I start out watching every episode of This Is Us the same way — compiling a list of things that I can mock, belittle, and ridicule in the next day’s recap (ha! Kevin. Your necklace isn’t special! It’s a dime a dozen tourist trinket!) — and invariably, I end every episode the same way, too. The little, easily ridiculed bits get subsumed by the big emotional payoffs and I find myself once again begrudgingly admiring this show.
The Vietnam excursion, which at one point felt like a way to keep the late Jack Pearson in the mix and shoe-horn him into more storylines at the expense of Saint Miguel, has unexpectedly evolved into the show’s most affecting storyline to date. It’s one thing to watch a Vietnam movie — the violence, the brutal pointless deaths — or a PTSD movie — where soldiers come home ravaged by traumatic memories and depression — but it’s quite another to put it into the context of a family drama. It puts it into perspective and makes it more relatable and in some ways more emotionally powerful. Not that it’s the same thing, but it’s also why — for all its pitfalls — something like The Haunting of Hill House is so effective: It puts the horror in our laps.
And that’s what the Vietnam excursion has done for This Is Us: It’s put the horrors of Vietnam in our laps in the context of a family with which we’ve (reluctantly) bonded over the last three years. A few weeks ago, this silly, sentimental family melodrama brought home the agony of watching the draft lottery — basically a possible death sentence — unfold on television screens, and in this week’s episode, we watch Jack Pearson grapple with PTSD in an era in which PTSD was not to be talked about while simultaneously trying to kickstart a romantic relationship with his future wife.
The episode operates on three timelines. The Vietnam War timeline picks up where it left off a few weeks ago with Jack confronting his brother, working some sh*t duty as punishment for insubordination. Nick doesn’t belong in Vietnam and it’s doing no favors for his mental health, so Jack tries to Superman his brother into his unit by delivering a very Jack Pearson speech about spiders to Nicky’s commanding officer. It works because Pearson speeches always work (unless Deja is on the other end of one), and at the end of the episode — after Jack spends some time on a moped with a Vietnamese man PLAYED BY 21 JUMP STREET’S DUSTIN NGUYEN who is “sometimes bad” — the commanding officer leaves Nicky with Jack and gives him two weeks to straighten Nicky out. Of course, we know that Nicky dies, and now we have every reason to assume it’s because Jack took responsibility for him instead of letting Nicky rot in his old unit. When that episode rolls around during February or May sweeps, it will murder us in our hearts.
(Dustin Nguyen was my favorite “Dustin” growing up, and I thought the only Asian on TV in the late ’80s/early ’90s but Dan corrected me. Including Russell Wong, there were two Asians.)
The second timeline picks up after the war, where Jack and Rebecca are taking a road trip to Los Angeles so that Rebecca can take a stab at a career as a musician. Jack and Rebecca bond physically over the course of several nights in several different hotels, but emotionally, Jack remains distant. When Rebecca tries to get him to open up, Jack insists that he wants to keep Vietnam separate, so as to not infect their relationship with the horrors of his past. Rebecca agrees to leave it alone. For the rest of their marriage, apparently.
In Los Angeles, while Rebecca meets with a record executive, Jack pays a visit to the parents of the soldier under his command who stepped on a landmine while playing football. Jack takes responsibility — “taking my eye off your son was the worst thing I ever did” — but those grieving parents find a way to put their arms around Jack and tell him that it’s not his fault. GUH. Damnit, show.
In the meantime, Rebecca’s audition with a record executive doesn’t go particularly well. The exec calls her “Pittsburgh good,” which is another way of saying, “Thanks but no thanks. Come back in the mid-to-late 1990s when your brand of wholesomeness is trendy again.” While she “takes it as a compliment,” it also means returning to Pittsburgh with Jack. But before they leave, Jack asks Rebecca to sing her audition song, and she does, and Jack — WHO IS NOT A CRIER — silently weeps over the death of his brother, and over the deaths of so many friends under his command. It’s your typical This Is Us waterworks horror show.
Elsewhere, in the present timeline, Kevin is in Vietnam searching for the necklace lady with Zoe who — like Jack — refuses to open up to him about her past. After a bout of food poisoning (never eat the bat, folks!) and another Pearson speech in which Kevin confesses that he’s falling in love with her, Zoe comes clean and confesses that her father sexually abused her because, unlike Jack, Zoe believes that the only way she can commit to Kevin — with whom she’s also falling in love — is by opening up about her past.
And so begins another depressing This Is Us storyline that will inevitably conclude in another big emotional payoff. Damn this show to hell.
Header Image Source: NBC