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)