[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, "Memphis." Read at your own risk!]
This Is Us is absolutely no stranger to tugging on the tear ducts of its large and faithful audience, but on Tuesday night the NBC drama delivered it's best executed episode yet in "Memphis" with an emotional gut punch that will leave viewers reeling for days. "Memphis" is the episode where William (Ron Cephas Jones) dies and it is the most unforgettable hour This Is Us has put up so far.
"Memphis" put Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and his biological father on the road to, you guessed it, Memphis, so that Randall could have a chance to learn about his roots before William died. The trip included a pit stop at Jack's (Milo Ventimiglia) grave tree, Randall meeting his extended family and a backstory that filled in the heartbreaking pieces of how William became the man that left his newborn son on the stoop of a fire station. It also included music — the music of William's past, the music that built him and the music that crafted the emotional soundscape needed to make "Memphis" have the emotional impact a goodbye to William deserves.
While Randall's biological father will return in Season 2 via flashbacks, this was his last episode as a living member of Randall's family. The goodbye culminated in a death scene in which William finally has the courage to call Randall his son. Randall helps William pass on with the grace of Jack Pearson's (Milo Ventimiglia) gentle pathos — merging his two fathers as he has to say goodbye to the only one he has left. TVGuide.com talked to Jones about filming the episode and how he tackled those emotional scenes.
When did you find out that William was going to die this season?
Ron Cephas Jones: I found out officially, or assuredly, somewhere around Episode 5. Dan [Fogelman, executive producer] had decided that he's definitely going to die, but then it was a matter of when and how. That I didn't know. I had to follow along with the script to find that out each time. I didn't know episodes ahead how he was going to die and I didn't know when. Each time I got a script, I was like, "Ah, okay. I'm still here!"
That sounds like it would be anxiety inducing, a little bit.
Jones: It was, for the actor. For the character, it worked perfectly. Every day you come in and you don't know if you're going to die. That's what William's thing was, "Six months ago a doctor told me I have three to live."
How early did you learn about William's full back story that we got in this episode?
Jones: I got it for the episode. There was still a lot I didn't know until I saw. I had heard about it and read about it, but I'm not on the scene when they film those [parts]. You read it in the script, but then you focus on your storylines. There was a lot of little things, bits and pieces that I just saw for the first time that I thought was really beautiful.
What surprised you the most about this episode?
Jones: I think it was when I saw the baby and William's sit down, calming look when he was a baby. That kind of blew me away. The mother and the teenager, which I had seen a bit of Jermel [Nakia, young William] doing amazing work. That's what kind of got me, today.
Was there a part that got you particularly emotional? Do you cry at the episodes?
Jones: Hell yeah. I have family. I have friends. I have people that have died from cancer and friends that are dealing with cancer. I have friends that have daughters. I have friends that have biological parents and adopted parents. I feel everything that the parents feel. In this particular case, you feel it more intensely because you're playing the particular emotion. That would be hands down, sitting on the bed dying. It stems from the work and how I work and how Sterling works. Letting the scene breathe without being overly melodramatic. Those are the moments that resonated for me a lot. We did that scene the first day of the episode, so, we didn't have time to build up to it or anything. It was heart wrenching. There were a lot of tears.
Was it better for you to film it first and get it out of the way?
Jones: It ended up being. It didn't feel that way. I wanted more time, but any time there's something that's hard you always want to procrastinate on it. After the fact, I felt great. I'm glad we got that out of the way, but then I realized there were some other little moments like that out of the way — stopping by Jack's grave at the tree.
That moment killed me!
Jones: That's a moment where you actually have a visual picture of Randall's two fathers. That's another exact moment where you say to yourself, "Randall has two fathers." You don't say, "Randall has a father and some guy who was his biological [dad]." He says on his death bed, "My son." He says, "My beautiful boy," and then he corrects himself and says, "My son." That's the culmination of all his life, getting back to what he had dropped off at the fire station. "It's a hell of a thing, you knocking on my door that day."
Did you read this episode before the table read or was that your first time finding out?
Jones: We read it before the table read. I happen to get wind of it because I asked early if I could have it because I knew it was coming up. Dan was gracious enough to send it to me early and maybe Sterling got it a little bit early too. We both just wanted to be on top of it. There was a lot of homework that I needed to do on it before we went ahead. I got a chance to do all my notes and do all my homework stuff.
Was there a moment in the episode or something from William's past that you learned completes him as a character for you?
Jones: A couple of things. I think his relationship to his mother informed a lot about his sensitivity, growing up without his father and also the music. You actually get to hear the type of music that he likes and writes. The music is permeating the episode. I thought the music was great. There were some good moments where you get that drumming thing going on. It just seemed to fit everything. I could go on and on. There are just so many wonderful little moments that aren't even coming to my head right now.
What's it like for you to have this goodbye episode to William, knowing there's a very good chance that we're going to see him again?
Jones: It's still difficult. You'll see him again but it won't be in this carnation. There's a sadness to it. The only consolation is that as an actor I know that I'm coming back to be able to hang out with my friends for those scenes. As far as William is concerned, I've just got to let him go now until next season. That's going to be a process, letting that character go. Sometimes he's still here. I can feel him or I'll say something that sounds too much like him.
Come back to TVGuide.com after the West Coast airing to see what executive producer Glenn Ficarra has to say about how Randall and the Pearson family will deal in the aftermath of William's death.
This Is Us returns March 7 at 9/8c c on NBC.