Much like Riverdale, This Is Us needs a macabre mystery to run. With the cause of Jack Pearson’s (Milo Ventimiglia) death solved towards the end of season 2, the NBC family drama has turned to another upsetting facet of Jack’s life: his brother Nicky Pearson (Michael Angarano). First, fans were made to believe the younger Pearson brother was dead. Then, in “The Beginning Is The End Is The Beginning," This Is Us confirmed Nicky was very much alive and living in the woods of Pennsylvania as an old man (Griffin Dunne). Viewers were left wondering if Jack knew his brother was alive all along and, if he did, why did he lie about it?
Well, we finally got to the bottom of Nicky and Jack’s failed relationship with Tuesday night’s “Songbird Road: Part One.” The latest Pearson family secret is as tragic as you would expect from This Is Us, and to fully understand it, you have to go back to “The Beginning.”
The crux of the matter is, Nicky accidentally killed a child named Lanh (Tan Ly) during the Vietnam War. This is an especially dark fact considering Nicky horrific comments on how all kids in his and Jack’s placid Vietnamese “ville” aren’t merely kids — they’re destined to be as dangerous as the guerilla forces American soldiers are battling that very moment. For Nicky, even young children are the enemy. The malice in his voice during these conversations are palpable for both the audience and white knight Jack.
But, Nicky’s world-crushing moment isn’t black and white, or even premeditated. In fact, tragedy struck the second Nicky finally started opening himself up to the innocent people of his Vietnamese ville. In the moments prior to Lanh’s death, Nicky was sulking near a riverbed when the little boy approached him. He put on Nicky’s glasses and even a hardened, likely strung-out soldier like Nicky couldn’t deny how cute the kid looked in them. Eventually, Nicky handed over the candy bar he was eating and offered to take Lanh fishing. It’s all overwhelmingly adorable.
The problem is, Nicky had a dangerously unique fishing technique: grenades. He would throw one in the water and then pick up the dead finish. Nothing isn’t bafflingly morbid on This Is Us. Lanh — whom Jack saved from a foot injury earlier in season 3 — is immediately enamored with the visual dramatics of underwater explosions. So, when Nicky goes to throw a second grenade in a new fishing spot, Lanh tries to wrestle it out of Nicky’s hand, and the pin is accidentally pulled early. The grenade falls inside of the watery, muddied boat, with mere seconds to go before it explodes. Since Nicky can’t find the grenade inside the boat, he realizes he and Lanh need to jump to safety right that second.
Nicky repeatedly begs Lanh to “jump!,” but, due to the language barrier, the child has no idea what he’s saying. He just edges further and further away from a panicked Nicky. Nicky, unable to get to Lanh in time, jumps off solo. Seconds later, the boat explodes, immediately killing Lanh. All that remains is the boy’s flip-flop, which is floating in the water.
This is where This Is Us picks back up with the final Vietnam-set scene of “The Beginning Is The End,” when Jack learns there was an explosion in the water. It’s integral to remember the last time Jack saw Nicky before the explosion, he was extremely high, holding his hand in a fake gun position, and pretending to shoot the innocent Vietnamese denizens of their ville (who are just old people, women, and children). When Jack tells Nicky, who was sober the last time he saw his brother, he’s going to get him “clean again,” the younger Pearson brother declines. Nicky wanders off intoxicated and devastated. It's suggested the fatal explosion was that same day.
For Jack, the subsequent scene of Nicky and a dead Vietnamese child seems pretty cut and dry. In his mind, his stoned brother resented a little boy so much, he ended up murdering him in the water. He knows nothing of Nicky and Lanh’s bonding session or the soldier's genuinely good intentions for taking the kid fishing. Because Jack never spoke to Nicky about what happened — he just tossed him on a helicopter for immediate psychiatric evaluation and refused to listen during a reunion in the '80s — he went to the grave completely unaware of what actually happened. Jack died not knowing his brother wasn’t actually a child-killing monster — he is just another upsetting victim of This Is Us’ many depressing turns of fate.
Since we haven't seen Adult Annie Pearson (played as a child by Faithe Herman) yet, let's hope her life somehow manages to avoid abject horror. At this point, she's our only hope.