This Is Us Season 5, Episode 11
“One Small Step”
Posted by Shannon
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I don’t even know what to say about this one, folks. I really don’t. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d get an hour long deep dive into the life and times of my very favorite elder Pearson. I should have seen it coming! But I didn’t, and so I was not prepared. I wasn’t ready for Nicky’s NASA fandom, even though in hindsight it makes total sense for a shy, poetical nascent hippie in the late 60’s to love space. Even their great work prior to this didn’t get me ready for such phenomenal performances from Griffin Dunne and Michael Angarano, each of whom delivered some of their very best work to date. For as much as I scream about wanting everyone to have more friends, I didn’t expect to see Cassidy back in the picture, cheering Nicky on and proving my point magnificently in a few short scenes. Basically, this whole thing laid me out in the very best way. I will always celebrate Nicky Pearson, no matter what decade, and “One Small Step…” did my fave proud.
The rest of our Pearson clan are many things. They’re loving, exuberant, thoughtful, overactive, scattered, focused, and so much in between. They’re fighters. Even characters who never met Jack and Rebecca seem to take their cue from both. They push themselves and each other, often too far. They celebrate loudly and fight out in the open and support each other in a blink. They are unwavering. Even the quieter ones – William, Tess, Rebecca in her younger years – are steadfast in their beliefs. They radiate certainty. Nicky Pearson is… none of those.
It’s probably why I love him so much. Don’t get me wrong. It’s inspiring to be as brave and insistent as the rest of the Pearson clan. And I’m not saying they don’t get scared, or have moments of indecision. They’re phenomenally well written humans, and they contain multitudes. But all that insistence and certainty can wear on a person, and Nicky has a completely different energy. He, too, can be brave – but it takes him decades to talk himself up to it. He lives his life completely in his own mind, and as the episode shows us, while that was exacerbated by his decades living alone, it didn’t originate there. Nicky’s always been less likely to jump. He’s always spent a little too long weighing the pros and cons, refusing to voice a commitment in case he changes his mind. Nicky has always been an outsider in this family, even when he spent his life avoiding them. Imagine, then, a member of that family deciding to name his kid after that very same outsider. No wonder the man spent weeks collecting every ounce of his courage, calling in Cassidy, and gearing himself up to get on a plane for the first time since 1971. It took everything he had, and he doubted himself every minute of the trip, and still – he did it.
It would be easy for us, or for the show for that matter, to hide behind Nicky’s post-war isolation and say that the PTSD alone drove him to a life of solitude. Which is what makes the rest of this episode such a master stroke. We take it all the way back to Nicky and Jack’s life in 1969, when Jack had just moved out and Nicky was staying put under the guise of not wanting to pay rent. (In reality, he mutters to Jack, it’s much easier on their mother when he’s home to absorb their father’s abuse. And since we know how much more violent he became after Nicky was drafted, I have to say the kid had a point.) Still, Jack prods his shy, sweet, hesitant little brother to ask out the adorable hippie at the vet clinic so he at least has a girlfriend to hang out with.
Their entire courtship is adorable and lovely. Sally is a classic hippie, travelling the country in her van Pearl (named after her grandmother, bless), taking pictures, loving art, and asking sweet, shy boys to explain why they love space. (“Alright, Nicholas Pearson. Tell me your best moon fact.”) She charms his parents and his brother and talks to him about the moon as a destination, and as a focal point for everyone across the earth, no matter how isolated they may be, and then one day she asks if he’ll join her for a trip to some new music festival called Woodstock. And this – right here – is a key moment for Nicky Pearson. This is where we go back to that quality he has that no other Pearson really inhabits. Because while Nicky wants to go to Woodstock to hear Jimi Hendrix, and while he loves Sally with all his heart, he’s not a wanderer. He can’t imagine going somewhere and not having the concept of moving “for good” in the back of his mind. He’s not a nomad. He’s not a risk taker. He’s indecisive, and hesitant, and extremely wary of taking that kind of a leap. It may be that he truly doesn’t want to. And yes, it may be that he’s scared. There’s no judgement or shame in that; it just sticks out more when the rest of your family seems hell bent on taking every leap they’re faced with, for good or for ill.
