Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

In an attempt to fill some cinematic blindspots, I’ve found myself watching a lot of Vietnam War movies this year. And if you watch enough of those films in a row, the storytelling clichés start to become more apparent: the soldier who’s gravely injured just before he’s about to be sent home, the hothead who processes the trauma of war by becoming increasingly violent, the earnest small-town boy who’s just trying to do good, the diverse platoon that’s casually cracking jokes before a sudden burst of unexpected violence. In other words, they feel a whole lot like the first 20 minutes of this episode. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many American soldiers did have similar experiences in Vietnam and there’s a value in telling stories that feel universal for those who lived them. It’s also been long enough since the release of a major movie about the Vietnam War that there’s probably a generation who don’t really know much about it. But for the first half of this episode, I wondered if it would have much to say beyond being a well-written, well-directed addition to the familiar Vietnam War canon. And then the episode’s structure started to become clear.

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This Jack-centric hour moves backwards in time, starting in 1971 with Jack reuniting with a newly hardened version of his brother in Vietnam and eventually moving all the way back to the day of Nicky’s birth in 1948. The only truly clunky moment comes when Nicky (a pitch perfect Michael Angarano) explicitly states the theme of the episode: What if you could examine your life in reverse in order to figure out how you got where you are? It’s a horrible line of dialogue, but a great overall concept for the episode, one that feels wholly original despite touching on lots of familiar elements.

“Vietnam” also proves you don’t need a big mystery to tell a compelling story. Going into this episode, we already knew that Jack and Nicky both served in the Vietnam War and that Nicky was killed during it. Yet the episode’s best, most suspenseful scene involves Jack and Nicky sitting in a bar, waiting to see if Nicky’s number comes up on the televised draft lottery. The tension of the scene doesn’t come from whether or not Nicky’s number will be called (we already know it will be), it comes from how Jack and Nicky will respond once it happens. We’re invested in these characters, so we’re invested in their emotional journeys regardless of whether or not we already know the endpoint. That’s something This Is Us should keep in mind moving forward, especially with the frustratingly vague mystery of “her.”

Other than the early reveal that a despondent Nicky has been demoted for his reckless behavior in Vietnam, there aren’t really any “twists” in this episode. Each jump backwards in time just adds a new layer to what we’ve already seen. Though Nicky was drafted, there was also an element of choice in his decision to go to Vietnam. Jack had a plan to help his little brother flee to Canada, but after a lifetime of accepting help from his big brother, Nicky decides to reject it for once. As we see in later flashbacks, that ties into the twisted emotional dynamic that exists between the three Pearson men. Before he became an abusive alcoholic, Jack’s dad Stanley was actually a good husband and father who instilled in Jack the idea that it was his job to protect Nicky. That’s something Jack took to heart for the rest of his life, even once he had to start protecting Nicky from Stanley himself. Yet having such a heroic older brother also gave Nicky his own complex—he felt like he was the damsel in distress who constantly needed to be rescued. From Nicky’s point of view, Stanley at least had a begrudging respect for Jack. And it was a desire to live up to his brother’s legacy and earn that same kind of respect from their father that inspired Nicky to go to Vietnam, where his life fell apart and ultimately ended.

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Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

This Is Us has always been in danger of depicting Jack as too much of a superhero, and it comes close to doing just that in having him decide to enlist just so can be in the same country as Nicky. But the episode also counters that simplistic hero’s narrative by giving us some insights into Jack’s foibles as well. “Vietnam” introduces the idea that Jack lives in a constant state of anxiety, which is both a fascinating wrinkle for his character and a fascinating link for Jack and Randall. Though school-aged Jack puts on a brave face to stand up to his dad, his mom later notices that his heart is racing. Jack may not show it, but he’s often incredibly terrified, which is something his military friend Robinson picks up on as well. Preparing to be sent back home after a gruesome injury blows off his foot, Robinson gives Jack a piece of advice about remembering to breathe in times of fear. It’s a technique we know that Jack passes on to Randall and that Randall shares with William in the latter’s dying moments. One risk in adding this enormously emotional Vietnam story to Jack’s background is that it will feel like a retcon, which it does to some extent. Yet offering little moments of connection, like Robinson’s breathing technique, helps Jack’s overall narrative feel more cohesive. Since Robinson is the man Kevin emailed last week, hopefully weaving him into the present-day storyline will help further that sense of cohesion too.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about “Vietnam” is the way it manages to tell a dual story of both the Pearson brothers and the Vietnam War, even as it jumps back in time to a period long before the war began. The final few scenes of this episode are an emotional gut punch that drive home the cost of war without actually depicting war at all. The first gut punch comes when we learn that Nicky was born at 11:58 pm on October 18—the date that would later determine his position in the draft. Had he been born just two minutes later, his whole life might have been different. And had his mother known what was coming in her son’s future, she probably would’ve pushed the nurse to fudge the details of his birth. But parents don’t know what’s in their kids’ futures nor what’s in their own futures, so a date that seems lucky in one moment can become a death sentence in the next.

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The even bigger gut punch comes when Stanley points out that all the newborns in the maternity ward share the same birthday, meaning that in just over two decades, they’ll all be hearing their draft number come up too. Not all will serve, of course, and not all who serve will die. But seeing those newborns and knowing what the future potentially holds for them is a harrowing, heartbreaking way to convey the horror—and the sheer randomness—of war. “Vietnam” opens with an effective but familiar portrait of the Vietnam War; it ends like no war story I’ve ever seen before.


Stray observations

  • Just in case I seemed too dismissive in the review, I want to reiterate that the opening 20 minutes of this episode (which aired without a commercial break) are incredibly compelling and beautifully directed by Ken Olin. The detail about Robinson asking Jack to hand him his severed foot is so specific, I wonder if it was pulled from a real-life story.
  • Creator Dan Fogelman co-wrote this episode with Vietnam War veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien, who’s best known for his iconic collection of short stories, The Things They Carried.
  • There’s still plenty of Vietnam-set storytelling to be done this season. In addition to learning how Nicky died, I’m assuming more will also come from the meaningful glance between Jack and a young Vietnamese mother in the village he’s protecting. I’m still wondering if This Is Us will even go so far as to add a Pearson half-sibling to the mix, by revealing that Jack unknowingly fathered a child while in Vietnam.
  • They did a great job de-aging Milo Ventimiglia in this episode. I’m not sure he actually looked like a guy in his mid-twenties (for reference, Ventimiglia was about 25 when he started playing Jess on Gilmore Girls), but he certainly didn’t look 41 either.
  • Jack has a heart condition called tachycardia, which is why he wasn’t original serving in the military. Presumably that played a role in his cardiac arrest death after the Pearson family fire?
  • The glimpse of Stanley’s alcoholic, emotionally distant father is another example of This Is Us drilling home the fact that addiction and/or abuse is often passed down through the generations. It also makes Jack’s ability to break the cycle and become a good father all the more impressive.

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