Death is a character, not a stunt.
It lives with you, eats away at you, invigorates you. It can drive you mad. It can drive you to do things you never would. Death, whether it's the fear of it or the inevitability of it, is a part of all of us, of every moment of our lives in some way or another. And this is what This Is Us has captured about death better than any other TV show in years—possibly ever. (Warning, spoilers for the Feb. 21 episode ahead.)
In Tuesday night's stellar episode, William (Ron Cephas Jones) did exactly what we expected him to do from the first episode of the show, when we learned he was sick: He died.
It wasn't an OMG moment. It wasn't a hashtag. It wasn't done so the show's adults 18-49 demo rating would see one-tenth of an uptick. It was necessary for the character and the storyline. (OK, so maybe the Toby cliffhanger in the midseason finale was a little stunty.)
Since it premiered in September, This Is Us has been about death, in more ways than one. First, endless speculation and social media chatter centered on whether or not Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), TV's new favorite patriarch, was dead or alive in the present-day storyline. Then the conversation turned to when and how Jack died, with viewers recently learning the time period in which he passed. (We see the Big Three are teenagers in a quick glimpse at his funeral.)
"We like to say on This Is Us, death is not a release," John Requa, who directed tonight's episode along with Glen Ficarra, said. "Our main character has never been alive for the entirety of the show."
While we've yet to see Jack's death happen, or even learn the circumstances surrounding it, it colors almost every scene. Like in real families, his death completely changed the framework for the Pearsons, as a family and as individuals. Randall, Kevin, Kate…they would not be the characters we know them as today if they hadn't experienced the loss of their father at that specific time in their lives.
"There's a before and after for this family," creator Dan Fogelman has said of Jack's death. "Even in the pilot, even before you knew there was anything off with Jack, there's a hinge in this family, and it's kind of a before with Jack and an after. That will be really interesting in future seasons and as we go forward, to show where that hinge was, how it happened and what happened to these people before and after it."
What's different about how This Is Us is handling Jack's death, as well as William's recent death, is that they aren't the main event, or the scene to end the season or the series. This Is Us is often hailed as the next Parenthood, another NBC drama about a tight-knit family with a penchant for making viewers cry, but Parenthood even fell victim to putting off its major death to the final three minutes of its series, turning a potential well of storyline into a montage.
But This Is Us is proving that death, in real-life and on TV, doesn't have to been the end of a relationship or a sweeps episode, to be meaningful.
Siddhartha Khosla, who wrote the song William composed in the episode, said, "The lesson I get from the show, from the entire series, is that life doesn't really end ever, so the idea of the refrain here at the end, 'We can always come back to this,' is a play on that, just saying that you might not be here now, but I'll find you somewhere down the line."
And the episode, along with William's final day, was a mix of joyfulness and sadness, as the father and son shared stories, memories and laughs, ones that likely only came out of William's acute awareness that his time was almost up. They were getting to know each other and saying goodbye, all at once.
"We tried to make it not just this sad episode, but an episode that had a little bit of sort of hope in it and a sense that life is about transitions and death is just one of those," Requa said, with Ficarra adding that this loss will lead Randall to "look for meaning."
So with William's death, comes Randall's rebirth. Again.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)