The same thing happens again, years later, when he and Jack are home from Vietnam but before Nicky starts to send his big brother all those postcards. He’s faced with the same choice, but now the stakes are even higher. Now it’s more than an adventure and a love story – it’s the only family Nicky’s ever loved, just sitting in a bar across a parking lot asking his mentor if he should ask a girl to marry him. Nicky got closer this time. He answered the phone, at least, and he showed up with the same picture Sally took all those years ago. Just in case he could gather up his nerves and finally tell his brother that he’s “better now, I’m not the monster that you think I am.”
I’m not here to diminish the pain that Jack went through in the war. He’s fought his own emotional battles with his time in Vietnam, and lord knows it haunted him for the rest of his life. But when the Lieutenant is telling Jack that the most important thing is “not to let yourself get lost in it; not to re-live the same horror show over and over,” it’s not really what Jack needs to hear. Jack’s got his own tortured soul, but he’s also got that persistence. That refusal to not try something – anything – to get himself to someplace new. Nicky’s the one who needed to hear it. He’s the one who needed a mentor, an older brother perhaps, to tell him that he’s more than his trauma and that he can stand on his own in that pain. Acknowledge it, know it, and still be himself. But no one was there to tell Nicky that; and Nicky wasn’t about to force the matter.
Which brings us to his third and final leap. To an older, grizzled Nicholas Pearson fiddling with the invitation for the baptism of a child who bears his name. HIS NAME, the family outlier. The one with a drastically different emotional temperament than his counterparts. The one who is just not built to radiate any kind of certainty. And in the face of a global pandemic, crippling anxiety, a TSA agent who rips open his carefully wrapped gift of handmade moon landing snowglobes, and a chatty seat mate, Nicky Pearson pulls out that old Samsonite suitcase and gets himself across the country to be there for his nephew. The one who sees him for what he is. The one who shows up for him like no one else has.
The last time we saw Kevin and Nicky have a serious conversation, beyond the announcement of the new twins, it was back at the end of season four when Nicky called Kevin on his sobriety anniversary. The last time they saw each other face to face – at least that we’ve seen – was all the way back in S4E9: “So Long, Marianne,” also known as the episode that absolutely broke me and cemented my love for Nicholas Pearson. At the end of that hour, after almost deciding to stay with his uncle and Cassidy in Branford, Kevin decided to go back to LA and leave Nicky to his own devices in his fancified trailer, staying in touch along the way. So when Nicky sighs to Kevin that a lot has happened since the last time they saw each other, he REALLY means it. It’s been at least a year, if not two, an engagement, the birth of twins, and most of a global pandemic since these two have actually set eyes on each other.
I just want to sit in that timeline for a minute and acknowledge how strong their bond is. How insistent Kevin must have been to stay close, and how willing Nicky was to let him into his life. Kevin has a single moment of shock before melting into happiness at the sight of his uncle. He doesn’t hesitate to bring Nicky into his home, and neither, I may add, does Madison. She rolls with it at every step, feeding Nicky leftover sushi (“It’s just tiny fancy fish!”) and assuring him that his sudden arrival is absolutely no problem whatever. And I want to point out that Nicky’s cautious, unsettled character doesn’t mean he’s clueless or rude. He acknowledges to Madison and Kevin, immediately, that showing up unannounced is poor form. But again, because it’s Kevin, it’s not even a question.
Kevin jumps at the opportunity to have his uncle around for a while, rattling off plans for the next few days and wondering aloud what he may want the twins to call him. It was so similar to Kevin’s naive monologuing at Toby just a week ago – except he knows Nicky’s tells. He knows, when he sees Nicky’s fingers trembling, that his uncle has just moved heaven and earth to get himself there. He knows what a sacrifice this has been. So he pivots, makes up the bed, and gives his uncle some space to settle in. And, inevitably, to have a total spiral and call Cassidy at 4am her time insisting that he should sneak out the window and get right back on another flight.
