By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jan 23, 2019 at 4:56 PM

Tuesday night's "This Is Us" was maybe the show's darkest episode to date (which is saying a lot since they've murdered several dads, one after teasing his death for about a year, throwing him in a fire and juking out the audience by letting him survive before murdering him with a heart attack ... in front of millions right after the Super Bowl). It was often a hard hour to watch but also, for me, a hard episode to really like, a collision of what "This Is Us" can do so great and what it can do so clunky, delicacy and bluntness stacked next to each other. 

Or maybe I was just tired and grumpy that "Vice" was nominated for Best Picture and my hometown baseball team's stadium is going to have a dumb name now. Art: It's subjective!

Anyways, the big midseason twist that Jack's brother Nicky didn't die in Vietnam and was indeed still alive was always going to be tricky to pull off once the initial shock went away. "This Is Us" has never been one to shy away from big manipulative moves and emotional plays, but resurrecting Nicky was as close to a potential soap opera storyline as it's created. And that's before it would have to resolve the thing, which risked opening up all kinds of logic gaps and plot contortions – and not even considering the longterm risks of rendering death something that can be easily rewritten. 

Thankfully, the show avoids any of the aggressively awful ideas – like "Nicky faked his death and managed to disappear without a trace like he's Jason Bourne" or something like that – and picks a better path. Nicky is drugged out, lounging on the beach, when a little Vietnamese boy – not just any little boy but the child of the village woman Jack bonded with – comes by to pester him. He first taunts the boy with some chocolate, but they quickly bond and decide to go fishing in the lake. With grenades. You can see how this might go bad – and indeed it does, with the two dropping an active grenade in the boat and the boy losing his life in the ensuing explosion.

Now, I acknowledge that the main actor here is a drug-addled screwup already tenuously grasping to his will to live, but the whole scenario pushed the believability just a touch too far, contorting and belaboring a terrible situation together. Even more so, the sequence feels awfully manipulative, yanking some strings to kill a child and make him a cog for the sake of two other dudes' character development. It's all very well-performed (Michael Angarano has been a very welcome addition to the cast, and it'll hurt if and when Milo Ventimiglia eventually leaves for good) but the show feels like it's working REALLY HARD to ruin me into a Kleenex box – like the "misery porn" it was often accused of being during the Jack Death Watch days.  

The characters' emotions, however, ring honest even if the plotting to get them there feels less so – especially throughout the post-Vietnam and present day sections interwoven into the episode. (Famed Vietnam author and veteran Tim O'Brien co-wrote this episode, much like the first hour at war in the season's first half, and you can again feel his influence in the unsentimental way it approaches how the war broke men, abandoning them scarred yet unhealed with no closure and no certainty over their actions.)

In the former, we find out that Nicky's fate was indeed no mystery to Jack, as Jack immediately shipped his brother out of Vietnam for psychological help after the grenade fishing accident and then ignored Nicky's many attempts to reach out after returning home. Eventually, one postcard – the one Kevin and Zoe found last week – reaches the Pearson home, not just Jack's workplace, so the Pearson patriarch heads on the road to finally visit his brother, living in a metal shack of a trailer in some desolate bushes. He has no intentions of catching up, however; they share a few terse words, but otherwise, it's mainly a final cutoff for Jack, leaving his brother, his actions and this entire part of his past behind forever.

Meanwhile, during the present day, Kevin and Randall recruit Kate to take a trip to visit their newly discovered uncle, which goes pretty easily considering she's pregnant – AND aren't you in college now? And Randall, didn't you just win an election? Don't you have politics to do now instead of leaving town almost immediately? And Kevin, what ... do you do these days? Like for a job? That Ron Howard movie feels like years ago. "This Is Us" is always a juggling act of characters and subplots, and for some reason, the sound of them getting dropped and hitting the floor really clanged. 

Those are nitpicks, though, and as noted before, the emotions feel right even if the plotting feels clunky. Plus, I'll take any excuse to have the Big Three back together in the same room (or car), bouncing off one another, because that's a dynamic the show has sorely lacked. It's also some of the best stuff "Songbird Road: Part One" – named after Nicky's home address – has to offer, as Kate and Kevin come to terms with their seemingly idyllic father's big lie while Randall, one who's awakened to his parents' missteps and imperfections, is quietly there as a shoulder for support.

Meanwhile, Mandy Moore doesn't get much to do in this episode, staying home to watch Randall's kids, but just a few regretful glances from her speak volumes about what she knew, and what she wished she knew, about her husband. Also she shuts down Randall's excessive head-splosions in one of the episode's few and merciful laughs. 

The kids eventually reach current day Nicky, still in his crummy trailer and still lost in the world, though now played by Oscar nominee Griffin Dunne who is absolutely great in the episode. Dunne plays the unhealed Nicky perfectly, performing a ghost of a man damaged with no sentimentality, underplaying his hurt at just now discovering Jack died (the episode's most felt moment of heartbreak) and his crippling pain caused from his actions, from getting abandoned by his brother and, the final blow, from never getting to apologize and explain that tragic day decades ago. He even helps retroactively sell the emotional impact on the true victims of his actions: the Vietnamese boy and his mother. Where the plot can feel dishonest, this entire segment feels all too true. 

In that vein, the Big Three returning just in time to stop Nicky killing himself feels a little pat, but the emotions that get them back to the trailer hits earnestly – all thanks, oddly enough, to Kevin. Now, regular readers of these recaps know that I was once hard on Kevin's character, but he's turned into the most interesting person on the show. While Randall stays locked in his hero mode ways – also, I feel bad that I groaned during his speech to his wife; I would watch Sterling K. Brown read the phonebook, but not everything needs to be a monologue – and Kate gets pushed into the background a bit, Kevin's truly evolved as a character.

That's clear at the end of this episode when he sees a decision in front of him, to go back home or to return to a flawed man clearly in need of help – the same decision that faced Jack – and he breaks from his father, choosing Nicky over Jack's rigid and moralistic sense of the world. We don't even need the brief speech from Jack to child Kevin to hammer the point in: Kevin took his father's mistake and learned from it, a classic "This Is Us" "the past echoes into the present" emotional turn.

As for next week, Kevin looks he's now pulling a Randall and taking Nicky into his home to help bring him back into the world and hopefully find some kind of healing. He just better not CONTINUE pulling a Randall by buying an apartment building and then running for office.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.