Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode 116 of “This Is Us,” titled “Memphis.”
Breathe, everyone. Just breathe.
In one of “This Is Us'” most heartbreaking episodes yet, William (Ron Cephas Jones) lost his season-long battle with cancer, while he and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) were enjoying a father-and-son bonding trip to his hometown of Memphis.
For the executive producers of “This is Us,” the decision to finally end William’s life wasn’t an easy one, but it was inevitable.
“We’re like a big family and we don’t want to lose anybody,” explains executive producer Glenn Ficarra, who also directed the episode along with John Requa. “But the beauty of the show is you don’t really lose them. Because we’re always going back in time. So that was the consolation.”
It was a decision they admit they struggled with. “We went through all the stages of death, bargaining,” says Requa. “It’s easy to get compromised with a popular show. But ultimately we felt like it was the right thing to do.”
But there is some good news for fans: This doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of Jones. “As we like to say on ‘This Is Us,’ death is not a release,” says Requa. “Our main character has never been alive.”
Adds Ficarra: “That’s the greatest thing about this show. We’re always filling in blanks in this one very small story. We’re looking at things from different points of view. You just get another angle.”
Jones confirms that he’ll return next season. “I did get the word that I’ll be back. We’re hoping it will be in a big way,” he says. “It all revolves around how (showrunner Dan Fogelman) writes and what kind of stories he’ll bring out for next season. There’s a lot of thinking left to do. And we’ll see how this season ends and what they need to focus on for next season. But I’m happy to say I’ll definitely be back on Paramount Studios for next season.”
The producers wouldn’t reveal much about their plans for William’s future in flashbacks, but did allow that the trip to Memphis and the reveal of family connections for Randall opened up new opportunities to explore. “We’ve created a world in Memphis,” says Requa. “The question is, do we go play there some more?”
Look for Randall, who’s already fragile given his recent panic attack, to be impacted by his father’s death, say the producers. “He’s going to look for meaning in it,” says Ficarra. “The episode completed him in a way but also tore something else open. It’s everyday life but also his past. It’s a bold new avenue to go down.” Adds Requa. “It’s a change of direction for him. We hope we succeeded with not just a sad episode but an episode with a little bit of hope in it. Life is about transitions, and death is just one of them.”
Including the lingering mystery of the cause of Jack’s death, perhaps? “Some of this will come to a head before the season is over,” says Requa. Adds Ficarra, “We close a chapter and open a new one.”
As for this episode, the deathbed scene was shot first, and Jones says it was a difficult one to get through. “There wasn’t a lot of time to prep and lead up to it, so everything after that became very foreboding,” he says. “It was this ghostly feeling for me.”
His own best friend is dying from stage 4 cancer, he reveals. “He’s at that place where William is at now. I spoke with him all through this process,” he says. “A lot of him was permeating through this. So then it’s just a matter of being a conduit into the work. And if you are an actor that can work that way, some miraculous things happen. And then it’s about the director, the cinematographer, catching it on the camera. I think they captured some beautiful moments. All I needed to do was stay out of its way.”
Jones isn’t on social media, but he knows that fans are going to have a hard time with this episode. “I think a lot of people are going to be devastated. In a beautiful way,” he says. “I think they know what’s going to happen. They’ll watch it and started to understand that it’s life. I think they’ll get it quickly that we’re going to see him again. They understand how the show works. That William dies but we’ll see him again.”
And William will certainly be a part of Randall’s soul, says Jones.
“I think it’s going to inform his life going forward. How could it not?,” says Jones. “Even if it came down to him trying to make one of those pork sandwiches in his kitchen one day.”
The script for episode 116 also included a note from Fogelman. Here’s what it said:
A note to the reader from Dan, and particularly to Mr. Ron Cephas Jones: It’s never easy writing the death scene of one of your favorite characters (and actors). I hope we’ve done you proud – you certainly always deliver for us. And if anyone is extra sad about this ending, I’d urge you to remember the words of a wise young actor named Justin Hartley who once said:
“People will die in our lives, people that we love. But it’s kind of beautiful if you think about it, the fact that just because someone died, it doesn’t mean they’re not still in the painting.”