Warning: Spoiler alert: Do not proceed if you have not watched Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us.
Why did Jack Pearson lie about Nicky?
On Tuesday’s episode, titled “Songbird Road Part 1,” the Big Three took a sibling road trip to Bradford, Pennsylvania, with the intention of getting answers to that looming question and the slim chance of meeting their long-lost uncle, Nicky, for the very first time. They were successful in coming face to face with their late father’s younger brother, who — they recently learned — didn’t actually die in the Vietnam War like their dad had said and like audiences had previously been led to believe. What they came to discover was that Nicky, now in his 70s (played by Griffin Dunne), was living in misery over his past.
“The actual storyline is something that nobody guessed,” Michael Angarano, who plays younger Nicky, told ET’s Keltie Knight on Tuesday. “They were really good at making you think the worst, but it’s actually something completely different that’s equally as terrible — but not anything anybody thought it was going to be.”
Up until this point, viewers were aware that something traumatic had happened between the Pearson brothers in Vietnam that strained their brotherhood for good. It was in Tuesday’s hour where the what of it all was finally answered. The fall finale hinted at a potential fatality following a boat explosion, and it’s revealed that it wasn’t Nicky who perished, but an innocent Vietnamese boy who died after Nicky accidentally let a grenade slip under the boat. Keyword: accidentally. Nicky’s constant screw-ups (see: his drug problems) led Jack to jump to the conclusion that he was at fault for the boy’s death and, worse yet, that he may have had the intention of doing harm.
“The first conversation I had with [co-showrunner] Isaac [Aptaker], he told me that I take a young Vietnamese boy grande fishing. It’s a real thing that they did,” Angarano said, explaining that war vet Tim O’Brien, co-writer of the episode, experienced a similar situation when he was in Vietnam. “When I heard that that’s what happened, I thought, I don’t know how we ever are gonna come back from that. I really don’t. I don’t know that [Nicky] does.”
“All of the stuff we shot between Milo [Ventimiglia] and I and the young boy — all the stuff in the Vietnamese village — was really intense. It didn’t feel like we were making This Is Us, it felt like we were shooting something different. It felt like a war movie starring Milo Ventimiglia,” the In the Relationship star added.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, Jack sought answers from Nicky, yelling with a fury, “What did you do?!,” “He was just a kid!,” “I’m done, I’m done….” As a result, Nicky was shipped off for psychiatric reasons and eventually discharged as a medic. Years passed, with Nicky sending the occasional postcard from the state he was temporarily calling home to Jack’s office, until he sent his final one — the same one Kevin discovered decades later — to Jack’s home in 1992. That prompted Jack to pay Nicky a visit for the first time since Vietnam.
“There’s a moral line in Jack’s heart that he’s always lived by and this just crosses that line. When he got there, he saw Nicky was having a really hard time and Nicky’s own struggles and demons were challenging for Jack because Jack is somebody who, if he can’t help you that’s a reflection of his inability to help you,” Angarano said. “So he felt really helpless with Nicky, but when it crosses that line and it involves a young boy’s life, I think that was it for Jack.”
The 31-year-old actor shed light on why he believed Nicky wasn’t more matter-of-fact with Jack when he dropped by in ’92 — that the whole thing was an accident. “I think there’s a part of him that thinks even though he didn’t intend to kill that boy, it was his fault,” Angarano said, adding that he didn’t think it would have made a difference if Jack knew the boy’s death wasn’t meant to happen. “I think Jack is more disappointed in the fact that Nicky allowed that to happen, accident or not an accident.” So much so that Jack, presented with a literal fork in the road, decided to keep Vietnam behind him and move forward with his life, choosing to head home to his family in Pittsburgh and cut all ties to Nicky in Bradford.
For Nicky and Jack’s pivotal reunion scene in the trailer, Angarano experienced This Is Us‘ aging-up makeup process for the first time, playing Nicky in his 40s. From the outset, you could cut the tension with a knife. “That was really interesting,” he recalled. “Milo does something so subtle and so small that is yet powerful. You really feel the difference between older Jack and younger Jack, and he doesn’t have a ton of makeup on. There’s not a ton that he does, but it’s how he holds himself, it’s how he speaks.”
Angarano also reflected on sharing the role with Dunne, who he’s worked with before on 2007’s Snow Angels, when they played father and son.
“I knew Griffin Dunne was playing older Nicky and I’ve worked with Griffin before. He actually played my father in a movie before,” he said. “Part of me was trying to bridge that gap to Griffin Dunne while also keeping in mind the last 20 years of Nicky’s life that we don’t know what’s happened since he got back from the war…”
“We overlapped one day [on set] but we weren’t able to meet or get together or speak before then, but we met after. It was funny because Milo and a couple of the other people on set came over to me and they were like, ‘You and Griffin are doing something really similar, it’s great, like, did you guys get together? And I was like, I haven’t seen Griffin in 10 years!’ Everybody thought either Griffin had gotten some footage or I had gotten some footage, but it was just… I think it was a testament to how good the writing is that the character of Nicky was so clear and so thoroughly well-written.”
“When I knew what they wanted to do with Nicky and the Vietnam storyline, I thought that sounded really ambitious,” he admitted. “I was admittedly a little skeptical. But then I read the script and I thought, This is one of the best scripts I’ve read in my life, film or television.“
In November, Ventimiglia told ET that the Nicky twist was “very This Is Us.” “Our show doesn’t quite operate the same and we do have our family mysteries and history to discover, so I thought it fit very much with how the show usually works and at the same time, it asks so many questions of Jack,” he said at the time. “I think people at this point are really looking forward to knowing what happened.”
A month earlier, creator Dan Fogelman promised that the resolution to Jack and Nicky’s strained relationship would come to fruition sooner rather than later.
“It’s a big story. It’s surprising. It’s fair to say that clearly, something broke in Vietnam for Jack as it relates to his brother, and I think people will be satisfied with what we’re doing there even if they don’t always like it,” Fogelman told ET in October. “It takes place in a compressed period of time that was a defining period of time for Jack as it relates to his brother. I think it would be borderline impossible to guess where it’s going because it’s very specific.”
“It’s comparable to some of our biggest stuff in that it’s going to feel really massive, in terms of what it does to Jack,” he said then. “Jack buried a portion of his life when he came back from the war. What we’re going to explore this season is what he buried.”
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.