Warning: This story contains plots details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning.”
Remember all that mystery over that Pearson fellow who died tragically years ago? Well, here’s a twist to shout about over the holidays: He’s not dead anymore!
No, we’re not talking about Jack, beloved father of the Big Three who perished via heart attack via smoke inhalation via house-fire rescue — we’re referring to Nicky (Michael Angarano), Jack’s troubled, death-wished little brother who was thought to have perished in combat during the Vietnam War. However, the fall finale of This Is Us, titled “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning,” brought you on the biggest Whoa-MG moment of the fall season as it shed tiny but precious light on what happened to Jack’s younger sibling whilst in combat. A boat that he seemed to be on was bombed, prompting Jack — who’d spent the last two weeks desperately trying to rehabilitate his damaged, high younger brother — to dive frantically into the water to save him. It’s unknown right now what happened next; that was the last glimpse we got of that time of terror. But as Kevin — on a mission to the Vietnam fishing village where Jack lived — discovered from his tour guide, Trong, that Nicky did not perish while in the war, at least according to Vietnam War veteran records. Whether he was alive or not was another question.
And viewers didn’t have to wait long for a definitive answer to that new question. The final scene of the episode showed an older man in a trailer… and a stack of mail addressed to Nicholas Pearson. Yes, apparently Nicky is among us, and the Pearsons are surely about to get the (latest) shock of their lives. How much, if anything, did Jack know of this secret? What would a Pearson family reunion with Nicky possibly look like? Does Nicky know what’s going with his brother’s family? Here to talk about Nicky’s miraculous rise from the dead — and what the heck might happen next — is series creator Dan Fogelman.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan. Did you feel that because you took Jack from us, we should at least get his brother back?
DAN FOGELMAN: [Laughs.] Very good. In terms of getting his brother back, there’s a story to come in the back half of the season, and we’ll see what that looks like and what that entails. But you can never have enough Pearson men, is what we say around here.
Did Michael know from the get-go that Nicky was not actually dead, and what was his reaction?
Michael has known of the arc of the story since the beginning. There’s been a contingent of people who always suspected in a way that that might be a possibility, and I don’t know where Michael landed on that from the beginning. From the very start, we tell all the actors what the arc of the characters are and where it’s going, so they don’t have a lot of time to think otherwise.
The idea that Jack has been mourning a brother that was actually alive — and that Jack was carrying around that guilt for the rest of his life — is almost too much to swallow. What intrigued you about that scenario, and did it rip at your hearts in the writers’ room, too?
Yeah. If as we’re saying, Nicky’s alive and Jack in present day has been carrying that, it’s not quite mourning as much as: What happened and what has Jack been hiding, and why? Psychologically it’s a big part of what we get into in the back half of the season pretty quickly. Which is, not just what happened, not just where is and what happened to Nicky, but also, what was going on with Jack all of this time? What did Jack know — or not know? And then, the last component of it is: In the present day, as some stuff starts coming to light to their family, what is the reaction of family members who learn that something might have been kept from them for a very long time?
So, can we assume that Jack didn’t know that his brother died? Or is it possible that Nicky reached out to him later in life?
Right now, as an audience, anything is possible. We’ve had a very specific story that will answer all of that relatively quickly. It was a story that was decided on before we really embarked on our details of our Vietnam arc, and so once you understand what happened and what was known and not known, it will all make sense. But I think right now, if I’m watching just the episode that just aired, I think anything is possible. As we get into the next few episodes, the pieces will start coming together for everybody.
Nicky is living under his real name, and in Pennsylvania, just a few hours from Pittsburgh. That suggests that he’s not trying to live in total secret. Then again, he also had a creepy, isolated-man-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods vibe. What can you say about his reasons for living not that far away?
You’d have to ask yourself that question of the how and the why. The one question that’s pretty obvious at the end of this episode is: Jack had a brother who ostensibly died in Vietnam as far as the family knows, and he never spoke about. So, no one’s been searching for him. Why would you? This moment at the end of the episode where Kevin realizes he’s never checked the Vietnam Memorial Wall for his name because it was just not anything they ever talked about or looked at. It was just an element of their life. That was a no-fly zone with Jack. What is really interesting — and potentially most interesting — about the whole Nicky storyline is the reaction not just of the Big 3 in the present day to some information that they may or may not find out, but also Rebecca’s reaction and the ramifications of this news coming to light in the present day. What does Kevin opening up this can of worms do to this family?
