If you’ve been watching This Is Us from the beginning, or even for just a few episodes, you know this show isn’t too concerned with moving the plot forward. It’s baked into the premise, really, what with all the looking back to understand the present. Its priority has always been to constantly develop and expand our knowledge of the characters who inhabit this world, no matter how peripheral they may be to the central story. If sprawling character development is what you’re looking for in a TV show, then the lack of forward motion may not bother you (though this season has felt particularly slow, perhaps because of how delayed the episodes have been because of COVID, but not entirely).
Sometimes, these deep character dives can seem a little rambling, but “One Small Step …” is an example of how well they can work when properly pulled off. If you boil this episode down to the beats that move the Pearson family story forward, it literally comes down to “Nicky travels to California to stay with Kevin,” which is a beat that actually happened last week — so, basically, no forward motion. Rather than plot development, this episode is about a huge character moment: Nicky traveling across the country because he’s finally ready to open himself up to being part of a family. To understand how big that is for him, the episode shows us some other moments from his life when he tried to open himself up to love and failed. All of this is to say, if you’ve been waiting for things to pick up on This Is Us, this isn’t the episode for you. If, however, you’re like me and find Nicky one of the most interesting characters on the show, you may be into this Nicky-centric episode.
Things kick off with Nicky showing up at Kevin’s door unannounced (but vaccinated and regularly tested for COVID thanks to the VA) because he would like to meet his namesake (and “the girl,” he adds). Kevin can’t believe Nicky would fly to California to meet the kids, but his uncle replies that “it was nothing.” The entire episode is about showing us just how this whole thing is definitely not nothing for Nicky Pearson.
It’s July 20, 1969, and the Pearsons are gathered around the television to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Nicky is especially into it — he even made a toy model of the lunar module and is proudly showing it to his dad. In fact, this historic moment seems like something Nicky and Stanley could bond over. I mean, Stanley’s still a shit, but things seem calmer in the Pearson house than at any other time we’ve visited. The Vietnam War draft is sort of on their radar (it won’t happen until December of that year), but Jack seems more concerned about getting Nicky to move out of their parents’ house and meet a nice girl — to start living his life — than about anything else.
And there is a girl he’s interested in: his colleague Sally at the animal clinic. We’ve heard about Sally before. She’s from the sad story Nicky told Kevin and Cassidy about the girl he bought his trailer for, in hopes of finally taking the cross-country road trip they had talked about before the war; when he went to find her to make this grand gesture, she wasn’t home, so he simply gave up. Now we get to meet this Sally.
She’s great! Nicky’s awkward as hell, so Jack tries to push him to ask her out. After all, it’s hard to say you can’t do something when a man is literally walking on the moon for the first time at that very moment. It turns out Sally is capable of asking Nicky out on her own. They fall in love talking about the moon and photographs and hooking up in the back of her van, Pearl. She’s even a huge hit with Nicky’s parents. Then one day, Sally asks Nicky to go to Woodstock with her; from there, they can road-trip across the country and eventually end up in California, where a relative has a farm and they can work on it until the next time they feel like a road trip. She wants to start an adventure with him. Nicky says yes, but he’s scared. Right before he’s supposed to meet Sally at her van, he tells Jack that he’s worried he won’t fit in out in California and that eventually Sally will dump him. He so badly wants to go, but he’s worried about being rejected and can’t let himself accept the love that Sally’s giving him. Nicky never goes to meet Sally.
We meet up with Nicky again sometime after his return from Vietnam. Thanks to a handy-dandy little scene with Jack and his lieutenant, whose engagement brings some of Jack’s war buddies together, we know this is around the time Jack is about to propose to Rebecca, if you need help placing it in the timeline. What Jack doesn’t know while he’s asking his lieutenant for advice on Nicky and on whether to tell Rebecca the truth about what he did in Vietnam (she thinks he was just a mechanic, remember?) is that a distraught Nicky is sitting out in the parking lot, desperately wanting to go in to see Jack but terrified to do so.
