THE THINGS JACK CARRIED (THIS IS US RECAP)
Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased when there is nothing to remember except the story.
–Tim O’Brien, They Things They Carried
I’ve been telling anyone within earshot, for decades, that if they would just LISTEN TO ME and do exactly as I say, the world would be a better place. I now have evident proof that this is the case. Last week, I wrote a screed on why This Is Us has gone from enjoyable garbage to hot garbage and gave a frankly piercing diagnosis to its problems. This week, This Is Us not only fixed the damn problems but actually turned into something I dare say was good. Nay, I’m comfortable saying it was great. So great, it’s the only time I’ve been close to crying, which I usually only do under two circumstances: when dogs go the great green pastures beyond OR when I’m so freaking angry, words fail me and I have to resort to corporeal manifestation of my rage. Oh, and during Pixar movies cause I’m no monster.
Still, the idea that the Pearson clan could actually evoke real emotion in me besides smug superiority was a shocking surprise. All it took, was the appearance of one tiny element:
Vietnam Jack is here to breathe smoking hot pathos into the series and I am here for it. Praise be Tim O’Brien, who was hired to consult on the show, and who I’m convinced fired every writer except the one that heads the Randall-centric episodes and got down to business. The business of good writing. For Vietnam Jack isn’t only a deepening into a character that was on the brink of becoming stale–like really how perfect can a mechanic from Pennsylvania be? –, but it also explores a larger issue in our national psyche: What traumas do we inherit from the previous generation and what traumas do we pass on to the next?
Let’s dive in!
The episode opens with a young Jack Pearson walking in an army camp in Vietnam, in search of his little brother. As Jack greets him, all we see is a sweating, faceless, naked torso reminiscent of Milo’s epic butt cameo in the premier. A truly poetic first gesture, but not the last one in the next 45 minutes.
We cut back to three weeks earlier. It’s Nov. 1971 and Jack and his troops are partaking in the monotony of war, what O’Brien calls the hump, the constant march to nowhere that fills up many of the days of so many soldiers. They’ve already been there so long that their exercise is mundane. Guys have nicknames like Squirrel and PJ and Squee. Kidding, we know PJ and Squee obviously lied their way out of the war so they could continue to enjoy the privileges of Georgetown prep. But Squirrel is there and so are a host of diverse characters, which were included NOT because diversity is like, oh my god, so hot & trendy right now, but because minorities have fought in every single US freaking war since freaking forever. This includes Jack’s best army buddy, who spends the time describing the football career he’ll have once he goes back home.
Because this is melodrama, we know he’s never going to have that football career, come on now. A surprise skirmish blasts this guy’s lower leg off clean. Morphine pumps into his veins as his dreams of athletic glory drain away. It is then that he asks Jack for his foot and, in the second poetic moment of the episode, he breathes a sigh of relief as he cradles his appendage, like a baby. Somewhere, in yonder, a time portal opens with 360 degrees IMAX sound system installed and we hear Lady Gaga belting out the most polysyllabic “aaaaahaaaaaa” the world has ever heard.
This is where I feel that unpleasant and unfamiliar sensation of liquid rising up through my throat, into my nasal cavities and getting dangerously close to my eyes. (I have no idea how crying works.) The sight of a grown man holding on to lost hope just hits me in the metaphorical nuts. I can deal with broken hearts and broken families and the broken timelines, but I CANNOT DEAL WITH BROKEN DREAMS. But I’m an adult and these are fictional characters and there’s no way NBC is worthy of my tears, I swallow them down hard in that little black box where I keep all my other repressed feelings.
My mom taught me to always find the silver lining and in this case, Best Bud’s blown off foot gives him a ticket home. Jack still has about three months left, which should fit in snugly with the rest of the season. Best Bud points out how Jack never looks scared but Jack, carrying the mystique of a Korean War-era Don Draper, says pretending to be scared is what he’s used to. Best Bud then gives him the traditional offering of his missing limb before being airlifted to safety, with his parting words being, “We’re so scared we’re going to die, we forget to do the thing that keeps us alive.”
Driftwood Décor is back, baby!
Having lost two men, Jack and his troops are given the easy duty of crashing a quaint Vietnamese village where they can jump off docks, taste the local cuisine, and yell at the townspeople about how they should accept freedom and or else, which makes them pretty much like so many backpackers I came across during my own trip to Vietnam. Sir, Commander, or Grand Marshall or whatever you call the leader in command gives Jack a simple mission that he can’t screw up but we know he will. The question is how and the how might lie in his special request to go visit his brother, who is stationed not too far away. Grand Marshall first says no because the first underling he encounters is some racist douche who yells at little children and thinks all foreigners are terrorist. Today, he would be elected to a major political position in double digits, but back then this was considered a sign of recklessness. But when Grand Marshall sees that most of Jack’s men are napping and keeping to themselves and not committing gross human rights abuses, he acquiesces.
Oh and Jack and the mom of that little Vietnamese kid are totally going to bang and if this sets up a missing Pearson kid, I’m seriously going to pour a steaming bowl of pho on my TV in protest. For now, though, let’s continues with this bliss of an episode.
