This Is Us Is Really Going Off the Rails
The fourth installment of This Is Us’s current season, “Vietnam,” focuses on Jack’s time spent serving in the Vietnam War. And by “focuses” we mean, it is the episode. Like, all of it. So long, Randall’s identity crises, Kate’s fertility struggles, et al. — this week we headed to southeast Asia.
Us’s first two seasons mastered the Lost-esque art of the slow burn. We learned of Jack’s death in one of the series’s very first episodes, but it took us almost two years to pull together all the pieces in the network TV game of Clue it set up for us. Now that we know all the details (spoiler: it was the crock pot in the Pearson House circa 1998), Us’s writers have made a sharp pivot away from the Dead Jack storyline, opting for the breezier “Jack and Rebecca fall in love” and not-so-breezy “Jack fights in Vietnam” arcs.
This is not to say I’m not enjoying season three’s avoidance antics — oh, I am — rather, it just feels a little forced, as if the writers poured their every ounce of creativity into executing a dramatic death for the audience’s favorite character, but then realized they’d need him to stick around if they wanted to maintain their ratings (Milo Ventimiglia fans stan hard).
The current approach to the ghost of Jack Pearson’s past madness is through a new character, Jack’s brother Nicky (Michael Angarano). Keeping with the tragic slow burn aesthetic of Us, Nicky is dead — we’re told he died in Vietnam — but we’ve yet to see his demise play out on screen.
“Vietnam” plays all its emotional cards just right. We watch the heart-wrenching moment that Nicky is drafted, see Jack’s savior complex develop as he protects his little brother throughout the years, and even bear witness to Nicky’s birth — the nurse hits us over the head with how “lucky” he is to be born on Oct. 18 (the day that leads to his drafting and eventual death).
In another strange and emotionally manipulative turn, we meet one of Jack’s army friends, a man named Robinson (Mo McRae, who, awkwardly, also plays Deja’s father in the season premiere), who fantasizes about joining the New York Giants. Soon after the introduction, Robinson’s foot is blown off in combat. Ever the loyal friend, Jack stays by his side as he struggles through the pain. The next morning the two share an incredibly on-brand heart-to-heart in which Robinson holds Jack’s face in both his hands. The music swells and we see the same gesture repeated more than two decades later, this time with Jack holding a teenage Randall’s face in his hands.
The parallel is understood, but the fact that it’s reenacted with Randall and not, say, Kevin (who, like Robinson, had athletic aspirations that were thwarted due to injury), feels a little bizarre.
Invested as we are in the series (very), Us’s tear-jerking tactics feel less and less organic — more the product of an NBC ratings computation than an attempt to create lasting and affecting art. The show needs to upgrade its machinery, fast, before our weekly sob-fest turns to mourning a series that was once a must-watch.