This Is Us Takes William Home To Memphis
And Randall discovers the depth of his roots.
Before I even get to "Memphis," I want to say that, if you haven't watched the episode, stop reading and come back later, when you're done sobbing. I'm not trying to protect you from spoilers; you're probably already spoiled. I just want you to see it before you join in any analysis of the journey Randall and William took and everything we learned about how the paths of their lives began, intertwined, and reached a destination. According to the press materials, this episode was sketched out and planned from the very beginning of the show, and I believe that in almost every point, it realized a very beautiful vision.
As William reaches the end of his life, he feels desperate to connect his son to his own beginnings by taking a road trip to his home town. Forgive me for smirking only for a second that this town was Memphis and that it turns out William was a talented musician playing and writing in a smoky blues club. I mean, old black men can do other stuff. Still, this cliché is forgivable when we're introduced to William's mother and see the course her life and his life took to land him on that bus where he met the lovely woman who gave birth to Randall.
What an unexpected joy to be given this sketch of William's life. It is an absolute clinic of showing, not telling, and it worked to within an inch of perfection. Jermel Nakia, who plays the younger William, is so tender in every moment. And: Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta) as William's cousin? I did see (because I am stalker) many recent crossover instagrams between Henry and Sterling K. Brown, so I did wonder if something like this would happen, but would not allow myself to believe. Henry is a great actor, and to have him represent the parts of William's life that might have been if not for what William calls those "bad breaks and bad decisions" is an inspired choice.
I've seen This Is Us labeled as overly sentimental and heavy-handed, and it can be both of those things (I guess). In "Memphis," where those elements come to the fore -- William's quickie return to his childhood home to find his treasures, and his too-fast reunion with his cousin at the bar -- they are irritating drops of what is otherwise a truthful, emotional waterfall about the million and one events and decisions that shape a life, and the endless implicating ripples that affect families for generations.
I've said before that I am a parent via adoption. I'm also married to a person who was adopted. It's in my house and on my mind pretty much every day. And I think I have expressed how grateful I am to This Is Us for their honest look at the implications of adoption across the "triad," as it's called -- the adopted person and both their biological and adoptive parents.
At first, the trip to thank Jack's tree for being such a fine father to Randall felt shoehorned in. I set that aside to watch it again more closely and cried. I don't need (or warrant) gratitude from my child's birth family, but I do want them to think I'm doing a good job, for her sake. Does that make sense? I'm sure it does.
I appreciate so much that they allowed this part of Randall's story to be told through his paternal line. I know it's to parallel the loss of Jack (and I truly fear whatever will happen next week, if this episode was so painful), but the birthfather story is generally given so little consideration when talking about adoption, and that's unfair to everyone involved. In my case, no one ever asks me about my child's "real" father, but always about her mother. Now, is it safe to say that in most cases there's probably not a sweet, quiet guy like William out there, yearning for his son and writing poetry to set aside for their inevitable reunion? Maybe. But I was glad to have relief from the pearl-clutching that goes on around how "a woman" could "give up" her baby. William, because Randall's mother died, was forced in his crisis to make the decision birthmothers often face alone when choosing placement, and as much as I came to love William, I felt some kind of vindication that for once the onus of that decision was taken off a mom. For any Williams in the world who do live with this pain, I hope it was something of relief to be represented so gently. It is what every birthparent deserves.
For a man who has just come off a serious nervous breakdown, Randall handles the emotional rollercoaster of this trip with grace. As they have with many other difficult subjects, the show's portrayal of the desperate final moments in the hospital is illustrated with strokes of agonizing reality. Sterling K. Brown's last talk with the doctor on call should serve as his résumé for life. He nearly outshines even the great Ron Cephas Jones, who is convincingly dying, for crying out loud.
In the end, the exchange between the two of them as William passes away and passes on his legacy to his son perfectly crystallizes the beauty and forgiveness that is possible in a parent/child relationship. That Randall could use the skills Jack taught him him to bring comfort to his first father is a beautiful thing, indeed.