This Is Us recap: Jack Pearson is haunted in a season-best episode
"Sometimes" is a deeply haunted episode of This Is Us. And in refining its focus to three rich story lines — as opposed to the scattered quality that's defined the show's past few weeks — it also happens to be one of the best of the season so far.
This, perhaps problematically, has to do with including neither Kate nor Randall, both of whom are stuck in thin arcs right now — the latter increasingly so, despite Sterling K. Brown's continued excellent work. Instead, the only Pearson sibling to appear in "Sometimes" is Kevin, and it's directly tied-in with the Jack-heavy material going on in the other timelines: the Vietnam War, which we return to for the first time, and the early stages of Jack and Rebecca's romance.
Let's begin with the opening, which essentially outlines how the infamous necklaced passed onto Kevin wound up around the neck of a Vietnamese woman — who'd later be photographed beside Jack. The sequence is neat: The episode opens on the necklace being made; then moves to it being sold to servicemen; then to a man who bought it trying to use it to pick up a woman, only to leave it at a bar where he sees her with another man; and then to another man picking it up, only to die on the battlefield; and then, finally, to a woman finding it and putting it on. It's a subtle beginning which reflects what This Is Us does best, peering into so many lives and tracing their connections.
Kevin is still obsessed with the picture as he and Zoe land in Vietnam, but he soon finds himself irked by something else: Zoe's reluctance to open up to him. She hints at a troubled dynamic with her father when she asks him not to tag her in any Instagram photos; he lives in China and she doesn't want to see him, but won't say exactly why. This grates at Kevin: He realizes she's said very little about her family, and that as he falls for her, he wants to know more. As of now, he knows she's smart, ambitious, and plenty adventurous — that last detail evidenced by their first lunch in Vietnam, where she gorges on marketplace bat. (She'll later regret the choice.) While out, Kevin spots a tourist wearing the same necklace as his father's — and learns it's but a cheap souvenir gift, without the singular, special value he'd ascribed to it. Though of course, the backstory is as significant as Kevin initially thought; little does he know.
Kevin says at the episode's beginning that he felt his father the moment they touched down in Hanoi, and "Sometimes" indeed carries that ghostly element. Much of it comes from what Jack himself goes through in this episode. While the "Vietnam" episode was more of a structural feat, this is the first time the show really lives in Jack's experience of the war, allowing us to get a better glimpse of his trauma.
In the War timeline, we begin where we left off: on Jack and Nicky's reunion. Nicky appears volatile and unstable as he embraces and pushes his brother away, expressing joy and anger at seeing him. "Don't touch me. Don't look at me. I'm not here," he tells Jack at one point. He gets in his face, trying to scare him away. But Jack doesn't budge, indicating he's going to get him help. "I got charged with Article 15 — that's unbecoming conduct," Nicky tries explaining. He appears broken, hopeless. (Recap continues on Page 2)
Jack speaks to Major Dawson, Nicky's superior, and tries to reason with him. "I was hoping to take him back with me, get his ass squared away," Jack says of Nicky. "He's not cut out for this. That's why I'm here." But Dawson says he's too late, and that there's no way of pairing brothers anyway — given the potential for having to send two condolence letters to one family at the same time. He sends Jack on his way, ordering he go back to camp on foot. But Jack arrived by helicopter and has no way to get there. He needs help. He finds a rather inscrutable local man and asks him to take him back to camp; after an exchange of names and money, he obliges. But the man's allegiances are still difficult to place.
This is paralleled with where we left off with Jack and Rebecca, in the throes of their new, young love: on a road trip to Los Angeles. Their story is quiet this week, as Rebecca and Jack are suddenly in tight quarters together — the car on the open road, motel rooms along major highways — left to talk, but also experience silence together. There's a great little montage of the two alternating between driving, making love, and lying awake at night. It's romantic — but tinged with distance, as Jack battles nightmares and alludes, cryptically, to visiting "folks" in the nearby California town of Reseda. (Rebecca, as a refresher, is amping up to play her music for a major label.) And there's also the reality of Rebecca feeling eager to leave the smallness of Pittsburgh behind; for Jack, it's all he knows, and he has no intention of leaving it. After one particularly rough night, Rebecca also tries to get Jack to open up: "Have you been having a lot of bad dreams since you got back from Vietnam?" He asks her, softly but firmly, to leave the topic alone.
The long takes of the pair just driving fade into shots of Jack on his driver's bike, through Vietnamese jungles and villages. They stop briefly in a small community where the man goes off to do some suspicious business; Jack watches on, unsure and unsettled. These scenes really capture his experience in a powerful, vivid, quiet kind of way — the stretches of silence, the constant sense of unease, the unavoidable suspicion on every person who crosses his path. As Jack and the man continue on their trip, the episode holds on Jack's face for a long take of him just looking out at fields as they drive, a look of haunted peace across his face.
As he and Rebecca arrive in Los Angeles years later, and he drops her off at the label for her big audition, we see a similar gaze in him again. He arrives at the home of the Waterstons, where he informs the parents he knew their son — and claims responsibility for his death in Vietnam. "I don't know whose idea it was to pick up the football first that day," Jack says in recollection. "I let my guard down." But the parents comfort Jack, tell him it's not his fault. You can see in Milo Ventimiglia's performance as a man who doesn't know how to feel — about himself, about what happened, about whether he's good or bad. When his driver lets him off in the war timeline to walk the rest of the way, Jack asks quite genuinely, "Are you a good guy?" The man responds: "Sometimes." Jack seems desperate to escape the grey area, but life — the war, such a murky and ugly time — hands him no reprieves in that regard. That's sure to continue with Nicky — whom Dawson reluctantly decides to bring to Jack (for "two weeks"). Nicky is none too happy to see his brother. And we know this reunion will not have a happy ending. (Jack also encounters the woman with the necklace, very passingly; he scares her off when she sees his gun. This is sure to be developed soon.)
And so here's the background for why Jack is struggling to open up — the sheer complexity of his service. It's intriguingly compared to Kevin's experience with Zoe; they get one powerful scene near the episode's end, in which Kevin — by a very sick Zoe's side — prods her once more for details about her father. Zoe is blunt but strong in her response. "My father sexually abused me," she reveals. "I'm telling you this because my father has already ruined so much for me, and I'm not going to let him ruin this too." She slips in that she's falling in love with him after he states it outright. Then comes one of the episode's strongest moments. Kevin reacts, "You always seemed so strong." She replies, "I am strong." No "but."
We close, fittingly, in the in-between — on Jack and Rebecca. He picks her up from her audition, which didn't go great — she's told by the producer, harshly, that she's merely "Pittsburgh good" — and he says his "visit" went "as good as it could go." She says she misses Pittsburgh, where it rains, where it feels real. He asks Rebecca to sing the song for him. She obliges — and, flashing back to Vietnam memories, he cries. Just earlier, he'd told Rebecca he'd never, ever cried. She pauses and watches him. And she keeps singing. It's a profoundly moving scene. Then, when she finishes, they sit in the car in silence together for a moment. She then says, "Let's go home."
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.