Warning: This story contains plot details from “Vietnam,” Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us.
Little brother just made a big entrance. Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us finally introduced us to the adult version of Jack’s younger sibling, Nicky, of whom viewers (and the Pearson family) knew scant details, other than that he perished during the Vietnam War. From the opening frame of “Vietnam,” it was made clear that the Nicky Pearson — the boy Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) had always promised to protect — had become a man on the edge.
Dreading being conscripted into service (but feeling that it was inevitable, despite those “born lucky” assurances of Jack and his mother), Nicky watched with doom as his birthday was selected early in the draft lottery. Jack drove Nicky from Pittsburgh to the Canadian border so he could cross countries and avoid serving, but as he told Jack in the overnight note he left behind — “It’s my turn to save the day” — he changed his mind and reported for duty. A year into service, though, and he had done no saving. In fact, he was demoted to a lowly rank, as the Pearson family learned in Nicky’s letters, which indicated a dark struggle. This gnawed at Jack so much that he felt compelled to enlist, despite his heart irregularity. Finally earning the right to visit his brother at his remote but nearby outpost, Jack announced his presence with a “Hey, little brother,” while Nicky poured gasoline on a barrel of excrement on latrine duty. Hearing that familiar voice, Nicky threw a match into the barrel, igniting the whole mess, turned to face Jack, and the audience felt what Jack did. Uh-oh.
What was that look on Nicky’s face? Why did Nicky change his mind and heed the call to battle? What hell awaits him in future episodes? EW asked Michael Angarano, the actor who plays Nicky, to report for interview duty. Here, the newest cast member — whose credits include I’m Dying Up Here, The Knick, and Will & Grace — walks you through the minefields that await Nicky and Jack.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you get a call asking if you’d be interested in playing Jack Pearson’s brother, and your first response is…?
MICHAEL ANGARANO: Have they seen my work? [Laughs.] I was really shocked, because I had no idea that this was in the works or that I was being spoken about. I got a phone call from my agent, and then the next day I was speaking to Isaac [Aptaker, TIU executive producer] on the phone about this very ambitious storyline, and he told me that Tim O’Brien was a consultant in the writers’ room. I started to read Tim O’Brien’s work, The Things They Carried, and I was both impressed and curious as to how this show would handle this storyline, because this was a very dark and sad and violent war. To show that on network television in an authentic way is a huge challenge. Not to say I doubted it when I spoke with Isaac on the phone, but when I got the first script and I saw that it was written by [creator] Dan Fogelman and Tim O’Brien, I thought, “Oh, they’re really doing this!” I thought, “This is ambitious, but this is accurate.” There’s nothing that felt wrong or forced. It felt like this was all part of the show from day one, in a weird way. This was an important part of Jack’s story to tell.
In that shot of Nicky in Vietnam that opens the episode, you can see that this man is in a lot of pain. It’s not the same man who left for war to make something of himself. How dire is this situation?
It’s dire. It’s something that I and Milo and Dan and [executive producer] Ken Olin and Tim O’Brien all spoke a lot about: How far gone is Nicky, and where is he? He’s been at war for a year, and he’s sending back letters to his family saying, “I might not make it out of here alive, but I’m going to do it on my own terms.” He’s sending suicidal letters back to his family, and I don’t think he’s doing it for attention. I think Nicky is on a course when Jack finds him.
What exactly is that look on his face? There seems to be anger and vulnerability, and also maybe, “Here comes Jack to save the day.”
Yeah, I think it’s complicated. There’s part of him that’s happy. I think there’s also part of him that resents that he’s there. There’s part of him that’s surprised that he’s there. And I think in an instant, even though he’s in a completely foreign land, a completely different headspace, and a shell of his physical self, he probably gets 21 years of sibling dynamic in about three seconds. I think it’s the whole gamut.
Jack has read his letters and seen how the war has changed Nicky, but does he even realize how broken Nicky is?
No. I don’t think so. One of the beautiful things about this storyline is that even though these two are brothers and they know so much about each other and have a respect and an understanding of each other as men because they grew up in the same household and know what each other has gone though, how Nicky has reacted to this war is unfathomable. Even to Jack.
I was thinking a lot about that line, “I’m not getting out of here alive, but I’m not going to be dying on anyone else’s terms.” How prophetic will that prove to be? Like you said, there’s implications of suicide, but also maybe of going out in a blaze of glory trying to play the hero.
Nicky has this tendency to feel this pull of destiny, and he did it with the lottery; he knew he was going to go to Vietnam. He did it with Jack in Canada; he said, “I have to do this on my own terms.” And he’s sending these letters back. There’s something to him that is hanging over his head. It’s this very abstract idea, but I think it’s something that is very influenced by his past and the fact that he is Jack’s little brother, and he does come from the household he comes from. It’s something that might even be out of the realm of his own understanding, but something you can gather from Nicky as a human is that he’s very much the observer. While Jack is earnest and present, Nicky thinks about time abstractly. And it’s this meta speech that is the concept of the episode, but it’s also the concept of the show. If you see something from the end of it and you try to understand it backwards — I don’t think you would ever hear Jack say something like that. It’s this reverse way of thinking, and it’s this psychological and intellectual way of thinking, where Nicky is already at the end and he’s trying to see and understand the steps as he notices them.
Dan said that we’ll have the Nicky mystery resolved by the end of the season. How close to the end of his life might we be?
He’s on a course, and it might be too late by the time Jack has gotten there already. There’s one thing for sure — the man that [Jack] sees at the end of that episode is not his brother.
Nicky is literally 120 seconds away from not being drafted because he was born at 11:58 p.m. Jack is confident that he won’t be drafted, and his mother says, “You were born lucky.” But Nicky is convinced that he will be. He also says that Jack is like Superman and he is Lois Lane, always needing to be rescued. Is there an air of doom that surrounds this character?
