Warning: This story contains plot points from “Sometimes,” Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us.
Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us took viewers on multiple journeys on multiple continents in multiple eras. In a trans-Pacific trip to present-day Vietnam, Kevin (Justin Hartley) was in search of answers about his father’s time there — and that photo of Jack (Milo Ventimigila) with a Vietnamese woman wearing the necklace that Jack eventually gave to him. Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) embarked on a cross-country road trip to L.A. in the early ’70s, only one week into a nascent relationship. There was also the motorcycle trip that Staff Sgt. Pearson took back to his fishing-village outpost in Vietnam after a seemingly unsuccessful mission to get his brother, Nicky (Michael Angarano), transferred to his unit.
Along the way(s), there were confessions (Zoe revealed to Kevin that she had been sexually abused), rejections (the record label exec told Rebecca that she was only “Pittsburgh good”), severe family tensions (Nicky had some issues with Jack’s arrival), moments of forgiveness (Jack met with the parents of a dead soldier under his purview), and even some stomach-turning events (thanks to some bad bat). Let’s grab a turkey sandwich, film a paper towel commercial, and (quietly) pop a bottle of champagne as we delve into the events of “Sometimes” with This Is Us executive producers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: That reunion between Jack and Nicky was pretty fraught, as was hinted a few episodes back. Nicky feels responsibility for Jack being in harm’s way, telling him, “If you die out here, that’s not on me,” but also he pushes away from him when Jack tries to comfort him and take charge. How do we sum up his headspace? Is he both relieved that his brother is here but also angry that Superman had to risk his own life to save the day again?
ISAAC APTAKER: Yeah, he’s experiencing quite a lot of contradictory emotions. On one hand, he is relieved to see his protective older brother, who he trusts and feels safe with. He’s also really angry that Jack would’ve voluntarily made the choice to come over here, because Nicky has certainly seen some pretty messed-up stuff and learned how horrific war can be. Michael did such a great job in playing those conflicting emotions — relief to see his brother, and also anger and frustration at the sacrifice Jack has made.
ELIZABETH BERGER: Obviously this is an extreme situation, but I think we can all imagine that in any situation, being Jack’s younger brother is a complex situation to be in. On one hand, you have this great built-in, lifelong protector, but on the other hand, you’re always somewhat the shadow of this person who has made it their mission in life to protect you, and that can lead to a lot of contradictory and complicated emotions.
“What are you on, Nick?” Jack asks Nicky, suspecting that his brother is on drugs. We know the family is susceptible to addiction. Has Nicky developed a serious addiction — and is that the least of his problems?
APTAKER: Yeah, I think you’d have a hard time trying to rank his problems in any kind of order, because there’s a lot there. [Laughs]. He’s certainly not sober when Jack finds him. He’s become dependent on a variety of things to get through the trauma and horrors of Vietnam. That’s something that we talked a lot about with Tim O’Brien, our consultant, and it was a story that felt all too common with soldiers over there. That’s something we’re going to be getting into more with these next few episodes as we see how the tale of Jack and Nicky over there unfolds.
When Nicky says to Jack, “You should have left me to rot,” you wonder if he’s possibly too far gone to help or rehabilitate. How do you help someone in war who clearly isn’t cut out to be there?
APTAKER: That’s the exact story we’re telling here. He knew from the letter that Nicky was in a bad state; I don’t think he knew how far gone his brother would be when he came upon him, burning crap in those trashcans. And now he’s like, “Oh man, in this very finite amount of time, how do I get through to this guy that I’ve known my whole life and bring back the good soul that I know is buried in there?”
The major gives Jack two weeks to turn around Nicky. Will these two weeks determine the course of Nicky’s life?
APTAKER: Those are a very seminal two weeks for Nicky. And we know how determined and heroic Jack is, and he is absolutely determined to try to bring back his brother, but it’s such a ticking clock. And they’re out in the middle of nowhere trying to fight a war. So it’s not like he has two weeks with his brother in a rehab or somewhere conducive to get through to someone. He has to do it while in this village in the middle of nowhere.
BERGER: [Things] are definitely going to get very loaded. A big chunk of our Vietnam story does take place within these two weeks, so they are jam-packed with action.
Jack’s mystery woman seems to be interested in him — or is at least curious — but she runs off. What can you hint about their next interaction, and is it coming in next week’s episode?
APTAKER: Yes, next week we’re going to pick right up with a much meatier interaction for them. Next week is our Thanksgiving episode, so we’re going to see what Thanksgiving is like for our soldiers over there — and learn a lot more about the woman with the necklace.
