In one the most effective and heartwrenching scenes in three seasons of This Is Us, we travel back to 1969. Jack Pearson is sitting in a bar downing shots with his little brother, Nick (Michael Angarano). As we learn from the rest of the episode, Jack’s always been a protector of his little brother, who is nervous, meek, and in no way cut out for the Vietnam war.
In the bar, Jack and Nick watch the television, where the draft lottery is being conducted. A man solemnly reads off dates, and for the men born on those dates, it may as well be a death sentence. “You were born lucky,” Jack tells his brother. “Your birthday is going to be the 365th called tonight, and you’re not going to be drafted.”
As they read off the birth dates, a pall settles over the entire bar. It’s quiet, as an entire room full of men await their fates. Each time a date is read, it feels like a bullet whizzing by.
And then they read it. October 18th. Nick’s birthday.
It feels like a shot in the gut.
That scene is the centerpiece of the latest episode of This Is Us, “Vietnam.” The episode bounces back and forth in time, but all the timelines seem to converge on that scene in the bar, where Nick’s fate is sealed by a man he never met, randomly reading dates.
We go back to the day Nick is born. Jack and Nick’s father, Stanley, is a different man. He doesn’t drink. He’s not abusive. He seems like a decent guy, until we get a glimpse of his father — a drunken, indifferent louse of a man — which is like looking into Stanley’s future. Meanwhile, Jack and Nick’s mom are anxious to deliver the baby before midnight. To deliver on October 18th, so that Nick won’t have to share a birthday with his sh*tty grandfather. Nick is born at 11:58 p.m. on October 18th. Two minutes too early, it turns out. “18 is a lucky number,” the nurse says. “A very lucky number.”
In another sequence, we see a ten or 11-year-old Jack standing up to his father, now drunk and abusive, protecting both his mother and brother from Stanley. In another scene after the draft lottery, we see Jack visit the doctor. He’s trying to get into the army to help protect his brother in Vietnam, but he has a heart condition, tachycardia, which probably contributed to his death in the fire two decades later. The doctor tells Jack how to disguise the tachycardia and get enlisted.
In another scene, Jack’s in the Vietnam War. During a battle, during a game of football, a man steps on a landmine and explodes. Jack’s best friend’s foot is blown off in the subsequent gunfight. We assume this is the same man that Kevin sent an email to in the previous episode.
Having survived the battle, Jack asks to go visit his brother, who has been Article 15’d — he’s been demoted for being a reckless endangerment. We flashback again to a letter a depressed Nick sent home to his mother, telling her that he didn’t think he’d survive the war. We flash forward again to Jack reuniting with his brother in Vietnam. Nick looks different. No longer meek and shy; he looks both angry and sad, beaten down by a war he didn’t want to be in.
He won’t make it home. In next week’s episode, presumably, we’ll find out why.
“Vietnam” is easily the best episode of This Is Us this season, and maybe of last season, too. This being a family drama, I didn’t think it’d be able to handle the Vietnam War as capably as it does here, but this episode succeeds by maintaining focus on the characters (and not the war). The draft lottery scene was absolutely chilling. I mean, I knew about the lottery, but I had no idea this was how it was conducted. On television, like a sick game show, where the winners take a tour of Vietnam knowing there’s a very good chance they’ll never return home, and if they do, it could be without all of their body parts. It made me sick to my stomach knowing what many of our fathers and grandfathers had to endure even before they were drafted, having to watch their fates be decided on television by an old man indifferently reading dates.
Header Image Source: NBC