‘This Is Us’: ‘The Only Thing That Matters’ to Jack (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Season 3, Episode 4 of This Is Us, “Vietnam”]
The latest episode of NBC’s This Is Us was a true departure from the format fans usually find each week. “Vietnam” transported us across the globe to begin telling Jack Pearson’s (Milo Ventimiglia) war story.
Presented like many a war film, this episode, co-written by The Things They Carried author and Vietnam vet Tim O’Brien, tells an non-chronological story about Jack and his brother Nicky (Michael Angarano), and reveals how Jack picked up many of his best qualities.
“Vietnam” begins in Landing Zone Gloria, Republic of Vietnam in November 1971, and we see Jack with a letter in hand with a return address indicating Nick’s whereabouts. Then, just as Jack approaches his brother, the scene shifts to three weeks earlier.
Jack’s a sergeant in the army, leading his fellow troops through the treacherous terrain as they work to dodge land mines. Things are going rather smoothly until they set up a base camp and a game of football between some of Jack’s men turns deadly with a hidden explosive. Next, their troop is suddenly ambushed by gunfire.
A man named Don Robinson (Moe McRae) is among the injured from the event — he loses a foot to a land mine —and it’s clear he’s the same character with a prosthetic we met in last week’s episode, “Katie Girls” — the man Kevin reached out to in order to learn more about Jack. There’s more than meets the eye with Robinson, who tells Jack as he lay injured on the ground, “You’re scared, Pearson. Don’t you ever get tired of pretending you ain’t plain, flat-out scared?”
Jack’s response is fitting as he says, “Nah, I’ve been pretending my whole life, man. I don’t know any other way.” This leads Robinson to reach out with a comfort technique taught by his mother, but the audience has seen it before — it’s the classic “breathe” line we’ve seen used by both Jack and Randall. Now we know where it came from because it certainly didn’t come from Jack’s own tumultuous home.
After Robinson is flown out, discharged for his injury, Jack and the rest of the men head to a village near Chu Lai, close to Nick’s camp. Jack takes the assignment in stride, as they’re tasked with repeatedly repairing a wire fence. And just as he’s granted permission to visit his brother nearby, the scene and time shifts again.
Now, we’re 14 months earlier and Jack’s mother Marilyn (Laura Niemi) greets the mailman excitedly while sporting two fresh black eyes, courtesy of Jack’s father Stanley (Peter Onorati). After collecting the parcel, Marilyn anxiously opens a letter from the overseas Nick as Jack arrives at the house, telling us the two didn’t enlist together. Nick’s voiceover reads the letter for viewers, saying, “I got Article 15-ed. That’s getting my rank busted to PFC for ‘reckless endangerment to myself and to my fellow soldiers.’ Like I’m the danger and not this messed up war.”
Those words are enough to convince him and Jack’s later seen getting a physical, telling the doctor he wants to enlist. The doctor objects by pointing out the reason why he shouldn’t: He has tachycardia, an abnormally rapid heart rate. This news means more than just an irregular heart rate — this information means that Jack’s future death may not have been related entirely to the fire but a preexisting condition.
In true Jack style, he tells the doctor, “He’s my little brother, it’s my job to take care of him. That is my only job.” This is enough to prompt the doc to offer some advice for passing the physical exam, which was clearly a success as we know Jack ends up in Vietnam.
Now we’re off to our fourth setting, one year earlier from Jack’s enlistment on December 1, 1969. He’s clocking in for work at a local garage and we finally meet Nick as an adult, Michael Angarano making his This Is Us debut. Apparently, he’s been waiting for his brother and couldn’t sleep, and we soon realize it’s draft day. During the Vietnam war, young men were drafted in a televised lottery system when their birthday was selected.
On their way out to watch the draft at the bar, Marilyn tells Nicky he was “born lucky,” but what does that mean? Unfortunately, Nicky ends up in Vietnam so he’s definitely unlucky when October 18 is announced. Upon the boys’ return home, their father tells Nick, “Make me proud, son.” But Jack has a plan — he’s going to get Nicky over the border to Canada to dodge the draft.
During this escape disguised as a hunting trip, Nicky tells Jack, “I wonder what happens next to me. It’s weird, isn’t it — the way we think about our lives? What’s next? What happens next? Always moving forward. I wonder if things would make more sense if you looked at everything in reverse. Like, if you started at the end, and move backwards and try to figure out how you got there… I wish I could do that right now.” His words reflect the format of the episode as it progresses on, as well.
Before they reach the border, Nicky ditches his big bro with the intention of answering his call to duty, telling him all of this in a note he signs as “CK.” This leads us to the show’s fifth time jump to an additional 14 years earlier. The boys are young and playing in the yard when Nicky’s hit with a football. As Jack helps him fix the mess, Nicky reveals his dislike for his glasses and notes that superheroes don’t wear them. But Clark Kent does wear glasses, Jack points out, referring to his brother as Superman in disguise. This encouragement leads Nicky to think he can defend his mother from Stanley during a late night fight. Jack steps in, but the sons and mother share a moment in which she reveals “he didn’t used to be this way” about their father’s abusive behavior.
Finally, we’ve arrived at the beginning, much like Nicky’s wish for a look at life in reverse. It’s the day Nick is born, October 18, 1948. Stanley is a supportive and excited partner as he bids Marilyn farewell to sit with Jack in the waiting room. That’s when his father arrives, Jack’s grandfather, and the older man swigs from his flask and offers his son a drink while they wait. Interestingly, Stanley refuses as he notes that he doesn’t drink.
Meanwhile, Marilyn confides in the nurse that she wants to hold out for the 19th as it’s Stanley’s father’s birthday, but the nurse is insistent that the 18th is “lucky,” and alas, Nicky arrives on the 18th. In hindsight, we know it’s an ill-fated day as we see Stanley tell a toddler-aged Jack he’ll have to look out for his brother and “it’s the only thing that matters.” Meanwhile, we see the other babies in the nursery with the same birthday as Nicky, all who were doomed for the draft.
In a cliffhanger moment, we’re back where the episode began. “Hey, little brother,” Jack says before Nicky turns to face him with the wear and tear of war in his eyes. There will have to be more Vietnam sequences to piece the remaining puzzle together, but consider us invested in this newly-introduced timeline.
Meanwhile, here are a few things to keep in mind for the rest of this season:
- Addiction runs in the Pearson family — during Nicky’s letter-writing scene in Vietnam, we see him pour various pills into his palm for consumption. Not to mention, his and Jack’s grandfather shows signs of alcoholism similar to their own father. It’s a cycle that even Jack had to break many years later.
- We hope to see more of Robinson — either the older or younger version — as his friendship with Jack is something worth exploring
- What happened to Jack’s father that he turned into the abusive man we’d only ever seen on the show up until now?
- Could Nicky die from an overdose instead of war-related injury? It feels possible and would explain Jack’s aversion to addictive substances.
Time will tell if any of these cliffhangers or questions will be answered!
This Is Us, Tuesdays, 9/8c, NBC