
This was always part of the plan. We weren’t sure if it would be 16 or 18 episodes, but we always knew that it would either be episode 14 or 16 depending. It’s pretty mapped out. The only thing that really changed was that early in the [show’s] incarnation we’d talked about William originally being from New Orleans and going there to shoot. And then we figured so much is shooting there lately that Memphis would be cool. We all liked that idea and thought it felt right for William.
Do you approach young and old William as two separate characters?
I always knew the story was going to involve some William flashbacks and then the road trip with Randall. The flashback would predominantly focus on the young man that William was, his relationship with his mother and the life that got away from him. They’re two separate stories but they’re obviously informing one another. I see him as one character, but you have to look at him through the spectrum of his life. It’s easy to hypothetically think of him as a guy before the drugs and the guy after. But we’ve always talked about all our characters – especially our older characters – as a whole. How did they get to where they are and what informs them. We never really approach it that way. We approach it as two different plotlines; how the past merges with the present so that when William walks into the bar 40 years later to an aged-up Ricky, how those stories are going to merge.
Ron is going to return. Is there a potential for him to become another Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) in a way?
In a way. It’s a little more complicated than only in that to really actively involve William in every storyline is a little trickier because he’s only come into this immediate family’s life in the last year. Whereas Jack, anytime you flash back, he’s in the story. If you’re going to flash back to William a lot you’ve got to see his life before he came into Randall’s life. Which makes it a little more complex but it’s the same type of idea. Everybody talks about this character Jack who has essentially been dead the entire series. Yet he’s such a massive part of the show. William’s character is going to stay very much present the same way.
Will the postcard William bought in Memphis turn up in a future episode?
It’s possible. Our follow-up episode deals with the aftermath of all this. A memorial service and a little bit of a cathartic and hopefully fun and funny experience for the audience after the emotional weight of this one.
Randall calls William “dad” for the very first time on his deathbed, what kind of weight did you want to give that moment?
He’s called him “William” and he’s called him “father” but they’ve resisted the terminology a little bit. So it’s an impactful moment and feels very pointed in a good way. They completely come to terms with whatever issues define their relationship.
What was your inspiration for the dialogue about a child looking down at their parent during death versus a parent looking down at their child in bed?
I don’t quite know where it came from, but I was struck by the image — I pictured it very much as it was, with William kissing the girls goodbye and then Randall saying goodbye to William in the hospital bed and how our roles can so often reverse in that orientation. How we come into the world looking up and we go out of the world looking up. But so many times in the middle we’re looking down at kids at other people and dying people. My mom passed away pretty tragically about eight years ago and I think I’ve been chasing covering some of this ground in a weird, kind of unrelated but kind of related way for a while. Maybe it had something to do with that but I can’t quite pinpoint any part of it.
Read the entire Q&A here at THR.