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By Amanda Ostuni
March 23, 2021 at 10:04 PM EDT
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S5 E11

The first six episodes of This Is Us focused on Randall's biological mother, while the latest six-episode batch has focused on Kevin, Madison, Toby, and Kate having babies. Given that plot segmentation, along with other factors, including the sporadic episode schedule, it may feel like not much has happened to move the story forward. Tonight's episode 11 doesn't do much to change that, as it features the past and a secondary character. But with its intimate, heartwarming theme, there's something special about it.

The focus is on Uncle Nicky — who was introduced in season 3 — and his efforts at multiple stages of his life to make a big change. The episode is aptly titled "One Small Step…," as the first highlighted stage of Nickey's journey coincides with the U.S. moon landing. We learn more about Nicky's life before he's drafted into the Vietnam War, his life after the war, and about his present-day journey to Kevin's place. Griffin Dunne and Michael Angarano (present and past Nicky, respectively) shine, excellently portraying the complicated, fragile, endearing man. Let's break down the journey of Jack's younger brother.

Pre-Vietnam Nicky

In 1969, shortly before Nicky (Nick, as he's referred to then) gets drafted, he's living with his parents. Things with his father seem decent, but signs of the man's cruelty still emerge as the family — including Jack, who's moved out but visits — gathers to watch the moon landing.

Later, Jack talks to Nick about moving out, to get away from their father. Nick likes being home, though, and thinks their father treats their mother better when he's around. Jack urges Nick to at least date. Nick admits he's interested in Sally, a woman with whom he works at a veterinarian clinic.

One day at the clinic, Sally (Genevieve Angelson) invites Nick to moon-gaze with her. After initially declining, interference from Jack, and a second invite from Sally, Nick accepts. On their date, Sally, who lives and travels the country in a van, taking pictures, asks Nick why he loves the moon. Nick says, "…it's [the] nightlight we can all count on… no matter where you are in the world, we're all looking up at that same moon." At that, the two share a kiss, igniting a relationship. On the evening she meets Nick's parents, Sally photographs Jack and Nick together, declaring that the photo will always transport them back to that moment.

One night, Sally asks Nick to leave town with her for a music festival (Woodstock!) and then California. Nick hesitantly agrees, saying he'll meet her Wednesday night at 11. Ecstatic for his brother, Jack buys Nick a suitcase. But the night of his intended departure, Nick's resolve appears to fade after a warm exchange with his father and after he observes his parents embracing. Nick leaves Sally in the lurch. Did he bail out of an obsession with his father's affections, or out of concern for his mother — or was he just too scared to take a risk? Either way, he couldn't take that step to change his life.

Post-war Nicky

In a post-Vietnam flashback, Nicky's living in his trailer as a drunken shut-in. A former Army peer calls him about an upcoming get-together to celebrate their lieutenant's engagement. Nicky never goes to those, but the guy thought he might this time since it's close to home and Jack, whom he hasn't seen in years, will be there.

He stares sporadically at the address he wrote down, then takes out a picture of him and Jack— the photo Sally took long ago. Nicky decides to go but sits in his car outside his trailer struggling to leave. He eventually does, but once he arrives at the gathering, he again sits frozen in his car. He sees Jack arrive.

Inside, Jack tells the lieutenant, Sheehan (Scott Michael Campbell), he wants to propose to his girl (Rebecca) but wonders if he should first confess the things about the war and his related situation with Nicky that he's lied about or kept from her (including claiming Nicky died). Sheehan says veterans can't let themselves get lost in their memories of the war horrors. Cut to Nicky struggling to face his war-wracked past in the form of seeing Jack. Continuing his speech, Sheehan tells Jack he owes his girl the future, not the past; he should separate the war from the life he's building. He urges Jack to propose.

Nicky finally heads toward the bar but then Jack exits, presumably to go see Rebecca, as he stares at an engagement ring before getting in his car. Nicky doesn't call out… He almost took one small step to change his life, but ultimately failed.

Present-day Nicky

In the present, Nicky arrives unexpectedly at Kevin's. He wanted to meet his namesake and didn't realize the baptism invite he got was a Zoom event. Kevin can't believe he came, considering his hermit lifestyle. Nicky claims it was nothing, but in flashbacks, we see that in fact, extensive effort was involved.

In the first flashback, after staring frequently at the baptism invite, Nicky dusts off an old suitcase — the one Jack bought for his unrealized trip with Sally. He then calls Cassidy (Jennifer Morrison), the fellow military vet and AA participant who last season became, and clearly remains, Nicky's friend. He asks Cassidy how to use Amazon. He receives several packages, crafts figurines, gets the COVID vaccination — groaning about shots in the process, but gleefully telling the provider he's getting it to see his great-niece and nephew. Cassidy helps him wrap a present for the twins. Cassidy says she's proud of Nicky for making the trek. Nicky thanks Cassidy for always being there for him. While driving him to the airport, Cassidy urges him to tell his family he's traveling, but he's afraid of disappointing Kevin if he bails at the last second.

At the airport, Nicky runs into trouble. His present, hand-crafted snow globes (including a moon-themed one), violate liquid policies. Frazzled, Nicky breaks the globes while trying to empty the liquid. He's heartbroken about losing his hard work and having to show up empty-handed but still boards the plane — for his first time flying since Vietnam.

Once at Kevin's, Nicky starts to panic as Kevin rambles about what the babies should call Nicky and what they should do together. That night, Nicky calls Cassidy, wanting to bail. He feels guilty for Jack's sake that Kevin named his son after him and he isn't sure he can be grandfatherly. Cassidy says he's just struggling because he's hated himself so long that all the love suddenly coming at him feels weird. Then, in a perfect This Is Us line, she says she never knew Jack, but knows two decent men who've spent their lives wondering if he'd be proud of them. She makes Nicky realize Jack would be proud he made it to California.

Nicky visits the twins' room with his replacement presents — annotated paperbacks of his favorite John Grisham novels. He talks about how he's lived alone for 50 years, and the twins' baptism invitation got him thinking about the moon. He reflects on how strange it was that one day, the U.S. had never been to the moon — it was impossible to fathom walking on it — and the next day, people were walking on it. He then circles back to living in a trailer alone, going nowhere. "I got stuck," says Nicky. "Anything good that would ever happen to me… seemed impossible, but here I am... You two are my moon." Nicky finally took life-changing steps. Tissues, please!

Cut to Kevin finding Nicky asleep beside the twins later that night. Smiling, he picks up one of the books and out falls Sally's photo of Jack and Nick. So ends a brilliantly beautiful episode.

Bonus bit:

When Nicky first called Cassidy, it seemed she might be with her child and husband, so my dreams of her with Kevin were finally completely dashed. But when Nicky later calls Cassidy, she's alone in bed at 4 a.m. Why would the camera pan out far enough to show she was alone if that's not significant? That, plus the fact that Cassidy remains part of Nicky's life, makes me think she might re-enter Kevin's… (sorry Madison/Madison stans). Whether I'm right or wishfully overthinking, we shall see.

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Episode Recaps

This Is Us - Season 3

This Is Us

NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.

type
  • TV Show
seasons
  • 5
rating
airs
  • Tuesdays at 09:00 PM
creator
  • Dan Fogelman
network
  • NBC
stream service

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