Cassidy gave voice to two pivotally important things in quick succession. First, that Nicky doesn’t know what to do with the kind of unquestioning support Kevin has always offered. (“You’ve hated yourself for so long and now you have all this love coming at you, and it feels weird and you want to go awol.”) It’s true – and it’s just one (albeit large) piece of the puzzle. Because again, Nicky has always had this hesitancy. He’s always doubted himself. And he’s always lived in the shadow of a big brother who exudes the opposite of those characteristics. He’s always fallen victim, just like Kevin, to the pressure of living up to Jack Pearson – even when he’d be much better off standing alone. Cassidy is the only person who can get away with saying “I didn’t know this brother of yours, but I do know two pretty decent men who have spent their lives wondering if he would be proud of them.” Partially, because Nicky is the only one who could hear it. But also because she’s seen the way Jack’s legacy has pushed back against the psyches of every single member of the family, and she’s got enough distance to give it voice without consequence.
Which just leaves us with the monologue. The stunning, hypnotic, perfectly delivered monologue. I’d bestowed a “best speech given to tiny babies” award already, to Randall with Annie in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen. But I think Randall would understand why I have to rescind it and hand that title over to Nicky.
I’ve said before that I don’t have a family with the same vibe as the Pearsons. I’m an only child, and while I have piles of aunts and uncles, I couldn’t pick most of them out of a lineup if I tried. So when I think of family, I think of family friends. I think of my nephews and my godson – none of whom are connected to me by blood or marriage. I think of the people who choose to be there, not the ones who have some sense of familial obligation, and in turn that’s how I choose to show up. The Pearson clan is special in that so many members of their family hit both sides of that venn diagram – but not Nicky. His familial obligation to the Pearsons disintegrated when Jack refused to answer his postcards. He could have chosen to take off. He could have chosen not to be there for those babies, or for Kevin. Which means he’s CHOOSING this. He’s CHOOSING to celebrate these babies as his own personal moon landing. He’s dedicating himself to each of them. He will always be there, and he never had to be. And for that and more, I love Nicky Pearson.
Just call him Uncle Nicky, okay, no stupid nicknames.
Colors of the Painting
- Griffin Dunne’s delivery of “I’ve been vaccinated. Twice.” has sent me every single time I’ve watched it.
- “There is a guy walking on the moon right now, ask Sally out on a date.”
- A word for how absolutely beautiful Justin Hartley looked, sitting in the early sunshine at the close of the episode.
- Cassidy walking Nicky through the security process was so touching, so kind, and so exactly why I keep screaming that these people need FRIENDS. Friends are family, too – as Nicky insists, her knowing that he’s about to fly across the country is the same as a family member knowing. She’s got his back, 110%, and it’s fucking beautiful.
- The giant, fluffy dog Nicky and Sally tricked into taking a bath is the most adorable creature I have EVER SEEN and I am not taking questions.
- I’m not sure what the thematic line is about, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point this out: this is yet another instance of moon symbolism driving important moments in This Is Us. I know we all want to forget about the S1 finale, but the focus on “Moonshadow” starts there, and it’s underlined when Jack buys Rebecca the half moon necklace. Is this foreshadowing to Nicky and Rebecca forging some kind of relationship – plutonic or otherwise – that leads him to sit by her bed in the flash forward?
- Nicky crossing himself before climbing into Sally’s van is the most endearing thing imaginable. I love him so much, have I mentioned that lately?
- I am Madison being completely and totally endeared by this old, weird man in spite of herself.
- I’m just…. gonna leave this here.
- The musical selection this week is an absolute classic: America’s “The Lonely People.” Enjoy.
Are you as endeared by Uncle Nicky as we are? Let us know in the comments.