This Is Us Season 3, Episode 4
Posted by Shannon
“Vietnam” is a beginning, not an ending. This week’s episode is our first look into Jack and Nick’s time serving in one of the most horrific displays of this country’s militarism to date, and while we keep things network and prime-time friendly, it’s a rough hour of television. It’s also our first real deep dive into Jack’s home life, which proves to be as awful as expected. As far as explorations of pointless wars and domestic abuse go, “Vietnam” bats right down the middle – there are no huge missteps in terms of plot, but there’s nothing particularly new stated, either.
The structure of the episode is laid out closer to its middle, when a teenaged Nick asks his brother if stories make more sense when they’re told in reverse. That question also acts as a secondary thesis to the show; lines can be drawn forwards, and sideways, and upside down, but they are perhaps at their most engaging and most illuminating when they’re drawn backwards. So while we begin for a moment in 1971’s Chu Lai, with Jack jumping off a chopper to find Nick, we immediately flash back – first by just three weeks. It’s there we find Jack with his unit, pacing their way through a forest in an altogether different part of Vietnam.
It’s there, too, that we find Mr. Robinson, the man Kevin writes to fifty years later. In 1971, he’s making plans with Jack to play football for the Giants and planning his return home in a mere 90 days. During their cautious banter, a landmine is found and disarmed safely, but later that evening another is triggered by two soldiers playing football. It’s just the beginning of combat that night, and in the chaos, Robinson loses his leg below the knee, with Jack acting as part medic and crisis support. The next morning, in the shuddering of post-battle recovery, Robinson teaches Jack that all-important coping mechanism, which he’d teach his son decades later – to hold still, to keep breathing, to remember that when “we’re so scared we’re gonna die, we forget to do the thing that keeps us alive.” With Robinson safely on a helicopter home, Jack gets his unit’s very conveniently located next round of orders
As far as combat in Vietnam goes, this is standard, but difficult, stuff. I’m certainly not saying I wish the show got more graphic – believe me, I don’t. But part of me doubts that a single raid of this sort would cause the entire unit to be sent to a cushy beach detail.
So it’s with a little television magic that Jack finds himself in a fishing village, tasked only with guarding a string wire and “keeping out the riff raff” that comes to cut it down every night. His unit, and his Captain, cover the standard bases of soldier personae; his Captain is aware of the hellscape they’re all living in, shown with his quick throw-away line about their nonsensical task of “pacification.” And we have one racist piece of shit (because of course we do) going by the name of Townie, who stomps around a country he has no stake in screaming at children and wondering why the people who have lived there for generations “come and go like they own the place.” The rest of his unit is mostly harmless, if also a little hapless – it’s nothing a case of beer and cigarettes and a healthy bribe can’t sort out. Jack’s a clever leader, and it’s with that bribe that he gets the men in decent enough shape for Captain to agree to let him hop on the helicopter and pay Nick a visit.
Fourteen months prior, and Jack and his mother are reading letters from Nick, informing them that he’s been article 15-ed; meaning he’s had his rank busted for reckless endangerment of himself and of his unit. (“Like I’m the danger and not this messed-up war.”) Nick is painfully honest in his letters home; he doesn’t hide himself or his family from the feeling that he won’t get out alive. His mother, nursing a newly black eye from her monster of a husband, reads the letter silently, over and over, while Jack comes up with yet another plan. As far as Jack Pearson Plans go, this is pretty par for the course. An irregular heartbeat and tachycardia has kept him out of the war so far; but he wants to be there for his brother. “Even if I can’t get to him, even if I can’t do anything for him.” It’s easy to write this off or hold it up as Jack being Jack, making a huge, bold, foolish decision for his family. But it strikes me, too, that Jack knows he has nothing to lose right now. His life is in shambles, he’s never had a sense of ownership of his own choices – volunteering gives him something tangible that he can, bizarrely, control.
