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February 21, 2017 at 10:00 PM EST

I loved when William said that he doesn’t consider his life sad because the two best things in his life were the person at the beginning and the person at the end that made it like a life worth living. Much of his life had been sad and tragic — as he said, bad breaks and bad choices. In the episode’s flashbacks, we saw how decent and talented he was, how he could’ve had a successful career as a musician, but he heeded the call to his sick mother. And he was able to turn down temptations from Ricky and his girlfriend, but in trying to cope when his mother died, he gave in to the drugs. What intrigued you about fleshing out this backstory of pain and potential?
I loved the idea that we’ve gotten to know this man. He’s been a real mystery because he’s so elegant, and he’s so informed and educated and winning and lovely and wise, but clearly he’s done this thing and had this backstory that doesn’t seem to befit him. So there’s this natural question, which is: Who is this guy and how was he formed? And when I watched the episode on second and third viewing, every time he’s a shy, young, potentially — and even though we don’t dive heavily into it — sexually confused young man, but he’s an artist and he’s introverted, and he’s maybe too close even, some might say, with his mother, and talented. Every time drugs or any bad path is offered to him, he turns it down, because it was just not in his nature. It was the loss of the person who was most important to him. It wasn’t a woman, it wasn’t just the draw of drugs or an addiction, it was a moment of vulnerability that changed the course of his life. I found that profoundly sad and beautiful and real.

I always look at my friends who have older kids now, and I think how scary it must be when they raise these kids and send them off to high school. I don’t have kids yet, but I hope I build them the right way because it’s one bad seed that I can’t control that could change the course of their life. And it’s a little what happened to William — the loss of the very person who was most protective of him broke him and led to his ruination.

There are a lot of callbacks in this episode: William’s comment in the barber shop about the barber who threatened to cut his ears off (a wink back to episode 2 when William joked about cutting Tess’s ear), William meeting Randall’s mother on the bus (which viewers saw moments of in a montage in episode 3), “Poems for My Son” (which William wanted to give to Randall when he was a baby, but Rebecca got cold feet and fled in episode 9), and Dudley Randall’s “Splendid Against the Night” (William let it slip to Beth that he had given Rebecca a collection of Randall’s work, exposing their history, in episode 7). Which one resonated with you the most?
I loved when [William’s mother] asked for the Dudley Randall poem, and he reads it, and we know it’s had meaning elsewhere in their lives. To me, just seeing what led him onto the bus where he met Laurel, the mother, is such a powerful, powerful moment. Hopefully those little things don’t feel just like tricks — they feel like part of the fabric of this guy. We’ve always planned these things. When we came up with the book of “Poems for My Son,” we realized that would be something he could give to him at the end of the road trip episode. And then you work backward, you work forward, and you figure those things out, but there was something beautiful to me about him in different fashion, in a different age, reading that poem to his mother.

One amazing thing about William was just how deferential and appreciative he always was about Jack’s being Randall’s father. He didn’t seem territorial at all about it. Every time he says “your father” to Randall, it’s a little heartbreaking, knowing what it fully means. But in wanting to meet Jack in the park, that spoke so much to William’s character, that he really needed to pay respects to the man who raised Randall in one of his final acts on this planet.
Yeah, that part really moves me, the idea that he’s this noble guy who never really was faced with the complications of the circumstance of not having been the “father” to Randall. His takeaway is not anything involving jealousy, but it’s gratitude, which I think is a really soulful, beautiful sentiment. There’s no resentment, there’s no anger, there’s no jealousy, there’s gratitude. But it’s also at the same time, despite William’s sensitively, it’s very masculine, right? This moment where he says, “I want to pay respects to your father,” and he says, “Thank you for doing what I couldn’t. Thank you for turning my son into a man.” And then he turns away and he goes, “I like him. Let’s go.” [Laughs.] And so, even for these two men who are emotive men — and are able to talk about their feelings and their history — there’s something very simple about it, too, which I loved.

What does Randall, who’s still recovering from a breakdown, pull away from this experience, once the veil of grief is lifted?
I think you’ll see a lot of that in our next episode, and then really bleeding heavily into next season. He’s clearly a man who’s lived a very structured existence, and he’s a man who’s all things to all people. And the lesson that’s clearly imparted in this episode to Randall is, “Time is limited, you are good, you’ve already won, and it’s okay to open your windows a little bit and let it down.” And maybe that’s the final gift that one father gave — that was a big part of a different father’s journey, which was to try and teach Randall to find his balance, and maybe this is something that can really help break Randall open a little bit. In the immediacy of the episode, Randall is trying to figure out exactly what your question is, which is: How do I honor his legacy? What do I do with what just happened in this year I’ve just spent with this man so that I just don’t go back to the same old existence? And he starts making a bunch of choices and decisions that will affect us going into season 2.

And finally, if you were writing the epitaph on William’s grave, what should it read?
That’s a really good question. I could see it being a Dudley Randall quote. He would probably have asked, if he had left such wishes behind, that it reads something along the lines of, “Son of,” and his mother’s name, and “father to,” and Randall’s name. Probably at the end of his life, that’s probably how he would’ve defined himself: his mother’s son and his son’s father, the last part being something that came to him very late.

To read Ron Cephas Jones’ reaction to his character’s death, click here.

For more This Is Us scoop, follow @dansnierson on Twitter.

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