Courtesy Ron Batzdorff/NBC
This week’s episode of This Is Us is 100% Jack-centric and delves deeper into the relationship between Jack and his younger brother, Nick. As always, spoilers abound so stop reading here if you have not yet caught up.
The episode opens with Jack in a helicopter in Vietnam. He is traveling to find Nick, his younger brother. He has a letter from Nick with the name of a province and, after traveling by helicopter and then jeep, Jack finally arrives at Nick’s camp. He walks up to an unseen man and says “Hello, little brother.” We are then taken back three weeks to Jack walking through a Vietnamese jungle with his men. He is talking to a fellow soldier, Donnie, who tells him that in 90 days he gets out of Vietnam and he’s going to play for the Giants or go to Pittsburgh. As they continue to talk, one of the soldiers ahead stops. Everyone else stops and Jack walks up to him to ask him what he has found. He tells Jack that he’s located a ‘toe popper’, a homemade landmine. He is instructed to blow it up and he does, without incident. Night comes. A couple of the men are throwing a football in an open field. Jack tells them to quit but Townie, one of the men, tells the other to go long. He runs deep for the football and steps on another landmine, killing himself. Almost immediately Jack and his men come under fire from the enemy, who have been lying in wait. The men fire back as Jack checks on them, shouting orders and making sure they’re all okay. Donnie is critically injured, his foot has been blown off. Jack yells for help and instructs for a Medivac to be called. Donnie asks for Jack to hand him his foot, Jack obliges, and Donnie begins crying. Jack holds him in his arms, reassuring him that he will be okay even though from the look in Jack’s eyes it is clear that Jack is not sure that he truly believes his own words. The next day the men signal for the Medivac. As they wait, Donnie tells Jack that he’ll be by himself now for his remaining 90 days. Jack shrugs it off and Donnie asks him if he doesn’t get tired of pretending that he is not scared. He tells Jack about how his mother tells him to remember to breathe when he gets scared. He remarks that it is funny how when they are scared of dying that they forget the one thing keeping them alive. The helicopter comes to take Donnie away.
Jack and his men continue to their camp where they are reassigned to security detail for a village. The men are shown relaxing and working to guard the village. The men are becoming too lax so Jack buys them a large case of beer, refusing to allow them any until they secure the village. Soon their superior officer arrives. He tells Jack he is not impressed with Jack’s men. Jack tells him that his brother is nearby and requests 24 hours to go see him. As they talk, a young Vietnamese boy brings a fish to Jack. Jack asks him if he caught it himself but the boy’s mother runs up and yells at him in Vietnamese. Townie walks past and yells racist epitaphs at the kid, still hurting from the sudden loss of his friend. Jack’s request is denied until they see how well the camp is running and how secure the men have made it. Jack is given permission to go find Nick and he is shown getting into the helicopter from the beginning of the episode.
The episode continues moving backward as we see Jack’s mother, Marilyn, fourteen months earlier. The mailman is bringing mail, including the letter from Nick which Jack takes with him to Vietnam. Jack arrives home later. His dad, Stanley, is asleep in his chair, still holding his cigarette which Jack puts out for him. He looks in on Marilyn who has been reading Nick’s letter. She leaves the room when Jack arrives. He picks up the letter and begins reading. Nick informs them he is in the Quang Nam Province and has gotten in trouble for endangering himself and everyone else in his unit. He is now a Private First Class, or PFC. He tells his family that he knows he will not make it out of the war alive but he wants to go out his way.
Jack looks in on Nick’s room as he thinks things over. He makes the decision to enlist and goes to his family doctor for a check-up. “I want to enlist, Doc. I need to be there with him,” he tells the doctor, who tells him that his own tachycardia is a very legitimate reason not to fight. Jack tells him that his only job is taking care of Nick, “even if I can’t do anything for him, I just need to be there.” The doctor can sense that Jack will not take no for an answer and instructs him how he can pass his physical even with his heart problem.
