I always argue that, despite its inherently multi-pronged timeline-hopping storytelling, "This Is Us" is at its best when it ditches its intricate web of characters and instead focuses on one character for an episode. And yet again, I've been proven pretty correct with Tuesday night's "One Giant Step," aka Uncle Nicky's return to the Pearson family.
Revisiting its brothers in Vietnam storyline, while the latest may not have had the detail, nuance and unique perspective of some of the show's best from that arc – courtesy of renowned Vietnam War writer Tim O'Brien, who helped pen two of those episodes – it did plumb further new emotional depths on one of its already richest characters. So lets dive into the five biggest takeaways from this episode – just as soon as I finish painting and crafting these heartfelt snowglobes that definitely won't break at any point.
1. One small step for Nicky, one giant leap for the rest of his life
Uncle Nicky is back this week – because if you want to help me forget that this season's been disjointed thanks to the pandemic delays, you bring in one of the best characters on the show for a visit. Not that it was easy, of course – for him or his poor, poor snowglobes.
After arriving at Kevin and Madison's doorstep, the show flashes back to Nicky's whole journey to that point – which really was a journey as, after receiving the babies' baptism invitation complete with his name adorned on one of the children (and a Zoom call invite on the back, but he missed that part), he starts prepping his first plane ride since Vietnam. Boy, during a pandemic? He sure knows how to pick his places – but then again, everyone's been casually hopping around the country this season despite, you know, everything.
He gets vaccinated not once but twice (and by that, he means he got both doses of vaccine). He recruits a happy guest appearance from Cassidy to help him order some gifts and supplies from Amazon as well as to drive him to the airport. And he even assembles what looks like some remarkable gifts for his new family members, tinkering with small brushes, paint and clay to create some snowglobes of memorable moments in his life – meticulously wrapped to perfection by Cassidy.
Unfortunately, airport security in the "This Is Us" universe already used up all of its empathetic generosity on Kevin earlier this season, meaning Uncle Nicky gets the regular treatment – and the regular treatment doesn't have much care for sentimentality. So not only does the security agent tear open the perfect gift-wrapping to make sure there's nothing dangerous inside (which, unless you're the Grinch, there isn't), they say that he can't take the snowglobes on the flight because they're over the allowed amount of liquid for carry-ons. A flustered Nicky tries to open the homemade globes to drain the water out – but in his rattled and rushed state, he accidentally drops the special gifts, shattering the globes and my heart to the floor. But hey, I guess he can get through security now.
It's a lot of effort and strife for a ride – but it means the world to Nicky, even beyond being his first airplane ride in half a century. It's not just his first trip in a while; it's his first real commitment to connecting with others in practically his entire life, as we see throughout the flashbacks in Tuesday night's episode. Before Vietnam, Nicky had a chance to leave home and live with his one love – but ended up staying out of commitment to his family but also out of fear of the unknown and uncertain. After Vietnam, he had a chance to leave his trailer and potentially reconnect with his brother – but he couldn't gather the courage to do it. While inside Jack is told by a fellow vet to lock the past away for the sake of the present and future, Nicky is painfully paralyzed in his truck just outside, wholly unable to lock the past away and terrified of having to face Jack (and, maybe most of all, himself and his past) again. He was always a person who struggled with self-confidence and accepting change and unpredictability – something that utterly shattered and broke during the war, his insecurities curdling into self-loathing.
As he tells the two newborns late at night, he watched men take one giant step on the moon back in the day – but for him, this was his one giant step. Finally, after a lifetime of holding himself back, he mustered the nerve to commit to those he loved and risk truly putting himself out there in the world. It took a long time – too long in the case of reconnecting with his brother, but just in time for the next generation.
In a way, they gifted him this opportunity, after all his insecurities before and after the war, to finally embrace life and take steps forward. Sure beats the gifts he ended up getting them: two John Grisham novels.
2. More Uncle Nicky, please?
I know we just got him back, but I'd love for Uncle Nicky to become a regular on the show.
Griffin Dunne's performance is so note-perfect – grouchy and grumbly, bouncing off the younger and pluckier Big Three without ever falling into caricature, while also filled with lived-in warmth and regret – and his hard-won relationship with Kevin (and Cassidy, who can stay too!) is one of the show's best storylines. We've invested a lot of feeling and emotion into his character, so keeping him around and letting him help raise Kevin and Madison's kids would be a lovely way to truly bring him into the fold, let him have the family that he removed himself from in the past and make the "one giant step" he took this episode really mean something beyond this one hour.
There is context to having him become a regular cast member too, as he's pointedly seen in the future gathering for Rebecca. Maybe he's not just visiting then but a regular fixture in the Pearsons' lives. I'd be fine with that! If Beth's mom can stay, so should Nicky. No show has ever decreased in quality for having more Phylicia Rashad and Griffin Dunne!
