By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Nov 14, 2018 at 3:46 AM

Welcome back to "This Is Us" – now pack up and get in the car because we're hitting the road. 

"Sometimes" offers the best of both worlds when it comes to NBC's tear-jerking hit: It's a sprawling episode featuring three timelines spread all across two countries, yet it's also one of my oh-so-beloved honed-in episodes, focusing on just a few characters and telling a few really emotional, thematically tied stories rather than trying to hit all of them at once and muting their impact in the process. (Enjoy your vacation, Randall's political campaign!) I know I've beaten that drum particularly hard this season, but I'm just saying: three solo(ish) episodes have equaled three A-grade hours of television. 

After a pre-credits scene following the origins of Jack's Vietnam necklace from purchase to soldier to soldier to mysterious stranger (that's right; even the jewelry gets its own travelogue this episode), we're back in the war, picking up right where we left off: Jack finding his brother cleaning toilets and looking broken.

Instead of going in reverse like the last Vietnam episode, "This Is Us" moves forward – and Nicky is indeed not doing great. He's edgy and on something beyond just the fumes from his miserable dump-cleaning duty, his sentence after getting Article 15-ed for unbecoming conduct. Apparently he's had some partying issues, trying to mute the horrors of war however he can, and he's not interested in being saved by "Superman" Jack. Nicky's superiors aren't too interested either; Jack even busts out a long speech about how Nicky's not built for war and how he used to save spiders inside the house back when he was a kid to convince them to put the two in the same squad, but they don't bite. As it turns out, not everything on "This Is Us" can be solved with a meaningful, moving monologue. 

So Jack heads back to his base with no Nicky – one would imagine that's not the last we see of his character; I'd certainly hope so since Michael Angarano's on-edge, surly performance is really good and brings a different energy to the show – walking back through the dirt roads of Vietnam and needing to get back to base before sundown, when the streets belong to the VC.

To speed things up, he hitches a ride with a reluctant local named Bao. He gives Jack a lift on his bike, but he also drops off a bag of cans to be turned into homemade land mines by the VC – just like the ones that wiped out several members of Jack's squadron a few episodes back. Bao still gets Jack far enough to safety, but at the end, Jack has to ask if he's Vietcong or not. The answer: "Sometimes." Hey, we got an episode title! But also it's a thoughtful stinger to end this subplot on, noting the grey of the conflict – and those fighting it – with no simple answers. 

It's an interesting approach to a Vietnam story – though one that admittedly feels a little uneventful or distracting from the episode's meatiest plot: Jack and Rebecca's first road trip together, heading from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles together even though they've only known each other for a week. Rebecca's headed west to try and secure a record deal with Joni Mitchell's studio, while Jack cryptically needs to visit somebody in Reseda. Not exactly comforting for Rebecca to hear!

Thankfully Jack isn't a murderer or some cross-country drug mule, though (that certainly would've been the biggest "This Is Us" twist to date!), and the two have a very sweet, cute road trip together, sharing authentically awkward small talk on the road that evolves into cute flirtation at a supper club along the way, slow dancing (Jack's "hint received" after Rebecca's ode to the slow dance was such a perfect romantic moment; I swooned) and talking about her ambitions.

It's not the most eventful storyline, but it's sweet and charming without feeling hurried or forced – the kind of storyline a show pulls off when it trusts the audience to merely watch two characters interact and develop without plot mechanics driving things forward. It breathes – which is something "This Is Us" hasn't done much of this year with everything it's attempted to tackle. 

The two kiss (and then some) along the way, and while Jack doesn't say much, his small reactions and quiet moments on the trip – his night terrors, his twitchy dodge at a hippie party in L.A. when some champagne pops – say a lot to Rebecca. But she doesn't pry there, even at the end of their trip when she sings him one of her songs (coldly rejected, as you probably predicted, by the studio as merely "Pittsburgh good") and he quietly cries to himself – despite being a self-proclaimed tear-less desert.

Maybe he's crying over his brother, lost at war even before he was lost in war. Maybe he's crying over his Receda visit, touchingly apologizing to the parents of one of his soldiers in Vietnam that he wasn't able to save. (Admittedly I needed a reminder of who "Waterson" was; he was apparently the soldier who died via landmine during the football toss. Kind of wish this episode came a little sooner after the first Vietnam ep, but can't reschedule the election!)

Maybe it's a bit of everything, but Rebecca gives him the space to feel the things he's needed to feel since coming back home from Vietnam. It's a touching moment, of a relationship growing even when it knows there's areas it can't reach just yet, of walls slowly coming down brick by brick. And thankfully it all plays without too much melodrama or sappiness. There's a version of Jack's tears during Rebecca's song that's mawkish and trying too hard to pull tears out of your face to go with his – and thankfully "This Is Us" pumps the breaks before that overdone point. 

While we're on the topic of characters opening up, Zoe finally spills her guts to Kevin – quite literally, after noshing on some bad bat at a market in Vietnam. Much like Jack and Rebecca, Kevin spends much of the early part of the trip trying to get anything about her past out of her – especially about her oh-so-briefly mentioned father, who lives in China – but Zoe won't budge. So instead she eats bat (Kevin does not because Kevin lived in a "beige food family") and Kevin finds his necklace ... and all the other necklaces just like it.

Yes, it's just a tourist trinket sold in mass quantities at a stand, not some super special handmade family heirloom passed down through generations. It's harder to track – and lacks the emotional, sentimental story Kevin wanted to find. 

Speaking of unsentimental, this is around where Zoe hurls up the bat. Now, my first thought when this happened was, "Pregnant?" because people in relationships only puke on TV shows for a gross punchline or if they've got a baby en route – and this show isn't exactly the kind to do the former. I know she said it was the bat ... but watch this space. It would seem to be a logical step for their storyline – and would almost certainly bring some conflict with Kate, who I'm sure would love to see her brother effortlessly have a baby after all their troubles and issues trying. 

But that's for another episode (or maybe not; maybe I'm full of crap) as Zoe's big reveal isn't a baby but instead her backstory, explaining to Kevin that her father sexually abused her as a child. She's moved on and locked away that part of her life, but now that she's truly invested in Kevin – to the point of pretty much busting out the L-word – she at least wants to open up him about her struggles.

Again, it's a moment that could've pushed too hard on the manipulative emotional gas – especially after an episode where most of their storyline and adventures in Vietnam otherwise felt a little beside the point, especially when compared to a soldier trying to not die in war and a new couple coping with one's PTSD – but it plays just right: her matter-of-fact explanation, his earnest awkwardness of how to best handle this new information and their coming together. 

At the end, it's a strong return for "This Is Us." (I didn't say episodes focused on just a few characters were better just for my health!) And while I'm admittedly growing a little impatient for answers to the questions that this season's been teasing like a carrot on a stick, next week's Thanksgiving episode looks to have exactly that with a true introduction to the mysterious Vietnamese woman in the photo and Jack having two weeks to get Nicky back on track. Prediction: I hope you like your turkey marinated with tears. 

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.