If you feel forever changed after tonight's This Is Us, you are not alone.
The hour found Randall—fresh out of the hospital after last week's mental breakdown—taking his dying biological father on a road trip to his hometown of Memphis to make amends, reminisce, and share in the black family history Randall had always dreamed of.
It wasn't hard to predict what was going to happen at the end of the episode as it became clearer and clearer that William (Ron Cephas Jones) knew his time was just about to run out, and that he wasn't going back to New York with Randall (Sterling K. Brown). He had introduced his son to a whole new world, then allowed himself to die there, knowing that he had done all he could to give Randall what he really needed.
We tend to inject all of our TV reactions with internet-appropriate hyperbole, but we are not even slightly exaggerating when we say we sobbed harder during tonight's episode than we have at any other TV episode or even any movie we can think of, and we were beginning to lose it before Randall and William even got in the car. We knew what was coming. We've known it since the series' very first episode, and we knew it would hit us hard, but we could not have imagined that William's death and the journey around it would hit us quite as hard as it did, or with nearly as much beauty.
"It was kind of a moment, like an open mouth moment," Ron Cephas Jones said of the first time he read the script, during a Q&A after a screening of the episode. "Like, I can't believe what I'm reading. It affected us all that way—me, Sterling, and Susan [Kelechi Watson]. I remember us walking out of the building after the first read and each of us were waiting for one of us to confirm what we just read."
The episode took us through William's entire life, from even before he was born, and showed us exactly what kind of a beautiful life he had, and could have continued to have, if things hadn't fallen apart a bit somewhere along the line. Since his father died in the military while his mother was still pregnant, William grew up with just his mother, and they became extremely close. His band was about to hit it big in Memphis, but then his mother was sick in Pittsburgh, and when William went to be with her, he fell in love at the same time, so he never went back to Memphis.
His mother's death was sort of the beginning of his descent into addiction, but no matter what he went through, he never totally lost who he was. The "agony and ecstasy" of William's life was incredibly important for directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to convey throughout the episode.
"[It was] this opportunity to explore his life, that he wasn't just some casualty that got born into abject poverty," Ficarra told E! News. "I think it was really beautiful in the sense that it painted this beautiful life that he had or could have had, and it wasn't some arch reason why he was a drug addict or that it's kind of a slow train wreck, just these little moves that added up to something that it shouldn't have, or we wish it wouldn't have, but ultimately had a happy ending."
William's soul was the thing that struck Requa the most, and when tackling this extra important episode, he wanted "to view [William's] history and why that hard life gave him such a great perspective on life," he told us. "And his son, who's struggling to deal with the adversity of life, the ups and downs, can learn, maybe glean something from this peaceful soul."
Randall will be on a whole new path going forward, now that he's dealing with the second death of a father.
"In a way, the episode kind of completed him, but also tore something else open, but I think in his everyday life as opposed to his past. I think that's a bold new avenue for him," Ficarra said during the Q&A.
Randall was already in a relatively fragile place, dealing with the stress around his dying father and trying to keep up at work. William's death isn't going to help him, but it's also not necessarily going to set him back again.
"I think Randall's always going to have issues with pressure and I think that's a whole other element of his character, this need to be exceptional, whether it be because he's adopted or because he's black in a white world," Ficarra told E! News. "Just his coping mechanism is not the healthiest. I think he'll learn to deal with it, but he is not a guy who's going to say this is enough. Whatever his life was before William entered his life, I don't think it's a place he's itching to get back to. I think it's just the beginning of more growth for him."
While "Memphis" focused mainly on William's past, Randall's other dad, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), was also very present in spirit. Randall remembered how Jack would calm him down and remembered the first time Jack took him to the barbershop, but one of the most gut-wrenching parts scenes in the episode came early on, when William made Randall take a detour to Jack's favorite tree, where some of his ashes had been scattered.
William proceeded to sit by himself and have a candid convo with Mr. Pearson, thanking him for raising Randall. "I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you, brother," he said. "I would have liked to have heard that laugh. I would have liked to have met my son's father." (Cue the gross, messy sobs.)
Jones says that moment one of the hardest scenes in the episode, up there with his death scene.
"It's like, that's a moment where you actually have a visual picture of Randall's two fathers," he told us in a smaller conversation after the Q&A. "That's another exact moment where you say to yourself Randall has two fathers. You don't say to yourself, Randall has a father and some guy who's his biological father. You get to that point at this point now and you actually say, Randall has two fathers. He says on his deathbed, ‘my son.' He says ‘my beautiful boy,' and then he corrects himself and says, ‘my son.' You know, it's like, that's the culmination of all his life—getting back to what he had dropped off at the fire station. It's like, a hell of a thing, you knocking on my door that day."
And just like Jack, William's death won't stop him from being a part of the show. He and Ron Cephas Jones will be back, thanks to the way storytelling works on this show. It's just a matter of how and when we'll see William again, which is both great and challenging for an actor.
"You'll see him again, but it won't be in this carnation. So still, there's a sadness to it," Jones said. "The only consolation is that as an actor, I know I'm coming back and I'll be able to hang out with my friends for another season. But as far as William is concerned, I just gotta let him go now until next season, so that's going to be a process. Like letting that character go. Still sometimes, he's still here. I can feel him or I'll say something that sounds too much like him, you know. It's just the little things."
"We like to say on This Is Us: death is not a release," Requa said. "We've created a world there in Memphis. The question is: do we go play there again?"
The answer had better be yes.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.