How you feel about “Vietnam” — the long-awaited This Is Us episode which introduces new timelines within the show — depends, largely, on how you feel about Jack Pearson. His heroic narrative is on full display in the episode, which at times feels like an exercise in hagiography. Plus, it only begins to answer the questions about what happened to Jack during wartime — the episode ends (and, sorta, begins) on his reunion with his brother, Nick, who will eventually die in Vietnam.
“Vietnam” also works backward in time, beginning in November 1971 and moving toward the day of Nick’s birth. The opening scene finds Jack in Vietnam, being transported to a new camp. We learn, immediately, that he’s ascended to staff sergeant and that he’s entering unfamiliar territory. Through his eyes, we see someone he recognizes. “Hello, little brother,” he says — though we don’t even see Nick’s face. And backward we go.
Like the rest of the Pearsons, we know very little about Jack’s time in Vietnam; only that he’s told people he was just a mechanic and wasn’t in any serious danger. “Vietnam” quickly does away with that illusion. The very next scene in the episode finds Jack leading a squad through the jungle, in conditions that very clearly could turn deadly at any moment. One of his men is able to, in advance, spot a homemade bomb and safely detonate it — the first of many quiet, tense sequences director Ken Olin pulls off. But day turns to night, and a crisis averted turns to a crisis unfurling. We hear a bomb go off and then, amid the darkness, see flashes of aggressive gunfire. Jack ably leads his men through the chaos, but there’s only so much he can do; before long he hears the words he’s dreading, “man down,” and is left to console Donny — a man he’d been befriending. Minutes earlier Donny was playing football, carefree; now he’s breathing to stay alive, his whole foot having just been blown off.
Jack is, unsurprisingly, a steady leader in the Army, the man you’d expect him to be based on everything This Is Us has shown to date. Further, the intensity of his experience is neither particularly surprising nor compelling; that he saw blood and faced death has been thoroughly hinted at throughout the show’s run. (There’s also a murky moment the day after Donny gets shot down, right before he’s medically evacuated: Donny, who is black, holds Jack’s face in his hands — and the image of Jack holding a young Randall’s face in his hands quickly follows. It’s meant to serve as a mini-origin-story for the “breathe” moment Jack and his son shared in a previous episode, but on multiple levels it feels a bit on-the-nose.) What “Vietnam” does well is use its on-location filming to maximum effect. The lush greens, the dusty camps, the sense of mystery and air of danger all linger in the frame from scene to scene.
The most gorgeous shot of the episode comes later when Jack is reassigned to a relatively calm camp, to decompress — his goal, as instructed, is to “pacify” locals who hold Viet Cong sympathies. Really, it’s an opportunity to unwind; Olin beautifully captures the sense of relief and camaraderie across the village and hones in particularly on one soldier throwing the football Donny was playing with into the lake. Jack quickly finds a balance of getting his squad on track, pushing them to do their assigned jobs, and leaving room for bonding and celebration. (He also scolds a soldier for chastising a young Vietnamese boy as a “commie.”) It’s because of the order he’s maintained that he’s granted a special request — to go visit his baby brother, who has been disciplined under an Article 15.
So begins the told-in-reverse saga of Jack and Nick. We move 14 months earlier, on the image of Jack’s mother opening a letter from Nick in the mail, in which he details his military punishment. (It’s “as if I’m the danger and not this messed-up war,” Nick writes — our first indication he’s a bit more anti-war than his relatively unifying brother.) Nick also writes he “knows” he’s not getting out of Vietnam alive; he projects a certain strength in the letter, but he’s clearly scared. And so Jack, protector that he is, decides to enlist himself. “I need to be where he is, even if I can’t get to him,” he tells a doctor. “I just need to be there. He’s my little brother, doc.” (Recap continues on Page 2)