How surprising are the revelations to come? I don’t know if you’ve been scouring the Internet, but people have plenty of theories, such as a Pearson love child out there somewhere.
APTAKER: I mean, there’s a lot of theories about a half-Pearson in Vietnam, which of course we will neither confirm nor deny. But as tends to be the case on our show, their relationship will be a bit unexpected, and hopefully moving.
We know that Jack is weighed down by guilt and responsibility from his time in Vietnam. What did it mean to Jack to receive absolution from the parents of Roger (Moses Storm)? That has got to be a huge weight off of his shoulders, so is the bulk of it after that mostly related to whatever happened with Nicky?
BERGER: Obviously whatever happened with Nicky has haunted Jack for the rest of his life. But at the same time, it’s huge to get that forgiveness from Roger’s parents. We all talked a lot about how Jack grew up in a house where there was never a comforting word from his parents. I mean, so many times he probably fantasized about his father crossing the room and embracing him, and telling him it’s okay and telling him that something isn’t his fault. So to receive that from any parent is such a tremendous deal for him and obviously does go a long way in alleviating some of that guilt.
When the father gets up to comfort Jack, Jack is ready for him to walk out of the room. And we are, too.
APTAKER: That scene would not have gone down that same way in Jack’s house.
Let’s talk about the road trip that ends in L.A. To watch this record exec tell Rebecca, when she presses him for more specific feedback, that she’s “Pittsburgh good” — that’s one of the more devastating lines in the series.
APTAKER: I know! That one really snuck up on me. We knew it was a heartbreaking scene, but then watching [Rebecca] get told that, it’s upsetting.
BERGER: It was also a scene that all the actors just played absolutely perfectly. If you’ve ever been in a meeting like that where you’re looking for a concrete response and you’re getting that vague brush-off, that scene really resonates with you. When we watched it, we all cringed internally because we’ve all been there at some point. [Laughs]
She puts on a good face, telling Jack that she’s taking it as a compliment, and then talks about how L.A. is “kinda nuts” and that she likes the rain of Pittsburgh before saying, “Come on, let’s go home.” How much is she consciously or subconsciously deferring her dream because she is enamored with Jack and this new relationship?
APTAKER: It’s really complicated. As an audience, you bring to it the perspective of knowing that there was a massive fight from season 1 where her singing didn’t work out later in life and she tells Jack she feels like a ghost. So it’s impossible to watch it without knowing where these two are headed and what that dream deferred means to Rebecca and how it festers. But yeah, in the moment she was shut down in this very brutal way, and she’s falling in love with this guy in a way that she never has before. And all of a sudden, going home with him is a really, really good option right now.
She said earlier in the season in this era that she doesn’t see herself staying in Pittsburgh. So it’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking to watch her say, “I’m good with Pittsburgh. Let’s go back to Pittsburgh.”
APTAKER: With the early-’70s period, we’re watching a story where we know exactly how it ends. So usually you’re watching a story to see how it unfolds. But we’re watching it to see how all these small choices are huge in retrospect, when you know what they mean for Rebecca in her life.
BERGER: And it’s definitely a decision, that at least at the end of this episode, in that moment in time, feels 100 percent right to her. And when Jack asks her earlier in the episode, “Are you going to come back to Pittsburgh?” and she says, “I don’t know,” she really believes that at that point. And by the end of the episode when he’s opened up and unlocked emotionally, and this place turns out to be not what he expected it to be, he really feels genuinely like her future for her, which, like Isaac said, doesn’t mean it won’t have complex ramifications down the line. But now it really does feel right to her.
We get a rare cry from Jack after he tells Rebecca that he needs her to sing “Invisible Ink.” She sees him start to break down as she sings these lyrics. She stops, but instead of pressing him more, she reads the room and continues to sing.
APTAKER: Reads the car.
Right. Was the fact that she continued the song and let him just be in that moment one of the critical moments that galvanized this relationship?
APTAKER: That’s exactly right. There’s this understanding there of what she should push on and what she should ask about and what she needs to leave unspoken. In that moment, these two people connect in this way that transcends language almost, and she understands that she should just keep singing. [Laughs] Right now, she should just keep singing.
How did the collaboration with Taylor [Goldsmith, Dawes frontman and Moore’s fiancé] come about for that original song?
APTAKER: We’ve been talking about that for a while, and wanting to bring him in for something. Sid [Khosla], who composes all of our music and sometimes our original songs, was a big fan, and this was finally the right opportunity.… [Mandy] was so excited from the beginning. They collaborate on stuff outside the show, and he’s part of the This is Us extended family, so she was all in.