JACK BEFORE THE WAR
Back in US, mom is still being abused and she is contending with a very upsetting letter from Nick, Jack’s brother. He’s been demoted for being a reckless endangerment to himself and his fellow soldiers. The man is clearly going through hell and he’s self-medicating with everything he can get a hand on to deal with it. Jack does that thing only characters in TV do, where they go up to room of another character so the audience can see what the other character is like through objects. Nick’s room is full of football, books, and superheroes. It’s clear from the get-go that this was the good son, the son with potential, the son that was going to go beyond the Springsteen lyrics of his life. This obviously means he’s going to die young. This is such a common trope that I spent most of my life terrified that my family’s faith in my potential had marked me for an early death but thankfully I’ve avoided that fate by settling into a very quaint mediocrity of fluctuating employment and failed relationships. ETERNITY IS MINE.
Next day, Jack goes to his family doctor and we learn that he was able to avoid the draft because of his tachycardia, which is a word I’ve always associated with pre-date jitters and high-stakes exams and not an actual medical condition. He is determined to enlist to be near his brother. “It’s my job to take care of him. It is my only job,” he says. The doctor gives him tips on how to cheat on the test to pass, though he makes the point that a volunteer would be so wanted by the military at this point that he doesn’t need to do much.
69 JACK (Nice)
We travel a bit further back in time and find ourselves in Jack’s shop, where we finally see his brother. He looks like every guy majoring in philosophy who ends up working at an ad agency. Longhaired, kind of moody, a tad nerdy. Today is the day the nation gathers around the old TV set to watch the draft numbers come up. Honestly, I knew the draft existed, but I had no idea the whole thing had been staged like a Hunger Games-spectacle. No wonder the youth rioted over it. I’ll take the trashy thrills of screaming suburban wives than the grotesque transmission of some old dude sending randomly selected young men to their deaths.
Instead of watching with their truly horrific father, Nick and Jack go to a bar. Everyone keeps repeating that Nick was born on a lucky day, October 18 is a lucky day, but of course it is not. Nick is drafted and Jack’s first inkling is the same as that of half of my Facebook newsfeed on November 9, 2016: let’s go to Canada. The other half was well aware that fleeing to Canada is a lot more complicated than people think, but that’s another rant for another day. And it looks like Nick is willing to do this…until they go home and find their dad waiting for them. His response? “Make me proud son.” At this point, there’s no way he’s going to dodge. My history with fucked up men and even not-so-fucked-up-me has taught me one thing: men have shitty relationships with their dads and they’ll spend their life trying to both kill the bastard and make them proud.
Jack still insists on going on a hunting trip aka fleeing to Canada but his brother is more terrified of the prospect of his horrible dad never speaking to him again than of going to battle. He wonders out loud if life makes more sense if you looked at things in reverse and worked backwards, much like I do in therapy every month and much like this episode is doing right this second. The following morning, Jack wakes up to find his brother gone.
As we all learned in Clueless, it’s dangerous to have balls flying at your nose. (“There goes your social life!) Little Jack throws a football to Little Nick, who receives it right in the face, breaking his glasses and giving him a bloody nose. Nick is terrified of the Meanest Dad That’s Ever Lived, who will look at the broken glasses, the same glasses that Little Nick detests and beat the crap out of them. Little Jack tries to make him feel better by saying that his glasses mean he’s Clark Kent. Like Clark, he is a tough guy in disguise. At night, emboldened by his brother’s words, Little Nick hears his parents fighting. There are crashes, yells, cries for help. Little Nick takes off his glasses, steps into his superpowers and goes downstairs to defend his mom. Before Meanest Dad can lay a finger on him, Jack gets between them both. Meanest Dad walks away and his mom, feeling his heartbeat, discovers Jack’s tachycardia.
It’s October 18 of whatever year when Nick was born. Mom, in labor, is being rushed through the emergency room with a smiling Meanest Dad. This is before he became an alcoholic, abusive monster and he looks like he actually likes his wife, his kid, and his upcoming new kids. In the hospital room, the nurse keeps going on and on about how 18 is her lucky number, therefore this must be a lucky baby. Jack’s mom mentions that she’s trying to hold out until the next day so the baby can share the birthday with his grandfather.
Grandfather though is a mean, alcoholic monster. He is Meanest Dad before Meanest Dad transformed into Meanest Dad. Grandpa and Meanest Dad greet each other awkwardly. Grandpa offers him a drink but Meanest Dad refuses, he doesn’t drink at all. When he tries to connect with him over the potential shared birthday, Grandpa says nothing and walks away. Nick, of course, is born on October 18, avoiding perhaps the fate of his grandpa but veering him towards a destiny that is pretty dark. Meanest Dad, not having yet completed the cycle of abuse he spirals into, holds up Baby Jack so he can see his brother all swaddled up in the nursery full of other cherubs. It’s Meanest Dad that tells him “Big brothers look out for their little brothers. It’s their only job. It’s the only thing that matters,” and it’s the directive Jack himself takes to, in a way, make his father proud by going to Vietnam. It’s easy to say that it’s not our job to fight our parents’ demons but we are so terrible at actually escaping them in healthy way. The Pearson brothers end up breaking the cycle of abuse, but it takes one of their deaths in order to do so, which makes the thing so goddamn Greek tragedy, I can’t wait for Medea to swoop down with her dragon-helmed chariot to avenge us all.
There’s another cycle and another sacrifice, though that the episode alludes to with this touching scene of a man and his son overlooking a nursery. We are also seeing rows upon rows of babies born on October 18, rows upon rows of innocent infants that are being raised, fed, and nurtured to be shipped off to war. They are, like Nick, the generation that must be sacrificed in order for the rest of us to break free. Or that’s how it was sold. Or that’s how it’s continued to be sold, from one senseless war into another.