'This Is Us' Creator Breaks Down the Show's Cathartic and Tear-Inducing Farewell

Dan Fogelman talks with THR about Tuesday's emotional hour, "Memphis," and how it pays homage to his mother in a way.
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[This story contains spoilers from Tuesday’s “Memphis” episode of This Is Us.]

Ever since Randall (Sterling K. Brown) knocked on his biological father’s door in the pilot of NBC’s breakout freshman drama This Is Us and learned that he had incurable cancer, the writing has been on the wall for William (Ron Cephas Jones).

Now, following a string of treatments, the introduction of William’s lover, Jessie (Denis O’Hare), and a complicated storyline involving Rebecca (Mandy Moore) keeping William’s identity from Randall, William passed away in a Memphis hospital bed with his son by his side during Tuesday's emotional hour.

“Memphis” served as a bottle episode, the second of the season, and featured Randall and William on a road trip to the town where William grew up. The events of Tuesday's episode came a week after Randall’s crippling anxiety attack and served as a key lesson for the tightly wound Randall. In Memphis, William revisited his past as flashbacks completed the character's history — from birth in the early 1940s, to his special relationship with his mother and through his eventual drug-induced downfall. By episode’s end, William had also introduced Randall to his former best friend/cousin Ricky (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry). The episode also provided closure for William and Ricky as the duo were able to resolve the resentment between them after William never came back to their efforts to make it big after leaving to care for his mother. The hour revealed that William met Randall's biological mother while caring for his own mom and, following the latter's death, turned to drugs to cope. Ultimately it was his embarrassment over what he had become that led him off-track.  

In the episode’s tear-inducing final moments William left Randall with a book of poems he had written for his son and some sage advice: let other people make his bed, drive with the windows down and the music up, and grow out that 'fro.  

To break down the episode, explain William’s lingering influence and preview a cathartic follow-up episode for angst-ridden viewers, THR caught up with creator and showrunner Dan Fogelman.

Was this episode always a part of the first-season plan?

This was always part of the plan. We weren’t sure if it would be 16 or 18 episodes, but we always knew that it would either be episode 14 or 16 depending. It’s pretty mapped out. The only thing that really changed was that early in the [show's] incarnation we’d talked about William originally being from New Orleans and going there to shoot. And then we figured so much is shooting there lately that Memphis would be cool. We all liked that idea and thought it felt right for William.

Was it always going to be a bottle episode or are you able to do those types of episodes given the series’ early success?

The success of the show has allowed us to take creative chances that you’re not always able to take so early on. It makes for better television so it feeds itself a little bit. It’s like you start gambling a little more aggressively when you’re winning. That’s a terrible analysis! [Laughs.] If we think we can do it well, we’re going to do it. It’s always been part of what I thought would be interesting about the show. We have this unbelievable ensemble and any single one of them or two of them can take over an entire episode. It’s a good way of keeping the audience on its toes and making sure things don’t get stale. The nature of network television is we have to make a lot of episodes and do the same thing over and over again. It’s a little hard to tell complete stories with intricate details when you’re also trying to service nine characters. It’s a nice opportunity for us to do some special things and spread out our storytelling a little bit.

Are there any shows you look to for inspiration in that vein?

It’s a real construct of cable dramas, if you think about it. Not just a “stand-alone” episode, but an episode that focuses on one character or storyline predominantly is not unprecedented in cable. Even if you look at something like Noah Hawley on Fargo. Even the way that Aaron Sorkin used to play with episodic structure on The West Wing, for example. How it wasn’t every week where he serviced all five of his storylines. One episode would deal with flashbacks or a character. It’s a good way of keeping the audience engaged and awake and alert with your show instead of just kind of getting into that lull where you’re watching a television show but you’re also half texting. Or doing errands in your house. It’s a way of announcing yourself and saying, “Hey, pay attention or you might miss something different.”

Do you approach young and old William as two separate characters?

