So, I am a week into an intense binge-watching glut of the hit NBC dramedy This Is Us, which so many people have been raving about. I was mildly disinterested in seeing the show when it first debuted in 2016. I don’t watch much network television, so it would take a great deal of interest to pull me out of my evening routine to tune in. Well, after everyone started chiming in about how much This Is Us made them cry, I had no desire to see it whatsoever. It wasn’t so much the thought of crying that turned me off; I dislike shows that are emotionally manipulative for kicks and tickles. But since Sterling K. Brown has been killing the game and the acceptance speeches, my interest was piqued. I tuned in. And I immediately felt intrigued by the character of William Hill.
I’m spoiling everything about This Is Us past this point, for both seasons. You’ve been warned.
For the record, I have NOT cried yet.
I like This Is Us because it tries very hard to show what happens after the credits roll. A White family adopts a Black baby as their third triplet and they live happily ever after? Nah. You will get these uncomfortable moments and painful recollections. The plot delivers drama that doesn’t feel contrived or over-the-top. The show is very well written and superbly acted and cast. Dan Fogelman gives us an ensemble of characters you can believe, love, and maybe hate a little–but not too much. They are, as the fictional Beth Pearson would say, “Perfectly imperfect.” Well, except one: William.
First of all, I love the character of William, Randall’s biological father. (Plus, Ron Cephas Jones, the actor who portrays him, is handsome as the devil wearing dancing shoes). William has what can only be described as an unfortunate life, “the most disappointed man” in all the world, or at least in the show’s fictional 1970s Pittsburgh. His addiction to drugs and subsequent abandonment of his infant son throw his life into a tailspin. When Randall knocks at his door on the first episode, he knows as much about William as the audience does. We learn together. We all fall in love with the wizened, dying man, and we grieve him hard on “Memphis.”
It would’ve been so easy to accuse This Is Us of playing with our emotions. We knew, like Randall and Beth did, time was fleeting and we let William into our hearts anyway. Everything felt so real, I blinked double-time on the episode where he died. To the writers’ credit, they did not pull a deus ex machina and miraculously save him. When Beth gave her impromptu speech at the memorial about being mad, dust flew in my eye. Her recollections made me think about why I love William’s character so much: He’s so wise and gentle. He reminds me of Neo after he starts seeing the 0s and 1s in the fabric of the Matrix. William just looks at people and reads them, then quotes them back to themselves as poetry. Of course he’s a poet. Poets break your heart every time.
So why do I say William is the worst character on This Is Us?
Every other character in the present-day scenes of This Is Us at least has a foible. But what is William’s flaw in his old age? Whose feelings does he carelessly hurt? When does he have to apologize for something he did in the now? Oh sure, we know he recovered from drug addiction and he gave his son up for adoption without ever contacting him. We, like Randall, have forgiven William for his past. He penitently accepts all Randall’s recriminations and poignant stories of growing up Black in a White family. That very penitence makes it impossible to see William in any other light but positive. The writers never give us an opportunity to quarrel with him.
William is a walking fortune cookie. His dialogue consisted of wisdom and prescience, which both delighted and frustrated me. When he sat with Olivia outside of the Thanksgiving dinner, he becomes the angel on her shoulder:
[Dying] feels like all these beautiful pieces of life are flying around me, and I’m trying to catch ’em. … I know it feels like you have all the time in the world, but you don’t. So stop playing it so cool. When a nice boy who adores you offers you pie? Say ‘thank you.’
I mean, how do you counter? Even evil Olivia bends to William’s poetic reasoning. (Although, you can also say, ‘no, thank you’ to the nice boy who adores you if you don’t return the sentiment. I disagreed with him, however eloquent his speech.)
Can I tell you an ugly secret? I honestly wanted William to have forgotten Beth during the Memphis trip. I know, I know, I’m terrible. But he was too good, to everyone, to be true. It would not have felt inauthentic if the show portrayed him as absentmindedly forgetting the one person who was in the trenches with him. Sometimes we do not see the blessings closest to us. Beth receiving a card from William posthumously was heart-warming…but easy.
I wanted This Is Us to make the audience a little more uncomfortable with a family taking in a dying stranger. Elderly William had no bad habits in the Pearson house, at all? He never left the toilet seat up? He sneaked out a couple times, but even those instances got framed within his desire to avoid inconveniencing Randall’s family. You couldn’t be too mad at him. William tried so hard to make himself invisible and helpful, he only endeared himself to them even further. How did he act when he wasn’t in borrowed space, on borrowed time? He was so painfully nice, it made confrontation anathema.
The conversation William and Randall never had…
The gut-wrenching discussion I wanted to hear between father and son would’ve had more to do with who William was at that moment. Certainly, it had to have been difficult to delve into the family history Randall thirsted for. They succeeded. But I have found in my personal life how challenging it is to get to know a familial stranger in the present tense. Such a situation means you must talk about things that have nothing to do with the weather, or politics, or pop culture. It means you must risk angering or irritating each other. You must disturb the precarious, unspoken detente you create when you reconcile with someone, when you take the chance of discovering you do not like them after all, once you truly know who they are.
As it is, nothing could make us hate William. He is everything a man could want in a long-lost father. Love is never too late when it finally arrives, right? The writers let him die, but keep him alive through the frequent flashbacks and retrospective looks into his life. Perhaps as the seasons unfurl we will learn something new about him as an old man that will throw us into conflict. But for now? For me? William is the worst character on This Is Us because he is unarguably the best, most beautifullest, perfectly imperfect character on the show.