Need to catch up? Check out the previous This Is Us recap here.
This Is Us goes in country this week to show us what the Vietnam War was like for Jack and his brother, Nicky.
Spoiler alert: War actually is hell… and it’s even worse if you’re the product of an abusive household with a heightened sense of responsibility for your younger sibling.
The entire episode takes place over various flashbacks to Jack’s pre-Rebecca life, including the birth of his heretofore rarely glimpsed brother Nicky and the process by which both of the young men wound up serving in the military.
Read on for the highlights of “Vietnam.” (Go behind-the-scenes of the ambitious episode here.)
WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE | Staff Sergeant Jack Pearson rides in a helicopter in Vietnam in November 1971. Before we can wonder too long about what’s going on, Jack enters a camp and walks up to a guy whose face we can’t see. “Hello little brother,” Jack says.
Suddenly it’s three weeks earlier, and Jack is leading a patrol through the jungle. One of the soldiers with him is Robinson, who is going home in 90 days and who has dreams of replacing Willie Mays as the San Francisco Giants’ center fielder. (Side note: Robinson is the same guy who got Kevin’s email in last week’s episode, which should be a comfort as you read what happens in a few minutes.)
Though they’re in an area rife with booby traps and land mines, the soldiers seem to have it under control. That night, they relax by throwing around a football. But when the ball inadvertently lands in a booby trap and detonates an explosion, all of a sudden Jack and his group are under fire. During the shooting, Robinson’s foot is blown clean off his body. The wounded soldier begs Jack to bring him his foot, and Jack does; Robinson hugs his amputated appendage to his chest as Jack calls in the medics. Then Jack holds his comrade, promising him everything will be OK.
IF IT’S THE LAST THING WE EVER DO | Turns out, Robinson is going home sooner than expected. In a piece of parting wisdom, Robinson observes that Jack is just pretending not to be scared silly. “I’ve been pretending my whole life,” Pearson answers. Just before Robinson is airlifted out, he tenderly holds Jack’s face in his palms, the same way we’ve seen him do to young Randall and older Randall do to a dying William. (Side note: Sniff!)
Jack soon gets word that he and his men are getting a “cush detail”: They’re going to keep an eye on a village of locals that may be housing members of the Viet Cong. And it’s going swimmingly — after Jack bribes his guys with cigarettes and canned goods, they clean up and secure the village in just a couple of hours — so Jack asks his superior officer if he can go see Nicky, who’s “in a bit of trouble.”
WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE | Then another flashback, this one to 14 months earlier, takes us to the Pearson home, where Jack’s mom has a black eye (oh no) and Jack’s dad is dead drunk. The mailman delivers an envelope from Nicky, who’s been Article 15’d — aka punished for misconduct by his commanding officer — for “reckless endangerment to myself and others,” Jack’s little brother explains in the letter. We get a glimpse of him in Vietnam, taking pills and drinking beers, and it seems a very possible thing when he writes “I’m not getting out of here alive.”
Jack, we learn, had been deemed ineligible for the draft because of his tachycardia (which a medical expert JK the Internet tells me is abnormally rapid hearbeat). But he beelines it to the doctor and says he wants to enlist, because it’s his job to take care of his little brother.
THERE’S A BETTER LIFE FOR ME AND YOU | The show then takes us even farther back, to a time when a long-haired Nicky worries that his draft number will get called. Apparently, Jack has a plan to get his brother out of having to go overseas, which earns him the title of “my own personal Superman,” Nicky remarks, later adding that he doesn’t want to always have to be saved.
The boys head downtown to a bar to watch the draft drawing; Nicky’s birthday, Oct. 18, comes up fifth. So Jack puts into action his plan to take Nicky to Canada to evade military service, though they tell their folks they’re heading out for a hunting trip. Nicky seems to have some misgivings — his desire to make his father proud wars with his desire not to die in combat — but Jack reassures him as much as possible. The brothers spend the night in a motel near the Canadian border; when Jack wakes up, Nicky is nowhere to be seen. “It’s my job to save the day now,” he writes on a note left for Jack.
A flashback shows us how Nicky has been afraid of his father since childhood, and how Jack has been protecting him the whole time. “I’ll never let him touch you,” a very young Jack vows to his scared sibling after he breaks his glasses and fears that he’ll feel Papa Pearson’s wrath. One night, we see Nicky and Jack standing up to their father as he argues with their mom; for once, Dad listens to them and leaves.
LIGHT IT UP | Thought we were finished with flashbacks? THINK AGAIN. On the day of Nicky’s birth, Jack and his father hang out in the hospital waiting room. Then Jack’s dad’s dad shows up and swigs from a flask. When he asks Jack’s father if he wants any, he replies that he doesn’t drink. (Side note: Interesting! And sad!) After Nicky is born, Papa Pearson points the infant out to Jack and tells him, “Big brothers look out for their little brothers. It’s their only job.”
Then all of a sudden, we’re back in Vietnam at the beginning of the episode. Nicky, who doesn’t look happy to see Jack, tosses a match onto a barrel. It bursts into flames. — With many thanks to Dave Nemetz, who gave this recap a serious assist
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the episode? Hit the comments!