On Tuesday night, Jack is going to Vietnam. And you’re going to… get some answers about his past.
This Is Us puts present-day Pearson drama on hold for a week to bring you a crucial chapter in the pain-stained past of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) — as well as his little-discussed, also-deceased younger brother, Nicky (Michael Angarano), who served with him in the war. “Their story is complicated and goes in a direction that people won’t quite expect or guess,” creator Dan Fogelman tells EW. “This episode really focuses on the formative brotherhood of these two boys and young men.”
After finally depicting Jack’s death in season 2, This Is Us writers set out to explore “new worlds” of Jack in season 3, including his early courtship with Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and his time in the Vietnam War, as the overwhelming majority of viewers’ knowledge of the Pearson patriarch comes after that fateful night in 1972. “For most of us, Jack’s story has really started with him watching Rebecca sing ‘Moonshadow’ at that bar,” says Fogelman. “We did one episode in our first season where you saw the couple days before, and we’ve seen flashes of his existence and understanding of his relationship with his father [Peter Oronati], particularly, but we’ve never really understood the full picture of the man as he existed before he walked into that bar. This episode starts filling in those pieces.”
Viewers have an inkling that Jack has undersold the traumas in his life, namely his service in Vietnam. Although he has told people that he was “just a mechanic,” we saw images of Jack holding a machine gun in a helicopter. Now comes the time to stitch those frames together, albeit in an unconventional narrative style. “There’s clearly a guy here who has suffered, who has lost, and who has experienced some stuff, both in terms of his personal background with his family and his father, and then also during the war,” says Fogelman, who hired Vietnam War veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) as a consultant. (O’Brien co-wrote the episode.) “We’ve studied very intensely, read very intensely, and researched very intensely on vets — and particularly vets from Vietnam. What is constantly such a surprising commonality is older men who have still have barely talked about their experience to their family, and to their spouses of decades, to their children. A great many of the people who are like that are people who experienced really heavy stuff during that particular war. It’s fair to say Jack is probably one of those people.”
While this story line — one that will carry through the season — sends viewers into the thick of a war zone, it still retains the DNA of TIU, assures Fogelman. “The ironic part is we’ve always had this idea about Jack and Nicky and how they’re tied together as brothers and also how they were tied together during the war,” he says. “But this also allows us to remain what the show is about, which is about family and the bonds that connect us as family members. This is an episode that explores what war does to a family, and how the sins of our fathers informs the sins of our sons and daughters. It’s about Vietnam, but at its core, it’s really about two brothers.”
One goal of the episode is to help you understand the SuperDad era of Jack Pearson. “There is something wildly powerful about seeing Jack during this period, seeing how much he loved his little brother and knowing how that informs the man that we’ve come to know in the first two seasons,” says Fogelman. “I find it really powerful — and parts of an origin story that you didn’t even realize were parts of an origin story.” It also answers questions about Jack’s brother that have loomed over the show. “I don’t think by the episode you’ll have many of those questions anymore,” says Fogelman. “I think you have new questions that you haven’t asked before, but in terms of what that relationship was and who that person was to Jack, you have a very clear picture of it painted by the end of the episode.” And as you know by now, on This Is Us, everyone is still in the painting.
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