Major spoilers below for Randall and William's road trip episode of This Is Us.
From This Is Us' earliest moments, fans have been eager to learn all the ins and the outs of the core Pearson family, as well as all of the Pearsons' friends and their families. Tonight's episode, "Memphis," finally gave viewers a deeper dive into the life and times of Randall's biological parent William, and the father/son road trip into William's past was predictably an emotional beast for both the characters and those at home, by providing both happy feelings through music and family laughter, and sad feelings through...that entire final act. And some of the earlier stuff.
"Memphis" featured some tour de force acting from both Sterling K. Brown and Ron Cephas Jones, as well as Jermel Nakia, who returned for what will probably be Young William's biggest, and perhaps final, appearance. Though Randall doesn't know it at first, this road trip was William's way of closing the tab on his long and arduous life, and he had no preparations to return home. Just as This Is Us did not prepare to leave audiences with dry eyes with this episode, which presents William's adult life as a near-reflection of Randall's, at least in the way that a parent's death had a profound effect on each man's future. If only we know how Jack's death directly affected Randall...
Before heading out to Memphis, William made Randall stop by the spot where some of Jack's ashes were spread inside his favorite park - an interesting detail on its own - and William gave Jack a private and heartfelt farewell. Then it was onto Memphis, where William initially moved to make a living playing music with his cousin, portrayed by the excellent Brian Tyree Henry in a role amusingly similar to his regular gig on FX's stellar comedy Atlanta. Though William found happiness with his band, which made his mother Dorothy (Amanda Warren) as proud as she hoped she would be, it wasn't the life he was destined for. (He also missed his grandmother's funeral during that period, which felt thematically important.)
Just as William and Ricky have the Big Time in their crosshairs, William has to head back home to take care of his mother, who has fallen ill. He had fully intended on returning to Memphis to capture stardom with Ricky - though one might question the validity of his intentions then - but life took him on a very different path, on which he met Randall's biological mother. In a powerfully arresting sequence, we watched seemingly joyous get-togethers fall under a drugged-out haze as William's mother approaches and succumbs to her passing.
And we find out that William never did make it back to Memphis after that, despite his promises, and the present-day scene between him and Ricky almost winded me with how infinitely complex the regrets and misunderstandings William's life must contain. Though it was nothing that couldn't be cured with some tunes, and that evening was not only a last hurrah for William, but a truly stress-free time for the ailing Randall, who really lived it up while meeting a slew of previously unknown family members and watching his birth father show off his artistic talents.
Which, of course, made the third act all the more emotionally crippling, with Randall unable to come to grips with William's true state of health, just as the older man couldn't grasp the concept of making a hotel bed. That last heartbreaking scene between the characters offered up another lovely bit of reflective symmetry, this time between one man's two fathers, as the loving son comfortingly held the dying William's face in his hands the same way Jack did it for him as a child. And the words William used to express his love and pride for Randall in the end...well, I imagine each time zone will be alive with the sound of millions of sobbing people blowing their noses.
Fans only have one episode left before This Is Us shatters our souls in full with its Season 1 finale, at which point we'll have some time to rebuild before Season 2 crashes it all down again. (Hopefully William's book of poetry gets released as a tie-in during the post-season.) The drama will take a week off before returning to NBC on Tuesday, March 7, at 9:00 p.m. ET. Head to our midseason premiere schedule to see some of the less heart-stomping shows coming to your TVs in the near future.