This Is Us’ William remains one of TV’s most beautifully nuanced queer Black characters
When Ron Cephas Jones – the award-winning actor behind This Is Us character William Hill – died in August, I found myself going down memory lane, writes Asyia Iftikhar.
The NBC series ended in May 2022, after six seasons, bringing closure to the complicated lives of troubled siblings Kate (Chrissy Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown).
In the first episode we meet the show’s central couple, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who lose one of their triplets during a traumatic birth. But fate steps in and they adopt a Black baby being cared for in hospital the same day, after he was left outside a fire station. His name is Randall Pearson.
In the first season, Randall is a successful 36-year-old professional with a wife and two children, and a tight-knit relationship with the brother, sister and parents with whom he grew up. However, his idyllic life is turned on its head when he tracks down his biological father, William Hill.
As the two reconnect and heal old wounds, the audience glimpses the hardships William has overcome throughout life (his younger self is masterfully played by Jermel Nakia). And we watch him find happiness with his loved ones a final time before he falls victim to stomach cancer.
Every aspect of William’s life is endearing, from his favourite poet (after whom Randall is named) Dudley Randall, to his cat Clooney who he secretly travelled for hours to feed each day.
The time and dedication given to meticulously carving out William’s personality landed Jones two Emmy wins and I still remember my shocked delight when the show introduced one of William’s former lovers, Jessie (American Horror Story‘s Denis O’Hare).
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William reconnects with Jessie when they both attend a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, after the latter shares a magnificent love confession.
We find out William left Jessie after he was diagnosed with cancer, unwilling to become a burden. But when Jessie persistently decides to stick around, William gets yet another chance as he introduces his boyfriend to Randall and the family.
We see some beautiful moments between William and Jessie as they bond over their love of music and showcase a rare portrayal of older queer love, supported by the people around them.
Over the four seasons, This Is Us built an intimate portrait of William’s life, from his joyous relationship with Randall’s mother Laurel which ends in tragedy, through to the circumstances that lead him to heroin addiction.
We watch his heart-breaking decision to give Randall up in the hope he leads a better life, and his choice to get clean and turn his own life around.
Through the hues of William’s life, we come to know a man who refuses to be defined by his regrets. His existence is no reduced to the stereotype of ‘absent Black father’, but rather shows his humanity and how his life was irrevocably shaped by the systemic racism still prevalent in US society today.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. In season one, episode 16, titled “Memphis”, we see Randall and William take a final road trip together, where he ultimately ends up dying in a hospital, with his long-lost son at his side.
We never see Jessie again, and perhaps the biggest question the viewer is left with is what happened between him and William after everything. At least we are left with happy memories of the couple finding their way back together and enjoying those twilight days in each other’s arms.
Although we lose William, his legacy as a queer man lives on in his granddaughter Tess (Eris Baker) who comes out as a lesbian in season three, emboldened by her grandfather’s beautiful love story.
Without a doubt, William – himself a seasoned poet-musician – offers some of the most profound snippets of wisdom imbued throughout the show about finding the joy in every-day moments.
And so, I leave you with William’s answer when asked what it feels like to be dying: “It feels… like all these beautiful pieces of life are flying around me and I’m trying to catch them.
“I know it feels like you have all the time in the world, but you don’t. So, stop playing it so cool. Catch the moments of your life, catch them while you’re young and quick, because sooner than you know it, you’ll be old and slow… and there’ll be no more of them to catch.”
This Is Us seasons one to six are available to watch on Amazon Prime.
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