BERGER: They just absolutely love working together, and they find a lot of joy from it, so we’ve just been looking for the perfect thing.
Jack asks Bao [Dustin Nguyen] for a motorcycle ride, and spies him seemingly working with his friends on some homemade bombs. When Jack confronts him and asks him if he’s a good guy or a bad guy — and if he’s VC — Bao says, “Sometimes.” Will we see Jack start to experience disillusionment with the war, one in which it was hard to know who the enemy was, and one that he later calls murky?
BERGER: He’s coming to realize that it’s just all so gray. If Bao asked the same question back to Jack, Jack would have the same answer because it’s not really a good-guy-bad-guy situation, it’s just a terrible war. So that’s definitely something that’s starting to sink in for him, just the grayness around him, and this sort of futile feeling of, “What are we even doing here?”
APTAKER: And that’s a hard thing for Jack to wrap his head around. Part of what we’re exploring with his character this year is how he’s a man who likes to see things as black and white, right and wrong, day and night, and he has trouble embracing the ambiguity and complexity of something as muddled as the Vietnam War. That’s an exploration that’s going to continue on in the season.
On the subject of people hiding pain in their lives, Kevin pushes Zoe [Melanie Liburd] to open up about her life, and he learns that her father sexually abused her when she was young. You’re telling the story of abuse with Deja [Lyric Ross]. What made you decide to explore the issue of sexual abuse, and how will it impact them moving forward?
APTAKER: There was obviously a lot of conversation; it’s such a sensitive issue. We said last year that there was an incident, that we left very vague, that caused Zoe to move in with Beth’s family. So it was always built into the DNA of the character that there was some type of trauma and upheaval in her early life. That was always the plan for her — that there was this assault and this tragedy, that she was so strong, and she’s a survivor, and she’s so resilient, and she’s able to bounce back from it. She always carries it with her and it always informs her, but she’s built this incredible life for herself.
There’s a great exchange where Kevin doesn’t know what to say and responds, “You always seemed so strong,” and she corrects, “I am strong.”
BERGER: There was a lot of discussion about in the room, and we really know that it’s such an imperfect response, and it made us all cringe. But it felt very human in that moment that he might say the wrong thing, and for her to be able to take ownership of that moment and confirm that she is indeed strong felt very powerful to us. We thought they both played it so beautifully.
Kevin’s first necklace lead didn’t pan out, and he wrongly surmises that the necklace doesn’t have an epic backstory. Any hints about his next lead, when he goes to the fishing village?
APTAKER: They have barely scratched the surface. This is the first episode of a few we shot in Vietnam. They know where Jack was stationed in a fishing village, so they now have to leave the city and venture out and actually go to the places that Jack was.
What was it like to film in Vietnam? Isaac, you went there with Milo, Justin, and Melanie.
APTAKER: It was incredible. There were a lot of challenges due to the weather — it monsoon-rains every 30 minutes completely out of nowhere, so we had certain scenes that were outside and we had to completely stop every once in a while it torrentially rained. But it was an incredible experience getting the footage and the topography and the city and the life there that we were able to capture was so special. Our show is not on in Vietnam, so there weren’t a ton of Vietnamese fans, but there was the odd European tourist or tourist from other parts of Asia that would stop and ask for a picture. We were actually lucky because we couldn’t lock down any of our streets or public spaces to control them the way we do in America, [but] because no one really knew who our cast was, they weren’t gawking and taking pictures and asking for autographs, and we were able to get the footage we needed. I don’t know if we would have been able to do it if everyone was recognizing them.
Any other anecdotes from filming? Were there any Easter eggs planted in this episode?
APTAKER: No, but in that Bao scene, when he drops [Jack] off at the end, that was on a river, and we did not realize that there’s a tide to that river. As we started shooting that scene, our set was literally flooding and the water was coming in a couple feet every 10 minutes, so it was happening really fast. We were scrambling to get all our shots set up and our Vietnamese crew was trying to hurry, but there was a language barrier, and then Ken Olin, who was directing the episode, took a misstep, and that path which was now 10 or 12 inches wide — he stepped off of it and fell straight into the pond, and had to be yanked out by myself and one other guy. And then without missing a beat, he jumped up to the monitor and called action and kept going on. So that was a scene that almost did not make it onto TV due to flooding.… Milo and Justin were real troupers for managing to deliver beautiful performances while literally almost washing away.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.