This Is Us producers on Jack's haunting decision — and that family meeting with Nicky
This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “Songbird Road: Part One.”
So, now you know: Jack knew. And Nicky is alive and, well, not well.
This week’s episode of This Is Us proved to be both illuminating and dark, answering key questions about the relationship between Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and his war-ravaged brother, Nicky (Michael Angarano), and shading in this three-season portrait of the Pearson patriarch life, while also chipping away at the Jack Pearson-is-God myth, and giving us an alarming, charged family reunion with Nicky.
In early-’90s flashbacks, viewers received confirmation that Jack had not been truthful with his family by telling them that Nicky had perished in the Vietnam War, and learned the secret beh. Finally responding to Nicky’s string of postcards, Jack showed up at his trailer in remote Bradford, Penn., where they proceeded to share a glass of bad chocolate milk and perfunctorily relive a few memories. But it would be a stilted and painful reunion, especially when Nicky tried to explain to Jack how a small Vietnamese boy wound up blown to bits by a grenade that Nicky had been foolishly fishing with. It may have been a soul-scarring accident, but Jack didn’t want to relive that day (or any of it, really), and he informed Nicky not to contact anymore; a wounded Nicky then dismissed him. Jack almost doubled back — that brotherly instinct is difficult to switch off — but he decided that he must return to the happy life that he had built with Rebecca and his children.
This installment unspooled as a tale of two trips: The present-day story, meanwhile, mirrored that visit to Nicky’s trailer, but this one with its own set of loaded, uncomfortable moments. Following a trip to Vietnam to learn more about his father’s service, Kevin (Justin Hartley) recruited his Big Three siblings, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kate (Chrissy Metz), to join him on a road trip to Bradford, where those mysterious postcards from a “CK” had been sent to Jack. (Mandy Moore’s Rebecca, flustered and upset by the revelation, opted to sit out this mission.) There, tn the sticks of Bradford, they found their uncle living in a trailer, still broken from the war — and estrangement from his big brother — and rotting with remorse and untreated mental illness. After Nicky (played here by Griffin Dunne) shared some of the sorry details of his life with them, he sent them away, but Kevin turned the car around and returned to help Nicky, vowing to pick up where his father had fallen short. And when they re-entered the trailer, they saw a man with a gun on the table, at the end of the rope. As Kevin placed a hand on his shoulder, Nicky closed his eyes, completing just the latest painful chapter in the Pearson history.
How far gone is Nicky? Will Rebecca be next to meet him? How should the family — and you, dear viewer— feel about Jack now? EW rang up TIU’s own Butch and Sundance (or is it Thelma and Louise? either way they’re still alive), executive producers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Jack lied to his family about his brother. What were the discussions in the writers’ room surrounding this revelation about Jack? In previous seasons, we saw the flaws in SuperDad/SuperHusband Jack Pearson, and now it seems we are exploring, filling in, and deconstructing SuperBrother Jack Pearson.
ISAAC APTAKER: Totally. This episode makes all these different versions of Jack that we met crystallize. We’ve always known in his relationship and marriage to Rebecca there were that big secret and this inability for him to talk about a big period of his life, particularly what happened in Vietnam. And the way their marriage functioned is Rebecca let him have that secret. But she and our audience probably didn’t realize how big of a secret it was. So now all of the sudden, if you look back at the series, he just makes a lot more sense.
In turning back to help Nicky, Kevin says, “I can’t leave him like our father did.” Rebecca says she needs to know the truth. What does this information do to their thoughts on Jack moving forward? How should the family be feeling at this point?
ELIZABETH BERGER: It is a lot to grapple with. It’s one of the things that we’re going to be diving more deeply into in the very next episode. You have to recontextualize this man that you think you knew so much about, and you have to go back and you have to recheck your memories. So we’re going to be seeing all of them doing that. And also: How do you come to terms with someone that you’re really pissed off with, but he’s not there to yell at and say, “Why did you do this to us? Why couldn’t you have told us?” We’re going to be seeing them all deal with all of that.
Nicky believed that Jack had put the war — and Nicky himself — behind him, and never looked back. But that wasn’t exactly true, as we saw it haunt him on occasion. How much did Jack regret cutting off communication with Nicky? No one could argue that Jack hadn’t done everything possible for Nicky, but at one point, that reservoir ran dry. And Jack seemed aware of his limitations: “I wish I was wired differently, but I’m not,” he said.
BERGER: I think he definitely regretted it. And as we’ve seen, he did continue to be sort of haunted and secretive throughout the rest of the kids’ childhood. Obviously when they were teenagers, he started drinking again. It never went away, and the heartbreaking thing is that toward the end of his life was when he was starting to open up it seemed on this deeper level. And who knows what would have happened if he had stayed alive even longer, but unfortunately he just never got the chance.
Which leads to my next question: In the writers’ room, did you believe that Jack, on his path to enlightenment, probably would have reached out to Nicky?
APTAKER: Yes, we talked about that a lot. I think the greatest tragedy here is the timing of that fire. Jack was really starting to look inward and work on himself and deal with his addiction in a much more appropriate way. And were he to live, he probably would have evolved as a person and really been able to, if not repair, at least reach some kind of closure with his brother that was a little less heartbreaking.
Jack sees the dire shape that Nicky is in after the war, yet he ultimately severs communication. What responsibility does Jack have to Nicky as his brother then? How much did he let Nicky down?
BERGER: It’s really open to interpretation. My guess is that there will be a lot of people mad at Jack at the end of tonight’s episode. [Laughs] And a lot of people that understand where he was coming from. In his mind, he did all that he could do, and it was too painful to be a part of this guy’s life any more, but you could definitely also argue that he was too hard on him, and that ultimately did lead to a life full of regrets going forward.
APTAKER: At a certain point, Jack had to look out for himself, which is something that does not come naturally to this guy who’s such a hero. But cutting off contact with brother was the only way he could move forward. He says he’s wired to compartmentalize things, and the only way he could become the Jack that we all love on the show — the father and the husband — was to completely disconnect from that part of his life. Which is why he doesn’t talk about it with Rebecca. So whether or not he could have been a better brother — at a certain point, self-preservation kicks in, and I think that’s why he just had to move forward and not look back.
Nicky is haunted by the fact that he never got to tell Jack that the little boy’s death was an accident. Why didn’t he explain to him in a letter that it wasn’t his fault?
APTAKER: I think he didn’t even know if Jack was getting those postcards. To put that in a letter and just send it out into the world, and not know if it ever reached Jack, would be worse than never even trying. If it were me, that’s face-to-face or not at all. [Laughs] That’s not something you hope reaches your brother.
BERGER: Yeah. And I think there’s a part of Nicky that might feel — and some of us feel this way in the writers’ room — that it wouldn’t have ultimately mattered for Jack to hear all of those details. He was either going to forgive him for this horrific event that happened or not, because Jack sees things in black and white, and at the end of the day, this horrible death still occurred. So I think he felt like he just needed to get his brother in front of him, and there would either be forgiveness through their interaction — or not.
What was Rebecca’s responsibility, if any, in not pressing Jack more about the traumas he suffered? We saw Jack cut her off when she said, “You know, there are people you can talk to,” and we know that wasn’t the only time she would have liked a way in. It seemed like she was being awfully hard on herself.
APTAKER: What’s so interesting is that in so many ways, they had such a perfect, beautiful marriage and they’re so wonderful to each other. It’s all built on Rebecca being respectful and understanding that there’s a chunk of her husband’s life that is off-limits to her and he simply can’t talk about. So whenever issues from that time in his life arise, she has to be so, so delicate, and tiptoe around them. And really, she’s made a decision to respect his limits. I don’t think she realize that there was such a big secret to all of this, but the agreement that they entered into when they first fell in love was: I will let you have this part of your life. I won’t pry. I’ll let you keep it closed up. So, in a way, she’s just honoring the dynamic that’s always existed in their relationship. And it’s only now, as a 60-something woman looking back, can she be hard on herself and frustrated with, “Why didn’t I push him?”
BERGER: I imagine now she has regrets because their time together was cut tragically short, and if I were her, I’d be thinking, “God, I could have known him so much better. We only had X amount of years together, and there was this huge side of my partner that I just knew nothing about,” which is obviously her breaking point.
APTAKER: And also: What Kevin is going through? There was so much of my father I didn’t know: How can I get those answers, even now that he’s gone?
When Miguel [Jon Huertas] tries to explain that there was a darkness inside Jack, and he was afraid that it might swallow up the light that he got from Rebecca and the kids, she tells Miguel, “I used to love that answer because I wanted to believe it, but now I want the truth.” Is she seeking answers that to some extent she probably never will be able to learn?
APTAKER: Yeah, I think they all are. Kevin and Rebecca are both searching for something that may not ever be totally attainable. We’re going to see what her conversations are like with Nicky just next week, but there’s nothing she can do to change the questions she did or didn’t ask Jack — same goes for Kevin — but they’re both hoping to be able to get those answers after the fact. And whether or not they can is what makes this so powerful.
We saw how awkward and charged the conversation between the Big Three and Nicky was. How would you characterize what happens when Rebecca sits with him?
APTAKER: Flirty. [They laugh.]
BERGER: Obviously, it’s incredibly loaded and it’s incredibly emotional for her. Other than being on this quest for answers, she’s also just sitting with someone who’s a link to her past in a way that she’s never experienced before. Jack kept his family life so separate from her, and so separate from their marriage that to sit across from someone that knew that life and knew Jack as a child, it’s an experience that she’s never had before, so it’s going to be incredibly powerful.
APTAKER: Yes, all of that is completely true, but it’s also not like she’s sitting across from the picture of mental health. This is a guy with his own demons and his own issues, so you have to approach what’s already a loaded conversation with even more delicate grace.
What exactly is going on with Nicky in the present day? Clearly he has not beaten his demons. He still seems to be self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, and he has dermatillomania, that constant scratching —
APTAKER: Which is common symptom of PTSD.
How much of his situation is addiction and mental illness?
APTAKER: You can’t give a simple breakdown there. It’s all that. We know that addiction runs rampant in this family. It affected Jack, it affected his father, it has affected Kevin, so that’s certainly part of it. There’s also just having to live with the horror of what happened in Vietnam, and thinking about Nicky returning to America and being cut off from his brother, who was his one lifeline. What does that life look like? It’s very, very lonely and it’s very, very heartbreaking.
BERGER: This is obviously someone that’s been living such a solitary existence, and had he come back from the war and had a support system and received treatment, he could have lived this whole other live. But he did not go that way. He ended up in this trailer, all alone, and that led to a myriad of different problems.
Nicky sends the Big Three away and is considering ending his life when Kevin returns. Nicky closes his eyes when Kevin puts his hand on his shoulder. Is there enough relief and absolution for him in that moment?
APTAKER: In an episode that is probably our darkest episode to date, that is the little grace note of hope that’s there. That Jack raised a son who was going to do one better than him, and was not willing to leave a family member in this real state of peril. That Kevin makes the decision to turn that car around shows how Jack was ultimately going to raise kids that don’t make the same mistakes he does. And then that Nicky seems to accept — even if just for the moment— that these people are there and care about him, and hopefully that’s enough to get him through this very, very dark night of the soul.
Calling it “Songbird Road: Part One” implies a second part is coming. And Introducing a gun in the final moment implies something serious awaits. What should we we bracing for?
APTAKER: Next week is pretty intense, also. It’s a direct continuation of this, so we’ll pick up with the hand on the shoulder — exactly where we left off — and we’ll see how the Big Three try to bring their uncle back from the edge. And that involves Rebecca in a big way.