Another fan-favorite character makes a surprising turn to help him take those final steps in a story that reaches all the way back to before Vietnam came in and destroyed Nicky's relationship with -- well, everyone.
Uncle Nicky remains a beautifully flawed character, brought to life with incredible poignancy by both Griffin Dunne and Michael Angarano. We've seen his darker side, his loss and his suffering, but this week, we got to see his hope on "This Is Us."
Jack Pearson's little brother took the spotlight in an episode that spent most of its runtime in the heartbeat between seconds as a surprised Kevin welcomed Nicky into his home. Turns out that Nicky doesn't know what "a Zoom" is, and so he flew across the country to meet his great-nephew and -niece, rather than just log in.
Anyone who's been following his story on this show knows what a huge thing this is, considering he basically spent his entire adult life in the exact same trailer going exactly nowhere, while his mind and heart were still trapped in the horrors of Vietnam.
Meeting Nicky was the first piece of the puzzle that started Kevin back on a path to sobriety and the life fulfillment he'd been seeking since his leg injury sidelined football dreams and then he lost his father. But that meeting was just as pivotal for Nicky.
His journey may be a little slower, but in this hour we saw that he is finally -- albeit fearfully -- ready to step out of his trailer and start to live a little. And all it took was for Kevin to name his son after him. Actually, it took a whole lot more than that ... 50 years worth more!
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.
Because of the non-linear nature of this show, we already know this relationship is doomed before it began. There was certainly no Sally in the picture when Nicky got the news that he'd been drafted. Nevertheless, there was something so beautiful about how these two connected over the moon and their shared free-spirited natures.
Pre-'Nam Nicky was as close to a hippy as could probably have existed in Pittsburgh, while Sally was just the kind of strong-willed woman you can't help but fall a little in love with. While she couldn't have saved him from the draft, she could have taught him a little about love and having something worth living for, which could have made all the difference.
"I'm Not the Monster That You Think I Am"
The next flashback era were landed in was one that took place several years after the war. Nicky and Jack hadn't seen each other at all in that time, and this was perhaps the closest they came to actually catching up (at least until Jack showed up at his trailer).
There was a photograph throughout the episode, that classic image of Jack and Nicky together. It turns out that Sally took that photograph, indicative of just how close she'd managed to get to Nicky in such a short time (she enjoyed meatloaf with the family).
That picture was Nicky's motivation to try and make things right with his big brother, and he actually made it to the veteran's meetup the old unit was putting together, and even got out of his car and head in. They'd have probably had that chance to talk had Jack not walked out at that moment.
Nicky saw him, but Jack only had eyes for the ring he'd bought, having just gotten the encouragement from his c.o. that it was okay to keep some of the horrors of 'Nam to himself, but that didn't mean he should deny himself happiness.
In the present, or at least the immediate aftermath of Kevin and Madison having their babies, we find that Nicky is still in touch with Cassidy (Jennifer Morrison). Nicky had the determination, just like all those years ago, to go and see family ... but he had no idea how to do it.
We loved all of their interactions, and especially him barking at her over how to wrap an incredibly thoughtful hand-carved gift he'd made for the twins (snow globes that did not survive the TSA). But it was the poignant moment where he thanked her genuinely that speaks so much to his emotional growth.
"Now, I'm the Old Man"
Back to the Sally era of Nicky's life, she'd given him the most incredible offer. They were all set to head for Woodstock and then hightail it to California to just live the life of the wandering hippy, but then there was Stanley and Marilyn.
As we saw earlier in the hour, Nicky told Jack he continued to live at home because Stanley was better to their mother while he was there. He was better to Nicky, too, as evidenced by the sweet conversation he had comparing him watching the start of WWII with his father, and he and Nicky now watching the moon landing together.
It was an absolutely tragic yet inevitable decision, but completely relatable and a testament to Nicky's empathy, that he took one look at his parents on the night of the moon landing return parade and knew that he would never make it to California with Sally. Instead, he would keep his mother as safe as he could.
