BWW Recap: Two Fortunate Sons Star in a Very Special THIS IS US
"This is Us" came back this week with a very special look into the past of our very favorite Pearson patriarch, Jack.
It feels like I've been missing Jack for a while! He's played major roles in the last three episodes of the season, to be sure, but we've mostly seen narratives about his family, and his wife, and his looming presence after his untimely death. We haven't gotten a spotlight on Jack for a while, and "Vietnam" more than delivers--as an in-depth look at a mysterious part of this character's life, as a moving and effective period piece, and as an opportunity to change the format of a show whose format never stays put for more than one episode at a time.
"Vietnam" works chronologically backwards. We start with Jack in combat. Everybody's calling him "Sarge."
And then he's leading his platoon through treacherous territory--a man named Squirrel diffuses a bomb. We get some interesting commentary here on the banality of war. Personally, I'd be scared to death to step foot anywhere near somewhere that could be a trap, or could be explosive. Jack and his men go about business as usual. He and his right-hand man, Robinson, talk baseball and Robinson's post-war aspirations.
The second Robinson said he was going to go home and play pro baseball, I knew he wasn't going to last.
That being said, Robinson IS the old man Kevin emailed in the last episode, so I knew he wouldn't DIE. Later that night, Jack's platoon is getting ready for bed and playing around with a football, which alerts the Vietcong to their presence. Squirrel dies, and Robinson's foot is blown off. Before Robinson is evacuated, he and Jack have a conversation about Jack's savior complex--Robinson wants him to admit he's scared. Mirroring the way Jack would eventually calm Randall down from his panic attacks, Robinson puts his hands on Jack's face. It means everything; I'm here, I'm present. We're here together. It's no wonder Jack uses it to help his son.
Jack and his operative are moved to what his superior officer calls a "cush detail" to atone for the trauma of the earlier attack--a village largely filled with civilian women and children, with access to a lake for fishing. There is probably not enough political dialogue about the Vietnam War. Americans in 2018 vaguely know that Vietnam was an unjust war against an invisible evil, but not many people know the extent to which it was both of those things. I feel like "This is Us" had a teachable moment that they squandered a bit to make Jack look like a hero. We know Jack never felt like a hero about his actions in Vietnam, and we know him to be a hero in many other respects, so I'm not sure why they made that choice.
Jack realizes he's mere miles away from the last known position of his brother, Nicky (Michael Angarano, also known as young William Miller from Almost Famous and the kid from Sky High, all grown up), and asks his superior officer to let him try and find him, and he's given the chance to go. He finds him immediately. There's a stand-off.
And then we're taken 14 months back in time.
Jack's mom, with a fresh black eye from her husband, gets a letter in the mail from Nicky, who's been "Article 15'd" (which basically means he'd gotten in trouble for being a danger to himself). He hates the war, and hates his position, and wonders whether or not he's even alive.
Obviously, getting this letter really hurts their mom. Jack reads it when he gets home, and immediately goes to his family doctor to get cleared to enlist. We find out that Jack has a congenital heart defect that kept him out of the service to begin with, but he doesn't care. He has to be there for Nicky, no matter how far he has to go or how much danger he has to put himself in.
Which is when we're brought back in time another year, to Jack's mechanic job, to Nicky hanging out and watching his brother work, nervously. Jack keeps telling him not to worry. He was "born lucky." His number won't get close to being called.
So it's clear that we're about to watch Nicky's birthday get called up into service. Side note, I had no idea that THE DRAFT was picked based on birthday. I know war is hell, that it's random and horrible, but I guess I assumed it was picked by random last name? Random something else? Birthday just seems so awful, so arbitrary. And I guess it's supposed to seem that way, and I guess that's how people felt about it at the time. But, yeah. Nicky's number is called fifth.
Jack, perennial Superman and problem solver, decides he's gonna take his brother across the border into Canada so he can avoid service, because it's better to have him alive than have him at home. The two drive north and stay at a motel, planning to cross in the morning. Jack wakes up to find Nicky gone. He left a note, saying it's time for him to fight his own battles--he presumably went to enlist.
Flashback MANY more years. Jack and Nick are kids, playing in the yard. Jack throws Nick a football. It hits Nick's face, breaks his glasses, and makes his nose bleed.
The kids sit together on the stoop and, guys, kids are just so good. Jack tells Nick he'll do anything to protect him from their abusive, alcoholic father, that he'll take the blow for the broken glasses. Nick has nothing to worry about as long as Jack is there.
Later that night, Nicky overhears his parents fighting and decides to be the hero. He leaves his bedroom and, in the smallest ever voice, tells dad to leave mom alone. Just as their father is about to turn on Nick, Jack steps in and saves the day. Dad leaves and mom comforts the boys--she notices Jack's heart is racing, which Jack tells her to ignore, he's fine. This small kid is denying his big health issue for the greater good of the people he loves. It's sad, but not at all out of character for what we expect from Jack.
Finally, we're back in the late 40s--Nicky's about to be born. Mr. Pearson is proud and excited for his wife, exuding a kindness we've never seen from him before. He's holding on to a very tiny Jack in the waiting room while mom's alone in the delivery room.
The nurse says it's lucky Nicky will be born on October 18th. 18 is her lucky number--it's her daughter's birthday, and her anniversary, and the age she was when she got married. Mom reveals that, if the baby's born after midnight, he'll share a birthday with her husband's dad, who we meet momentarily.
Grandpa Pearson is a drunk, and his relationship with his son is definitely strained. He offers him a drink, and Dad Pearson turns him down--says he doesn't drink. Clearly, that will change, but at least we know now who he was before alcohol.
Nicky's born just before midnight, meaning he's born on October 18th. We keep being told it's lucky. In truth, it's so tantalizingly close to October 19th, a date NOT fifth in THE DRAFT lottery years later. In a devastating moment, dad takes Jack to look at his newborn brother through the window. "All of these boys have the same birthday as Nick," he says, and our stomachs drop.
Earlier in the episode, Nicky says he wishes he could see his life in reverse chronological order--not unlike how this episode is structured. If his wish were granted, he'd know that all of these babies will be subjected to the horrors of war in too few years. The happiest thing that can happen in the world becomes somber and gut-wrenching when we realize where these newborn bundles of joys are headed. And, just like that, "This is Us" reminds us that no moment is without its beauty or its sorrow.
Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC