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.