Why This Is Us Needed 'Vietnam'
Published: 12 November 2018
For a show that spent two seasons fixating on how a character died, its best episode yet was all about what he survived.Not all plotlines are created equal. Over two-and-a-bit seasons, This Is Us has given us gold like the genesis of the Big Three, Randall’s relationship with his birth father, and of course Jack and Rebecca’s love story for the ages. But it’s also given us lead balloons like Kate’s canine complex, Kevin in pretty much all of season two and… Miguel.
No story quite outstayed its welcome, though, like how Jack died. And with that drawn-out mystery mercifully laid to rest in last year’s ‘Superbowl Sunday’, This Is Us was finally free to advance the Pearson patriarch plot beyond the question of what did him in (spoiler: it was a faulty slow cooker and a faultier heart).
‘What makes Jack Jack?’ has always been the more interesting question, and so was that proved once again by ‘Vietnam’, a haunting hour that told us more about the character than a thousand morbid theories ever could. Some doubted This Is Us would find use for Jack following his death, when in fact this unforgettable journey through his past was just the jolt of life the show needed.
The night siegeWe’d already gotten glimpses that Jack saw far more action in Vietnam than he was willing to admit. Now we know he was a staff sergeant, and very much ‘in the shit.’ Jack firing into the darkness as a wall of gunfire ambushes his platoon is among the episode’s most confronting evidence.
“Jack... breathe”‘Vietnam’ is full of powerful callbacks to earlier episodes, and one of the most potent reveals is where “breathe” originated – the simple instruction Jack passed down to Randall, who in turn used it to comfort William on his death bed. The word doesn’t need to be audible for you to hear it echoing through generations of the Pearson family.
One of the most tense sequences This Is Us has ever done is also one of its simplest: the Pearson brothers in a bar, anxiously waiting to see if Nicky’s number is called in the Draft Lottery. Time seems to stop when his ill-fated birthday is announced, and the realisation on their fallen faces is utterly devastating.
Not all heroes wear capesThe timeline winds back to Jack and Nicky’s adolescence, with the younger brother summoning all his courage to try and protect his mother from their abusive father. As Pearson Senior moves to swipe him aside, in steps Jack between them, his eyes telling him in no uncertain terms to walk away.
The medical history
Jack getting checked out by the family physician yields a double-shock: not only do we discover he’s always had heart problems, but also that he wasn’t drafted to serve in Vietnam, he voluntarily enlisted - to protect his brother. “It’s my job to take care of him”, Jack tells the doc, our hearts now broken too. “That is my only job.”