JACK & REBECCA'S BANGING ROAD TRIP (THIS IS US RECAP)
They all carried ghosts.
-Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
At the age of 21, I started traveling by myself. It wasn’t a conscious, feminist undertaking or some flashy call for independence. I simply wanted to backpack around Europe before graduating college and none of my friends could get their shit together to join me. Exasperated, frustrated by the idea that I would miss out on a rite of passage because everyone was too busy spending their money on pot, I decided to go by myself. The trip ended up being one of those life-changing experiences that forever shaped me as a person, changed the direction of my professional goals, gave me a new sense of self worth, and provided memories I still talk about to this day.
It also taught me that traveling with other people is bullshit.
By far, the most common reaction I get when I tell people I’m traveling by myself is “AREN’T YOU SCARED?????” You see, I have lady parts and this makes me especially vulnerable to a lot of crap. Like being murdered by a former lover or partner though, strange world we live in, if I were to tell these people I was traveling with a man they would immediately think I was “safer”. This is usually my go-to response because I like to turn a dark thought into something even more grim and morbid. This whole time I should have asked them if they weren’t scared of traveling with others. If hell is other people then it’s a special kind of hell to be trapped in a two-small smelly hotel room with a friend who might have food poisoning and another friend who is whining about not having a beer in their hand right that very moment and another friend revealing herself to be casually racist by remarking that the locals are kind of creepy. I strongly believe that travel makes us a better person, but not before putting to light some ugly truths about ourselves and everyone around us.
In this surprisingly fantastic episode of This Is Us—like seriously, stop focusing on the present and devote the rest of the season to the 70s— every character is on a physical and spiritual journey. Instead of feeling a wanderer’s freedom, though, they’re constrained by the presence of someone else. Navigating new spaces with this Other brings them to question, how well do we really know the person we love? How well do we really know ourselves?
Ugghhhhhhh the producers are working their little tails off to make Kevin a character we care about but, much like fetch, it’s never going to happen. This means that we have to go through the motions of showing Kevin’s trip to Vietnam and, if memory serves me correctly, they actually did film this one in location. Vietnam was a place I visited with an ex, much like Kevin does because we all know his romance with Zoelange ain’t going to last. The tension lies on how they’re going to fuck it up.
Zoelange is still diligently cultivating an aura of tragic mystique about her, refusing to share details about what she ate for breakfast as a kid but gleefully wolfing down on a bat dish in a Saigon market. Kevin orders the most boring food on the menu and openly admits that he comes from a long line of beige-food eaters. THE MANNAQUIN HAS BECOME SELF-AWARE, WHAT OTHER LAW OF ROBOTICS WILL HE VIOLATE NEXT? By then, Zoelange has admitted that her estranged father lives in China and would want to see her if he knew she was close. She definitely doesn’t want to see him, and despite Kevin’s prodding, shuts down when he asks why.
Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to distract Kevin. One too many questions and all Zoelange has to do is point to something shiny and off he goes, like a golden retriever chasing after his own butt. This time it’s a tourist that’s wearing the exact same necklace Jack gave Kevin before he passed. Kevin goes to the souvenir shop where she got it and finds out that, yeah, these mass produced medallions are everywhere.
This frustrates Kevin enough to berate Zoelange for not opening up to him. In retaliation, she pukes all over his shoes.
In the hotel room, Zoelange convalesces in a bathtub while Kevin proves himself useful for once and gets her some coconut water. Poor Zoelange is basically dissolving from the inside out, which Kevin decides is the absolute best time to dump a bunch of feelings on her. Kevin tells her how Jack kept the first 28 years of his life secret from his mom but Kevin doesn’t want that. He wants to know everything about Zoelange but is willing to respect her boundaries. Gee, thanks, Kevin. He’s falling in love with her, whether she likes it or not, and let’s remember that in the This Is Us universe the statement is NOT threatening but a sweeping romantic gesture.
THEN SHIT GETS DARK. Zoelange opens up about the fact that her dad sexually abused her. She has no interest in making amends. I can’t figure out if I like how understated this was or if I find it deeply disturbing. It’s like these characters actually populate different fictional universes and they’re caught in some unwieldy mash up where we expect Kevin, the blandest man alive, to have the kind of depth to deal and support someone like Zoelange. It ends on a, uh, sweet note when she tells him that she’s falling in love with him too.
Last time we saw Jack in uniform, he was saying hi to his angry little brother and this is exactly where we pick up today. Nick reacts the same way I react whenever one of my siblings shows up unannounced, by yelling, “If you die out here that’s not on me!” The difference is that Nick is really not doing well. I want to say something snarky but recent events involving veterans and PTSD have tempered my evil side. All you really need to know is Jack wants to save him and—lo and behold—Nick does not want to be saved.
Jack presents himself to the Grand Marshall at the camp and proposes taking his bro back with him. Grand Marshall tells him his bro is a lost cause and, on cue, Jack spends approximately two hours IN THE MIDDLE OF A GOD DAMN WAR to give a whole story about how Nick couldn’t even kill a spider. Grand Marshall has probably already ordered the massacre of about twenty civilians; do we really think this is going to move him? Basic policy says no two brothers are allowed in the same outfit. With a wave of a hand, he dismisses Jack and tells him to go back to his unit.
