We knew this was coming. We were warned way back in the pilot. Yet, all that preparation hardly dulled the pain. William is dead. But what a final ride he and his son Randall had.
Just days after being discharged from the hospital following his panic attack, Randall and his wife Beth are in his psychiatrist’s office, getting a consult as to whether Randall is truly ready to take his dad on a road trip to Memphis. Much to Beth’s chagrin, Randall gets the green light, and he and William are off — albeit without GPS or even road maps after William casually throws the latter out the window.
Just drive, Randall.
As the two barrel down the highway, we see flashes of William’s early life in Memphis, starting with his birth and his soldier father’s subsequent death in the war. As an only child raised by a single mother, William and his mom are each others’ worlds. So William, as a young adult, struggles to find his footing when his mom leaves for Pittsburgh to take care of her ailing mother. But he perseveres and continues to pursue his music career in his cousin’s cover band. It takes two years, but he finally pens a rollicking original song, and it looks like the band is headed for big things. That is, until William receives a call he isn’t expecting — his own mom is now sick. He packs up for Pittsburgh, promising his cousin he’ll return to Memphis shortly with a notebook of 60 songs.
In the present, as the miles tick away towards Memphis, William has more than a few questions about Randall’s recent breakdown.
“It’s quite a shock to see you vulnerable,” he tells him. “It’s hard to fathom. You seem to have it all together.”
Although one certainly does not preclude the other, Randall explains that he’s been plagued by panic attacks since he was a child. And it was his dad, Jack, who always kept him in check by putting his hands on the sides of Randall’s face and just breathing with him. Randall continues to recall cherished memories of Jack (including his boisterous laugh), and when he mentions that part of his ashes were spread under his favorite tree, William insists they go there. Randall balks — it’s not on the itinerary.
“Take me to meet your father,” William tells his son. At the park, William asks for a minute alone with Jack to pay his respects.
“Thank you for doing what I couldn’t,” he says to the air. “For raising him to be the man that he is. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you, brother. I would have liked to have heard that laugh. I would have liked to have met my son’s father.”
Once in Memphis, William requests a drive-by of his childhood home. But when they arrive, William insists they go inside: He wants to see if his treasure is still inside. The couple who own the house now oblige, and William heads straight to the fireplace. He pulls out a brick, and, lo and behold, his treasure is still there — a few toys and three quarters.
Randall, baffled and bemused, hands the chunk of hearth back to the homeowners. “Okay, so here’s your brick. I didn’t know that was going to happen. God bless you.”
The two continue to whirl through Memphis: a haircut here. A BBQ sandwich there. William even shows Randall the formerly segregated water fountains. The two drink out of the “white” fountain.
NEXT: Mortal Beloved
Back in Pittsburgh, young William is making something of a life for himself, despite his mother’s insistence that “your life is in Memphis.”
Once again we see William meet his love (and Randall’s mother) on the bus. Her name is Laurel. She joins William in taking care of his dying mother. And as Mom’s health continues to deteriorate, the couple find solace in their neighbor’s drug-fueled parties. And the rest, well, we know well.
Present-day William, still feeling regretful about abandoning his cousin all those years ago, finds him in the Memphis club he now owns. (Did anyone else expect William’s cousin to have become a big-shot in the music industry, riding high off the success of William’s original song?) Cousin is still bitter about what could have been.
“It’s a shame what I became. I know I ruined everything,” William admits. He says he’s sorry and hands Cousin the money he’s owed him for the past forty-some years. As he turns to leave, Cousin extends an olive branch:
“Are you too sick to play?”
“I’m never too sick to play.”
As a gleeful William and the band get back together, Randall makes short order of meeting his 12 cousins.
“You get a cousin! And you get a cousin! And you get a cousin!” he drunkenly shouts, before taking the stage himself to scat and do the robot. (Drunk Randall may be my favorite Randall.)
The next morning, when Randall goes to William’s room to wake him up, he finds him shaking and in distress. He calls an ambulance.
At the hospital, Randall seems incapable of accepting his father’s imminent death, as he explains to the doctor that they haven’t even seen the ducks yet and then wonders if William is well enough to take home to die.
“Your father isn’t leaving this hospital,” the doctor says pointedly.
As Randall sits with his father in his final moments, William takes off his oxygen mask to tell Randall he has a gift for him in the front pocket of his bag. It’s “Poems for My Son,” the notebook William tried to give Rebecca all those years ago.
“That was a hell of a thing you did knocking on my door that day,” William begins. “You deserve the beautiful life you made. You deserve everything, Randall. My beautiful boy. My son. I haven’t had a happy life. Bad breaks. Bad choices. A life of almosts and could-haves. Some would call it sad but I don’t. ‘Cause the two best things in my life are the person in the very beginning and the person at the very end. That’s a pretty good thing to be able to say, I think.”
William admits he’s a little scared, and Randall — in a moment that makes me teary-eyed all over again just typing it — puts his hands on the sides of his father’s face and tells him to breathe. Breathe until it’s over.