Nicky hasn’t spoken to Jack in years, and clearly he’s scared that Jack will reject him all over again. He wants to show Jack that he’s changed, that he’s getting better, but the moment Nicky finally works up the courage to get out of his truck and talk to his brother, he watches Jack walk across the parking lot and look at an engagement ring. Jack has moved forward with his own life, and all the self-doubt and self-hate and fear come rushing back. Nicky just can’t take that kind of leap. He lets Jack go.
This brings us to our present-day Nicky. He receives an invitation to Nick and Franny’s baptism (it’s a Zoom event, but Nicky doesn’t get that), and we watch him debate whether he should go. He wants to, so he decides he’s going to do it. He buys a ticket, gets his vaccine, and has Cassidy explain how Amazon-dot-com works so he can buy everything he needs to make gifts for the twins; he even badgers Cassidy into wrapping them up for him without telling her what they are. She’s proud of him for doing this — he hasn’t left Bradford for decades, save that Thanksgiving trip to Philly. He hasn’t been on a plane since he was medevaced out of Vietnam.
If only he had told her what those gifts were: He made the twins handmade snowglobes (one of an astronaut on the moon!), but they get confiscated at the airport. After a bit of a scene at security, the snowglobes come crashing to the ground, ruined. It’s Nicky’s first sign that maybe this is a bad idea.
Things go well when Nicky first arrives at Kevin’s. And then Kevin, as Kevin is wont to do, starts going on and on about being excited to have him there and everything they can do together and what the twins will call him: not Grandpa, obviously, but he needs a nickname. It’s too much for Nicky.
He ends up calling Cassidy in the middle of the night and tells her that this was a mistake and that he might just leave now without saying anything to Kevin. He’s overwhelmed — overwhelmed by all Kevin’s plans and by the fact that Jack’s kid would name his own son after him. “Jack must be rolling around in his grave,” he tells Cassidy. But she’s not buying it. She tells him the truth that we’ve seen over and over throughout the episode: “You’ve hated yourself for so long,” she says, and now he’s being surrounded by people who love him and that’s weird. She knows Nicky has spent his entire life trying to make Jack proud. “Don’t you think he would be proud?” she asks. “It took a while, but you made it all the way to California.” Now that’s some This Is Us shit if I’ve ever heard it. I mean that in a good, emotionally gutting, if not a bit saccharine, way.
With that phone call cutting him to his core, Nicky goes in to visit the sleeping babies. This speech! Griffin Dunne and this master class! He explains the gift situation and gives them the only other presents he could come up with at the airport: two John Grisham paperbacks. Inside, he has written notes to them about regret and life and other things old men think about while staring out plane windows, I guess.
He tells them that his life in his trailer was exactly the same for 50 years and that when the invitation to their baptism showed up, he started thinking about the moon landing: how one day the idea of a man going to the moon felt impossible, then the next day it wasn’t. “The impossible became possible just like that,” he tells them. That’s how it was for him thinking about leaving his trailer and getting on a plane to California. It was impossible until it wasn’t; he made it. “You two are my moon,” Nicky says to his brother’s grandchildren.
So no, there’s not a lot of strong plot and momentum for the show at large here, but there is a story about a broken old man choosing the moon, and it is pretty lovely.
This Is the Rest
• When Nicky expresses hesitation about leaving everything behind to go to California with Sally, Jack tells him that if he had a “girl like that” and she asked him to go to California, he’d be “gone in a heartbeat.” We know that eventually a girl like that will ask him to go to California and he won’t hesitate. Again, how very This Is Us of This Is Us!
• Friends, please remember that in the flash-forward at Kevin’s house, Nicky is there sitting at Rebecca’s bedside, very much a part of the Pearson family, and he’s wearing a wedding ring. Will Nicky learn that Sally’s family farm is still there outside of San Francisco, and will he go to her and will they fall back in love? This is all I want for this man.
• Nicky still uses the Samsonite suitcase Jack gifted him back in 1969! Be still, my heart!
• What a showcase for both our Nickys: Michael Angarano and Griffin Dunne. Never thought I’d get emotional over a grown man gifting two newborns John Grisham novels from the airport, but here we are.