If the freshman season of This Is Us had one goal, it was to make us love Pearson family patriarch Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), despite his vices. Yes, he could be the kind of man who drinks so many car beers he ruins his wife’s performances, but, he’s also the kind of man who has perfected the grand romantic gesture and improved upon the grand romantic speech. While season 1 was all about balancing out Jack’s flaws, season 2 seems dedicated to showing viewers where those flaws came from in the first place. We’ve gotten some glimpses into Jack’s past over the last year, like meeting his alcoholic father Stanley Pearson (Peter Onorati), but, Tuesday night’s "A Manny-Splendored Thing" gave us our biggest peek in to psyche of Poppa Pearson. As Ventimiglia teased earlier this year, fans got to see a moment of Jack’s time serving in the Vietnam War… and the scene proved Jack has been lying about his time in uniform.
When adult Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) is singing at an L.A. bar in "Manny-Splendored Thing," the episode gives us multiple flashbacks to our lead characters. First, we see Jack laying into a punching bag in a boxing gym as he attempts to battle his alcoholism in the only way he knows how. Then, we begin to hear the whir of a helicopter in time with the sound of the newbie boxer's fists hitting the bag. All of a sudden, the scene changes, and the grimy gym is replaced by a sunny, grassy locale. We see the blades of a helicopter, and the camera pans down to show us two men in full Army fatigues jumping out of the aircraft. One of them is Jack, and he is brandishing a massive assault rifle.
While the scene sheds a light on why Jack is battling so many demons — the Vietnam War was infamously traumatizing for the service people who came back home — it also reveals the vet has been hiding a major truth about himself for at least a decade. In season 1 finale "Moonshadow," we meet one of the youngest versions of Jack we’ve ever seen. Gone is the dad bod and bushy mustache; in their place is a floppy-haired young man in the mid-70s. In this time, Jack is a down-on-his-luck mechanic happily accepting every drop of cash he can get from a job. As usual, he’s his signature sweet, well-meaning self. When Jack finishes working on an elderly widow’s car, she can only give him a $5 bill for his services. He's still more than appreciative. "How did you come back from Vietnam so nice? Seems like most of the boys lose their damn minds over there," Mrs. Peabody (Debra Mooney) asks her boyishly handsome repairman. Jack responds, "I was just a mechanic. You know, maybe we had it a little easier over there."
As we see in "Manny-Splendored Thing," Jack wasn’t "just" a mechanic fixing cars in Southwest Asia. He clearly fought in the war, and possibly even had to kill people during his service. There would be no reason for him to be running around grass fields, hopping out of helicopters with a bullet-fighting camouflage helmet on, and carrying around a war-ready assault rifle otherwise. Those aren't the job requirements of a mechanic, who would hypothetically be kept on base and beneath the latest broken truck; it’s the life of soldier.
The placement of this Jack reveal was clearly created to give us more information on why Jack is an alcoholic. During the "Landslide"-tuned sequence, we see where many people in the Pearson family’s deepest, and often darkest, personality traits came from. We catch a child Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicsak) singing for her talented, beautiful, and inadvertently critical mom Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore), who is reliving her musical glory days by trying to make her daughter better. Of course Kate is now sensitive to everything her mom says, even when it’s well-meaning or benign.
Viewers also watch child Kevin Pearson (Parker Bates) in the Ridgeview Elementary School talent show, where he did a Mr. T impression. Only one person in the entire audience finds the idea of small white child pretending to be an adult Black man who pities the fool funny: child Sophie (Sophia Coto). In present day, Kevin is back at The Manny, crawling on his hands and knees in a giant baby diaper after his former show’s writer wrote the scene to purposefully embarrass the actor. The only reason Kevin (Justin Harley) can "Clooney" his way through the shame session is because Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) is there and laughing hysterically — in same way she did in Ridgeview. The scene also touches on why Kevin became an actor, since the stage is the only place where the little boy got the attention he so desperately craved but didn't get, since his parents were so focused on their other children.
So, the Vietnam reveal is meant to fall into the same vein. Jack is attempting to beat the stuffing out of a punching bag because he's terrified of becoming verbally abusive like his father — a drink-guzzling Stanley makes a short appearance in here — yet it's not that simple. Jack is also boxing to deal with the ghosts of the war. That's why the scene of him jumping out of the helicopter appears in this exact cathartic, pointed set of flashbacks for Jack and his biological children. While fans still don't know what happened during the Vietnam War, or if Jack is suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, it's clearly a huge reason why the Pearson dad drinks.
Thankfully, it looks like we're going to learn more about Jack's time in uniform with next week's This Is Us episode, "Highs and Lows." As the preview for the installment teases, Kevin will be shooting a war epic with Sylvester Stallone, and the set looks awfully similar to Jack's real-life experiences, down to the chopper and guns. It's safe to guess Kevin's Hollywood version of war will also lend itself to more flashbacks of his dad's time actually serving. That would explain why in the last line of the trailer, Sly says with a smile, "Let's do one for your father."
It's officially time to meet Jack Pearson, soldier.
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