We the audience know how damaged Nicky was. But Kevin doesn’t. Assuming Kevin continues his search, what is he walking into when he discovers that Nicky is alive? After all, Nicky seemed so far gone in this episode and in previous ones; he’s so damaged from the war.
When we’re seeing Nicky in the Vietnam scenes, he’s in the middle of the war, and people came home from that war in a lot of different ways. In Jack, we’ve painted a picture of a vet who was able to compartmentalize the experience of both his childhood and this terrible war and live a highly developed, functional, decent full life where he was able to compartmentalize it and put it away. There’s other people who go the complete opposite way; there were all types of shadings with the war…. We’re trying to paint all different types of pictures because there’s a lot of different ways it can manifest itself, and we’re trying to just be truthful and real to the characters and what they experience.
You touched on this briefly. You would also imagine that the other Pearsons also would have severely conflicting feelings about this guy. What does that family reunion even look like?
If it were to happen, it will be intense. [Laughs.] What I find most interesting is in some ways in the whole story, is not just the mystery of what happened in 1970, but what is happening here in 2018 with these kids and how the sins of our fathers can have ramifications 40 years after the fact is a very interesting storyline. And very much fits in our structure where we’re able to tell a story in the past and the present simultaneously, and seeing the ramifications of the event in the same hour of television.
The Pearsons may not know about him, but what does he know about them? Has he been following from afar? It’s an interesting question to consider.
It is. Yeah, it’s one of the most interesting parts of it. I can’t talk about it too much, because it’s very much in a way where we’re heading, but it is very interesting, and it is something we explore.
The words that haunt are when Nicky says, “I’m not going to complete the mission.” Which is, to get out of this war alive. In a way, he does, of course — though Jack may or may not know that. Did he come up with a plan to fake his death on the fly, and/or was he hoping to die in that boat explosion, but somehow survived?
There’s not a lot I can say, other than you’ll get all the answers very quickly when we come back on the other side.
How significant is Nicky’s story in the second half of season 3?
It’s significant. It’s a big part of the front part of the back half of our season.
How does Michael look in the old-age makeup, if that’s the direction you are going?
Can’t talk about it. [The grownup version of Nicky will be played by Griffin Dunne, as revealed in Tuesday night’s credits].
Did you drop the teeniest of clues about this shocker last year in the episode where we first learned that Jack had a brother? When Jack goes to the garage when Rebecca’s asleep and looks at the old photos of Nicky, the first photo he looks at is Jack posing next to a sign that says Resurrection City.
It’s funny you say that. That, I believe, if my memory strikes me right, is an actual photograph that Milo had given us from his father’s stuff in Vietnam. We wanted to put that in there. If you’re really looking at our timeline in Vietnam, I think we have a slight timeline issue just in that one photo. But it is interesting that you point that out.
We had this nice scene with Kevin talking to the man in Jack’s old fishing village who explained that though Kevin didn’t get the answer he wanted, he got something else, and had an important moment of shared connection and commonality. Ultimately that mystery proved to be somewhat of a red herring for Kevin and for viewers. Based on the message of the scene, is it safe to assume that part of the storyline has been tied up, or is there more to learn?
I never want to close a door on us being able to go back for a special episode to enjoy before everything happened — a storyline between, let’s say, Jack and young Robinson, or something like that. But in terms of our period Vietnam storyline, by the time we had completed the Nicky story in the back half of the season of what happened there, we’ve pretty much completed our main Vietnam storyline.
If viewers should be asking themselves one question about Nicky during the holiday hiatus, what would you like it to be?
I think it would be: What happened? From the point that we ended the entire episode on in present day to the point where we left Jack diving into the water: What the hell happened between then and now? I think that’s the answer. Our first episode back from the break focuses on what happened with our present-day characters between the break and the two months they have advanced their storylines that we’ve all missed. But then in the second episode back, it dives heavily into that question, filling in the blanks of what happened between Jack diving into the water and that shot of Nicky with the mail.
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