This Is Us creator on adding a 'damaged little brother to our hero's journey'
War is hell. It also is a key — and underreported — part of the Pearson family history.
Until now, that is. Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us escorted viewers into enemy territory (Vietnam, specifically) so they finally could begin to comprehend the traumas that Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) had suffered and the horror that he witnessed, all of which he chose not to share with his loved ones later in life. “Vietnam” gave us the origin story of Jack while turning back the clock (literally, in its narrative device) to bring you inside the Pearson home in the years leading up to the war. Alcoholic father. Abused mother. A little brother who must be protected at all costs.
So much so that Jack followed Nicky (Michael Angarano) overseas after reading his letters and realizing how much danger and distress he was in. This episode of NBC’s hit family drama — which was co-written by The Things They Carried author and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien — raised the stakes and intensity beyond the show’s normal emotional crisis-and-catharsis of the week, while still unspooling an on-brand tale of family and clinging to the fabric of brotherhood. (And in pure This Is Us fashion, it illustrated how something so small and random — say, the day of your birth — could have a massive impact of your life. If Nicky had been born two minutes later, his birthday would have been Oct. 19, and he wouldn’t have been drafted in the lottery.) In one hour, you met a boy who didn’t have the Superman gene that seemed to define his older brother but who sought to make something of himself, and you met a man who was being destroyed by this war. By the time Jack was able to visit his younger brother in a remote Vietnam province, Nicky was in dire emotional straits, pouring gasoline on barrels of excrement and lighting them on fire as part of his demotion to latrine duty. Here to discuss this highly combustible, rather ominous situation is This Is Us’ creator and five-star general, Dan Fogelman.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: That didn’t exactly read as a warm and fuzzy reunion of the brothers. Our first and last image of the episode — of adult Nicky igniting a barrel of excrement — is someone who’s battling a lot of demons, who seems to have a lot of anger and hurt, and as we learned, may be a danger to himself and others. What can you hint about Nicky’s journey?
DAN FOGELMAN: We have a really complicated journey ahead for Jack and Nicky in Vietnam. The way this show is going to work moving forward is that that becomes one of our storylines that takes place in a bunch of episodes moving forward. This will be the only episode for a while that solely exists between the two brothers and in Vietnam. Often, in upcoming episodes, when we go to our past storyline, it’s going to exist between Jack and his brother in Vietnam.
In terms of Nicky’s journey, it’s one fraught with a lot of different things. It’s filled with brotherly love, and it’s also a very dangerous journey of a young man who has entered a war and been a little bit broken by it. A brother, his Superman, feeling a need to be out there and to save him. Inherently, there’s high stakes. It’s all happening in the midst of a war that lives in complete gray areas to begin with, and now you’re adding a very damaged little brother to our hero’s journey, so it’s very exciting, big-picture stuff.
How did you come up with that imagery as our introduction to Nicky?
Tim and I always had scripted it that way. Then in the course of the episode, you see that he was a different guy before he entered the war, both physically and emotionally. Since the whole episode is essentially told in reverse, we talked about holding the most present-day moment of the change in Nicky until the very end, and it becomes so effective. At the very last minute, we asked Michael if he would shave his head and lose weight and go through a real physical transformation, so that the guy we meet in Vietnam is a very different version of the guy that we knew back in Pittsburgh. I think it really worked.
Does Jack even fully realize what Nicky has devolved into? Is he looking at a very different brother than the one who skated out of that motel near the border?
I think he is. I don’t think Jack quite knows it yet, but in the upcoming episodes, he’s going to find a brother who’s very different than the young man who left. There’s a little thing Milo does at the very, very end of the episode, and at the beginning, when he sees his brother for the first time. It is the most subtle little flinch when he sees his brother — and it’s not just that he’s dirty and his haircut is different. There’s clearly something a little bit different.
In the eyes.
In his eyes. [Jack]’s reaction is so subtle, but he knows his little brother so well that he sees it. I think Michael and the show have done a really good job of: We built a sweet, sensitive young man, who could very easily be broken by a tough, horrible war, and frankly, a boy who was protected by his strong big brother his entire life and wanted to make his mark on his own, and may have been ill-prepared for it. I think that’s what Jack’s little flinch is at the end of the episode. And it’s also a big precursor to all the stuff that’s coming next.
We have this image of Super Jack, and you’ve said this season aims to give you a fuller picture of the man. This episode not only gives you the literal iconography of that; it seemed to be building on that idea by having Jack — with the heart defect — sign up for the war, because he needs to protect his little brother. Will we see more of SuperJack, but also Jack at his most vulnerable in Vietnam?
There’s this great moment in the episode where Robinson says, “Jack, aren’t you tired of pretending you’re not scared?” Jack says, “I’ve been pretending my whole life. I don’t know any other way.” I think that’s the closest Jack gets to terrified, it’s an admission of the fact he’s completely human. He’s a little boy formed by trauma and a degree of abuse, and he is hardened. The Jack we know present-day — meaning as an adult and a father — is clearly somebody who buried and has channeled a lot of that. I think he started burying and channeling a lot of it as a really young man. I don’t know that Jack is ever a person — had he survived into the 2010s — that would have been completely comfortable in therapy or seeing a therapist or really revealing that part of himself. I think it would have taken quite a good therapist to really get inside there, because I don’t know that he would have allowed it.
