It was only a matter of time before William’s (Ron Cephas Jones) terminal cancer would take its toll, but we weren’t expecting it to hit us this hard. On Tuesday’s episode, titled “Memphis,” Randall (Sterling K. Brown) accompanied William on a road trip to his hometown of Memphis.
But William wouldn’t make it back to Pittsburgh, dying in a Memphis hospital with Randall calming William as his late father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), would -- placing his hands on both sides of William’s head and gently telling him to “breathe with me” as his biological dad drew his last breath. “And we’d just sit there, breathing together until it passed,” recalls Randall of Jack’s calming presence at one point in the trip.
Before we get deeper into what William’s heart-wrenching death means for Randall and his perspective on life, we have to start from the beginning of the road trip. The road trip wasn’t just William’s last chance to see old friends and visit old haunts, but an opportunity for him to bond with Randall and learn a little bit more about his relationship with Jack. Describing Jack as “larger than life,” Randall fondly remembers, “He had this really great laugh. When he laughed, it was like it almost surprised him, like it surprised him that he could laugh so freely.”
The two pay a visit to Jack’s unofficial resting place by a tree at his favorite park, at William’s request. Though Jack was cremated, a part of his ashes were spread there. William takes the rare moment to pay his respects to Jack, thanking him for doing what he couldn’t. “For raising him for the man he is. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you brother. I would’ve liked to have heard your laugh. I would’ve liked to have met my son’s father.”
The next day, William brings Randall by his childhood home, where the kind occupants of the house allow William to retrieve his “treasure.” He hid a few toys behind a loose brick in the fireplace as a young boy, and was pleasantly shocked to see the toys were still there. Later, they go to the Memphis jazz club William used to perform at in his cousin Ricky’s (Brian Tyree Henry) band, so William could apologize and right some wrongs.
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What we learn, through glimpses of William’s past, is that he was on the brink of stardom as the group’s keyboardist/songwriter, choosing to leave to care for his ailing mother in Pittsburgh and it’s then he has that fateful meeting on the bus with Randall’s mother, Laurel. (After William’s mom dies, he starts doing hard drugs.) Though William -- or us, for that matter -- wouldn’t know it, it’s his one final hurrah, performing onstage with Ricky and the band without a care in the world.
Randall and William’s plans to see the ducks the following day get thrown out the window when Randall finds William struggling to breathe in bed and sends him to the hospital. Still not hitting Randall that William isn’t long for this world, he asks the doctor questions about travel (and trivial things like that) before the severity of the situation hits him like a ton of bricks: “Your father is not leaving this hospital.”
Everything after that moment is compounded 100 times over. Randall has one last heart to heart with William -- those life conversations you always see in TV and the movies, if you will, where William advises him to live life a little less buttoned up. “Roll all your windows down, Randall. Crank up the music. Grow out that fro. Let someone else make your bed,” he tells his son. “You deserve the beautiful life you’ve made. You deserve everything, Randall. My beautiful boy. My son.”
“I haven’t had a happy life. Bad breaks. Bad choices. A life of almosts and could haves. Some would call it sad, but I don’t, because the two best things in my life are the person in the very beginning (William’s mother) and the person at the very end (Randall),” William continues, before sensing that his time on this Earth is nearing its end. “I’m scared.” “You’re OK, Dad,” Randall says, before channeling Jack in calming William down. “You’re good. Just breathe. Come on now, breathe with me.”
It isn’t long before William, the character we spent 16 episodes learning about alongside Randall, breathes his last breath. The most striking visual comes moments later, when Randall -- alone in his car, with a copy of William’s book, Poems for My Son, in the passenger seat -- stops in front of a family of ducks, having a moment of clarity.
This Is Usprides itself on leaning into the emotional moments in every episode, but Tuesday’s felt more significant -- perhaps because we have yet to delve into the impact William’s death will have on Randall and the rest of the Pearsons. Unlike Jack’s death, which happened decades earlier (the cause of which is still unknown), it’s unclear if Randall will borrow William’s advice, for instance, or if this means he’ll have more reason to visit Memphis to learn more about his extended family.
Jones spoke to ET exclusively after a private screening of the episode, admitting “it was emotional” watching the episode. “I felt, probably like you felt and anyone else watching it. I’m a big fan of the show too, and all the feelings hit me the same way.”
For the veteran actor, filming William’s death scene in the hospital was one he knew would be most challenging.
“We did that first so there was no build-up to it. That was difficult, because like most people, you have someone in your family -- several people in my family died from cancer and I have a good friend who’s struggling with it at the moment,” Jones said. “That was the most difficult moment for both of us, Sterling and myself. But we had such comfortability with each other, we took care of each other and it made the scene even better. As actors, we can open ourselves up and feel safe, and that’s what we did and I noticed it resonated on the screen.”
What did you think of William’s heartbreaking goodbye? What does this mean for Randall? Hit us up in the comments below or on Twitter at @ETnow!