By the time the credits roll at the end of this week’s This Is Us, you’ll either be supremely bummed or significantly uplifted. After the year we’ve had/are having, I’m choosing the latter.
The hour focuses on Nicky, both in the present and throughout his very sad past. It’s one thing to know that his Vietnam War experience scarred and shaped Jack’s brother’s life in profound and lasting ways. It’s another thing to watch that play out in a series of near-misses, poor choices and deep regrets that pile up as the years pass.
But! Few things give me more hope than watching someone break out of a groove, particularly if that groove no longer serves them. And that’s precisely what Nicky does in the present-day part of the episode. It’s tough for him. He doubts himself. He considers quitting, turning around and going home the way he has for most of his life. But then he doesn’t! And it’s a really great moment.
Also: We meet Sally, Nicky’s pre-Vietnam girlfriend. And someone unexpected (unless you studied the promo closely) shows up in the current-day timeline. Read on for the highlights of “One Small Step.”
MAN ON THE MOON | Let’s start in 1969, when Nicky is living at his parents’ house but Jack has moved out. It’s the day of the moon landing, and Jack is home to watch the TV coverage with his family. In the kitchen, Jack suggests that his younger brother move out and get a place of his own, or at the very least, a girlfriend. When Nicky gets all blushy and awkward, Jack realizes that he’s already sweet on someone. Turns out it’s Sally, a woman who works at the veterinary clinic with him (and who’s played by Good Girls Revolt‘s Genevieve Angelson).
Sally is a full-on hippie who invites Nicky to meet Pearl (the Volkswagen van she calls home) and to look at the moon with her one night. So he does, and soon they’re dating and falling in love. One night, as they’re various degrees of undressed in Pearl, Nicky tells her he loves her. And from the way she reacts, it’s clear she feels the same.
So when she brings up the idea of driving Pearl to attend Woodstock and then continuing across the country to work on her cousin’s farm outside San Francisco — and she wants him to come with her — he decides he’s going to do it. Jack is supportive. He even buys him a suitcase (which winds up being as durable as it claims: It later shows up in the present-day storyline, as well.) And the plan to meet Sally one night after his parents go to bed is all systems go!… until Nicky spends some time with his parents that night and realizes how he might be the only buffer his mom has left against his abusive father. Though we’re left hanging, it seems like he’s going to change his mind.
PARKING-LOT REGRETS | Years later, after Nicky is home from Vietnam and living in the trailer, he gets a call from someone from his unit: A bunch of the war buddies are gathering to toast another war buddy’s engagement, and it’s not too far from where he lives. Plus, “I heard Jack will be there,” the pal says.
So Nick musters up his courage, puts on his going-out clothes and sits in his truck, practicing what he’ll say to his estranged brother. “I’m better now,” Nicky says to himself. “I’m not the monster that you think I am.”
But when he gets to the American Legion where the guys are meeting up, Nick can’t bring himself to go inside — even after he sees Jack enter the bar. However, we’re able to listen as Jack and one of his friends talk about how Jack lied to Rebecca about what he did in the war. Since then, “I”ve had a million opportunities to tell the truth and I never did,” he notes. The buddy totally gets it, and he gives Jack some well-intentioned but very terrible advice about how to deal with the traumatic memories. “Lock it away,” he says. “Visit it when you have one too many,” and “keep it separate” from the rest of your life. Jack also mentions that he wants to ask Rebecca to marry him. The friend suggests he go for it, and think only about her and their future moving forward.
In the parking lot, Nicky sees Jack pull out the engagement ring he’s already bought. But he says nothing, and Jack never even knows his brother there.
OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS | Last week’s episode ended with Nicky arriving, unannounced, at Kevin and Madison’s house. This week, we learn that Nick neglected to understand that the twins’ upcoming baptism was a Zoom affair, but now that he’s there, Kevin is very excited to introduce Nicky and Franny to their great-uncle.
And he’s legitimately excited to meet them, too. As the episode progresses, we see how Nicky did a bunch of things he either has never done before (order from Amazon!) or hasn’t done in a very long time (travel via plane!) in order to make the pandemic-era voyage from Pennsylvania to California. He gets a coronavirus vaccination. He books a flight. Most touchingly of all, he handcrafts a couple of snow globes — one with dogs, one with the moon landing — for the babies.
And he gets help with so much of the trip prep from… Cassidy! She teaches him about Amazon. She wraps the globes. She drives him to the airport. And she gives him the pep talk he needs when he starts to freak out about doing so many new things in a row. Too bad that when he goes through security at the airport, a TSA agent unwraps his gift and informs him that he can’t bring that much liquid on the plane. And when Nicky goes to empty them into a garbage can, he drops them, shattering the glass. Frustrated, he tosses the whole shebang into the trash.
But he makes it. And he’s happy to be there. But when Kevin starts talking about all of the grandfatherly things Nick can do with the family during his visit, the older man starts to twitch visibly. Very early the next morning, he calls Cassidy in a panic: He’s thinking of ghosting. But she talks him down. “You’ve hated yourself for so long, and now you have all this love coming at you, it feels weird and you want to go AWOL,” she says. But she points out that Jack would be proud of him. “It took you a while, but you made it. You made it all the way to California.”
So Nick slips into the nursery, where his namesake and Franny are awake but quiet. He shows them the replacement gifts he bought at the airport book shop — John Grisham’s The Firm and The Rainmaker (ha!) — and monologues that the moon landing was an impossible thing, until it became possible. Similarly, “Anything good that would ever happen to me, it just seemed impossible,” he says. “But here I am. I made it.” He starts crying a little. “You two are my moon.”
Nick falls asleep in the rocker, which is where Kevin finds him later. When Kev picks up one of the books, a photo of Jack and Nick — which Sally took when she came to dinner at the Pearson house — falls to the floor.
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the episode? Sound off in the comments!