This Is Us writer breaks down those painful what-if questions in Nicky's episode
Laura Kenar, who wrote "One Small Step," offers insight into Jack's brother — and what's next.
You never know who will show up on a Pearson doorstep on This Is Us. But when that surprise visitor turns out to be Uncle Nicky, you breathe deeply, steel yourself for a darker chapter of this family saga, and wonder if a little bit of hope might walk through the door alongside the regret and tragedy that radiate from the broken, anxiety-wracked, self-sabotaging Vietnam vet.
All of that did come packed intriguing in a taped-up Samsonite bag in Tuesday's installment of the time-hopping family drama (along with plenty of what-ifs). Nicky (Griffin Dunne) broke free from five decades of hermiting himself away in the Pennsylvania wild and took his first plane trip since he was helicoptered out of the Vietnam War, a deranged medic who was broken by the horrors of combat. This trip — to visit nephew Kevin (Justin Hartley) to meet his grandnephew and grandniece — proved to be no easy journey. His custom snow-globe gifts were defeated by TSA. He got seated next to a real talker. And even when he arrived safely at Kevin and Madison's (Caitlin Thompson) house in L.A., Nicky wanted to split, feeling overwhelmed by something good in his life. But instead of sabotaging, he heeded the wise words from an old friend — oh, there you are, Cassidy! (Jennifer Morrison) — and realized that he was where he needed to be. In California. His moon.
"One Small Step" — which flashed back to a time of infinite possibility, as man took his first step on the moon in the summer of '69 — also showcased a pre-draft Nicky (Michael Angarano), who percolated with potential but couldn't quite escape his family's or his own demons. Ever the good brother, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) urged him to get his own place, to find love, to… just get out of that hell of a household. He started promisingly: He kissed shelter-animal whisperer Sally (Genevieve Angleson) under an alluring moon, learned more about love in the back of a trippy, hippy VW van, and agreed to not just attend Woodstock with her, but to run away to California.
But on the night he was to leave, fear and inertia kicked in. Nicky was entrenched in a peaceful, historic moment with his alcoholic father and abused mother (it was better for his mom when he was around, Nicky rationalized to Jack), and he opted to stand up Sally, setting a course for heartbreak and, of course, tragedy in war. And then more heartbreak, as Nicky just couldn't grab that chance for redemption or reconnection with his brother. Viewers saw Nicky in the mid-'70s, waiting outside an American Legion post in his car, trying to gather the courage to face the brother that he had let down, but no words — or approach — came.
Let's try to find Raquel Welch's phone number, share our best moon facts, eat some tiny fancy fish, and clean up that sad snow-globe mess in terminal 2 before taking "One Small Step" with This Is Us story editor Laura Kenar, who wrote this heartstring-yanker of an episode.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This episode was teeming with poignant, agonizing what-if questions. In very This is Us fashion, viewers could see how the smallest of decisions altered the direction of Nicky's life — and Jack's. Was Nicky's saga in "One Small Step" designed to break viewers' hearts in the past and repair them in the present day?
LAURA KENAR: Absolutely. Nicky is such an interesting character because he's such a sensitive soul. But also in present day, we've seen Griffin play him kind of gruff too. [Laughs] He gets very annoyed by the world at large. But Jack really loved Nicky, and what's cool about this episode is you get to have this beautiful romance with Nicky and Sally, but also dig into Jack being this amazing big brother and helping him ask Sally out. And in the 1974 story, it's so heartbreaking because Nicky just wants to connect so badly with Jack. And we have that great shot that our director, Yasu [Tanida], figured out, with Jack looking at the engagement ring and Nicky standing behind him and wanting so desperately to just reach out and connect with his brother. And it's so close that he could have just [taken] a few more steps reached out and touched Jack. And it's heartbreaking that these two brothers never got to connect.
Let's break down those what-ifs. What if Nicky's dad had been more characteristically toxic that night that Sally asked Nicky to run away with her? Did Nicky simply feel too guilty about abandoning his mother — who benefitted from his being around — plus he was too anxious that everything he touched was doomed to fail? Here we see him sublimate his own fears of change and failure into being there for family.
You're right. Stanley [Peter Onorati] has this very beautiful softening with Nicky, talking about Pearl Harbor and that experience with his dad and how moving this whole moon landing experience has been for him. And yeah, that's a very rare occurrence for Stanley that just happened to happen right at the moment when Nicky was looking at the clock, thinking about leaving his family forever. But he's also a very neurotic character. Nicky is just someone who overthinks things. In that scene with Jack, he's like, "Oh my God, what if I don't fit in in California? What if she dumps me?" He overthinks things so much, and he couldn't even take the risk to ask Sally out in the first place; Jack had to step in. I think you're right. There were so many, so many, so many reasons not to go, but there was one really big reason to go.
It's intriguing and difficult for audiences to watch Nicky work against himself. We know about his regrets with Jack, but how multilayered is the regret that he feels about Sally — not just in turning down the chance to go with Sally to California, but in avoiding the hard conversation with her and just leaving her hanging? And how did the writers arrive at the decision to not even have him have that conversation with her? That's a theme in his life, avoiding tough conversations.
Nicky is the kind of character who can not have the hard conversations. And maybe even thought if he went to see her, he would have gone with her — there are a million different what-ifs. But in present day, Nicky doesn't even want to tell Kevin that he's flying across country. And of course Cassidy's like, "That's very odd. You should call him." And I think it's just Nicky protecting himself, Nicky not wanting to let people down. And I agree — it's very cold that Nicky doesn't even come to see Sally to tell her what's going on. [Laughs] He's that sheltered of a character. He just needs to be pushed in every respect, every point of his life — except for this one time that he actually followed through and flew to California to see Kevin's twins… For Nicky to look at that baptism invite and just take the risk and not think through all the terrible things that could happen — the fact that he just does it is kind of a miracle.
