After last week's brief set-up where Kevin (Justin Hartley) realized he was in a war movie and didn't know anything about his own father's time serving in Vietnam, this week This Is Us put together a sensational stand-alone episode that takes us on a journey of Jack's (Milo Ventimiglia) upbringing and time overseas in the war. The show generally handles its multiple timelines and eras with a deft hand, but it was a nice break to spend a whole hour with one story, even if it did move backward in time to tell it.
The episode begins in 1971. It's about a year before Jack meets Rebecca (Mandy Moore). After a firefight where Jack loses his close friend — not to death, but the friend loses his foot to a landmine and is sent home — Jack is sent to a remote, peaceful village where he and his platoon are tasked with protecting the civilians from the Viet Cong. There are plenty of big-eyed child extras roaming around the village that I was sure were going to be used as some kind of gut-punch cannon fodder later, so hat tip to the This Is Us writers for not doing that.
At his new post, Jack is now stationed relatively close to his brother Nicky (Michael Angarano), so he asks his superior if he can have 24 hours to go see his brother. It seems Nicky's been having some trouble at his post, getting demoted for recklessly endangering his fellow soldiers, and Jack wants to try to help him. We find out through a flashback to Nicky writing to the Pearsons 14 months earlier that he's been pretty depressed (which is understandable) and is convinced he's going to die over there, so he wants it to be on his own terms. It's this letter from Nicky that gets Jack to enlist.
Jack had previously taken a 4F deferment because of his tachycardia (abnormally rapid heart rate). What's interesting is that this is the first we've heard of Jack's heart condition. That definitely helps explain his death from smoke inhalation. Yes, smoke inhalation can kill anyone, but if you already suffer from tachycardia, your chances of having a smoke inhalation-related heart attack are probably increased because tachycardia is a symptom of smoke inhalation.
Anyway, in yet an earlier flashback, we see that Jack has a plan to keep his brother out of Vietnam after Nicky's birthday came up in the draft lottery. But Nicky decides he needs to step up and go, not run off to Canada. Before we return to Vietnam, there are a few more flashbacks to Jack and Nicky's childhood. They aren't super informative, but it must be said that the shot of all the little boy babies whose birthdays we now know are going to come up in the draft lottery was incredibly effective. I can't even imagine having to send one of my children off to war, especially one like Vietnam. That was a chilling shot.
That's also basically the end of the episode. The final scene has Jack coming upon his brother at Landing Zone Gloria and... that's it. Next week looks to be an episode focusing more on the present day, so it's hard to say when we'll revisit this timeline again. It would have been surprising to get to Nicky's death within this episode, but it still feels like a weird way to end it. It was so great to spend a full episode with this one story that now I'm nervous Nicky's death episode won't get the same treatment. Instead, it'll be part of a larger episode featuring all the other main players and therefore lose some of its emotional impact.
But maybe not. I would love if This Is Us took another full hour to bring Jack and Nicky's story to its conclusion, so hopefully, that's what they'll do. “Vietnam” was actually a much quieter episode than I was expecting it to be and was all the more effective for it, so it would be nice to see them take the same approach for the natural follow-up episode.