Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

This Is Us finds hope for the saddest uncle in the world

Illustration for article titled This Is Us finds hope for the saddest uncle in the world
Photo: NBC

“Jack’s kid named his kid after me. I mean, god, Jack must be rolling in his grave around that one.”

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This Is Us is a show about family, but it’s even more so a show about repression. It’s the fatal flaw of the Pearson clan. And no character better reflects that repression than Uncle Nicky—the beloved younger brother that Jack cut out of his life once their interconnected war traumas became too much to bear. While This Is Us is frequently a tearjerking show, the sadness of Uncle Nicky’s story exists on a different level, both because it’s lasted for 50 years and because there’s no hope of reconciliation between the “famous Pittsburgh Pearson brothers.” At least not on a literal level. On a spiritual level, however, “One Small Step” is one of the most hopeful episodes in the ongoing Uncle Nicky saga. As Neil Armstrong’s famed moon landing quote goes, a small step can also be a giant leap.

“One Small Step” is This Is Us in full character study mode, which is where the show often does its best work. While we’ve seen Nicky dragged along to Pearson events in the past, this is the first time he’s taken the initiative to join the family himself. And the majority of this episode takes place in a flash of memory, from the moment Kevin says “I cannot believe that you flew across the country to meet our kids. It’s incredible,” to the moment Nicky responds, “It was nothing.” During that pause, Nicky flashes back to how much courage it actually took to get on his first flight since 1971. “One Small Step” highlights not just the logistical and emotional details of that journey, but also two other instances where Nicky repressed his hopes and dreams of connectivity and stuck with what he knew instead.

What makes Uncle Nicky such a compelling player in the This Is Us universe is the way Michael Angarano and Griffin Dunne work in tandem to shape a character who feels completely cohesive, even as he’s gone through such a massive evolution over the course of his life. And “One Small Step” puts that evolution front and center. There’s 21-year-old Nicky, the soft-spoken space nerd with a giant heart. There’s late-20s Nicky, the psychologically tormented vet who’s starting to lock into his pattern of self-destructive isolation but still has at least a little bit of hope that things can change. And there’s present day Nicky, a grumpy old man who’s taking the bold step of trying to find his way back to the gentler soul he used to be.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us finds hope for the saddest uncle in the world
Photo: NBC

While the Vietnam War is obviously the massive turning point in Nicky’s life, “One Small Step” highlights the continuities of his personality too. All three versions of Nicky are scared to hope for something better for themselves; they prefer to keep their dreams and plans a secret so they don’t disappoint anyone if they get cold feet. Unlike Jack—who represses negative emotions to focus on positive ones—Nicky’s repression manifests in the inclination to put his life on hold. While Jack has a “proud, determined energy,” 21-year-old Nicky is cautious, thoughtful, and a little withdrawn. It’s why he’s so well-matched with free-spirited photographer Sally (Genevieve Angelson). Her confident but gentle hippie demeanor gives him space to step out of his comfort zone while still feeling loved and supported. But when Sally asks Nicky to take the big step of moving to California with her, his confidence buckles. It’s easier to convince himself that his parents need him at home more than he needs to start an independent life of his own.

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After the war, Nicky’s natural inclination for self-doubt curdles into full-on self-hatred. He copes by shrinking his world down even further: His trailer, his booze, and the occasional phone call from an old war buddy offering an invite he turns down. “One Small Step” fills us in on a little more of the time between when Nicky returned from Vietnam and when Jack paid a tense visit to his brother’s trailer in 1992 (as seen in the third season episode “Songbird Road: Part One.”) Sometime in the mid-1970s, however, they almost had another reunion. One Nicky was too scared to follow-through on, and Jack was in no place to accept either.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us finds hope for the saddest uncle in the world
Photo: NBC
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“Deep down, don’t you think he’d be proud of you?” Cassidy (hi Jennifer Morrison!) asks present-day Nicky when he calls her in a panic from Kevin’s house. Rebecca said something similar back in season three, when she told Nicky that she thought Jack’s sobriety journey would have led him to reconnect with his little brother. But even if Cassidy and Rebecca are right, I think they’re also underestimating the extent of Jack’s deeply repressive streak. Jack’s chat with his old army commander Lieutenant Sheehan (Scott Michael Campbell) reaffirms his decision to bury his experiences in the war. To maintain the lie that he was just a mechanic and that Nicky died overseas, rather than burden Rebecca with the more complicated reality. Jack sets off to propose more confident than ever that repression is the right path—a coping mechanism that will shape his family for decades to come.

In many ways, Jack erasing Nicky is the original sin of the Pearson family, one that affected Rebecca and the Big Three without them even realizing it. There’s such a bone-deep sadness to the fact that Jack and Nicky never reconciled while Jack was alive. But it’s also becoming more and more clear that the theme of this season is healing—as characterized by the slow thawing of Randall and Kevin’s rift. Just as confronting Marc helped Kate heal her issues with self-worth and learning about his birth mom helped Randall heal his issues with identity, meeting his grand-niece and nephew helps Nicky heal his issues with self-confidence. Nicky finally takes the trip to California he never took with Sally, just as he made the amends with Kevin he never made with Jack. And now Uncle Nicky gets to be the grandfather figure to the grandchildren his brother isn’t alive to meet.

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Illustration for article titled This Is Us finds hope for the saddest uncle in the world
Photo: NBC

Over the past few seasons, Uncle Nicky has gone from This Is Us’ least hopeful character to its most hopeful one. His story is a beautiful depiction of intergenerational healing, and a well-earned celebration of the fact that it’s never too late for someone to turn their life around. The last 10 minutes of this episode, in particular, are some of the most moving This Is Us has ever delivered. Dunne knows just how to modulate Nicky’s grumpy old man demeanor so that jokes about Zoom and John Grisham paperbacks blend seamlessly with his newfound emotional vulnerability. The idea of leaving his routine and reconnecting with his family once felt as impossible as walking on the moon. But as Nicky puts it to Franny and his namesake grand-nephew, “One day we’d never been to the moon… and the next day, we’re walking on it. The impossible became possible, just like that.”

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Stray observations

  • Young Jack tells Nicky that if a girl he liked asked him to go to California, he’d be gone in a heartbeat. And we saw Jack do just that in the third season episode, “Sometimes.”
  • I’m a little confused about how time is passing this season, but Uncle Nicky is officially our first This Is Us character to get the vaccine! Two of them, as he keeps emphasizing.
  • Nicky first talked about Sally in the fourth season episode, “Flip A Coin.” After the war, he bought his trailer in hopes of starting a new life with her. But since she wasn’t home when he stopped by to surprise her, he decided it wasn’t meant to be and drove off. Given that we know Nicky is wearing a wedding ring in the flash-forward timeline, could there still be hope for those two crazy kids to finally make it work?
  • It’s super nice to have Cassidy back in this episode! She’s a great foil for Nicky, and Jennifer Morrison and Griffin Dunne have lovely friendship chemistry together. Also, when we last saw Cassidy, she was heading off to reconcile with her husband, but in this episode, she’s pointedly shown in bed alone.
  • Between Nick and Franny’s upcoming baptism and the shot of young Nicky (jokingly) making the sign of the cross, I’m now very curious about the Pearson family’s religious background.
  • For the record, Jack is a Leo, which totally tracks. (UPDATE: Apparently Jack is actually a Virgo, and I’ll leave it up to those who know astrology better than I do to say whether or not that tracks.)
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.