This article contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the This is Us episode, “Memphis”, please do not continue reading.
You can go home again.
Even after the long and often painful road that life had taken William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones), his final moments were spent back home in Memphis, gazing into the eyes of his son (Sterling K. Brown). When William told Randall: “the two best things in his life were the person at the very beginning, and the person at the very end,” these words sent shivers through me.
As we got to know William these few months, we suspected that his music and poetic soul were rooted in his Memphis upbringing. Over the course of the season, we were given hints as to the kind of man Randall’s biological father is. By the end of the This is Us episode “Memphis”, we have perhaps come to realize that our initial belief that a man who would abandon his newborn son at fire station was selfish was incorrect. William’s act of leaving his son, the catalyst that brought Randall into the loving and nurturing arms of the Pearsons (Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore), was selfless because it allowed Randall to become the man he became.
“Memphis” was not only a befitting swan song to the character of William, but it also enabled viewers to see through the lens of William’s life. And this life was paved by tragedy.
We learn that William never knew his father; William’s father was a military man killed before William was born. William’s mother raised him as a single parent. But their mother and son bond was strong at the outset. Mrs. Hill believed in the musical and poetic talents of her quiet, sensitive son. What she couldn’t give him in financial advantages, she more than made up for in her belief in William’s potential and devotion to him. This family of two, mother and son, weathered adversity by loving and leaning on each other.
When William takes Randall to see the house where William lived with his mother, William was fixated on the fact that one of the two doors that existed is now bricked up. The brick door, I feel, is a metaphor for William’s life: he had opportunities, yet he also made choices (some good, some bad). The door is still there but the brick is a reminder that it is too late for William to change his life. There are doors that are now closed to him, doors that he can never walk through.
This is Us is a show where family is the foundation. “Memphis” expands on the theme of family by dissecting William’s life. William’s cousin Ricky (Brian Tyree Henry), a nightclub owner, was a smooth talking Lothario who had an eye for the ladies and an ear for music. William’s songwriting genius was supposed to be the ticket for band to stop playing covers and to enjoy their own platinum musical success. Yet, fate intervened: William left Memphis to go to Pittsburg to care for his sick mother (William’s mother had previously traveled to Pittsburg her own mother became ill). While in Pittsburgh, William met Laurel (Randall’s biological mother) on a bus. Soon, a romance blossomed for William and Laurel. As the health of William’s mother deteriorated and she later died, William became swept up in Laurel’s hard partying lifestyle of drugs and alcohol. Sadly, William wouldn’t return to Memphis as he promised Ricky until his bittersweet final road trip with Randall.
What struck me about “Memphis” were the emotional parallels: William’s father didn’t get to see his son just as Laurel never got to see her son as death claimed both Mr. Hill and Laurel before their babies were born. Further, devoted son William was there for his mother at her deathbed just as devoted son Randall was there for his father at William’s deathbed.
For a show where intense emotional moments have become its trademark, “Memphis” raised the bar even higher. Ron Cephas Jones and Sterling K. Brown both delivered Emmy-worthy performances.