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November 27, 2018 at 10:05 PM EST

Warning: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s fall finale of This Is Us.

This Is Us just delivered one hell of a holiday surprise in its fall finale: A Pearson long presumed to be dead is actually… alive and, well, we’re not sure how well he is.

NBC’s hit family drama, which is no stranger to a what-just-happened? twist, just uncorked one of its biggest game-changers to date with the revelation that Jack’s maladjusted, fatalistic, and deeply troubled brother, Nicky (Michael Angarano), did not die in the Vietnam War after all. In the fall finale, “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning,” viewers saw Kevin (Justin Hartley) continue his quest for information about his father, and specifically his time in the war. During a visit to the fishing village where Jack (Milo Ventimilgia) was stationed, Kevin learned something surprising from his tour guide: Nicky was not listed as deceased in the Vietnam veterans registry, which may or may not have meant that Jack’s brother was still alive.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Scratch the “may not” part. After an explosion on a boat outside the village, Jack was led to believe that his missing brother — the one he’d been working to turn around, the one for whom he enlisted in the war to protect — was on it, and he ran into the water to save him. While viewers didn’t see how that turned out, they saw something shocking in the final scene of the episode. An older man was standing in a trailer, and a stack of mail indicated that this was the home of Nicholas Pearson. Roll credits — and tons of questions. Let’s ring up the mystery man who is surely about to throw a wrinkle in the Pearson proceedings, Michael Angarano.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: “What the holy bleep?!” will be the reaction of most fans. What was yours when you found out?
MICHAEL ANGARANO:
I had a hard time comprehending it. They do such a good job of leading you down a road, and as an actor reading it, you jump to all these assumptions, and then they manage to surprise you with the direction they actually go. It’s shocking. It’s really shocking. And I don’t think anybody could have even guessed it.

How hard was it to keep the secret? How many people did you tell?
Put it this way: You’re the first person I’ve spoken to about it other than people on the show. So I’m personally very excited for this storyline to blossom.

How much does Jack know? Does he think Nicky died in that boat crash, or is there more to the story that Jack hasn’t told anyone?
We will see. What Jack does know is that he was too late. And that where Nicky was when Jack found him was in a really dismal state. I think the hopelessness Jack talks about is his own inability to help his younger brother. Jack is somebody who we know is able to help people. So that inability to save or help his brother is the tragedy of it all.

Nicky tells Jack ominously, “I’m not going to complete the mission.” He does complete his mission, in that he does get out alive, though we don’t know if Jack knows that or not. Did he come up with a plan to fake his death on the fly? Was he hoping to die in that boat explosion but somehow survived? What can you say about Nicky’s intention after the explosion?
When we find Nicky and when Jack finds Nicky, he’s doing everything he could to survive. But Nicky is a smart enough guy to realize that the way he’s treating himself and the circumstances around him, they’re just not sustainable. I think he sees the state of a lot of men around him and he doesn’t want to suffer the same fate. So I think in a lot of ways, he meant exactly what he said. I don’t think there was any misdirection or misleading on Nicky’s part. I think at the moment he would rather have died than survived.

Living was hell for him.
Mmm-hmmm. It was.

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. What can you say about his reasons for living not that far away? What does he know about the current-day Pearsons? Is he keeping tabs on them?
Those are things that will become clearer. More than anything I think Nicky’s gone to try to live his life to the best of his abilities. And that is both good and bad. But ultimately, he is a guy who comes from Pittsburgh, so you can imagine that he wouldn’t really be able to stray too far away from there.

We see Nicky’s gentle soul and the bond they share as brothers. Assuming that Jack didn’t know everything that happened to Nicky, such as that he died, how much might that have eaten at Nicky, knowing how much his brother cared about him and was suffering?
It’s tough because you might find that Nicky is both very aware of that guilt and burden on Jack, and is consumed by his own experience. What’s so moving about this dynamic is that these guys shared something so close, so intimate, and this experience has been so rattling and jarring and ultimately life-changing for the both of them. They’re still the same guys they once were, but at the same time they’re completely unrecognizable. You could only imagine what living with this experience — we know what it’s done to Jack, he’s never mentioned Nicky before barely ever — and you could only imagine what it’s done to Nicky.

If Jack didn’t know ultimately what happened to Nicky, what kept Nicky from reaching out over the years?
Ummm… you’re going to find an answer to that question very soon. [Laughs.]

How much guilt does Jack have, or responsibility does he feel for not being able to save Nicky, versus, saying, he knows more than he’s led on and he’s carrying the weight of more secrets in this story?
Oh, I think Jack carries enough guilt with him to never mention Nicky or want to speak about the situation. This ends in a way in which Jack never wants to talk about it ever again, and rightfully so.

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, someone who was so damaged from this war, is alive?
Nicky, as a 21-year-old guy — we see how broken he is and what this has done to his soul, and really what it’s done to his brain. So you could only imagine Nicky trying to live his life in reaction to this experience. It could be a number of different ways, a number of different realities.

The other Pearsons would have severely conflicted feelings about him. What can you hint about a potential family reunion? “Intense” was the word that Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] used.
Complex. Emotional. On par with This Is Us. [Laughs.]

If all the Pearsons are represented on the painting, how would you describe the paint stroke or paint splatter that Nicky will leave on the picture in season 3?
Abstract expressionism. [Laughs.] It’s already shown how Nicky’s energy and Nicky’s dynamic with Jack — how Jack has reacted to it — it brings a real element of unpredictability to what audiences are typically used to seeing. And in a way, it makes a lot of sense. Because we do know that there’s a darkness that Jack has harbored for most of his life. And we now know that has come from this experience with his brother. In a lot of ways, this is part of why Jack is the way that he is. It’s also definitive of Nicky as a person, and one of the exciting things now will be to see how that’s defined him. We knew from the start that both these brothers reacted very differently to the war.

What is one cryptic clue you can drop about what to expect from the Nicky storyline when the season resumes?
I think what’s to be expected is — even for this show — an area of unknown. With a lot of different possibilities.

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09/20/16
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