By J.G. Noll
Warning: If you haven’t watched the last episode of This Is Us, do not read. There are spoilers!
I’ll admit it: I put off watching the season finale of This Is Us by a day. The previous episode had made it seem so, so likely that patriarch Jack (played by Milo Ventimiglia) was going to bite it, that I didn’t want to tune in. When I finally balled up my fortitude to have my heart ripped out and stomped on by fictional characters, I was pleasantly surprised: No death scene for Jack.
At least, not in Season 1. (Let’s be real: We all know it’s coming.)
Instead, we learned more about Jack’s backstory. Up until this point, any of Jack’s history has been intertwined with his wife, Rebecca (played by Mandy Moore), and their story. This time, we saw Jack before Rebecca, in his late 20’s, sans scruffy hipster beard, scooting out from under a car. It’s the late 70’s.
And we find out– in an almost off-handed way– that Jack is a Vietnam veteran.
I want to repeat that: Jack is a Vietnam veteran.
In fact, I stopped Hulu, went back, and played it again to make sure I had heard the exchange correctly.
This information is completely brand-new and not hinted at throughout the previous episodes. And it can be surmised from the conversation between Jack and his elderly neighbor–Ms. Peabody–that he has seen some kind of action:
Ms. Peabody: How’d you come back from Vietnam so nice? Seems like most of the boys lose their damn minds over there.
Jack: Yeah, well. I was just a mechanic. Maybe we had it a little easier over there.
In just a few seconds of dialogue, the writers outline the civilian-military divide, uncover Jack’s military connection, and give us the slightest hint that, maybe, Jack didn’t actually have it “a little easier over there.”
Later, we see Jack’s bedroom where he keeps what looks to be a military-issued footlocker. Inside is a small medical kit where he stores cash– and where you can see the flash of dog tags if you look closely enough. Those details seem pointed and specific. . . specific enough to foreshadow something later.
But we’ll talk about that part in a minute. Right now, let’s talk about the revelation.
This Is Us constantly twists plot lines, using assumptions and stereotypes to fool viewers. . . and then flips them on their heads. Jack isn’t the broken-Vietnam-vet character that we’ve seen dragged out time and time and time again. Instead, he’s an exemplary father, a romantic and devoted husband, a loyal friend, and a hardworking employee. He isn’t haunted by his war experiences– at least we haven’t seen how they affect him yet. And although we can’t call Jack an alcoholic–even Rebecca notes that he isn’t a “real” one–his predilection for drink isn’t spawned from his experiences in Vietnam. If anything, they’re a dim reflection of his father’s alcoholism; a trope used by the writers to create suspense and make the audience assume that maybe he’ll get out of control. And maybe that will lead to his death.
And let’s talk about William’s (played by Ron Cephas Jones) military connection, too. In the third-to-last episode of the season (“Memphis”), we found out that William — Randall’s biological father — is a Gold Star military kid, his father killed — somehow — before he was born. At this point, there isn’t much detail. We do know that William’s parents were in love. We know that they were married. We know they had their own house. And we know that William’s father died before he was born. Based on the time period, we can guess that his father may have served in the Korean War or World War II.
Again, the revelation turns another tired trope — a black man who is a recovering drug addict — on its head. It asks the audience to see William differently as we had before, as a helpless baby who would never meet his father. We also see how his father’s death triggered a long chain of events that in some small way eventually led to his addiction.
The writers have put war on the periphery of the plot for a reason. They’ve made Jack a Vietnam veteran and William a military brat for a reason. Maybe it’s simply to acknowledge that aspect of our society and our history. But I’m betting it’s something more. The writers are students of Anton Chekov’s famous edict about the purpose of details in writing (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”). We’ve seen them do this again and again — seemingly mundane details suddenly turn into a meaningful plot point.
My guess is that there’s a purpose for these two pointed military connections. At the very least, the writers and cast have created two endearing characters with military histories. At the very most, they may be setting their viewers up for more revelations that put the military community and culture front-and-center on prime-time TV. I don’t know what it might be, but I know I’ll be tuning in.