What if Nicky had mustered the courage and approached Jack in the parking lot of the American Legion post? Would that have set them on a path toward repair? Was Jack possibly more ready for a reconnection at that point? Would that conversation gone differently than the one they have at the trailer where Jack, now with a family, tells him not to contact him anymore?
Very, very interesting questions. This is 1974. Nicky was drafted in '69 and was in war in '70, '71. So this is only a few years after, and Jack hasn't actually proposed to Rebecca. So I always tend to think: If Nicky had reached out, maybe it would have been a different conversation than they had in the trailer; maybe Jack would have been a little more receptive to him because he hasn't had Kevin, Kate, and Randall yet. I mean, he's told Rebecca the lie, but it leans more towards [the idea that] there might have been a possibility to include Nicky [in his life]. I think it would all depend on what Nicky was able to say. It could be something he says in the car where he's like, "I'm not the monster you think I am." Who knows? Especially because Jack's about to propose to Rebecca. It's exciting to think about.
Which brings us to Jack: What if he had himself had sought advice from anyone but Lt. Sheehan [Scott Michael Campbell]? His advice to bottle up his war traumas, put them in a lockbox, and not tell Rebecca about Nicky left Jack feeling more isolated and alienated — and maybe more prone to turn to the bottle, like his father.
Yeah, we had a lot of conversations about that Sheehan speech and the idea of, during that time, you don't talk through it through therapy. You just kind of forget about it. You push it down. You don't dig into it and drive yourself crazy thinking about it. It can also overwhelm your life. And that's what we see with Nicky. The war never left him — not that it ever left Jack either.
But Jack was able to compartmentalize.
Exactly. And start his new life. And unfortunately it left Nicky stuck. As much as I love Jack as a character and he is our hero, but I think that's part of what drove Jack's alcoholism, is this decision to cut his brother out of his life and not knowing what's happening with him. We saw in this episode Jack pushing his brother to live his life and get a girlfriend. He was Nicky's hero and the fact that he created this lie also drove Jack crazy. He compartmentalized one thing, but you can't compartmentalize your family, you know?
Last season, Nicky told Kevin how he fell out of touch with Sally, drove to her house in a romantic moment, but when she wasn't home, he realized that it just wasn't meant to be — another example of Nicky being self-defeating and not following through. Will viewers get to see the other part of his what-if Sally story before the series is over? And might he seek her out in the present day? She could be in California…
Mmm-hmmm. Um, I cannot confirm or deny either of those things, but I think it would be very exciting if it did happen. And I definitely was talking with the actress on set, Genevieve, about who she thinks could be the present-day Sally. So hopefully we will see that — my hopes as a fan and as a writer is that we do, because I love Sally, and I want to see more of her.
When Jack says to Nicky, "When a girl asks you to go to California, you go," it's a wink at a moment a few years later when Jack first starts dating Rebecca and she asks him to go to California. Did Jack seeing Nicky not take the leap also facilitate his own leap?
I think so. I'm sure there were echoes in Jack's head when Rebecca asked him go to California and he decided to jump at the opportunity. But it was a very clear example of Jack takes action and Nicky doesn't. They are two brothers who just come at life in two different ways.
Nicky now seems determined to reconnect with family, even if it's difficult for him. In the deep future, we see him there with the family, there with Rebecca on her deathbed, but what awaits him in the short term as he heads into strange, new, vulnerable territory?
Nicky is going to be very close with Kevin and Madison as they figure out wedding stuff. As Kevin deals with career stuff, Nicky will be kind of… brought along [laughs] for the journey of those two huge things happening in their lives. So yeah, Nicky and Miguel [Jon Huertas] might have some interesting interactions coming up in the next episode. Nicky is definitely becoming part of the Pearson family, and there's a lot of drama in this family [laughs] — and he's going to be along for the ride.
How bittersweet for Nicky is this reconnection with Jack's family? Nicky is so touched that Kevin named his kid after him, but it's uncomfortable for him that the baby wasn't named after Jack.
Even in this episode, we feel that push-pull from Nicky, like, "Okay, I arrived. I made it, got through the tough stuff, particularly riding on the plane." But once Kevin actually gets real with him and wants to take photos with him and just play around with what they'll call Nicky — not Grandpa, but goes through different nicknames — he starts to scratch his elbow and it's really starts to overwhelm Nicky. Of course, he loves Jack so much. But they had this falling out for so many decades and they really left everything unfinished. Nicky didn't get to tell Jack it was an accident in Vietnam with the ocean and the little boy — that huge event that ruined their relationship forever.
But by Nicky leaving that photograph [of Jack and Nicky posing with the Salisbury steak] in the book for the twins — I think it's a way of Nicky starting to heal. And also when Cassidy says to Nicky on the phone, "Don't you think Jack would be proud of you?" we, as an audience, who know Jack so well, and Nicky himself, who knew Jack so well, know that yes, Jack did always still love him and is proud of him, wherever he is.
Viewers got to see a little of Cassidy, albeit on the phone. Were those scenes all of the catch-up that they'll get with her for a while — or will they find out more of what's been going on with her life, specifically what happened with her husband and son? Here, we saw her washing her kid's shoes in one moment, and she seemed to be in bed alone…
Yes. There actually was more Cassidy information that didn't fit in the time of the episode, but there will be more Cassidy before the end of the season. I can say that. I'm not going to say any more than that. But it'll be a cool reveal when we see her.
And finally, what is one cryptic tease you can issue for next week's episode?
I would say… [laughs]… there might be some butter involved. And a ring.
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This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.