And yes, it allows him to be Nick’s “own personal superman.” Another year back, and it’s draft day, with Nick in bell bottoms and glasses, drinking sugar with a dash of coffee and bugging his brother at work. Nick is living with the panic of every able-bodied man in his generation; the knowledge that his birthday, October 18, could be called live on television and that his life would – if not end – never be the same. He’s convinced that this will happen, and while he knows his big brother has at least one plan in the back of his head, he also knows it’s not necessarily that easy. Still, Nick allows Jack the mercy of taking him out to a bar to watch, rather than leaving themselves at home. I was sick to my stomach watching all of this. The coldness, the matter of fact reading of dates and numbers, knowing that all across the country at that moment lives were being dictated with not a governmental care to the human casualties of war. When Nick’s birthday is called, it feels inevitable, not because we know that Nick will die in Vietnam, but because it was the reality for everyone huddled around televisions that night, and every draft night. Because every birthday called was inevitable, and awful, and wrong. All across the country, garbage fathers – and decent ones, too – were waiting in their living rooms till their sons came home, demanding that the generation make them proud. Just as Nick’s did.
Jack’s big idea, to cross Nick into Canada with “a driver’s license and a reason,” doesn’t go according to plan. Maybe I’m missing an obvious implication here, but with the truck left in the driveway, and considering the letter Nick left, I found it equally possible that Nick tried and failed to cross the border on foot, or that he caught a bus to face the inevitable without his brother there to feel complicit. Either way, Jack’s left alone in a motel 30 miles from the Canadian border, with nothing but his brother’s letter to guide his next move.
Another ten years back, and Jack and Nicky are playing football in the yard. Jack’s clearly the more athletic of the two. Nick dives off-angle, hitting himself in the face with the ball and breaking his glasses. Both boys are immediately frightened of the ramifications; not to Nicky’s face or eyewear, but from their father. (“If he sees the glasses, he’ll be mad.” “I’ll never let him touch you.”) We never see Jack and Nick’s father hit them; their mother seems to be the focus of his physical abuse, but the emotional abuse he imparts on his sons is tangible. Both boys are just trying to cope; Jack by becoming Superman, Nick by owning his inner Clark Kent. Both boys wake up from their father yelling and smashing plates; Nick comes down first, looking equal parts determined and scared, while Jack just stands in front of his brother, staring his father down simply.
I hope that we learn more about Jack and Nick’s mom. I hope that we hear more about HER life, her time after leaving her husband, or before she met him, or during the few, short years of their marriage that were good and healthy. But in this moment alone, she delivers a few key pieces of character history: that their father is also an alcoholic, that he wasn’t always like this, and that Jack’s heart problems started young. Jack insists he’s fine. As he always does.
We don’t know, yet, what trigger’s Jack’s father’s alcoholism. It’s clearly genetic; his father arrives at the hospital the day Nick is born with a flask and barely a word of support. That he shows up at all seems to be a bit of a miracle. And still, Jack’s dad is trying to impress him, hoping that their next son share his father’s birthday of October 19 as some sort of weird honorific. Meanwhile, the delivery nurse is hoping Nick is born on October 18; it’s her lucky number. It’s a idea Nick carries with him his whole life; that his birthday is lucky, that it’s best to be born with this nurse’s blessing, rather than carry the symbol of his grandfather. At two minutes to midnight, the nurse wins the day.
Sober, Jack’s dad was loving, supportive, personable, warm. He takes Jack to see his new baby brother through the hospital window, just as Jack will take Rebecca a generation later to see Randall. And it’s there that Jack’s father insist that his only job, as big brother, is to look out for his Nicky. Which brings us back to the start: 1971, Chu Lai.
Colors of the Painting
- Let me say, clearly and for the record: I have absolutely no desire to have another year-long, morbid, horrific, death-focused “how did it happen” plotline. Do not drag out the “mystery” of how Nick dies in Vietnam. Do not fucking do it. I swear to god.
- Most of the time, I’m shouting about how fantastic the younger versions of the cast are – so I do have to be honest here and say that young Jack didn’t really do it for me? This kid had no emotion behind his eyes and it stood out because the show has such a great track record to date.
- Two songs are a fixture to this episode: “Darkness, Darkness” by The Youngbloods (1969) and “Child’s Song” by Tom Rush (1970). One of my favorite things about this show, hands down, is its use of music, and these two choices are no exception.
- Is it too much to hope that Randall also meet Mr. Robinson and discover that his Dad learned this vital coping mechanism from another Black man?
- There’s a strong implication that Jack never took proper care of his heart problems, in whatever way he could have, which would have directly led to his heart giving way after the fire. This just adds an extra level to his death; of what, I’m not sure, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point it out.
- Nick’s childhood room has a NASA poster. Between this and his inability to play football, I (tragically) suspect that Nick would have been my favorite Pearson of his generation.
What did you think of “Vietnam”? Let us know in the comments.