Damn if This Is Us doesn’t still know how to unfurl a great, big family mystery. In retrospect, last week’s dutiful midseason premiere seems like it was all but a lead-in to “Songbird Road: Part One,” which reveals what happened to Nicky across three equally compelling timelines. This is the show at its best: controlled, focused, and emotionally transfixing.
We left last episode on Kevin and Zoe discovering that not only did Nicky survive the Vietnam War — if a newly discovered postcard is any indication — but Jack knew. Kevin had been reluctant to tell his family but now, armed with an address, he feels prepared to unveil the truth. Sitting in a room with his mother, Randall, and Kate via Skype, he says flatly that Nicky’s apparent hometown Bradford, Pa., is a six-hour drive away. He proposes a family road-trip. Rebecca, in a quiet, deep pain over the news, declines. Randall enthusiastically agrees to go — if only, as he later tells Beth, to be there for Kevin if they don’t find Nicky. And Kate initially says no, reasonably explaining she’s too far away and newly pregnant. Cut to a few scenes later, where she’s on Randall’s doorstep. Let the Big Three road-trip commence.
This section of the episode plays in alignment with the period following the Vietnam War, in which Jack — father to three young kids, husband to Rebecca, seemingly leaving Vietnam behind — is trying to ignore the many postcards he’s receiving from Nicky, each signed “Clark Kent.” His brother is alive and, from what we can glean, he’s not surprised to see this. Finally, he gets a postcard — with that same Bradford address, on the titular Songbird Road — reading, just, “last one.” It’s worrying enough to spur Jack to finally face whatever happened between them. He lies to Rebecca, saying he has a “lumber yard” his company is “contracting up in Trenton,” and says goodbye to his children. Simply the visual symmetry of Jack saying goodbye to Rebecca in the past, and the three kids saying goodbye to Rebecca in the present — her expressing longing and a confusing sadness in each — is deeply affecting. The show effectively mines these parallels and contrasts throughout the hour.
So much of the Pearsons’ experience, across timelines, is unknowable in this episode. Jack doesn’t know where his brother is living, what his life is like, or whether he’s in danger. When he drives up to his trailer by a lake, he remembers a moment from when they were kids, Nicky gloating about how he’ll own a big lake-house with a boat. He’s not exactly living the dream, a fact emphasized when Nicky opens the door to greet his brother, looking worn. In the present, Kevin is overly enthusiastic by the prospect of discovery; Randall trying to keep it together; and Kate battling feelings of betrayal, the reality that their father lied to them still setting in. As the siblings arrive, Nicky’s trailer looks exactly the same as it did some 30 years earlier. Only when they knock, no one’s there to greet them. Until an adult Nicky — played by Griffin Dunne — shows up behind them.
Crusty, grouchy, and melancholy, this older Nicky possesses the same temperament as the troubled kid we’ve gotten to know. He asks the Big Three if their dad knows they’re visiting — he’s not aware his brother died decades ago. He absorbs every detail silently like he’s taking punches to the gut. It’s wrenching to watch, and Dunne plays it brilliantly. We’ll soon know what happened to Nicky, but in the actor’s portrayal, the haunt and regret is all over him.
“Songbird Road” is also as elegant as This Is Us gets. The episode’s centerpiece juxtaposes Jack’s (presumably) final meeting with his brother and the Big Three’s first meeting with him. In the former, the pair skirt around the elephant in the room with small-talk of Nesquik and family memories. Every time Nicky tries to go deep, Jack rebuffs him. But the latter meeting is revelatory. Kevin asks why Jack would pretend Nicky was dead, and while Nicky initially tells his niece and nephews to leave, Kate stands up to him and all but demands the truth. Nicky acquiesces. He gives them the basics of his service. “Your father tried to clean me up; it didn’t work,” he says. “Finally they pulled me out for psychiatric reasons.” He suddenly appears overcome with anguish. And so we return to Vietnam for the full story. (Recap continues on Page 2)
Rather than continue the Vietnam timeline episodically, as had been done in previous episodes, “Songbird Road” offers what amounts to a devastating short story. There’s Nicky, waking up in a field after another period of drugging out with a boy — son of Jack’s Mystery Woman — hovering over him. Nicky had been cruel with him before, but here they share a loving moment, exchanging chocolate for glasses. (It makes sense when you watch it!) Quickly Nicky develops an affection for him, and so, he decides to take him out fishing.
The fishing sequence starts out innocently enough, but quickly takes a sinister turn: Nicky decides to show the boy how to fish… with grenades, blowing them up in the water and then watching dead fish float to the surface. He’s trying to play, but it’s beyond irresponsible and dangerous — and since, last we were in Vietnam, we heard a boat explode offscreen, also portentous. Indeed a tragically preventable series of events follows. Nicky gets out another grenade. The boy tries to grab it from him. Nicky accidentally detonates it. And his “Jump off!” pleas aren’t understood. Nicky’s able to get off the boat, but the boy is not.
What follows is harrowing: the previously-seen montage of Jack racing into the water, panicked, and then what comes next: him rescuing his brother as the boat burns, and seeing the boy’s mother breaking down on the shore. Jack sees the boy’s shoe in the water and puts the pieces together. “He’s just a kid!” he shouts at Nicky. “I’m done! I’m done!” Nicky, meanwhile, is paralyzed with shock. His expression is utterly static as we hear the boy’s mother sob and scream. Later, we shift back to the present-timeline, where Nicky says his memory of the war is fading, but the sound of the mother crying never leaves him. “She’s with me, wailing,” he says, almost spooked. “I worry that that’s going to be the last damn thing I remember when my time comes.”
The tragedy, as Nicky sees it, is that “I never got to tell him” — namely, that it was an accident. We get one last glimpse of Jack’s check-up on Nicky. The latter does everything he can to tell his brother what happened, but Jack simply won’t listen. “I want to leave that right where it is,” Jack demands. “No more.” He shows Nicky pictures of his family and leaves. When he heads home, he tells Rebecca the half-truth, admitting he went to see someone in the war he was once close to, and that they had a falling out. Rebecca asks if him seeing him helped. “A little, maybe,” Jack says. “I don’t know.”
Speaking to the Big Three, an older Nicky says that Jack saw the world in black and white, adding, “That’s why he had two lives… He walked away from the first one.” Here This Is Us presents a more complex portrait of Jack than it’s usually comfortable with, and the results are subtly thrilling. The reality is, if Nicky’s to be believed, Jack did turn his back on his brother. He didn’t want to know what happened on that boat. He had a “darkness,” as Miguel puts it later to Rebecca when they learn Nicky is actually alive, and he couldn’t risk that overtaking the new light in his life. But Rebecca — and perhaps the show — doesn’t accept that saintly framing anymore. In an expertly underplayed moment by Mandy Moore, Rebecca replies, “I used to love that answer because I wanted to believe it. But now I want the truth.”
Then there’s Kevin — whose unquenchable enthusiasm for digging up the Pearson past appears to have been, well, quenched. Nicky kicks the trio out after his unburdening, and Kevin and friends begin the long trip back. But Kevin sees an opportunity to correct his father’s mistake — not to turn his back on Nicky, not to leave him alone for decades. And so, unlike Jack, they turn back. They knock but find the door creaked open. They head inside. There’s Nicky, head bowed, eyes welled. There’s all that trauma, front and center. And there’s a gun, placed right in front of him. “I never got to tell him it was an accident,” Nicky repeats, yet again. Randall takes the gun. Kevin puts his hand on Nicky’s shoulder. Kate looks on. Here’s a darker, deeper story than any of them could’ve expected.