Post Mortems
This Is Us Memphis William Ron Cephas Jones

This Is Us EPs and Ron Cephas Jones on William's Emotional Trip to Memphis

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us.

One of This Is Us‘ main characters played his final notes this week. Randall’s birth father William (Ron Cephas Jones), the elderly poet who always had a sage bit of wisdom to offer, finally succumbed to his season-long battle with cancer during a nostalgia-filled trip with Randall to his hometown of Memphis.

Tuesday’s episode, “Memphis,” was a real heartbreaker from start to finish, with poignant flashbacks to a young William finding success as a keyboard player and songwriter in his cousin Ricky’s band — wasn’t that song great? — and a sob-worthy deathbed conversation between William and Randall. (And don’t even get us started on the ducks.)

Jones knew early on this episode would be a special one, he told reporters at a press screening last week. He calls the first table read “an open-mouth moment… like, ‘I can’t believe what I’m reading.’ It affected me that way.” He remembers turning to costars Sterling K. Brown (Randall) and Susan Kelechi Watson (Beth) afterwards: “Each of us was waiting for one of us to confirm what we just read. It was this feeling of, ‘There’s something special here. And I’m not sure if it’s real or not.’ It was that moment of frightening horror and extreme excitement, all in one.”

This Is Us Memphis William RandallThe show’s writing staff struggled with the decision to kill off William, according to executive producer John Requa, who co-directed “Memphis” along with fellow EP Glenn Ficarra. “We went through all the stages [of grief],” he admits. “A lot of bargaining.” But “ultimately, we felt like it was the right thing to do.” The writers had always planned to bookend Randall’s character arc this season with “the introduction and death of his birth father… and we had to respect those impulses. Because it’s easy to get compromised, especially with a popular show.”

Ficarra agrees: “We’re like a big family, and you don’t want to lose anybody.” But he also offers a sliver of hope that we may see William again somewhere down the road: “The beauty of the show is, you don’t really lose them, because we’re always [moving] forward and back in time… We’re always filling in blanks, and even looking at things from different points of view. We feel like we could do that for a long time. There’s a lot of potential, now that Randall’s met his Memphis family.”

Jones is “excited” about the possibility of William returning in future episodes, whether in flashbacks or in a Jack-style hallucination: “I know I’ll be seen, one way or another.” And of course, on a show like this, even a character’s death doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road. “As we like to say on This Is Us, death is not a release,” Requa laughs, adding: “Our main character has never been alive for the entire run!”

This Is Us Memphis Randall Sterling K. BrownSo how will William’s death affect Randall? “I think he’s going to look for meaning in it,” Ficarra says. “The episode kind of completed him, in a way. But it also tore something else open.” Requa hints that William’s passing inspires “a change in direction” for Randall: “We tried to make it not just a sad episode, but an episode that had a little bit of hope in it — a sense that life is about transitions, and death is just one of those. Maybe this is a trajectory change for him.”

And Jones thinks that William’s calming influence will stick with Randall, even after he’s gone: “He’s been infected by his biological father, and I think that whole Memphis experience is going to carry him through a lot of difficulties that’ll come up. And wonderful things, also. That’s just the way family is.”

What did you think of William’s farewell episode? And what does his death mean for Randall? Drop your thoughts in a comment below.

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. Leah says:

    Noooo!!! William!!!!!! Okay that was beautiful, magnificent and pretty much perfect. “The best things in my life were at the very beginning and the very end”. OMG.

  2. Sam says:

    Just fantastic. The storytelling always comes full circle. I love this show so much.

  3. kn1231 says:

    Well, I’ve never cried so much during a single episode of a tv show. My stomach is still in knots thinking about it. This episode made me feel as though I was losing my own father. I am not doing well after this episode, and it’s going to take me a while to recover.
    I will say that I’m very thankful for the subtle comic relief they added, because this episode needed it. My favorite moment: “AND YOU GET A COUSIN, EVERYBODY GETS A COUSIN”. I’m a sucker for a good Oprah reference.

  4. GraceM says:

    I was surprised how quickly the show had William’s health deteriorate and how soon he died. I would have thought somewhere in season 3 we would see William die.

    I’m not saddened by his death, because he’s not suffering anymore and in the end got to see his mother again.

    It was interesting to see William’s childhood and how he got hooked on drugs. Now I know it was Laura who got into the drugs first and not William. Too bad he never knew his father.

    It’s interesting how his own mother died of Cancer too. Something Randall needs to look out for in his future.

  5. Lauren says:

    I was literally hiccuping from crying so hard. That was so beautifully done – even beyond what I expected.

  6. kelly says:

    I hate to see William go so soon. This show is just getting so sad. So much happens. It gets so sad that I don’t know what they can do in season 2 and on without just being depressing.

  7. Jane says:

    *honks like a duck while blowing my nose*

    Ducks! *wails for a while, blows nose again*

    Whew. #ThisIsTherapy was a killer episode. As soon as I saw Randall making his bed and talking about the ducks, I just KNEW. it’s not like we weren’t expecting it but it still was beautiful, heartbreaking, and inspiring.

