A review of tonight’s all-Randall episode of This Is Us coming up just as soon as I’m up to 12 cousins in various forms…
“You deserve everything, Randall. My beautiful boy. My son.” -William
When people find out what I do for a living, they immediately want to talk about their favorite current show. There are times when lots of different tiles come up, and others where they keep mentioning the same one over and over — which is the case right now with This Is Us. And, completely unprompted by me, everyone will express some version of the same opinion: “The guy who plays Randall is amazing! I like his parents a lot, too. The other brother and sister, I could take or leave.” (Some slightly prefer Kevin to Kate, or vice versa, but that’s as extreme as the variations get.) This speaks to what a tremendous job Dan Fogelman, Sterling K. Brown, and company have done in turning Randall into the show’s breakout character, but also to the imbalance of what’s designed as a pure ensemble vehicle, only most of the audience would rather be watching The Randall Show(*).
(*) Said show would still feature Jack and Rebecca, and maybe even adult versions of Kevin and Kate, but their stories would primarily be about how they relate to Randall. (Sixteen episodes into the actual This Is Us, I still have no idea what Randall and Kate think of one another.)
There can be a danger to promoting a character who’s first among equals into a pure lead (though it sure worked for Homicide when the writers saw what they had in Andre Braugher), or removing the other characters altogether, because what worked great in contrast to the others may not be enough to stand on its own. (Case in point: Joey on Friends vs Joey on Joey.) So I looked to “Memphis” — an episode where 95% of the screen time was devoted to Randall and William, and where Jack was the only other lead to appear in so much as a cameo — with both enthusiasm and a bit of trepidation.
Fortunately, “Memphis” — which Fogelman (who wrote the script) says he’d had in mind since the pilot — lived up to every expectation one might have had for the show’s first Randall spotlight episode. As both a road trip story and one that concludes with William’s death, it’s not a formula that the series can readily duplicate, but it proved that Randall’s individual story was so compelling that it needed no support from any other members of the Pearson clan this week.
Really, though, this was a Randall-and-William two-hander, and served as a beautiful farewell to Randall’s biological father, and to the lovely and wise performance Ron Cephas Jones has given over this season. “Memphis” featured the show’s time-bent structure at its most powerful, proceeding mostly chronologically though William’s long and often difficult life, but bouncing back and forth through moments both new and old. In particular, the intermingling of the bus montage from the beginning of “Kyle” in with new material about William caring for his dying mother — and the way that her death helped lead him down the path of addiction that kept him out of Randall’s life for 36 years — hit like a pile of those bricks from William’s childhood fireplace.
But “Memphis” was full of lovely touches, from the way that both Randall and William refer to Jack as “my/your father” (no matter how close biological son and dad have become, Jack’s role in Randall’s life can never be usurped) to the understated performance by Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi from Atlanta) as William’s cousin Ricky. Ricky’s introduced in a way where he could be bad news — either the corrupting influence that helps introduce William to drugs, or someone who steals his ideas out from under him (which in turn helps lead him to drugs) — but instead he believes in his cousin’s talent and wants the two of them to rise up together. The sequence where we see the band begin to draw bigger and more enthusiastic crowds thanks to William’s song was simultaneously warm and bittersweet, because we knew something would come along to derail it. In this case, it had nothing to do with the band itself, but with William’s absolute devotion to his mother, and to the chain of tragic circumstances that kept him from ever making it back to Memphis.
As William notes in the episode’s climax, his life took many wrong turns — his father’s death in combat, falling in love with someone who helped make him an addict, her death, only getting to know his son for a few precious months at the end — but he got to begin and end his life looking at the two best things in it, and that’s better than many get. And in his final moments with his biological father, Randall gets to figuratively bring Jack into the room by holding William’s face in the same way his own father did for him so many times when he was a scared little boy.
The only downside of an episode like “Memphis” is that it costs the show such a vibrant character, and such a great performer in Jones(*). But if this episode, and this moment, was the plan all along, it would have done This Is Us a disservice to give William a cancer miracle just to keep him around to offer pearls of wisdom to Randall, the girls, and even Kevin. This is where the story was heading, and the payoff was powerful enough to be worth the future cost.
(*) What a run Jones has been on the last few years, starting with Mr. Robot, then pivoting into this show, Luke Cage, and The Get Down all in the same year. He’s been a working actor for a long time, with film and TV credits dating back to the mid-’90s, but you don’t usually see a performer get their first major burst of work when they’re turning 60.
And while much of Randall’s character arc this season has been defined by him getting to know William, there’s still so much left to explore, particularly as we’ve come to see how the perfection that makes him such an appealing character can also take such a devastating emotional toll on him. Randall’s search for his past was such a fundamental part of who he is that it will be hard for the series to hit another moment as devastatingly as this one, but Randall has more than earned his position of prominence in the series, now and going forward.
The writers have shown a capacity for growth with the other characters — a week after I lamented how every Kate story was about her weight, we got a strong subplot where she and Toby realized they needed to get to know each other beyond that subject — and maybe we’ll reach a point where the hypothetical The Randall Show doesn’t seem inherently more appealing than the actual This Is Us. Tonight, though, we can celebrate the show focusing entirely on its best character, and delivering its best episode yet as a result.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org