Jack begins the long return back to camp. He asks a local man, who can barely understand what he’s saying, to give him a lift. He does that thing where he talks a little louder and slower and the guy suddenly understands. People, this only works like magic in movies. Everywhere else, please keep your voice at a normal level. Local dude agrees to give him a ride.
On their way to camp, Bao stops without explanation. Jack follows to see what’s up and sees Bao handing over a bunch of cans to a guy, the kind of cans that the Vietcong uses to make homemade bombs. Jack is suspicious and weary, but what choice does he have? He needs to trust this dude if he ever wants to get back to safety or the illusion of safety. Bao drops him off, which is honestly more than enough kindness than any dude should offer occupying forces, but this isn’t enough for Jack. He asks him if he’s good or bad, meaning is he VC. Bao answers sometimes. BECAUSE LIFE ISN’T A FUCKING BINARY AND MOST PEEPS ARE TRYING TO SURVIVE SO MAYBE STOP VILIFYING FOREIGNERS.
Late at night, Jack catches sight of the Vietnam lady with the necklace. The next day, a helicopter lands with Nick on board. Jack is given 2 weeks to straighten his brother out. Now that we know all three people are in the vicinity, please let this Vietnamese woman become Nick’s sweetheart and not Jack’s. I cannot take a secret sibling this late in the game.
Young Jack and Rebecca
Here we come to the actual jewel of this whole episode: Young Jack and Rebecca’s second date also known as their road trip to LA. Even though they’re about to cross a continent together, they still technically don’t know that much about each other and it shows. Their conversation veers from stilted to animated to silence. A debate around Joni Mitchell breaks the tension, which has not been my experience when bringing up iconic legendary songstresses on dates but whatevs. Rebecca tells him about her meeting with the record label. Jack also has plans to see some friends though he’s vague on the detail. He’s doing the Don Draper thing of only giving you the minimal amount of info with the maximum amount of sexual tension.
The awkwardness continues into their dinner at a roadhouse restaurant. Jack doesn’t talk. He is a man of action, hubba hubba. Cause though he’s not communicating with words, damn is he communicating with his actions. He asks Rebecca to slow dance after she gives him a hint so large it might as well have come in blimp form. This moment of physical closeness gives Jack the right amount of space to share some things. Like the fact that he is not a crier. He never cries. He swallows the bad stuff instead.
They go back to hotel room where everyone respects each other’s boundaries, much to the chagrin of every single member of the Republican Party who has ever said that men can’t possibly control themselves at the sight of an exposed ankle. They each turn to their separate beds even though the air is THICK in romantic anticipation. By morning, they have totally banged. And then they bang across the Poconos, the Rust Belt, the Great Wide Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Nevada desert, all the way to LA. But sharing a bed with a traumatized soldier isn’t all rolling around in raspy Motel 6 sheets. Jack gets night terrors and he doesn’t want to talk about it.
They make it to LA and their first stop is a groovy party in an impossibly large house. Rebecca’s friend looks like the kind of fresh-faces beauty who has zero idea that she’s about to trade in her personality for a shot at wearing garish rhinestones in the 80s and a boob job in the 90s. Rebecca tells her that she’s gaga for Jack even though he has demons. To prove her point, Jack gets all jumpy when a champagne cork is popped.
Later that night, Jack tells her he can’t talk about Vietnam. It’s too toxic (hey-o Oxford Dictionary!) of a topic and he fears it will poison what they have going on. He then asks her if she’ll go back to Pittsburgh but Rebecca doesn’t know yet.
The next day, Jack drops her off at the record label and then heads out to his super secret meeting. Rebecca plays her demo for a sleazy record label guy (they’re all sleazy), who says it’s great. That’s definitely LA speak for fuck you. She asks him to be more specific with his feedback and after a few rounds of bullshit he finally says, “I think you’re Pittsburgh good”, which is such a sick burn I might apply it to people who aren’t even FROM Pittsburgh. Example:
Q: “Ines, what are your thoughts on the new Bachelor?”
Me: “I think he’s Pittsburgh good.”
Q: “Ines what do you think of my new boyfriend?”
Me: “I think he’s Pittsburgh good.”
Q: “Ines, what do you think of Besty Devos’ plan to rewrite the guidelines on sexual assault cases on campus so they favor the accused instead of the victims?”
Me: I THINK IT’S TRASH AND MAY SHE ROT IN HELL.
Not everything can be Pittsburgh good.
In the meantime, Jack visits the Watersons whose son was under his command. In the living room, he tells them how Squirt (Roger) died. He let his guard down while they were playing football and that haunts him. He takes full responsibility. The Waterson tell him it wasn’t his fault. Let the healing begin.
Jack picks up Rebecca and they both don’t tell the truth about their encounters, at least initially. Then Rebecca starts to shit on LA, as well she should, and tells him about the Pittsburgh good comment. Jack asks to hear the song but Rebecca refuses. Then he calls her Bec for the first time and girlfriend’s convictions go out the door. She sings for him. Her voice makes him cry the way only a Pittsburgh songstress could. Pennsylvania, they’re coming for you!