I wouldn’t call it doom, but there is almost like he’s looking at a picture of his life and there’s a lot of negative space, and he needs to fill it in. There’s something about fate or his destiny that is calling him to do that. There’s a huge void in Nicky’s life because he grew up in the household he grew up in, with an abusive, alcoholic father. His brother has constantly taken care of him. I don’t think Nicky knows who he is as a man. And his decision to go to Vietnam and this pull that he feels towards it is, in his mind, the only way to face a lot of his demons.
Everyone keeps saying he’s so lucky being born on the 18th, and then you see that clock ticking and if there were just a few more contractions, his whole life would have turned out differently. How much of a gut twist was that to see, especially with the episode unfolding in reverse chronological order?
It’s sort of a confirmation that Nicky’s idea that this might be his destiny — he actually might be right. It’s this feeling that this 120 seconds later, his life would have been saved. I don’t think he knows it, but he feels it. Those 120 seconds are what’s hanging over his head.
NEXT PAGE: Angarano on what to expect in the next Vietnam episode
What did you make of Nicky’s decision to not cross the Canadian border and instead go to war — presumably to make his dad proud, versus feeling that this was a war that he ideologically believed in? As Dan said, that’s sad.
It is, because when his father says to him, “Make me proud, son,” I think that might be one of the most meaningful things his father ever said to him. The emotional strain that Nicky’s been through as a child has influenced his decision. I think it goes further and deeper than just trying to make his father proud. I think it’s his dynamic with Jack.… It’s disavowing himself from this life that he’s led, which has built him up on broken knees, so to speak. I think he feels like the only way to see this circumstance through is to do it on his own, and I think that’s something he needs to prove to himself more than he does Jack or his father. But those are both heavy influences on why he goes.
In this episode, we see the patterns of Jack’s grandfather that Jack’s dad fell victim to. And in the show, we’ve seen Jack battle alcoholism — but also successfully not to become his father — although he did clearly hold on to that line about a big brother’s only job is to look out for his little brother. What sins of the father have been passed on to Nicky, and the patterns that he may repeat?
[Exhales.] Heavy. Put it this way: There’s a lot about Nicky that he himself doesn’t know about yet. But he’s at that bar, he’s chain-smoking, he’s downing drinks. You can tell he’s got the crumb. Granted, it’s the lottery, so you could have a couple of cigarettes; it’s nervous energy that he’s needing to expend. But you could see a little bit of how his mind works, and how his mind is clearly predisposed to coping. A huge part of this storyline is when Jack gets there, it’s the understanding of while these two are brothers, this dynamic is so complicated — just minus the war, but then throw it into this s—storm of a war and how does Nicky deal with it, and how does Jack deal with it. We already know that Jack’s a great soldier and Nicky’s not a great soldier. He’s actually a terrible solider. So much so that he’s been Article 15’d, which is shame. It’s essentially a step above being dishonorably discharged. So, you have a huge spectrum between the two of them, and they’re both kind of anchors on either side.
You’re going to be filming in Vietnam as this storyline continues.
It’s really exciting. Again, when I thought, “How do you do this on a network television show?” one of the answers they had was, “Well, we’re going to Vietnam.” That says a lot about Dan and the writers and the producers and this show’s desire to be accurate and do this storyline justice.
To that end, how much did it help knowing you have Tim O’Brien consulting on this storyline and co-writing this first episode?
I can’t tell you how beautiful the script was, and how much Tim’s writing helped me understand, only as much as a book could. Tim’s book is so powerful, encompassing in a way. It helped me so much. There’s a chapter in his book dedicated to a guy who’s considering crossing over to Canada. First of all, I read the book before I read the script, fell in love with the book, read multiple chapters multiple times. And then I read the script and it felt like almost an adaptation of the book. So much of Tim’s writing, and especially in The Things They Carried, is about storytelling and about how the stories of the book, while they’re not true, all are true because they’re all coming from something real. So many people asked him why he didn’t write a non-fiction book, and his point is because it’s all happened. And this episode felt exactly like that.
Nicky expressed interest in becoming a medic, which Jack warns him is still a very traumatic part of war. Being exposed to those horrors through that job — is that what breaks him?
Nicky is a medic when he’s Article 15’d — that means he’s been stripped of his duties — but yeah, I think it is part of it. As Tim said, seeing soldiers die on your watch over and over and over again, I think that does something to your brain. It also is perfect for Nicky in a way because he’s trying to fix people, as opposed to fighting. I don’t think Nicky’s a fighter. I think that definitely has taken a big toll on him.
Dan said that we return to Vietnam in episode 7. What should we be bracing for? How do you describe this journey of these brothers?
You’ll start to understand pretty immediately how differently Jack and Nicky have handled the war, and the effect it’s had on Nicky. He’s been there for about a year; Jack has been there only for three to six months. You will see a lot of the dynamic that is already in this episode, of their sibling dynamic and the way they grew up and a little bit of Nicky’s resentment towards Jack. That scene at the mechanic shop, which is Nicky’s first scene — I thought it said so much because we’re so used to seeing Jack say, “I have a plan. I’m going to take care of this.” And Nicky’s calling him out on it, saying, “My own personal Superman, and I’m your Lois Lane.” He’s building Jack up but also seeing through him a little bit. Nicky has this way of seeing through situations. Jack is very earnest, very direct, simple in a lot of ways. And Nicky is hyper-intellectual and very analytical and observant. I think his brain and his heart are his own worst enemy.
For more on “Vietnam,” read what Milo Ventimiglia had to say about the episode.