    William really was a poet his entire life. He got lost along the way but I can’t wait to see Randall explore those poems. I feel bad for Jesse but I expect he had already said husband goodbyes.

    And it’s adorable that Randall and Beth know they are adorable even when irritated at each other. Randall, you are blessed to have that woman. She has your back in every way.

    Excellent episode.

    • Jane says:

      Some how ‘his’ was autocorrected to ‘husband’. I don’t think WILLIAM and Jesse had tied the knot, just autocorrected.

  8. Jacquie says:

    I can see why this is NBC’s #1 hit TV series because the actors make you this seem so real! Williams’ death–I’m speechless because I didn’t want his character to end but I got a strong feeling we’ll being seeing him again. Question is where does his character go from here? But again that’s why it’s #1 cause it makes you wanna keep watching. Congratulations NBC this one is gonna go far!!!

  9. flowerduh says:

    Wow! NBC knocked it out of the park with this show! This show actually makes you feel some type of way. My favorite scene is when William visited Randalls father grave and thanked him for raising a good man.

  10. mrmcgee says:

    I’m still crying, which is something I’ve not done to a tv program in ages. This brought back a lot of the emotions and memories from losing my dad to cancer seven years ago. That look of terror on William’s face in the hotel bed: I remember my dad’s face looking just like that. Such a beautiful episode, but it’s going to take me a while to recover

    • Gregory S. McNeill says:

      It is a powerful episode. I had lost my mother 17 years ago and cried. I can definitely relate to that loss. All I can say is wow and excellent job to the actors especially William Cephas Jones and Sterling K. Brown.

  11. Pedro says:

    I feel cheated with these prequels episodes. The second in a short season. The stories are nice, but inconsequential. I knew the ending by the beginning and then it was an hour of sweet platitudes and fortune cookie life lessons when this show is so often above cheap sentimentality.

    • flowerduh says:

      Oh stop! You’re applying logic to an episode that is more emotional than anything. Yes we all knew at the beginning that William is gonna die. This episode is about William having closure. There’s nothing cerebral about a man that’s gonna die. What did you want him to do? Say, ” Ok Randall. I’m gonna die. Have a stiff upper lip.” Seriously?

      • Pedro says:

        I felt no emotion except for the end. I felt they were cheaply trying to manipulate my emotions with an episode that, overall, again, except for the end, didn’t move anything forward. Because this show is so good and usually much better at this, eliciting real emotion, it bothered me. This Is Us is usually a Oscar-calibre drama. This week was a Lifetime film.

        • mary says:

          Didn’t move anything forward??? Knowing more about his father will move Randall forward.

        • :-) says:

          Moving forward : Randall found more family (not much on the Pearson side. The little boy that always wanted to know where he came from got a lot of questions answered.

          Randall learned to relax and not be uptight.
          The specter of William’s death is no longer hanging over the family.

    • DS says:

      then don’t watch the show if this is how you feel, we don’t need any negativity for this great show.

      • Pedro says:

        So, if I don’t like 2 episodes out of 16, I shouldn’t watch the show? You make no sense.

        • mary says:

          I don’t understand how this episode you thought was cheap. We saw a glimpse into William’s life. It was about a son being able to be with his father in his final moments. And there’s nothing cheap when you’ve lost a parent, or both in my case. Those are the moments you take with you for life. No sir, not cheap at all.

          • Pedro says:

            It was done cheaply, as if try to manipulate our feeling. Which surprised me, because the show is usually above this and handles real emotion so well.

  12. bigdede says:

    I’m really shocked they didn’t have William go into remission or something. His character is so popular and loved. William/Randall storyline is what hooked me and losing William felt so real to me. That actor made that character come alive. I felt like I was honestly losing a loved one.
    I hope the actor wins an Emmy and gets some great movie roles.

  13. queensgirl says:

    I’m happy that we will see William again; I was hoping that would be the case.

    • LL says:

      Wonderful episode and we will definitely see William again. After all, Jack has been dead throughout the whole series and we see him often!

  14. Mary says:

    Love this show. I know every week I am going to get a good cry but it is like therapy. It has been a long time since a good realistic drama has been on TV. I wish it wasn’t a short season but we probably need time to recoup.

  15. Cate says:

    Such a strong and emotional episode with great performances from Sterling K Brown and Ron Cephas Jones. Loved the impact made by Amanda Warren and Brian Tyree Henry who brought William’s mother and cousin to life wonderfully. Masterful acting and writing.

  16. CountryQueen says:

    I can’t even read about it without breaking down today! This show is the best.

  17. Kere Duffey says:

    Where can I download william’s song?

    • Debi says:

      Do we have an answer to this? I’d love to download William’s song, it’s amazing! Almost as amazing as the acting; this show has the best writing on TV!

  18. Tay says:

    I’m still crying…. but it made me want to cherish each moment of life and live!

  19. Judy stevens says:

    Love the show with out ryanait stinck.