This Is Us: “One Small Step” for Michael Angarano, one giant leap for Griffin Dunne

This Is Us: “I’ve Got This”

Dir. Yasu Tanida

Wri. Lauren Kenar

8.9/10

Let the Griffin Dunne Emmy watch begin.

Last week I was relieved that This Is Us brought back characters — and character dynamics — we’ve been missing all season. This week brought us not only a character who has been conspicuously absent from the action this year, but also a story we’ve been anticipating for more than two years now.

We have always known just enough about Nicky — we’ve known about the protective relationship Jack has had of him their whole lives. We’ve known about how the trauma of war broke him as a young man. But trauma is complicated — a lot of the messy little qualities about who Nicky is as a person have always been there, and in this episode, we see how he’s carried them throughout his life from a young man still living with his parents to a prickly, nervous old man with mixed emotions about meeting his great niece and nephew.

First off, in the present day, the show finally takes an opportunity to address vaccinations! Nicky’s reaction to the whole thing is quite cute, as is his montage of preparing for his trip to Kevin and Madison’s babies’ baptism. Amazon likely paid prime (I’ll be here all week!) dollars for the product placement when a bunch of packages show up on Nicky’s doorstep, but it was worth it (and, frankly, realistic given the COVID circumstances) to see Nicky so sweetly determined with his project.

(On that note, can I ask why Kevin and Madison would send a paper invitation for a Zoom baptism? And also, a baptism seems like an odd choice. Are the Pearsons Catholic, or particularly strong Catholics? Rebecca’s maiden name being Malone makes me guess they’re of vaguely Irish descent, and Milo Ventimiglia being virtually unable to hide his Italian heritage save for a very English character surname makes me guess that canonically, his character might be half-Italian. While it’s possible the Pearsons are canonically Catholic, it’s weird how church and baptism are never mentioned. Randall and Beth appear to attend a protestant church in Philly during the election. I’d buy that Madison is Catholic and the baptism means a lot to her, except that Madison isn’t close with her family at all. Anyway, some curiosity there).

This episode is such a lovely reprieve from the present-day Pearsons who, true to form, have begun to annoy me by this point in the season (although shockingly, Randall is annoying me the least, which is a welcome change). The last/only time we had an episode so distinctly focused on character backstory was in Birth Mother, which was, of course, different, because we barely knew Laurel. Here we’re just exploring more deeply a character we’ve known, but perhaps not fully, for a few years now.

It’s fully a display of both Griffin Dunne and Michael Angarano’s acting abilities. I’m not certain we’ve seen a more clear example of a young/older actor combo who match each other as well as these two, aside from Parker Bates/Justin Hartley.

One of the elements that we get here is Nicky’s relative emotional immaturity — we always knew he was reserved and tended to let Jack take the lead more, and Jack was so certain of his brother’s fragility that he decided to accompany him to Vietnam. But with this episode we finally see it as a full-on emotional stuntedness, a sweet but strange babyishness that started long before the war. We see it in Nicky’s darting eyes and his smile that is never quite a full smile. Side note, young Nicky is into models! No wonder my husband likes him so much!

A lot of the emotional core of this episode incorporates the moon landing, and Nicky’s fascination with the moon. I’ll admit part of this flew over my head and I’m willing to give the episode some room to breathe in that I was born in 1989 and not only did not experience the moon landing live, but also didn’t really have a celebratory equivalent of the moon landing in my lifetime. After that, the only things that really drew families around the TV together were more raw and tragic. But Nicky’s childlike fascination with the moon, which carries over into his brief romance with the mythical Sally and stays with him all the way until he meets the latest loves of his life, Nick and Franny, does add a nice little glow to the character.

