Tuesday, February 21, 2017

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Randall and William Go On a Road Trip and Learn More About Each Other in 'Memphis'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 1.16 "Memphis"

Randall and William take a road trip to Memphis, where Randall learns about his biological father's past.

In the very first episode of This Is Us, it was revealed that William had cancer and only had a few months left to live. That has been a major story for this season. Randall had to decide to let his biological father into his life knowing that it will lead to a heartbreaking ending soon. It's been the strongest story of the season as well because it hasn't been defined only by one thing. Randall and William are fully realized and complicated characters. Their journey together has had ups and downs. They've both surprised each other. They've both frustrated the other. But it was a journey with a fixed ending. This story would end with the tragic death of William. Early on, there was the question of would the show kill William off after just one season despite him quickly become a fan favorite? The answer is yes. As the season went along, it became clear it was going to lead to death. None of the treatments were working. This trajectory also elevated Sterling K. Brown and Ron Cephas Jones' performances. It has been so stunning watching them work together this season. And now, that includes the terrific "Memphis" which is a standalone hour that focuses solely on Randall and William going on a road trip to Memphis, William's home town.

This trip happens just a week after Randall's anxiety breakdown. So much was happening in his life, that he started spiraling. Pressures with his family and work really started getting to him. Fortunately, he was able to get the help he needed because he had a supportive family who saw that he was spiraling. He is suddenly all better once again. That is explained away at the top of the episode by getting a couple days of treatment. Of course, Beth has concerns about Randall and William going on a road trip to Memphis based on their recent health problems. She's right to worry. That doesn't keep them from going though. She's concerned but also recognizes this as something they want to do. It's becoming more and more clear to them that William will be reaching the end soon. This is the last gift he can give the rest of the family. They have done so much for him. He is incredibly grateful for that. These last few months have been the best and happiest in his entire life. That should be celebrated and embraced. It will be difficult moving forward without him but it has also meant so much that he was in their lives in the first place.

This episode also paints a much fuller picture of William's entire life. The show has previously shown that he met Randall's mother on a bus, they became addicts together and she died in childbirth. He did the right thing by giving Randall away but had cleaned up his act afterwards that he could have been a good father figure. Rebecca had just denied him of that. But now, the audience gets even more context of his life - especially as it all comes full circle in his return to Memphis and his death. In William's family, each generation has had to care for their parents as they're about to die. Those were journeys that took them far away from Memphis and never brought them back. William's mom had to go to Pittsburgh to care for her mother. William had to do the same years later when his mother got sick as well. That's why he was in town and on that bus when he met Randall's mother. It's heartbreaking to watch because it's so fulfilling to see him with this happiness in life while also knowing it ends in tragedy. It's through this added tragedy that William becomes an addict. He was able to resist it for the most part while caring for his sick mother. But after she died, that's when his spiral began. It ended with death and it took losing his son for him to get clean.

It then took William reuniting with Randall for his life to feel fulfilling once more. Before Randall came knocking on his door, William's life would seemingly have broken the cycle of children caring for their sick parents. Because Randall was willing to care for him, William was able to meet a new family and reconnect with his old one. Even after he got clean, he never returned to Memphis to see what happened with his cousins. He left promising to return with plenty of hit songs so that they could make it big in the music business. The show does a very smart thing in showing the band perform one of these songs. It works and shows the life that could have been. But William felt his family responsibilities and was consumed by the tragedy. It's taken him all of this time to find his way back to Memphis. Some things are exactly as he left it. The buildings are largely the same. The history is still the same. His childhood home is a little different but his secret treasure is still miraculously there. It's wondrous to see him venture through this town knowing the end is near. He's making his final amends and performing with his old band one last time. It's a great sequence. William caused a lot of pain to his cousin. He's still in the same bar having not accomplished anything more in the music business. But he's still family. William opens a door for Randall. It's a whole new world of cousins for him to explore.

All of this is important for William. He leaves behind a story that the next generation will understand and appreciate. But this is also a significant hour for William and Randall's relationship. William has seen Randall at his best as a husband, father and son. And now, he has also seen him at his worst. He didn't fully believe Beth when she warned him about Randall's anxiety attacks. But then, he actually saw it. He saw how devastating it could be. Sure, that wasn't seen onscreen. It was more important last week that Kevin was there for his brother in his time of need. But that breakdown still has an affect on the father-son relationship. This is an opportunity for William to learn more about that. It's through that that he realizes just how good of a father Jack was for Randall. He was the one who had to deal with Randall whenever he got too stressed out. It's revealed that it's a condition he's been struggling with for most of his life. Even when he was an 8-year-old kid, Jack needed to calm Randall down. And now, Randall no longer has that in his life. He has a supportive family. Plus, he has a relationship with a new father figure. But now, he's losing that one as well. It's such a powerful moment when the two of them visit the spot where the Pearson siblings spread some of Jack's ashes. William never got to meet Jack but he's so appreciative of everything that he did for Randall.

It's also because of Jack that Randall is able to give peace to William in his final moments. This hour tracks all of the significant moments of life and death in William's life. His father died before he was born. His mother left to care for her mother. He left Memphis to care for his mother. And now, Randall is caring for William on his dying bed. He too has lived the last few months caring for a sick parent. He understands the burden that has come before. He also helps break the pattern of sorts by allowing William to return to Memphis. That's where this whole journey started. And now, it's where it will all end. William made his peace with that long before he and Randall left for this trip. He knew he had to say goodbye to Tess and Annie before he left. He also didn't want them to see him die. That's a burden he didn't want to put on them. Instead, it's just him and Randall in a hospital room. William doesn't have much time left. But he still has so much to give. It's wonderful that he's finally able to give that book of poems to his son. It's also great that Randall is able to ease his father's pain as he's scared of what happens next. This could be a stressful time for him. His father is really dying. But instead, he finds the strength to be there for William and the acceptance to listen to his advice and relax more. It's such a profound ending to the series' best story so far.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Memphis" was written by Dan Fogelman and directed by John Requa & Glenn Ficarra.
  • The episodes that have played with the format this season have easily been the best ones. "Memphis" succeeds because of it's focus only on Randall and William. The story wouldn't have had the same effect if the episode had to cut away to whatever Kevin and Kate are up to.
  • Of course, it should be interesting to see how the rest of the family reacts to learning that William has died. That could bring up all of their complicated feelings about death - specifically Jack's death - all over again. That could be a dramatically satisfying way to close the season.
  • It's great that William had support from Randall's mother as he cared for his dying mother. That shows that their connection really was strong and full of love. It was just quickly corrupted by drugs and addiction.
  • It's a little startling to see just how charming and relaxed Randall is at the start of the episode. Last week ended with him in a dark and traumatic place. But now, he's got the help he needed and is able to put on the charm to convince Beth he should go on this trip with his father.
  • Randall being able to see the ducks as he leaves Memphis largely feels like a sign that everything will be alright despite William dying. It's cheesy and manipulative. But once he rolls his windows down and turns up the music, it shows that William has made a big difference in his life.
  • I still have no idea what the Emmy odds are going to be for this show. If either Sterling K. Brown or Ron Cephas Jones get nominated, this episode would be a pretty great submission.