This recap contains spoilers for This Is Us Season 1, episode 16, titled “Memphis.”
In an episode sure to make Kleenex shares skyrocket, this week’s installment of This Is Us takes us back to Williams early life in Memphis, where we meet his cousin Ricky and learn that William was once on track to become a serious songwriter and musician until his burgeoning career was derailed by the death of his mother and his subsequent drug addiction.
While in Memphis, Randall also gets to connect with an assortment of heretofore unknown cousins, and in the process, we get to see exactly how delightful he is while drunk. COUSINS!
To kick us off, Randall and Beth pay a visit to Randalls psychiatrist for a check-up after Randalls recent anxiety attack. Randall asserts hes in great shape to do a road trip with William to Memphis, over Beths strenuous objections. (I’m glad that the doctor observed how adorable they are as a couple, too, because they are officially too much. #RelationshipGoals.)
As father and son head out on the road, William asks Randall to tell him about Jack, and Randall recalls how Jack would hold his face in his hands and help him to breathe whenever Randall had a panic attack as a kid.
They stop at the park where the family scattered some of Jacks ashes, and William thanks Jack for doing what he couldnt do: raising Randall to be the man that he is. This is the moment that our tears start flowing, and they pretty much continue for the entire hour.
Memphis Adventures: Barbecue and Blues
Though William is clearly getting weaker, hes overjoyed to be on the road with Randall and making what he knows is his last visit to his hometown.
Upon arriving, Randall takes William to his childhood home, where William finds a few toys that he hid in the brick fireplace when he was a kid allowing Sterling K. Brown to demonstrate his comedic chops in one of many laugh-out-loud scenes this episode.
After a stop for local barbecue, they go to Melvins Place, the club where William and his cousin Ricky (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry) used to play. We flash back to the younger William and Ricky performing an R&B ballad William wrote and its clear the band had a real future, which was interrupted when Williams mother called and told him she was sick.
Good son that he is, William naturally leaves to care for her, and Cousin Ricky makes him promise to return with a notebook full of new hit songs. Sadly, that didn’t quite work out.
In the present, the two men talk about the fact that William never returned Ricky is still bitter about it. While William was caring for his ailing mom, he met Randall’s biological mother on a bus, as we saw earlier this season, and the two quickly fell in love both of them supporting William’s mom in her final weeks.
But it clearly wasn’t an idyllic courtship; it looks like William’s girlfriend started using first, then after his mother died, he started down that slippery slope with her. So much for his dreams of songwriting and Memphis now we understand Williams decline and the circumstances that left him so isolated.
As Randall connects with a group of his cousins while William and Ricky jam onstage, he pauses to take a call from Beth, who tells him he sounds really good and shes right. This is the happiest weve seen Randall in awhile, and it’s thrilling to see.
Whats equally wonderful is watching Randall connect with his identity as a black man throughout the hour, and how at ease he feels when surrounded by the family he never knew. He makes a cheesy Oprah joke and excuses it with a wry explanation that I grew up with white people, but watching him here, his longing for a sense of community is tangible, and it’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming to see him making up for lost time.
One of the episode’s best moments is also one of the most subtle: The way Sterling K. Brown sells Randall’s pride at being told he looks like William by Ricky is a joy to watch it’s external validation of a connection he’s obviously been craving for a long time, and it’s a beautifully honest reaction.
Alas, all good things must come to an end.
William’s Final Gift
The next morning, Randall finds William unable to move and immediately transports him to a hospital, where a doctor tells Randall what we all knew going into this episode: William is near death and wont be leaving the hospital.
Randall offers to call Beth and get her and the girls to Memphis to say goodbye, but William tells him that he doesn’t want the girls to see him like this he said goodbye to his granddaughters already, on his own terms, looking down at them and appearing strong. He doesn’t want their memories to be tainted by seeing him so frail.
William gives Randall a sheaf of papers titled Poems For My Son and then admits hes a little scared. Randall gently holds Williams face the way Jack used to do for Randall, and tells him to just breathe. William closes his eyes, and after his life flashes before our eyes, we see him joyfully reuniting with his mother who is once again young and vibrant and hugging her tight. (Brb, bawling.)
Keeping It 100
Randall drives home and rolls down his car windows, as William advised him to do. Will he also grow out his fro as William suggested? There are two episodes left this season, so maybe well find out. What we do know is that Randall is carrying William in his heart, now and forever. Hes not just Jacks son anymore, hes the son of a poet too. As Randall fights back tears in his car, we’re right there with him especially when the ducks that they planned to visit together cross the road, forcing him to stop and take in the moment.
Punches in the feels:
We progressed from tearing up to full-on bawling by the scene when William left his earthly body. Anyone who has lost a loved one will need time to crawl out from the emotional wreckage of that image. We cant be mad at it though, because the story unfolds so gently and beautifully that even though we can see the sadness coming, were compelled to go along for the ride. Once again, This Is Us illustrates the beauty in sadness, reminding us that grief is an essential part of a life lived well because without pain, one cant truly appreciate joy.
We suspect everyone connected to This Is Us will experience a lot of joy come Emmy time. Their toughest task may be deciding which of the terrific episodes to submit for consideration. Memphis is definitely a top contender.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.