More of a tantalizing glimpse into Jack's time during the war, this special episode digs deep into Jack's relationship with his little brother, Nicky.
"This Is Us" took a dramatic departure from its normal episode structure to offer a time-tossed exploration of Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) throughout his formative years.
The narrative structure, at least, was somewhat familiar, as we found ourselves jumping through time to get the whole picture of Jack's protective relationship with the brother he never talks about, Nicky. In fact, we go all the way from their time together in Vietnam back to Nicky's birth in a series of strategic jumps.
While the overall story structure is incredibly compelling, and even goes so far as to add an element of tragedy to Jack's father's story, the Vietnam structure is a little bit of a letdown. Especially if this is where things are going to be left for awhile.
Honestly, we thought Kevin (Justin Hartley) was going to lead us into these stories as he's determined to learn more about Jack's past. Instead, we were just dropped into the middle of it for an hour with no setup or explanation as to why now was the time to tell this story. It might have been a little stronger with that tether to the present.
Especially because there is a built-in story element being introduced this season through Kevin to uncover Jack's experiences in Vietnam, and through those, his relationship with his brother.
That minor complaint aside, though, the overall structure of the story was very effective, working like an onion, peeling back years like layers until we see the genesis of Jack's connection with his baby brother, Nicky.
In sequential segments we explore the moment Jack finds Nicky in Vietnam, the weeks prior to their reunion, the moment Jack decided to enlist, the night Nicky found out he was being draft, a childhood memory when Jack told Nicky he was Superman in disguise and the day spent at the hospital the day Nicky was born.
Each of these vignettes spotlighted elements of Jack's character that would come to define who he becomes as a father and a husband, because of the love of his mother and brother, and despite the bitter alcoholism of his father. And while they weren't as tear-inducing as some episodes, we can't say we survived with totally dry eyes.
As we do every week, we're going to single out the show's most powerful moments, scoring them by how many tissues we tore through just to watch them. Believe us, these are happy tears of anguish.
One thing has been a certainty since we first met him and that's that Jack's father, Stanely, is a piece of shit. It's like this constant in the world of "This Is Us." Only, in one short scene all of that was destroyed. It was the last and deepest flashback of the episode, to the night Nicky was born.
It was October 18, 1948 and Stanley was a doting husband, smiling and laughing with little Jack about the new baby to come. He looked like he might even be the father that Jack grew up to be in that moment. And then we got a glimpse of his father, and he had a flask, offering it to his son at one point.
But Stanley told him he doesn't drink. So clearly there's a missing piece of the chapter here, and suddenly there's a tragic element to Stanley's story. We saw how he ended up, bitter and miserable and alone, and now we see that he wasn't always that man. And poor Jack knew him before the drink took him, though we don't know for sure if he can remember it.
"He's a Tough Guy in Disguise"
Nicky clearly looked up to big brother Jack, and struggled with a lot of self-doubt. By this flashback, Nicky was seven and Stanley had become the mean drunken father we all know and despise. So it's no wonder sensitive Nicky is the way he is, with Stanley coming down on him all the time.
This vignette told the story of how Jack emboldened him one afternoon after Nicky's glasses got broken. With the kind of logic only a kid can muster, Nicky told Jack that his glasses were part of the problem he wasn't big and tough. But then Jack reminded him of Superman.
When Nicky argued that Superman doesn't wear glasses, Jack countered that he does when he's Clark Kent. "He's a tough guy in disguise," Jack told him. "That's you Nicky. You're CK."
And just like that, we see that even as a little guy, Jack was well on his way to being the amazing father and friend he would become.
Years later, when Nicky's number came up in the draft lottery, Jack promised him he had a plan and set out to take him to Canada. Again, there were many hints that Nicky is a gentle and sensitive young man and someone who may not be cut out for the war. And yet, he clearly hates that Stanely doesn't think much of him.
By this point, Jack has already written Stanely off as a waste of emotional time or energy, but Nicky was concerned when they left that Stanely might never talk to him again. Clearly, he was feeling a need to prove himself outside the shadow of his big brother, who'd always been there to protect himself.
So he stole away in the night, leaving Jack a letter that said, "It's my turn to save the day." He signed it, "I love you, Superman." Jack was always his hero. And presumably that was the last time Jack saw him before he found him again in Vietnam.
"I May Have Already Died"
The family did hear from Nicky, though it probably did little to make Stanley feel any better. As predicted, Nicky was not doing well over there at all, though he did display a penchant for creative writing and poetic phrasing. It could be that he was an artist who never got a chance to explore this side of himself, considering the masculine expectations Stanley seemed to put on his boys.
"I'm not getting out of here alive and I know that, but I'm not dying on anyone's terms but my own," Nicky wrote in the catalyst letter to his family. "I'm living in hell on earth family. Hell, I may have already died and I don't even know it."
This is someone really struggling with the reality of war, and the fact that he's so confident he's going to die, and already got demoted for reckless and dangerous behavior, meant it could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Enough that it left his mother shook and Jack deeply concerned.
And that's why the next time we see Jack he's at his doctor's office getting a physical. That is his little brother over there and he is hurting. The lesson that Stanley imparted on Jack within minutes of Nicky being born was that his only job was to take care of his little brother. But how can he do that from here.
And so he decided to enlist, despite a condition that gave him an elevated and irregular heartbeat. "Even if I can't get to him. Even if I can't do anything for him. I just need to be there. He's my little brother, Doc," Jack pleaded. "It's my job to take care of him. It is my only job."
This is a familiar refrain we hear from Jack about his responsibilities to his wife and children. He takes family very seriously, and always has. How many people would enlist in a war just so they could be in the same country as their family member, even if they knew they might never get to contact them or see them? Just being there would be enough.
The episode proper opened with a sequence of events with Jack as staff sergeant over a group of men. It seemed like it might be just a random experience to immerse us in Jack's time during the war, but it turned out to be so much more than that.
Along the way, we met Donnie Robinson, who was 90 days from freedom and planning to be a major league center fielder ... until a landmine blew his foot off. A big personality, Jack was strong for him through the initial shock, and even the lamentations of trying to figure out what his life will be now that he's going home crippled.
But Robinson saw through him. "You're scared, Pearson. Don't you ever get tired of pretending like you ain't plain, flat-out scared?" he asked.
Jack told him this is the way he's operated his whole life, to which Robinson countered that it's this crazy tendency of humans when we're terrified or afraid to hold our breath. "We're so scared that we're gonna die that we forget to do the one thing that's keeping us alive," he said. "Breathe."
He then reached up and grabbed both sides of Jack's face and repeated the last word and suddenly we see all the times that Jack did this and how his children are now doing this for one another and even their own children. A simple reminder that everything really can be okay if you just take it one breath at a time. And for that to work, you have to breathe.