It’s taken three seasons, but This Is Us has slowly begun to unravel the mystery behind the series’ most elusive character: Jack Pearson. Throughout the series, we’ve only spent time with him through the eyes of his children, which has provided a very limited perspective on who exactly he was. All we really know is that he was great man—a superhero to them, as they’ve continued to say—and then he died. But tonight, the writers dig further into his story than ever before in his first one-off episode, which focuses primarily on his time in the Vietnam War.
As a result, we have more answers about who Jack really was as we peel off the layers past his superhero persona and confront a cycle of toxic masculinity. We also face a brand new question: how did Jack’s brother Nicky die? Below, a few revelations from tonight’s episode, simply titled, “Vietnam.”
Jack’s been pretending to be a superhero his whole life.
When we first meet Jack in episode, it’s 1971 and he’s in the midst of Vietnam War—six years after it started and four years before it ended. He’s responsible for a battalion of men who put their lives on the line daily to protect and serve in a war that was largely condemned by Americans (even though this is never really mentioned throughout the episode). As a sergeant, we see Jack jump in the line of fire as bullets fly toward him and his troops. In the midst of chaos, he must call for a medic when one of his soldiers, a man he considers a friend, is struck. None of what happens in this opening sequence is particularly surprising, as it aligns with who we’ve always known Jack to be—a genuinely good man with a seemingly natural can-do attitude about everything. Because of what we know about his time growing up, this comes from living in a home with a militant, abusive dad who scowled—and even became violent—at any hint of weakness.
As a result, Jack learned to mask any sense of fragility, which he finally admits as his friend struggles to hold on o his life. Just before the medics take him away, he asks Jack whether he gets tired of pretending he’s not scared. Jack simply says he’s been doing it his whole life, so he doesn’t really know how do anything else. The soldier cups Jack’s face in his hands and reminds him to just “breathe,” which, as we know, is advice Jack passes on to Randall when he began having anxiety attacks.
Jack went to Vietnam to look after his little brother.
The episode continues backward in time to 14 months before Jack even got to Vietnam. He’s at home with his parents in what looks like the most rigid house ever, where everyone is on pins and needles waiting for Jack’s dad to erupt at any minute. Jack’s mom—whose face is badly bruised, presumably because her husband hits her—receives a letter from Nicky at war.
Feeling pressure from his overbearing father, a disciple of toxic masculinity, Jack decides to enlist in the war. We soon learn, though, that Jack has arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat), which is why he was deemed unfit for war when his younger brother was drafted. Still, Jack begs his doctor to approve his medical record to make him eligible for war so he can follow his brother to Vietnam and protect him. This is a very admirable, very Jack thing to do, but it also comes from a darker, more noxious place, since we know that this medical defect is yet another thing Jack’s dad uses to accuse him of being weak. Plus, an earlier flashback shows Jack’s dad telling him that his one job is to protect his little brother, Nicky (which, ironically, leads Jack to defend his brother from his brute of a father). This façade of purposeful manhood follows Jack through his entire life, from childhood, through the war, and straight into fatherhood.
Nick was trying to be the superhero when Jack decides to follow him to war.
The episode is bookended by a very cryptic and brief moment between Jack and Nicky, in which the latter doesn’t yet speak. They’re both at war and Jack goes to find Nicky, who’s been mysteriously “Article 15’ed,” meaning he’s received a non-judicial punishment for a minor offense.
At first, we only see Jack’s face beaming at the sight of his brother. But his smile quickly fades as the focus shifts to Nick, who is clearly surprised (and maybe a little disappointed or annoyed?) that his brother has finagled his way to Vietnam when Jack knew Nicky didn’t want to be there. Many unanswered questions hang in these moments: what did Nicky do to receive an Article 15? Does it have anything to do with how he winds up dead? My theory—and I admit this is a long shot—is that Nicky died trying to save Jack from something. Would that be too on the nose, though, since we know Jack ultimately dies because he tried to save Kate’s dog from the house fire? It would definitely show just how deep the need to be a superhero affects the men in the family. And Randall, as we’ve seen, is no exception.
Jack’s dad wasn’t always a drunk bastard.
I’m still deciding whether this is an attempt to redeem Jack’s dad—and I hope it’s. A flashback shows Jack at seven years old, when he and his dad are in the hospital while his mom is in labor with Nicky. Jack’s grandfather, who is very much a drunk, grumbles into the waiting room and offers Jack’s dad a swig of his flask. Jack’s dad declines, too excited about his impending child (he hopes for another boy, of course). He reminds his own dad that he doesn’t drink, and I assume this season may dig further back into Jack’s dad’s story to show the cycle of alcoholism that permeates the Pearson bloodline—first with Jack’s grandfather, then his dad, then Jack, and on to Kevin. But first, in this rare moment, after Jack’s granddad leaves, it’s just father and son again. Jack’s dad introduces him to his little brother just minutes after he’s born, bestowing on Jack his duty to protect and serve.
A final thought: This Is Us‘s focus on pulling back the layers of each of its male characters highlights a glaring flaw in the narrative: its disregard for women. While Rebecca has had a nice arc that the show is still building upon, it’s time for Kate’s story to move beyond her weight and for Jack’s mom to be more than a battered housewife. While the writers are at it, can get one flashback scene highlighting when and how Beth and Randall met? Please and thank you.
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