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
You’ve said that you plan on keeping Ron on the show, and we’ve seen a model for such a thing with Milo (Ventimiglia). But how will this work with Ron? Also, will he still be a regular, and will we see him in the final two episodes of this season?
You will see him in the next episode. You will not see him in the finale, but only because it’s a very Jack and Rebecca-centric episode. He’s going to remain a big part of the show. It’s a little different than the Jack situation in that any time you’re exploring the Pearson family in the past, Jack was in that story. William’s character only entered Randall’s family’s story in the last year, so there’s less of a backstory there. It means that if you’re going into his past more, you’re probably preceding his entrance into Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and the kids’ lives — which we will do as well, but he’s going to remain a substantial part of the series. How many? And when? We’re still figuring that all out.
How did Ron take it when you told him it was time for William to pass? Earlier in the season, he said that he didn’t want to know it was coming that it was “best to play it out like the character.”
I told him relatively early on in the season what the plan was, generally. We hadn’t talked the specifics of the how or the when. Ron’s such an actor’s actor that nothing knocks him off stride. It’s actually been trickier for the other cast members who are coming up to me. Susan keeps coming up to me. The other day, she was saying, “They’re not ready, Dan! They’re not ready!” — talking about America. And everybody loves him so much that nobody wants him to leave that story line. But Ron, to his credit, is always saying things like, “It’s all about the story — it’s what serves the story.” And he means it. This cast and the crew here are a real family, so it’s important to us and to everybody that Ron stay a part of the show beyond just the character of William, so we’re going to figure it all out.
What was the most challenging scene for you to write as you were plotting out this road trip episode?
There’s so much visual stuff here. I mean, my job as a writer probably pales in comparison on this episode to what the directors had to pull off, which was figuring out how to take that amazing song that our composer, Sid [Khosla], wrote and Brian Henry sings, and play out the entire song as you watch their band start growing in prominence. That’s a real tour de force of both music and directing and performance to make that montage work. It’s very easy to write in a screenplay, “Over the course of a year, we watched the band turn into a bit of a success,” and then I leave it to them to figure out how the f— they’re going to do that. [Laughs).] A lot of the challenges came to that — finding the visuals in Memphis and capturing some of the great improvisational stuff that Sterling and Ron did on the streets of Memphis, as they’re getting haircuts and drinking out of one segregated water fountain. That was written as — I literally wrote a note to John and Glenn and the guys saying, “I want you to find stuff there and make it feel like a road trip, and make it feel natural and not be chasing scripted dialogue.”
For the writing, I mean, writing a scene like that final scene, you want to get every word right, so if anything, I was poring and tweaking over the little wording and dialogue on that probably longer than anything I’ve written this year — just making sure that the rhythm would be right for Ron and the rhythm would be right for Sterling. I’d put those performances in that final scene up with anything that I’ve seen from actors in quite a while with a really high degree of difficulty — material and circumstances.
During the deathbed scene, we seeing Randall hold William’s head and show him how to breathe, just like Jack did for him. Randall is looking down on him like William’s mother once did, and William begins and ends his journey with her. There’s a lot of circle-of-life moments happening here. What did you want to accomplish in this final moment of William’s life? And what were those lines of dialogue that you found yourself poring over and tweaking?
It was a bunch of things. You’re trying to make it pithy in a way so that you’re not giving too, too much wisdom to a man in the throes of this all. You’re trying to choose your wording carefully. In terms of what I was thinking about, [it was] the big picture of it, it’s everything in the show. I always say that people on this show make ugly, flawed decisions, but they’re ultimately good. The show is optimistic but doesn’t shy away from the ugly or the bad. The most devastating thing we’ve done is kill off this beloved character, [but] hopefully, there’s also a degree of uplift to it. It’s about stories continuing forward and reuniting and about, “My story was a sad one, but now it’s not.”
There’s beauty and hope, and there’s a life-affirmingness to death here that was always the goal. But then not making it too easy either. There’s this beautiful, heroic goodbye and gift that William gives to Randall at the end, but then in the same moment at the end, he admits to being very scared. And it’s not quite heroic in that moment, it’s real, and it’s what happens to people. So trying to strike that balance for the show. Not be scared to kill off a main character just because everybody loves him, but then allow people to be devastated by it. But then also try to find a way to make it life-affirming. Or make your beloved character have a heroic goodbye but that also gets in a moment really real and vulnerable too. That was what we were trying to do as a whole — play up both sides of all those things.
NEXT PAGE: Fogelman on how Randall will be impacted by William’s death
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.
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