Speaking of that Robinson line: When Jack says he’s pretending his whole life, was that solely because he’s been pretending not to be scared for his mother and his little brother while Jack’s dad was an abusive alcoholic, or are there other events from those formative years that will come to light?
It’s mainly that he’s talking about as a young boy or child, he’s been hearing his father scream at his mother. He’s been scared of what might happen to his little brother one day. He’s been scared of a future without anything. I don’t think for Jack there was one iconic car crash or anything that formed him as a young man. I think it was more about the general tough childhood that he had in that home.
Whether it’s transracial adoption or weight loss, you strive for authenticity in the storytelling. Now you have Tim O’Brien as a consultant, and he co-wrote the episode with you. You knew Tim would bring a lot of perspective and accuracy, but what else did he bring that surprised you?
I wasn’t surprised by it — because I’ve been a student of his writing for a very long time, and he’s always written such beautiful dialogue inside a different form, not a screenplay — but there’s a difference sometimes between writing read dialogue versus writing dialogue that needs to be acted on screen. My nightmare situation would be that Tim would write some banter and some stuff, and I would be in a position where I’d have to say, “Tim, I don’t think this is going to play on screen as well.” And it just wasn’t the case. We literally got him a screenwriting software program, and his dialogue was so wonderful and so specific, and worked so well in the episode. I was just surprised at how gifted he is of navigating a different form so quickly.
In terms of what he brought to it, it wasn’t just writing the script with me. Tim came when we started our writers’ room, and Jack’s entire Vietnam storyline was born very much of sitting with Tim and just a group of writers sitting and listening to him tell stories, and us explaining stuff we were going for, and then him saying, “Let me pitch you this. This is something that happened to a friend of mine. This is something that happened to me. Here’s something I think might be believable.” It very much formed the basis of what became our Jack Vietnam storyline. We knew what the moves were, because I’d always had the plan for it. We knew what happened to Jack. We didn’t know exactly how it would happen or in what order, and Tim really helped us figure that all out.
How much did you know about the Vietnam War coming into this story?
I know what the average American knows, which is I’ve read stuff, I’ve read a lot of Tim’s books. The Things They Carried was a book that I studied in college, and now I’m writing a TV show with him. I’d watched every movie ever made about Vietnam, like we all have, and I’ve done a fair amount of reading. We dove in more heavily when we decided this was the season for sure that we were going to do it. It started, for most of our writers, with the perfect timing; Ken Burns’ documentary had just come out, so that became mandatory viewing for our entire staff. Then it was reading and researching, and because our show lives in the personal stuff, reading and hearing stories that might have been online of people writing their recollections of a moment. People writing recollections or talking about their recollections of their father’s inability to speak about a war. And a lot of it came just from having weeks and weeks in a room with Tim.
What apprehensions, if any, did you have approaching this storyline?
It was the functional stuff. Once we had Tim on board, I was both relieved, because I knew we would get it right, but also you want to do him proud. Certainly the writers of the episode, myself included, we mainly live in the world of dramedy space. Our crew does the most elegant costume design and prop work, but it’s usually slice-of-life period stuff and we’re not in the guts of a war. So this was kind of new ground for all of us as a crew, as a cast, as writers, as directors. I wrote the crew after I saw the first cut of it a collective note of how proud I was of everyone’s work. I would be proud of it if I had hired a group of people who make war movies, but the fact that we did it where it wasn’t what we’re all hired for and that we really worked really hard to pull this off the right way — that was probably my biggest fear, was just getting it right.
Milo’s dad is a Vietnam veteran. What was Milo’s first reaction when you pitched the story?
It was during season 1. I told him that in the future seasons, probably around season 3, we were going to be getting into it, and obviously, he was very taken by the fact that it was an experience his father had had. All of our guy actors, like Milo and Sterling [K. Brown] and Justin [Hartley] on down, [Jon] Huertas and Sully [Chris Sullivan], they’re such dudes, and so often what we do in the show and we love doing in the show, all of us, as guys — it’s so internal and it’s so just emotional, and we’re really digging inside of men and women in a way that really is probing. And it was probably really exciting for Milo to get mud on his face and run around and activate that muscle a little bit, and he pulls it off so organically. There’s a moment right at the top of the episode where he’s walking out of a helicopter in slow motion, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, Milo’s built to do this.” Like, this doesn’t feel false or weird at all. It’s not like, “Oh, a TV dad is suddenly walking in army boots and this is ridiculous.” It’s like, “Oh, no. He completely owns this and it’s very cool.”
NEXT PAGE: Fogelman on what lies ahead for Jack and Nicky
You’ve often said that you’re telling the story as if someone shook up a bag of videotapes and started watching them out of order. In this episode, you’re telling the story in reverse chronological order, and Nicky says that it would make more sense if you could live your life that way and start at the end. What appealed to you about unspooling the story like that?
