Jack Pearson ended the second episode of season 2 of This Is Us with a step in the right direction. Several of them, actually, leading into an AA meeting.
Staring down a problem with alcohol that he tried to stuff down years before and now nearly crumbled his marriage, the Pearson patriarch (Milo Ventimiglia) realized that this time he will need to do it right, with the help of his family, and a 12-step program. It’s something that he almost did last time around but instead tried to exorcise his demons via a punching bag.
Also — and this is important — Jack apparently wasn’t just a mechanic in Vietnam, as he told Mrs. Peabody in the season 1 finale. Despite his efforts to play down his service, he clearly had a more intense time than he let on; we saw Jack trying to manage his family and work life, haunted by the sound of a helicopter, and then, finally, a brief flashback to his exiting a helicopter and entering hosting territory with a rifle. What kind of trauma is Jack hiding from his time in Vietnam? “Jack is holding onto a lot,” Ventimiglia tells EW. “Anyone who is in the theater of war is experiencing things that a civilian on the streets has no idea about. War is horrible, and if you’re right there in the middle of it to see the atrocities, you can’t not be impacted by it. So only getting a glimpse of Jack hopping out of a helicopter with an M16 rifle, looking like he’s in the s—, he wasn’t just a mechanic. Or he was just a mechanic. But also, I think Jack in his younger years saying he was just a mechanic is just a way to put off other questions, because Jack had adjusted his own perspective on life post-war and moved forward. And man, that’s just God-given grace if anything. It’s nothing anyone can ever expect to have, but Jack was fortunate enough to have a clean perspective moving forward and manage whatever emotional distress he experienced while he was over in Vietnam.”
Expect to learn about — and witness — more of Jack’s time in Vietnam this season — and beyond. “We’ve heard about it, but now we actually get a glimpse of it,” says Ventimiglia. “We’re ultimately going to spend some time in that world understanding what had gone on there. I won’t say for certain when it will happen, but knowing that we’ve caught a glimpse of Jack and especially as he’s wailing away on a bag trying to beat the demons that are bubbling up from underneath, his father’s drinking, the things that are making him want to break bad — that’s part of it. That’s a side of Jack that we’re going to know a lot about and spend some time with.”
Speaking of the punching bag, did he get any boxing tips from Sylvester Stallone? Stallone, of course, not only starred with Ventimiglia in Rocky Balboa but will pop up on This Is Us next week as a star of Kevin’s movie — and who turns out to be Jack’s favorite actor. “He’s a southpaw, and it looked like Jack had a pretty strong, pretty mean left hook,” quips Ventimiglia. “And also knowing Sly’s involvement in this show, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Rocky Balboa or Sylvester Stallone had a big impact on Jack’s life.”
Jack has chosen to enter the ring of recovery, taking a few crucial steps in his journey toward the end of “A Manny-Splendored Thing.” He explained to his family that he will need them, along with professional help. Of course, this marks just the beginning of a painful process, especially for someone like Jack, who is used to lending his strength to others, not leaning on others. “It’s a big moment for Jack to be able to ask for help, and say to his wife, ‘It can’t be like the last time,'” says Ventimiglia. “Or say to his daughter, ‘Dad has a drinking problem.’ It’s a very big moment for this man to (1) admit that he has a problem, and (2) admit that he needs help with it. I think, in a way, that lends to Jack’s perfection of knowing that he’s not beyond asking for help when he needs it. I think it makes him more admirable that he’s not just trying to stifle it or hide it himself. The beauty of humanity is accepting flaws and realizing that we need people around us, good people around us in our time of need.”
One of the most intimate and vulnerable moments of the episode — and a stand-out moment for Ventimiglia — arrived when Jack came clean to his daughter Kate (Hannah Zeile), who sought to comfort him by holding his face in her hands, much like she did at a younger age when he tried to comfort her. Ventimiglia chuckles when asked about the scene. “I’m laughing now because I’m trying to mask the tears rising in my eyes…. I can’t imagine that something like that would be easy for a father to admit to a child. Especially being very sober. It’s maybe a little different — when he’s drunk and a little loose, to say to his wife that he’s been drinking for weeks and in a calm tone admit he’s embarrassed and he’s very sorry. But when he doesn’t have that bravery that alcohol gives someone — that filter-removing bravery — he’s exposed to just the words that he has to say to his daughter. It’s pretty heartbreaking. Especially the connection that he and Kate have, and what we know of Kate in the present day, and how she feels responsible for her father’s death and has always been the one that’s so connected to him. That’s been through so much of that first season was Kate and Jack, and how much Jack impacted her life, and at the same time, how much she impacts his. He’s having a hard day and he’s thinking about the drink, and he’s got to make the decision to not do it, and by not doing it, he goes and sees his daughter Kate, and she just sits in the car and talks to him and tries to make him feel better. God bless her for doing that.”
What impact will his confession to teenage Kate that he needs the Big Three have on these teenagers? “It puts a lot of responsibility on them, and causes them to grow up a little bit,” he says. “Dad’s always been the strongest, so to see that Dad has a moment where he’s not so strong and he needs help, it’s got to be impactful for a kid to grow up a little bit and make that decision to support their father and their family.”
It’s a big, proactive decision for Jack — and it needs to be — as this multi-layered issue cuts deep. “It’s in his DNA, it’s in his composition, it’s what he was born into, so it’s always going to be something that’s a part of him,” he says. “Whether it’s on the surface or buried deep underneath and it’s under control, it’s something that is a part of who Jack is. We’re going to try to address it and move on from it and get him in a good place in his life with his family when that moment arrives of seeing how it is how Jack dies.”
More immediately, what can you expect from next Tuesday’s installment (aside from that Stallone guest spot)? You will follow Jack into that AA meeting that he was walking into as the credits rolled. “It’s an episode about repairing these cracks and fractures that have built up over time,” hints Ventimiglia. “Hopefully we’re on the road to Jack and Rebecca being unified again.” And that starts with his own road to recovery.
To see what creator Dan Fogelman had to say about Jack’s Vietnam past and alcoholism — as well as Kate and Rebecca’s fraught relationship — click here.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.