The standout scenes here aren’t so much Nicky’s romance with Sally — Sally is a bit of a manic pixie dream girl and a tad obnoxious. She’s flat, and I’m not sure if the show is aware of this in the writing, but one of the things that feels uncomfortable about hers and Nicky’s relationship is that she seems to pull Nicky in directions he’s not sure he wants to go in. The relationship is sweet because Nicky is sweet, but overall it’s hard to see what is actually great about Sally. It reminds me of those relationships almost every young man has in his early twenties in which they’re not necessarily a great match, but his partner makes him feel good about himself, perhaps for the first time, so they make it into more than it should be. All that is to say, it was nice to have this backstory, but please, This Is Us, don’t go off and try to find 65-year-old Sally. We don’t need her. Let her be gone now. She is not worth it.

The romance scenes are sweet, but it’s really the post-Vietnam material that gives us the insight into how Nicky-then became Nicky-now. Angarano and Dunne have clearly studied one another very intensely as we see the former shuffling around a VFW centre parking lot, unsure of what to say. We see a very similar energy in his breakdown behind the steering wheel of his truck and present day-Nicky’s airport snowglobe panic. (On that note, I have in my notes that Griffin Dunne is clearly very good at acting with his eyes, as the cycle of delight, apprehension and panic that his face goes through, all while wearing a mask, is expertly communicated).

The Jack element of this story is interesting because Milo Ventimiglia is perfectly willing to sit back and play second fiddle to the story. Jack isn’t always overbearing and it shows in essentially all of his scenes (though I find it interesting that Jack talks to Nicky the same way he would eventually talk to his children, and I can’t figure out if that’s a conscious choice or not). In the case of his conversation with his former commanding officer, we see what borders on becoming a Jack trope, but isn’t quite there yet: Jack is receiving some pretty bad advice (to lock away his negative memories, which really means to lock away his brother), but it is framed as good advice. The art direction of the scene adds some lovely flourishes to it, and suddenly we have a character whom we know is about to make a bad decision but feel fairly good about it. We know that the show is not on the side of this advice, because we know how it plays out — one brother who becomes very comfortable convincing himself the other does not exist, and another brother who almost convinces himself that he doesn’t exist. But it’s an interesting — and I think quite intriguing — choice of the show to frame it as though it’s a positive choice.

And so we have Nicky in the present, standing in the entry to Madison and Kevin’s home. It borders on comical, because Nicky appears to have only been standing there a short amount of time despite all we’ve seen, but it’s also a pretty good depiction of exactly how much baggage the old man walks around with. He’s almost ready to jump ship and he gets some fairly benign advice from Cassidy — I want to think we’ll see her again, but she seems to be such a prop here that I have no idea what they could be preparing for — and instead he spends some tender time with his great niece and nephew. It makes you wonder if Nicky has even spent all that much time around babies and children; he didn’t seem particularly comfortable around Randall’s kids and baby Jack. But he is instantly smitten, and his “gift” of paperback John Grisham novels is appropriately adorable and put a funny button on his otherwise sadsack airport routine. The way his voice breaks as he tells the babies, “You two are my moon,” it pretty much destroyed me.

So that’s it! We get two weeks off before the next episode, Both Things Can Be True, and my money is on some sort of continuation of this “is it over or isn’t it?” Kevin/Randall storyline.

In summary

The good:

  • I’ve always liked This Is Us’s solo focus episodes, but I don’t think there’s a single character (or actor) who can carry one of these episodes better than Nicky and his actors.
  • Mrs. Pearson has whipped up a fresh batch of America balls.
  • Was it always established that Nicky worked at a vet clinic? Either way, cute as hell, and if this is paving the way for present day-Nicky to get a dog, I am all for it.
  • “Cancer?” “No, I’m fine.”

The bad:

  • I truly feel weird about the way this season has tried to softly rehabilitate Stanley Pearson. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. At least with the Jack/car ride scene we understand that Jack already has a warped sense of fatherly love; in the moon landing scene with Nicky I don’t know what they’re truly to go for.
  • I really really did not like Sally.

Episode MVP:

  • Michael Angarano and Griffin Dunne

I have a lot of feelings about movies and TV shows that would be embarrassing if it weren’t 2020.