Well, at least that was the plan. Vietnam had other ideas, sending the entire family into a tailspin. But in that moment, Nicky put his own desires and even his own love aside for family.
With some poignant shots to Nicky sitting in his truck out in the parking lot, we stepped outside of his narrative just long enough to hear Jack's commanding officer give him that pep talk about needing to still live his life now that he's home.
After admitting he doesn't tell his own wife a lot of the horrors he experienced, he told Jack that so many of the soldiers came back empty shells, with their minds still trapped in 'Nam. It was clear this was alluding to Nicky. As much as he came those close to reconciling and maybe shedding some of that guilt this night, it didn't happen. And we know the tragic course of his life over the next 50 or so years.
"Didn't You Say You Worked for the Vet Clinic?"
It was such a small moment and line, but it spoke volumes to us about Kevin's own empathy, as well as his compassion, his ability to listen and recall things that are important about those people in his life who matter.
So much has happened since he and Nicky have seen each other in Kevin's life, and he's exhausted from being a new father, but he still remembered this little detail from Nicky's past.
Now, he had no idea that it was at that job that Nicky met Sally, giving it extra meaning for his uncle, but it's a testament to how big Kevin's heart is. And to think, he was the sibling we all hated in the beginning!
On the night that Nicky was supposed to sneak out and go chase his dreams with Sally, Jack surprised him with a suitcase, a Samsonite to be exact. It's a thoughtful gift, but the scene carries so much more weight when we recall that earlier in the hour, Nicky was taping up and packing this exact same suitcase for his cross-country flight.
How beautiful is it that Jack was on that flight with him, or that he kept the suitcase through all those years, just as he had the photo Sally had taken of him and his brother. Nicky has been just as haunted by the ghost of Jack Pearson as Jack's kids, but he's also served as a comfort to him in the most beautifully unexpected ways.
"Don't You Think He'd Be Proud of You?"
Way out of his comfort zone at Kevin's and ready to bail, it was Cassidy again to the rescue. This time, she called Nicky out for living in the shadow of his brother Jack, just as Kevin does (remember, she knew Kevin quite intimately). But she also took a moment to remind him what he'd just done.
Nicky was supposed to go to California to chase his dreams. Instead, he stayed to take care of his mother and wound up in Vietnam. He then spent 50 years in a trailer. Finally, he finds himself in California, finding Kevin's love being offered to him.
It's strange and it's new, but it's his. He earned it and it's real. And she's damned right Jack would be proud of him for everything he's done, for stepping out and living his life, and for being a part of Kevin's life.
Part of healing and moving forward is acknowledging the reality of your situation. In a stunningly beautiful monologue, Nicky spoke to Kevin's twins in the middle of the night, sharing with them a bit of his story.
It's a tragedy in many ways, but one that appears on the verge of giving him a happy ending. We already know he's by Rebecca's side in the future, so this connection with the family doesn't go away. Most importantly, we see that he sought them out, he's choosing to invite love back into his heart.
He knows the darkness he lived in for 50 years, racked with guilt over Vietnam and beating himself up over and over again, denying himself any sort of life because he didn't feel worthy of it. Seeing what a bright spirit he was before it all got torn away only adds to the tragedy.
"You Two Are My Moon"
The hour opened with Nicky showing Stanley a hand crafted lunar module he'd made in anticipation of the moon landing. He spoke with Sally about how the moon connects all of humanity. In so many ways, the moon represents that youthful optimism and hope he had then.
In sharing with the twins that it took him five decades to finally make his way across the country, Nicky realized that he'd found a way to believe again, and yes, to hope. He also had plenty of fear, but he came on a hope that this could be something positive, that he could connect with Jack's grandkids, with his nephew again.
If they are his moon, then they are the living symbol of his renewed hope. They were the reason he got on a plane for the first time since he was medevaced from Vietnam in 1971. They are creating a lot of firsts for him, as well as a hope to dream.
The last person who was able to do that for him was Sally. Wonder if she's still out there somewhere?