The sophomore season of This Is Us might be all about finding how Jack Pearson died, but, that’s not the Pearson family mystery that’s actually plaguing me right now. Instead, I can’t stop thinking about the puzzle of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and his time in the Vietnam War. As I’ve previously mentioned, we already know the Pearson patriarch has been lying about his service. Yet, Tuesday night’s aptly-titled episode “Brothers” added a new layer of mystery to the wartime conundrum: Jack secretly has (had?) a brother, and he was in Vietnam too. In fact, it looks like the Brothers Pearson were in the same unit. This truly unexpected twist might just be the key to understanding Jack’s secretive service time, and his subsequent dangerous drinking.
The fraternal surprise arrives in the final seconds of “Brothers” — as all good This Is Us surprises do — and it only gives us more questions, rather than any answers. In the installment-ending scene, Jack sits in bed wide awake, clearly drowning in his thoughts. It’s obvious he’s been like that for a while, since his wife Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore) is fast asleep in his arms.
At the same time, this weighty scene is sprinkled with classic Us flashbacks. In the contextualizing moment, we see an 8-year-old Jack (Joaquin Obradors) sitting his his family car, waiting for his father Stanley (Peter Onorati) to finish drinking in a roadside tavern. Throughout the episode, we’re led to believe Jack is alone… until a little boy in glasses and overalls pops up from the backseat. “Where’s dad?” he asks. And, so, we’ve met little Nicky Pearson (Donnie Masihi). This Is Us immediately sets up a Dean Winchester-like level of dedication for Jack when it comes to his little brother, as the older Pearson sibling swears, “Don’t worry, Nicky, I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere.” Jack is only 8 years old, but understands he’ll need to be there for Nicky since their father is kind of a bum.
The next we see of Nicky is in a photo hidden deep inside the 1990s Pearsons' garage. The image is so buried, it's trapped in a metal box, which is underneath endless stacks of newspapers and books. We can all tell Jack hasn’t opened this metaphorical Pandora’s box of old memories in quite some time. The old-timey, weathered photo shows a stone-faced Jack standing in what we can all guess is a Vietnam jungle with his army friends and a Jeep. The man sitting to his right has the same glasses frames as little Nicky, as the flashbacks drive home very directly. If we had any doubts about whether Jack was involved in the war with his brother, the camera pans down on the “mystery” man in the photo’s uniform; the lapel reads “Pearson.” No questions about it guys — that’s Nicky. This Is Us doesn’t exactly traffic in subtleties.
All together, “Brothers” hints at a likely sequence of events when it comes to Jack, Nicky, and their terrible dad, Stanley. Throughout the episode, a 1980s Rebecca tries to get in touch with Jack, who’s out of town on a camping trip with their sons, because his father is on his deathbed. Rebecca expects this literal do-or-die news will make Jack come home and make peace with Stanley. Instead, when Jack finds out what’s happening with his dad, he tells Rebecca his father “has been dead to [him] for a long time,” he has no parting words to share, and is staying in the woods with the boys. So, when we see Jack wide awake at night, we expect the upcoming flashback will show us some childhood trauma that explains why he’s so fully finished with Stanley. Instead, we meet Nicky.
Yet, it’s possible Nicky is the reason Jack has cut all ties with his old man. If Stanley bullied Nicky into going to Vietnam — or, in Jack’s mind, is somehow the reason his brother enlisted — and then the youngest Pearson died in battle, it’s likely Jack would never want to speak to his father again. Multiple signs point to the fact Nicky is likely no longer with us, from the fact a family-obsessed man like Jack never speaks about his sibling to the details of the song playing during the Nicky reveal. Right after we see the little boy’s face for the first time, Father John Misty croons on the soundtrack, “Eventually the dying man takes his final breath.” In fact, the FJM song backing the entire multi-level Nicky scene is titled, “Ballad of the Dying Man.” Again, This Is Us has never heard the word “subtle.”
All of this could explain why Jack has been lying about his service in Vietnam, and has been drinking to suppress the memories of the war, as earlier season 2 episode “A Manny-Splendored Thing” suggests. Considering the likelihood the Pearson brothers went to war together at their father's forceful urging, Nicky died there, and Jack likely had to watch this tragedy unfold amid the chaos of battle — remember, he’s “not going anywhere” — it’s no surprise Jack would wall off that kind of trauma with alcohol. It’s possible Nicky was actually the Vietnam mechanic, as opposed to Jack, who we already saw jumping out of a helicopter while wielding a massive assault rifle. That kind of behavior isn’t exactly in a mechanic’s job description. But, Nicky, with his glasses? Now that’s someone who it's highly likely would be kept on base fixing cars over trudging through the leafy jungles of Vietnam.
With all of this speculation hanging over Jack and Vietnam, it's fair to predict we'll soon see a tearful wartime Jack tell his dying brother, “Don’t worry, Nicky, I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere,” once again. This time, however, the stakes will be much more dire than a neglectful Stanley. And nothing sounds more This Is Us-y than that.
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