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)
Next, This Is Us finally introduces Nick in the flesh, played by Michael Angarano (currently starring as Jack’s son on Will and Grace). This is another year earlier: Jack is working as a mechanic; Nick is drinking coffee to the side, with wild hair, not exactly helping out. He calls Jack his “own personal Superman” — always there to get him out of trouble. (Familiar, isn’t it?) They chat some, eventually return home to their drunken father and mother, and it becomes clear: It’s Vietnam Draft Day.
Jack takes Nick to a bar where the lottery airs on national TV. “I just know they’re going to call my number,” Nick says, to which Jack responds he’s “always been lucky” and has nothing to worry about. Jack predicts his brother’s birthday will be the last one picked — and that, even if it’s not, likely won’t appear within the top 200 likely to be shipped off. But the optimistic mood is quickly soured: As we, the audience, already know will happen, Nick’s birthday is selected very quickly, a no-doubt-about-it fifth place. The reality registers on Nick’s face: He’s going to war.
Jack doesn’t accept this, however, suggesting he’ll take Nick across the border. And he gets pretty far in executing his plan. They lie to their parents, saying they’re going hunting, but the way their mother hugs them goodbye makes it very clear she knows what’s really going on. They stop at a motel overnight on the way, but when Jack wakes up, Nick is nowhere to be found — only another note left behind. “It’s my time to save the day now,” he writes. He’s not running to Canada.
Before taking off, Nick mused to his brother on the way toward the border, “I wonder if things would make more sense if you looked at everything in reverse — if you started at the end and tried to figure out how you got there. I wish I could do that right now.” This Is Us tries answering that question with “Vietnam.” Yet whether intentionally or not, the episode undermines the ingenuity of the approach by serving up a very typical narrative for this show: Jack rises to the occasion, goes to bat for those he loves, no matter the hardships he faces. He is, in “Vietnam,” a bona fide hero, and the backward narrative — which depicts the Jack-Nick story in a broad, sweeping sense — only reinforces that show’s depiction of him. I do tend to find this characterization a little tired. This is a show that finds fundamental good in all of the Pearsons, but with almost every other character — especially Rebecca — it’s comfortable shading them a bit more complexly. When Jack appears in his family’s memories, the saintliness functions effectively. When that filter is lost, however, it’s less convincing — or affecting.
In any case, the show moves more aggressively toward the past as it hurtles toward its conclusion. Once Nick leaves for war, “Vietnam” clocks back 14 years earlier, with the brothers playing football in the front yard. Here the “Superman” myth comes to life: Jack accidentally breaks Nick’s glasses before putting them back together and tells him he has secret strength like Clark Kent, a tough-guy in disguise. “Just a matter of time before people realize you’re actually Superman,” Jack enthuses. That night, Nick tries standing up for his mother when he hears his father beating her in the kitchen; it’s Jack who stands between them amid an escalating confrontation, ending the violence at least for the night. “He didn’t used to be this way,” his mom says. (In this scene, Jack’s heart is racing unusually fast; we learn earlier in “Vietnam” that his irregular heartbeat is what kept him out of Vietnam until he voluntarily enlisted.)
Finally, we reach the day of Nick’s birth — notable, chiefly, for the total transformation of his father. He’s a loving, excited, bright father and husband here, encouraging to his wife as she goes into labor and offering genuine wisdom to a very young Jack. Jack’s grandfather stops by, briefly, revealing himself as a drunk. It’s another moment that subtly valorizes Jack: Where his dad and his dad’s dad succumbed to the worst of their alcoholism, Jack fought it relentlessly, for the good of his family.
Of course, we’re a long ways from Vietnam now. But “Vietnam,” the episode, ends where it began — with Jack finally reuniting with his brother abroad. This time we see Nick in the flesh. He throws a match over pools of gasoline, turns around, head shaved, tears in his eyes, and looks at his brother. It’s a fascinating moment, so many emotions overcoming him (Resentment? Relief? Pain?), and there’s fear in his eyes — as if tragedy is in sight. This is just our introduction to these brothers; hopefully, this ending promises a richer, more nuanced exploration of their bond.