It's kind of crazy to think back to when the Nicky reveal first happened that it seemed like it might break the show, that it was a twist too far and that "This Is Us" officially jumped the shark. Un-deading a character is usually some real soap opera material; instead, it opened up one of its most thoughtful and memorable storylines as well as gifted the show one of its best characters. One that should stick around – after all, he's been vaccinated! Two times!
3. Meet Sally
"This Is Us" never leaves a reference or story element unturned – and that was very much the case in Tuesday's episode. Remember that Nicky got that trailer in the woods for a woman he loved named Sally all those episodes and seasons ago? Well she's getting a whole storyline this episode!
Indeed we meet Sally this hour, Nicky's delightful and sweet hippie-dippie co-worker at the vet clinic – very much the opposite of Nicky. While Nicky's all science (he's totally obsessed with the moon – just in time for the moon landing) and stability, staying at home because it's what he knows and where he's comfortable, Sally is in tune with more spiritual, metaphysical ideas and totally free and confident in her approach to life. She's got no problem living out in a photo-filled van in the middle of a field with plans to travel around the country, casually undressing at work to goad a flea-ridden dog into a bath and even straight-up asking out the nebbish Nicky when he refuses to take her more subtle hints (and when Jack tries to ask her out for his brother).
Together, they're the sweet definition of opposites attract – but eventually they're pulled apart. After falling in love and spending all sorts of time together, Sally pitches Nicky on taking the van and questing across the country together – including a stop at Woodstock before heading out to California. Nicky's on board, even packed up and ready to go thanks to Jack, but after a conversation with his dad and overthinking his decision, Nicky backs out, no-showing Sally who waits for him until a cop basically tells her that it's time to go. Again, even before the war, Nicky struggled with a sense of self-loathing and insecurity – something that living with his abusive father almost certainly fostered – making it impossible for him to step out into his own life, then and most definitely after the war.
Thankfully, that's started to change now with Nicky – and who knows, maybe that means this won't be the last we hear of Sally yet again.
4. Answering your Jack and Nicky question...
In one of Nicky's flashback sequences, we see a post-Vietnam Nicky tempted to break out from his isolated alcoholic shelter in his camper for a reunion with his Vietnam battalion – one, according to one of his few remaining vet acquaintances, complete with his very distant brother in attendance. He even gets as close as getting out of his truck in the parking lot of the bar ... but Nicky can't quite make the final step to reconnect with his brother and try to patch up their relationship.
Now, if you're like me, you're asking yourself: Wait, did Jack know Nicky was alive at this point? Were Jack's war buddies aware that Nicky was alive this whole time but keeping it from Jack? Because that'd be messed up beyond belief.
Don't worry, there's not some crazy conspiracy at play here; just some hardcore searching through the memory vaults to remember what all happened between Jack and Nicky.
The part you almost certainly remember is that Jack and Nicky served in Vietnam together, with Jack enlisting with Nicky's platoon to save his brother from the soul-crushing horrors of the war. But after a high Nicky killed a young Vietnamese boy in a grenade fishing accident, Jack essentially left his brother for dead – not literally but certainly emotionally, leaving him behind and telling his family and all others that Nicky died in the war, ashamed of his sibling.
The part you may NOT remember as clearly is that Jack was wholly aware Nicky was alive this entire time. (Nicky, actually, didn't know Jack was dead and had to be told by the Big Three in their first meeting.) If you recall from season three, post-war Nicky would send Jack postcards to his office that Jack would then ignore, still furious at his brother's deadly negligence. But eventually one of the postcards arrived at Jack and Rebecca's house, forcing Jack to visit Nicky and catch up briefly about the wife and kids – but also to reset the walls he mentally made for them, still unable to accept his brother.
Maybe I didn't remember that part because it happened around the same time as the massive reveal that Nicky was still alive in the present, with the Big Three seeking him out – and in the process telling somebody who was alive who they thought was dead that somebody, who knew he was alive but lied about him being dead, was now dead. Maybe I didn't remember that because it'd been so long ago. (Yeah, almost certainly the latter.)
So no, Jack and Nicky's war cohorts weren't withholding information about the other's existence. Maybe they didn't tell Jack that his brother was invited, but he definitely knew Nicky was alive back in those early post-Nam years and then beyond. It's not a plot hole; it's just a hole in my memory.
5. Cue another delay
The biggest reveal in the preview for the next episode was unfortunately a twist we've seen a lot this year on "This Is Us": an episode delay. At this midway point in the season, we've only had more than two episodes in a row once – and after two episodes in row, it's not happening again as the next hour will land on Tuesday, April 6.
Like I mentioned last week, it's made for a hard, prolonged season to both track and emotionally connect to as seemingly each week the audience has reorient itself beyond the norm to what's happened thus far. Add in a season that's been low on full-season arcs and plots – not inherently a bad thing – and you've got a real disconnected fifth season. But as I also noted last week, making television is hard – much less during a deadly pandemic – so I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Or a gift John Grisham book in the spine, in Uncle Nicky's case.
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.