I always knew the story was going to involve some William flashbacks and then the road trip with Randall. The flashback would predominantly focus on the young man that William was, his relationship with his mother and the life that got away from him. They’re two separate stories but they’re obviously informing one another. I see him as one character, but you have to look at him through the spectrum of his life. It’s easy to hypothetically think of him as a guy before the drugs and the guy after. But we’ve always talked about all our characters — especially our older characters — as a whole. How did they get to where they are and what informs them. We never really approach it that way. We approach it as two different plotlines; how the past merges with the present so that when William walks into the bar 40 years later to an aged-up Ricky, how those stories are going to merge.

Ron is going to return. Is there a potential for him to become another Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) in a way?

In a way. It’s a little more complicated only in that to really actively involve William in every storyline is a little trickier because he’s only come into this immediate family’s life in the last year. Whereas Jack, anytime you flash back, he’s in the story. If you’re going to flash back to William a lot you’ve got to see his life before he came into Randall’s life. Which makes it a little more complex but it’s the same type of idea. Everybody talks about this character Jack who has essentially been dead the entire series. Yet he’s such a massive part of the show. William’s character is going to stay very much present the same way.

Will the postcard William bought in Memphis turn up in a future episode?

It’s possible. Our follow-up episode deals with the aftermath of all this. A memorial service and a little bit of a cathartic and hopefully fun and funny experience for the audience after the emotional weight of this one.

William sang "You Are My Sunshine," which his mother sang to him as a child. Does that song have any particular meaning to any of the writers?

It’s funny, I now can’t remember — and I wrote the script — because I’m so inside of the cut, but I don’t think that was in the script. I think that was something [directors] John Requa and Glenn Ficarra ad-libbed with the actor. It was just this little opening in the first cut I got, and I liked the sense of it so much that I asked if we could bring it back and make it almost that opening cover montage. Ironically enough, like so many things on this show, my little sister just had a baby. It’s my first niece and the first baby in our family. I went and visited her and my sister was putting the baby to sleep and singing her that song. She sings it to her every night. I was like, you have to see this — I’m just finishing editing an episode that starts with that. It was so odd and ironic.

Randall calls William “dad” for the very first time on his deathbed, what kind of weight did you want to give that moment?

He’s called him “William” and he’s called him “father” but they’ve resisted the terminology a little bit. So it’s an impactful moment and feels very pointed in a good way. They completely come to terms with whatever issues define their relationship.

What was your inspiration for the dialogue about a child looking down at their parent during death versus a parent looking down at their child in bed?

I don’t quite know where it came from, but I was struck by the image — I pictured it very much as it was, with William kissing the girls goodbye and then Randall saying goodbye to William in the hospital bed and how our roles can so often reverse in that orientation. How we come into the world looking up and we go out of the world looking up. But so many times in the middle we’re looking down at kids at other people and dying people. My mom passed away pretty tragically about eight years ago and I think I’ve been chasing covering some of this ground in a weird, kind of unrelated but kind of related way for a while. Maybe it had something to do with that but I can’t quite pinpoint any part of it.

Does that make this show a cathartic experience for you?

Yes…it’s hard with this show because it’s such a raw, emotional show that you don’t get to do a lot of self-therapy if you’re doing your job. You have to get analytical and treat the performances right and see what’s feeling right musically and all kinds of things. So you feel but you don’t feel as you would as an audience member. You have to create a little bit of a distance in order to make it right. I felt a great deal watching this cut for the first time. I felt a great deal writing it. But in terms of cathartic, people watching the show might experience it a bit more than the people working on it.

There’s a line in the episode where Randall describes Jack and his laugh. Is that how you’ve always seen Jack or does that inspiration come from how Milo plays him?

That comes from Milo and what he brings to Jack. He has a big laugh that kind of jumps up on him, I’ve always noticed when I’m watching him. And I’ve always thought that it really informs Jack. That was a line that I wrote a little bit more from what Milo brings to him than something that was always in my brain.

What can you say about the final two episodes of the season?

I’m very proud of how we’re ending the season, starting with the last episode when Kevin (Justin Hartley) ran to Randall in the office and now this "Memphis" episode. Next week deals with the opening of Kevin’s play as well as the memorial. Everybody is kind of involved in the finale in different ways but it’s really a Jack and Rebecca episode. There’s a lot of weight to it.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. What did you think of the big episode? Sound off in the comments below. For more on the episode, read THR's postmortem with Jones and Brown here.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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