It’s a gentle, intimate moment that sets the tone for the entire episode, which is emotional, but never devastating. When we last left Randall, he was having a panic attack on the floor of his office. The show tells us he’s only five days past his post-stress attack hospitalization when he and William decide to go on this trip, but they go anyway--a trip as much about family history as it is about trying to recalibrate.
And for the first time in the series, we get the family history of Randall’s genetic family. Every episode of This is Us takes place in the past and the present, but up until this week all of them have focused on The Pearson family. In “Memphis” we get the genes: the soul music, and the barbecue, and the black culture that makes up Randall Pearson’s DNA even if it didn’t make up his childhood.
In the past portions of the episode, we learn about William. We meet his father, a man who sings “You Are My Sunshine” into his wife’s pregnant belly. And we learn that his father died in the war. “We’re going to be okay, William,” his mother (Amanda Warren) promises him. Randall’s relationship with his mother is the driving force of his life. We see her leave him in Memphis promising him that he’s the “best thing that ever happened to me” when she goes Pittsburgh to take care of his ailing grandmother. William’s mother doesn’t come back, though. She finds a job up there and stays.
Meanwhile, William finds his groove -- literally. As a member of his cousin’s band, they play covers in a club until William writes his first song: something slow, a desperately grooving song that feels like the tears this show always has welling behind it. In the chorus, the cousin belts into the microphone, “We can always come back to this,” over and over. That, the show seems to tell us, is what Memphis became to William. Something he could always come back to. Except that he never did.
When his mother gets sick, he moves to be with her. “I don’t want you getting stuck here,” his mom says. But of course he does. He meets a beautiful girl named Laurell and they fall obviously, hopelessly, deliriously in love while they care for William’s dying mother. We, of course, know how this story ends. We know that William was a drug addict who couldn’t stay clean and who never moved back to Memphis. But we don’t see that side of him except for his brief eyeing of a heroin needle in a single shot after his mother dies.
“I’m the most proud of myself for who I was in the beginning and in the end,” William says at the end of the episode. And you see where this is going, don’t you? William’s sickness has been progressing rapidly all season. He’s never been well, and here in Memphis he meets his final breath, his face held tightly between Randall’s big hands in a hospital asking him to breathe slowly, to calm himself down.
But before we get to the scenes in the hospital and the tears, the show gives us the versions of William he was the most proud of. Himself as a young man, and himself now, the kind of man who encourages his uptight type-A son to roll down the windows and turn up the music. The kind of man who when told to navigate them to Memphis, rolls down the window and throws out the maps. The kind of man who demands a half day excursion to Pittsburgh to pay tribute to the cremation site of the man who raised his son: Jack Pearson.
There, sitting in front of a tree where Jack Pearson’s ashes were scattered. “Thank you for doing what I couldn’t,” he says to Jack, and then they are back on the road. In Memphis, he takes his son passed the butcher who used to kill chickens for him, to the barbecue joint to get sandwiches, and to his childhood home.
The entire episode is performed with Black characters. With the exception of a psychiatrist Beth and Randall see at the beginning of the episode, every emotional line (and there are plenty of them) are spoken by Black characters. It’s an episode that’s intentional in its politics, if gentle with them. In one scene, William shows Randall two remaining water fountains side by side left over from segregation. Laughing, they both drink from the white fountain. In another, they go to the barber to get a haircut, laughing together.
This is Us is a show about life in its extremes; about the best days of your life, and the worst. And in this episode, it’s statement is clear: Those days exist no matter the color of your skin or the city you grew up in. In “Memphis” the show gives us a day of each (the best and the worst) back to back. On one day, William and Randall walk into a club. “Hey Ricky,” William says. And Ricky says “I know who you are; get the hell out of my club.” It’s William’s cousin whose band he abandoned to go care for his mother. The two of them make up soon, and by the end of the day, William is on the stage playing old songs with his cousin. “I’m up to 12 cousins of various forms.” Randall says on the phone with Beth, tipsy from drinking with his cousins. “I got a whole other family down here.”
And just like that the best day is over. The next morning, William’s health has taken a turn for the worse. Randall has to call the paramedics and in rapid succession we see that William is much less healthy than he appeared the night before. “I don’t understand. Last night he was playing the piano,” Randall says to the doctor, but it's clear that William won’t be leaving the hospital. This is the end of the road for him. On his deathbed, William gives his son a manuscript titled “Poems For My Son” and a few words of advice. “Roll all your windows down. Crank up the music. Grow out that fro,” William says. “You deserve everything Randall, my beautiful boy, my son.”
It's impossible for me to watch Sterling K. Brown, as Randall, cry without crying myself, and this scene was just brutal. Even though the tone of the episode had been light, and William was given more time than he maybe should have had, it’s so easy to identify with Randall losing yet another father during his lifetime. The scene isn’t meant to be ominous or depressing, but the weight of its emotion lingers. The final shot shows Randall driving home alone, choosing to roll the windows of his car down, perhaps a signal that his father will continue to change him as a person even after his death.