From go, I had this idea in my brain of telling the story, act by act, backwards. I don’t know why, I just always had it. I said, “It’s going to be a long journey for the audience to catch up to Jack finding Nicky there. In order to get there, how interesting would it be to take to the part that’s closest to the way we know Jack and work all the way backward to the origin?” Obviously, when I started hearing and learning more about how the draft operated back then — and we actually used footage from the televised draft of that year in the Vietnam lottery — I got goosebumps when I thought about the opportunity to tell the story backwards, and end on the birthday and what the storytelling possibilities were for that.
How close to the end of Nicky’s life are we when we meet him?
I can’t tell you that one. [Laughs.] But I would say that you will have the complete answer of all the Nicky mystery by the end of the season.
I keep thinking of that line when he said, “I know I’m not getting out of here alive, but it’s not going to be on anyone else’s terms.” How important are those words to where we are headed?
I think they’re important. I don’t think it means that people should be planning for Nicky’s suicide necessarily, but clearly, he’s a guy who’s unhinged, who stuff has happened to, and we’ll learn about that, and who we should be worried about, like Jack is.
Once again, the series shows how a random luck of the draw can alter the fabric of the family and change lives. Nicky is 120 seconds away from not being drafted. There’s also that moment where we learn more about Jack’s heart condition. You’re like, “Oh, they knew about it! Couldn’t they have done something to prevent this down the road?” What’s the moment in this episode for you that guts you?
It’s the minutes of the clock.… The idea that during Vietnam, your draft selection was dictated by the day of your birth, it speaks so thematically to the Sliding Doors nature of our lives in this show. And that your draft — a decision that tangibly affects your life — [hinged] on a birth date, which is affected by a 24-hour window, which is just the most random thing in the world. It’s also tied, if you think about it, to the whole origin of our show, which is a bunch of people who were born on the same birthday and how random that can be. The coincidence of Randall was left at a fire station and went to a hospital in the same place [as Kevin and Kate]. There’s nothing more random or wild than birth dates, and the fact that for this war that we had a draft that was dictated by the day of your birth — I mean, does it get any more Sliding Doors than that?
The Jack story [about his heart] is an interesting one. Like everyone else, I’m terrible with my health. I go for my physical once a year, and then often life gets in the way and turns into once every two years. Once when I was 32 years old, somebody once said I had a slight heart murmur, and it’s never come up again in any of my physicals, and I’ve had a couple of EKGs. It was something that always stuck in my head: “I wonder if that one doctor who said that once might have been a little bit right and if there ever could ever be a repercussion of not having that ever backed up.”
We get a peek at Jack’s grandad here, and he’s emotionally withholding and an alcoholic. We can see the patterns in how Jack’s dad was raised, and the sins he inherited. But we also see that his dad is different here, and he tells Jack’s grandfather, “You know I don’t drink.”
We either become our fathers or we become the opposite. What’s said in this is that Jack’s father wasn’t always such a hard man. His father’s father was. And his mom even alludes to it: Nicky was sick as a child, there were strains on the family, and clearly one drink turns into two drinks, and it brought out an aggressive behavior and an anger, and that trickled down. Then Jack repeated some of the patterns, the addiction and the alcohol, but was able to break the mold when it came to the type of loving father he was. I think that’s very real and it’s very human and it’s very cyclical. It is a story of the sins of our fathers.
And on this show, it’s interesting to see which cycles are broken and which can’t be.
Look how Nicky’s life was defined by just the fact that a big part of his move to run away from his escape to Canada is not just out of “I want to fight in this war” or “I believe in this war.” It’s an attempt to make his father proud — this withholding man, this angry man, and this man who makes Nicky look at himself as a weakling. It’s so sad.
We’re next in Vietnam in episode 7, which will be shot on location…
All of our Vietnam stuff is in and out of location, and we’re picking it up there and really carrying it through for quite a while.
We know Kevin (Justin Hartley) is on this journey to get some answers about Jack. Milo called it a journey of discovery for both Pearson men. What can you say about what lies ahead for them?
Kevin’s on a journey. Kevin is going to walk the land his father walked. His father, at the time, was trying to find a brother and save a brother. In a weird way, Kevin’s trying to find a father and save a father who can’t obviously be saved. There are parallels once they both get to that place.
What’s your one piece of advice for viewers as they brace for more of Jack and Nicky’s story?
It’s powerful. The one thing that I’ve really learned in reading about this war — like so many wars, but particularly this war — it was not a war of black and whites. Even who you were fighting and what the point of the war was, was very gray for everybody. Not just American soldiers over there, but for so many of the people who lived there, it was a very complicated, very, very gray, very muddy war, literally and figuratively. Our storyline is not always easy, and it’s not always just one thing. Jack’s journey’s a complicated one, Nicky’s one is especially complicated, but at its heart, our Vietnam story will remain a story about these two brothers, even as it’s a story also about war.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.