Courtesy Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Continuing back in time, we see Jack walking into a garage to work on cars. Nick is there, worried about the upcoming draft. He calls himself the Lois Lane to Jack’s Superman, always needing to be saved. Jack assures him he will be okay. He tells them the two of them will go to a bar and watch something downtown. When he goes home to pick up Nicky that night we see that what they are going to watch is the national draft lottery broadcast. They go to the bar where Nick continues to become more and more worried. He has several drinks as they wait. Jack, optimistic, tells him that there is no way that they will call Nick’s birthday. He continues reassuring Nick as the lottery begins and, as the first four birth dates are called, Nick seems to begin to believe him. However, that ends when the announcer reads out Nick’s birthday. October 18th. Nick has been selected for the draft on only the 5th birthday called. Jack stands there, dumbfounded. Nick is expressionless. Jack tells him he has a plan to get him to Canada so that he does not have to serve. He assures him, and maybe himself, that he will be ok. The brothers arrive home late to find Stanley waiting up for them. He stands up and walks up to Nick, saying simply “Make me proud, son.” before turning and going upstairs to bed. Nicky simply stares.
The next day, Jack and Nick leave for what Marilyn calls a “hunting trip.” Stanley is watching from the porch, visibly upset. Nick tells Jack that if he runs, their father will never speak to him again. Jack jokes that Nick would be lucky if that ever happened. Nick begins to wonder about his life as Jack drives, he wishes he could see it from the end to the beginning instead of the other way around. He seems to be rethinking enlisting, telling Jack about how he could become a medic. Jack tells him that medics also get shot. The brothers get close to the Canadian border and stop at a motel to rest before Nick goes across the border the next day. The next day, however, Jack wakes up alone with a note. Nick has decided not to run away, telling Jack that it is his own turn to save the day.
We jump back again, this time fourteen years, and see Jack and Nick as children. Jack is playing with a football and asks Nick to play with him. Nick misses the ball and falls and breaks his glasses. He gets upset and worried that their dad will be mad but Jack assures him that their dad will be mad at Jack. Nick hates his glasses, saying no one tough ever wears them but Jack says that Superman does. When his brother disagrees, Jack tells him that when Superman is Clark Kent he wears glasses. The glasses mean that he is a tough guy in disguise. Later that night, the boys are in bed listening to Stanley yelling at Marilyn. Nick gets up and puts his glasses on the table by his bed. He walks up to his parents as Stanley continues yelling and tells him to leave their mother alone. Before Nick can be struck by their angry father Jack has arrived, placing himself between Nick and Stanley. Their dad does not hit Jack, instead muttering that they all deserve each other before leaving the house. The boys hug their mother, who comments on Jack’s racing heart. He assures her that his heart always beats fast and that he is fine.
The final jump backwards takes us to Nick’s birth, seven years earlier. Stanley is carrying Jack as Marilyn is wheeled into the delivery room. The nurse tells her how lucky she is to have a baby born on October 18th because 18 is the nurse’s lucky number. Marilyn tells the nurse that her husband’s birthday is October 19th and he is hoping for a baby with the same birthday. As Jack and Stanley wait, Jack asks if his dad wants a boy or a girl. His dad tells Jack another boy, which makes Jack extremely happy. As they wait, Stanley’s father arrives. He asks Stanley for news about the baby although it is apparent he is not at all interested. He has brought a flask which he drinks from as he waits. He offers some to his son who refuses, saying he doesn’t drink. Stanley tells his father that if the baby is born on the 19th they will share a birthday to which his father’s response is to get up and leave. He figures Stanley will give him any news. Nick is born two minutes before midnight, barely missing an October 19th birthday. Jack’s father holds Jack outside the hospital nursery window and points Nick out to him, telling him that his only job now is to look after his little brother. He points out all the other baby boys, all of whom share a birthday with Nick (and would have faced the same draft lottery as Nick).
Finally, we return to the beginning of the episode. Jack walks up behind an unseen man. “Hello, little brother.” The man, Nick, turns around. He appears anything but happy to see his older brother.
This week’s episode featured only one lead cast member, Milo Ventimiglia, a first for the show. It is a huge undertaking when any ensemble show focuses on only one character for an entire episode and for some people, the episode may seem underwhelming compared to the huge fast-paced ensemble work that we have come to know and love. However, I enjoyed getting this peak into what shaped Jack into the husband and father that he became.
The episode also left us with several questions. Could Jack’s need to protect Nick be the exact reason his brother was upset seeing him in Vietnam? What role, if any, did Jack’s heart condition play in his death? How did Stanley Pearson go from loving father and husband to angry drunk? And was Donnie the man reading Kevin Pearson’s email in last week’s episode? We will have to wait and see.
This is Us airs Tuesdays at 9/8 central on NBC.