Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

If I had to pick an episode of This Is Us to live inside of, it would be this one. Like many of the best episodes of This Is US, “Sometimes” doesn’t play into the stereotypical image of the show as a corny, tear-jerking family drama full of big speeches and histrionic moments. Instead, this is an episode built around quiet interactions, nuanced performances, and grey areas. After hiring a Vietnamese villager named Bao (Dustin Nguyen) to drive him back to his camp, Jack agonizes over whether he’s put his safety in the hands of a good guy or a bad guy. When Jack finally asks whether he’s Viet Cong, Bao simply replies, “Sometimes.” It’s the word that gives the episode its title and one that encompasses the fact that the truth is seldom black and white. When Rebecca asks an L.A. record exec for his honest feedback about her demo, he tells her she’s “Pittsburgh good,” which is both a compliment and (more so) an insult. Rebecca decides to leave L.A. and return to Pittsburgh in part because she’s genuinely fallen in love with Jack and in part because she’s failed at her musical dreams. Kevin’s necklace is both a meaningful family heirloom and a mass-produced trinket. Jack is both a strong, empathetic person and a survivor of trauma. So is Zoe.

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“Sometimes” is the story of three road trips—Jack’s trip back to the Vietnamese fishing village after being turned away by Nicky’s commanding officer; Jack and Rebecca’s road trip from Pittsburgh to 1970s L.A.; and Kevin and Zoe’s present day trip to Vietnam. It’s also an episode about new relationships, trust, and emotional vulnerability. Kevin and Rebecca both think their respective trips will be an opportunity to deepen their new relationships by learning more about their partners. So they feel an understandable sense of frustration when they reach an emotional wall they can’t break through. Yet Jack and Zoe aren’t putting up walls to keep people out. They use similar language to describe the idea that they just want to keep the painful traumas of their past separate from the positive experiences in their present.

This Is Us has a tendency to overexplain things in dialogue, which is why the show is often at its best when it’s conveying story through musical montages. But writer Bekah Brunstetter has a particular knack for conveying big emotional moments through quiet, lived-in sequences, which she previously showed off in the strong second season episode “Clooney.” Combined with Ken Olin’s intimate directing, “Sometimes” feels particularly adult in tone, not only because it’s tackling incredibly difficult topics, but also because it trusts its audience to follow its characters’ emotional arcs without much handholding. The nuances of the episode are conveyed more so in how things are said than in the words themselves. And “Sometimes” relies on physicality and blocking to convey the things left unsaid too.

At the start of their cross-country road trip (which they take just one week after meeting each other!), Jack and Rebecca’s conversations are warm if a little awkward. Rebecca initially does most of the talking but their restaurant slow dance introduces a new physical dynamic to their relationship, one that allows Jack to take the lead a little more. Their first night in a double-bedded hotel room is equal parts awkward, sweet, and super sexy. The shot of Rebecca and Jack lying in the dark in their respective beds, waiting to see if something will happen, captures a palpable sense of romantic anticipation. By the time they’ve reached L.A. (many hotel room trysts later), there’s a whole new level of comfort between them, even if Jack’s emotional distance about his experience in Vietnam hasn’t been lifted. And then there’s the beautiful final scene where Rebecca sings and Jack cries and she gives him the space he needs to process his emotions in his own way.

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Jack Pearson is usually defined first and foremost by his role as a caretaker, whether that’s raising the Big Three, looking after Nicky, or protecting his unit in “Vietnam.” In “Sometimes,” however, he has no one to protect. Jack is vulnerable is this episode, much more so than we’ve ever seen him before—physically vulnerable in the potentially hostile Vietnamese countryside with an uneasy ally; emotionally vulnerable on his road trip with Rebecca, where he’s no longer actively pursuing her but instead just waiting to see what life she chooses for herself; and almost spiritually vulnerable as he visits Roger Watterson’s parents to confess that he feels their son’s death was his fault. Playing these new facets of Jack, Milo Ventimiglia turns in the best performance he’s ever given on this show, particularly in that final car scene. Jack’s tears mark a cathartic shift in which he lets go of his former life as a protective son, brother, and staff sergeant, and moves towards a life as a protective husband and father instead.

Perhaps the best way I can sum up “Sometimes” is that it’s a special episode that never feels like A Very Special Episode. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk and one Brunstetter’s script pulls off beautifully. There’s no greater moment of storytelling maturity in this episode than when Zoe tells Kevin that she’s a survivor of her father’s sexual abuse. The episode presents it as neither a melodramatic reveal nor as a twist that reshapes Zoe’s entire character. It’s a difficult part of her life, but it doesn’t define her life nor undermine her strength. There’s a realistic awkwardness about Kevin’s uncertainty over what to say in response, but he does the important thing, which is to be there for her in quiet support. Regardless of whether or not This Is Us explicitly explores Zoe’s experiences further (unlike Jack, who largely buries his trauma, Zoe seems to have more genuinely processed hers), the character now stands as a powerful representative for survivors of sexual abuse, particularly childhood sexual abuse.

The Vietnam War stuff is clearly activating the best parts of This Is Us’ uneven third season, but “Sometimes” proves that the show’s strongest episodes are often just the ones with the most focus. While episodes like “A Philadelphia Story” and “Toby” have tried to tell way too many stories at once, “Sometimes” focuses on three interconnected stories that are united in tone and theme. That gives it a strong sense of singular focus, even if what it ultimately wants to say is that people are seldom just one thing. Sometimes—often times, even—they’re many, many things at once.

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Stray observations

  • I love the way Rebecca’s demo song echoes the themes of the This Is Us score. It retroactively makes it feel like her music has been woven into the show since the beginning.
  • As a big fan of Mandy Moore’s Instagram, I know she has a dog named Joni after Joni Mitchell, so I have to assume she’s having an absolute blast playing a Joni-idolizing ’70s singer. Also she and Ventimiglia are both stunningly beautiful in this episode.
  • I’m not sure the episode needed to present the origin of the “Bec” nickname as such a big moment, but I like the idea that it’s a name that only Jack calls her.
  • Michael Angarano is really fantastic in the opening scene between Jack and Nicky, which picks up from the cliffhanger ending of “Vietnam.” I’m looking forward to seeing more between him and Ventimiglia—because even the rigid bureaucracy of the U.S. military isn’t strong enough to withstand the power of one of Jack Pearson’s inspirational speeches!
  • I truly can’t overemphasize how great Ventimiglia is in this episode, from his sexy chemistry with Moore to the panicked, protective way he reacts to the champagne pop to the underplayed crying scene, which would’ve been so easy to get wrong.

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