Go ahead. We can wait. Take a moment. And another Kleenex. Just breathe…
All set? Tonight’s episode of This Is Us scaled the poignant peak of Heartbreak Hill — as in William Hill — which has been looming forebodingly in the distance for a while now, and brought us the final verse of the gentle, world-weary poet/musician. Recovering from an overwhelming anxiety attack, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) hopped in a car with his terminally ill, oxygen tube-wearing father — whom he just started to get to know 36 years into his very successful life — and embarked on a road trip adventure to Memphis, where it all began for the dutiful son turned promising poet-musician turned drug addict turned proud father. After William (Ron Cephas Jones) received an out-of-the-way meeting with Jack’s ashes, which were scattered by a tree in his favorite park, the boys threw caution and maps out the window, and he showed Randall the sounds and sights of the River City, revisiting his childhood home (and reclaiming some toys), drinking from a once-segregated drinking fountain, chewing the fat at the barbershop, chewing the fat of a BBQ pork sandwich, and playing the blues with his estranged cousin Ricky (Brian Tyree Henry) before time simply ran out on his life.
It was a life in which, as we learned in flashbacks, saw young William (Jermel Nakia) press pause on a promising musical career in Memphis with Ricky to move to Pittsburgh to take care of his sick mother (Amanda Warren). He promised his cousin that he’d return, but never did. When his mother died, William was so heartbroken that he succumbed to addiction, facilitated by his girlfriend/Randall’s mother, Laurel (Jennifer Holmes), which set into course the events that would result in Randall being left in that fire station and dropped off at the hospital, where he would be adopted by Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore).
William’s story would ultimately end at a different hospital, in Memphis, where Randall thought he was bringing him to recover before the trip home. When it became clear this would be only a one-way journey, William proudly told his son, “You deserve the beautiful life you’ve made,” and gave him the collection of poems he had been holding onto for decades. William finally (so soon?) succumbed to the stage 4 stomach cancer, blessed and grateful to have the son he once abandoned at a fire station now at his hospital bedside — and also a bit scared to enter the next realm. And so Randall held his head in his hands, called him “Dad,” and instructed him to “just breathe,” much like Jack had done for Randall when he would suffer anxiety attacks as a child. When William could breathe no more, into the afterlife he went, and into the embrace of his mother, the woman who singlehandedly raised him, and the woman whose death sent him on a path of self-destruction before sobriety and last-chapter redemption arrived. The emotional marathon, which also saw Randall joyously meet his extended family, ended with the grieving son driving home in tears, rolling down the windows as William had instructed him to do in life, and stopping the car to watch those ducks that William had talked about crossing the road in front of him.
Not ready to move on quite yet? Wondering where we go from here? Just need a few comforting words from the man who wrote this formidable farewell episode? Let’s give a stealthy fist bump to series creator Dan Fogelman — who warned that this installment was indeed a “weeper” — and see what he has to say.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We know how the audience is feeling right now after watching that episode. How did you feel after making it?
DAN FOGELMAN: You never make anything in one moment. It’s a long process to build it out. The episode had been planned for quite a while, and then I’d written it over a period, and then it was filmed over a period, and then we edited it over a period, so I never had that one moment of complete cathartic release with it. I got the first cut, and it was already just great and special. There were a couple of little things for pacing or whatnot that you’re always looking for when you see something the first time, but the second time I saw it after we adjusted a couple of little things, I was able to have a bit of that complete and total experience of immersion. I wrote the directors [John Requa and Glenn Ficarra] and our editor, Bjorn [T. Myrholt], about just how incredibly special it was.
How long had you been planning for the road trip episode to be the last one in which William would be alive?
It had always been the plan since the very beginning of the season that, with one or two episodes to go, we would do a special road trip episode with Randall and William. Originally I had thought maybe it would be in New Orleans — that maybe William was from New Orleans — and because so much shoots in New Orleans nowadays, John and Glenn felt we might be able to get a little bit more specific elsewhere. And when they had mentioned Memphis, that felt very right for William. So we adjusted it long before I wrote it, and then that became the plan.
We talked previously about your wanting to play this story truthfully and resisting the urge to extend William’s life unrealistically, but when you saw all of the excellent chemistry between Sterling and Ron — and you watched this episode again — did you wish you had made his cancer a Stage 1 or 2 from the get-go?
[Laughs.] You always do. After the episode airs, I’m going to tweet out a note that I wrote at the end of the script to Ron specifically, but also to everybody who works on the show. It would be very easy for us to make the decision to keep William alive just because people love him so much. I love the actor so much, and the character. But you’re right, it didn’t feel truthful for this character and the purpose he was meant to serve in this story in the present day. It’s always hard. It’s especially hard with a great guy like Ron and a tremendous actor, but as I said in the note that I wrote at the end of the script: Just because these characters in the show die in the present day doesn’t mean they don’t remain a part of the show. When Game of Thrones beheads somebody, it’s hard to keep them completely alive in the story. We have a slightly different narrative structure, so it allows William to remain a part of things.
Randall was surprised at the end of the episode that the end arrives so suddenly, and he tries to bargain with the doctor, saying, “No, no, he has a few months left.” So you could’ve played that out a little longer if you wanted to. Why now? What felt right about this timing to you?
There were a couple of things. First and foremost, it felt to me like life doesn’t play out all the time like a TV show, you know? The characters in your life don’t die during the season finales all the time. And they don’t always die exactly in a rhythm of how you expect it to happen or when or where, so that was part of the thinking. I lost my mom eight years ago in a very traumatic and unexpected way. She died during a surgery that wasn’t supposed to be life-threatening in that way…
And there was a bit of an aftermath to it after she died of ICU and waiting and your world flipping on its axis a little bit. And then just this past year I lost an aunt; she’d been very ill, but the end was very unexpected and caught everybody off-guard. It’s obviously been a defining thing for me, having lost my mom. Looking in the rearview mirror now is a lot of what I’ve been using and exploring in the show in my own way when we talk about Jack and life and how you lose people, but they remain in the picture. So that informed it a little, and those moments were so visceral for me, and they are not always captured on film or TV, and I wanted to try to see if we could find a way to capture it.
There’s a moment that really moves me in this episode, and I didn’t think it was going to be such a big moment because it’s played all on Randall, but toward the end of the episode, the doctor tells him, “Your father’s not leaving this hospital.” That had just happened to me verbatim with a relative where I was trying to figure out what the path was going to be and how long the person had, and the doctor said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but she’s not leaving the hospital.” And even in the moment then, the person in me was devastated, but the writer in me remembered thinking, “Wow, that’s a powerful thing to be told.” I think that stuck in my subconscious somewhere.
NEXT PAGE: Fogelman reveals the next time you’ll see William in the show