[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, "Memphis." Read at your own risk!]
Why is it that the heartbreaks we know are coming are the ones that hurt the most?
That's exactly what happened on Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, "Memphis," when William (Ron Cephas Jones) passed away from cancer. We have known from the pilot episode that he suffered from a terminal illness and there have been hints all season that William's death would be coming sooner rather than later. Still, "Memphis" allowed fans to spend an hour with the most emotionally evocative character of the entire series. It was a tribute to everything William brought to the show, filling in the gaps in his backstory and giving us a goodbye that won't soon be forgotten.
TVGuide.com talked to executive producer Glenn Ficarra, who directed the episode with fellow EP John Requa, about crafting the tear-jerking episode and what lays ahead for the Pearsons in the wake of William's death.
Did you know it was going to be a standalone episode when he came up with the road trip?
Glenn Ficarra: We did know; it was something we talked about while we were shooting the pilot episodes, that there would be all one — either all in one timeline, or all one character things like this. I think this is the first one that did it, I don't think it's going to be the last.
Why did it feel important to have an episode that was just William and Randall?
Ficarra: I think just to give it the time and the respect that it deserves. They're both phenomenal actors. And just to kind of like really explore and not get it jammed into four scenes in an hour and try to tell it all, it was really nice. And also to get the backstory. The way the episode is structured is really cool. I think, because you're watching the slow train wreck of young William's life, it's not overly tragic but you know where it's headed. To see all that promise laid out — just a couple of bad breaks and bad decisions, your entire life changes. You had to have that time to do all of that.
You guys shot the death scene first. Was that a scheduling or creative decision?
Ficarra: Actually at first it was a scheduling suggestion and we debated that. You usually like to shoot chronologically, but when you're dealing with actors of this caliber it is not really an issue. Then we started saying, "Well, it might be good to just get it out of the way so we're not just dreading it the entire time because that would affect the performance." We didn't want it to feel like a funeral or dread...we want to get lost in the room.
It feels like these guys have a really good working chemistry especially when it comes to Sterling and Ron together. What kind of direction are you giving them when you set them in these intense circumstances? What do you say to them, or do you kind of just let them do their own thing?
Ficarra: You always start at a place of letting them do their own thing and you have whatever taste you have or whatever wishes you have. I think because it might be different for [John and I] than it is for another director on the show because we were there for the pilot and the casting of the characters...We were there at the conception of the characters and those conversations, we feel like we have a right to continue those conversations...
You know there's a whole visual element to these things, but mostly it's a fun place to play. They're really great. For example, a lot of that montage stuff we had not a lot of time and not a lot of money. We were only in Memphis for two days and had to shoot a tremendous amount of stuff, but they're two of the best actors I've ever worked with. We knew we could do it all in time because it wasn't going to do be trying to get a performance out of them or anything. We knew exactly what we were going to get. So a lot of that montage stuff is one take and improvised and we would just talk about it on the way to location, "You're going to go in and order some barbecue and talk about pulled pork. We're just kind of writing it out loud and they would go, 'Okay.'" We sent the cameraman in there, they probably just roll. It was one take, great material.
As personal as this episode is there's also some really great moments that make you laugh out loud which feels kind of important when you're going to make people openly sob. How do you guys balance that in a script like this?
Ficarra: Dan [Fogelman, executive producer] is really good at inserting that stuff. He's always had a great balance we tend to agree with which is... I think everybody uses humor to defuse reality. I can't think of anything so dramatic in my life where there was never a moment of levity, even at the darkest time... That's how people deal. They hide behind humor. So I think it's more real people will call it dramedy, but I think that's more real than real drama.
Now, even though we're going to see William in flashback, how is the absence of William going to be felt in the last two episodes of the season?
Ficarra: There will be a direct connection to this episode in the next episode. So he will be mourned and I think it's going to open up a kind of thing with Randall like, what's next and what does it mean? I mean it was nice... the nice part about having his character dying from the get go is there was always this kind of clock, Randall had this pressure to learn as much as possible in very little time. And he might not have had time to learn everything (bum bum bum).
Is Beth going to be ready for this? I mean she's kind of been preparing but I feel like it's going to take an emotional toll on her.
Ficarra: It will. I believe the next episode deals with that. She has a kind of a complicated relationship to what happened. I don't want to give too much away. But it's very well done.
Can you say whether it brings her and Randall closer or if it causes problems for Beth and Randall?
Ficarra: Nothing long term. But I think it's going to be more out of the bigger picture of how Randall absorbs this or tries to find meaning in all of this.
It also would have to bring up feels for Kate and Kevin as well. Are we going to see them react to it?
Ficarra: I think [Episode] 117 is going to directly deal with people's feelings about it. You know it's hinted at in the show that Kevin is close to him. We're already seeing how Kevin and Randall are getting closer and their relationship. You're going to feel it with everybody one way or another, probably more with Kevin than Kate.
When you come back for Season 2 how does knowing that you also have Season 3 affect how you lay that out? Do you try to lay out two seasons at a time?
Ficarra: John and I have not been in the big meeting yet with what the plan is but we have had a lot of conversation about the potential. We're hoping to do that this week actually. I think this thing could be infinite. We're constantly filling in a lot of blanks. Also you're able to spiderweb out as much as you want because it's a family and you know it goes — infinite. Everybody has a backstory you know, a goal and a present we can pretty much operate in those lines. We can go back. We can still be with William, we can see stuff we haven't seen with William when he was living at the house. We can always come back. That's what I like about this show, it always revisits stuff.
Is there a story that hasn't been told yet that you would like to pitch for Season 2?
Ficarra: When we were shooting the stuff with cousin Ricky, who owns the club and plays the bass, I thought there could be a whole thing in Memphis with Ricky and young William. You could also do a more modern thing where Randall wants Ricky to fill him in on stuff he's missed. I don't know if that's happening but it's something I've pictured. We haven't even scratched the surface with Beth and her family, and how they factor into all this. There's a whole history. We've seen the history with Jack and Rebecca, we haven't seen that with Randall and Beth so that's a huge potential right there.
This Is Us returns March 7 at 9/8c on NBC.