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Needle Drop: When This Is Us Made Us Happy to Sing the Blues

How a slow jam anchored one of the show's all-time best episodes.
  • Jermel Nakia and Brian Tyree Henry in This Is Us (Image: NBC)
    Jermel Nakia and Brian Tyree Henry in This Is Us (Image: NBC)

    Welcome to Needle Drop, our ongoing series about crucial pop music moments on TV. It's brought to you by Mark Blankenship, Primetimer's Reviews Editor and the co-host of the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    With accomplished singers like Mandy Moore and Chrissy Metz in the cast, it's only natural that This Is Us has featured a number of memorable musical moments. (Shout out to anyone still crying because Rebecca was able to sing "The Forever Now" at Kate's wedding a few weeks ago.) But as the show prepares to air its final episode, its most impactful original song remains "You Can Always Come Back to This."

    Written by Chris Pierce and Siddhartha Kosla, the bluesy ballad appeared in the Season One episode "Memphis," which follows Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and his biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones) as they go on a road trip to visit places from William's past. By this point in the show, we know a lot about William's failures, including the drug habit that led to Randall being adopted by the Pearson family. But in "Memphis," we also get to know more about William as a young man filled with promise. In a series of flashbacks, we see him playing in a cover band with his cousin Ricky (Brian Tyree Henry) and eventually getting brave enough to share "You Can Always Come Back to This," a song he's written but never shown anyone. Cousin Ricky knows it's a hit, and he immediately gets the band to start playing it.

    Made-for-TV tunes rarely soar, but like so much about the show's miraculous first season, "You Can Always Come Back to This" defied the odds, perfectly pairing the vibe of a Sam Cooke classic with Henry's husky vocals. From the ache he communicates in the song's soft opening verses to the exultation in its conclusion, Henry makes us believe in the possibility of the love he's singing about, naling the sound of a broken man trying to make it right.

    But it's not just any man. It's William. Even though it's channeled through Ricky's vocal, "You Can Always Come Back To This" is the story of William's righteous love for Randall's mother, and hearing it performed this way confers a remarkable amount of dignity on a fraught part of his life. The number becomes a turning point for our understanding of his character, preparing us for the moment of grace that follows later in the epsiode when William dies.

    Moments like these became the show's speciality — just when characters are at their lowest, something happens to remind us of their higher selves. Something happens to remind us that everyone has the capacity to be wonderful. "You Can Always Come Back to This" may have made that point better than anything on TV in recent years.

    NBC airs the This Is Us series finale Tuesday May 24th at 9:00 PM ET.

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    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: This Is Us, NBC, Brian Tyree Henry, Ron Cephas Jones, Sterling K. Brown