If Nicky Pearson would have gone to Woodstock with his girlfriend, Sally, he would have heard John Sebastian's acoustic solo performance of "Darlin' Be Home Soon," which mesmerized the music festival's huge crowd.
Sebastian's recording of the song with his band, The Lovin' Spoonful, casts a nostalgic glow on Nicky and Sally's fragile love affair during Tuesday night's "This Is Us."
All of the broken hopes of the 1960s play out, shattered like the elderly Nicky's handmade snow globe. Yet, the dream endures at the episode’s end.
Beautifully portrayed by Michael Angarano, the wounded young Nicky rejects Sally's dream of going to Woodstock, then traveling across country to California for a life of hippie freedom. She imagines voyaging the open road with him in her van she calls Pearl, evoking Janis Joplin's posthumous album.
Instead, Nicky, who expresses his fears to his brother, Jack, chooses to stay home with his loving mother, Marilyn, and abusive, alcoholic father, Stanley. Sharing their pride at Neil Armstrong's moonwalk, Nicky can't free himself from his family's emotional entrapment.
Jack, who's left the family home but remains tied to its rituals, would have made the trip with Sally. A previous episode of the show followed his road journey to California with his future wife, Rebecca.
The broken relationship between Jack and Nicky, their close ties a casualty of Vietnam, adds to the episode's drama.
Desperate to reconcile with Jack, Nicky is unable to connect with his brother at a Vietnam reunion. After receiving affirmation from his wartime commanding officer, Jack heads toward marriage and fatherhood, while Nicky withdraws to a solitary, embittered life as a chronic alcoholic.
As the aged Nicky traveling across country to greet his nephew Kevin's twin children, Griffin Dunn endearingly portrays a man discovering his true self after years lost to Vietnam grief and family wounds. His gruff exterior conceals a sensitive, fragile, creative man still fearful of intimacy.
Kevin has named the boy twin for Nicky, whose efforts to cope with the modern world after years of withdrawal flavor the drama with bittersweet humor. He sees his beautifully carved gifts destroyed because of idiotic air-travel regulations; isn't it time for those to be banished from the nation's life?
But Nicky makes it to California, at last accomplishing a replica of the dream envisioned by Sally.
The cross-cultural references continue: Dunne is the nephew by marriage of Joan Didion, whose writings on her native California and the turmoils of the 1960s counterculture are hallmarks of the era's literature. Didion's warmth and insight glow in conversations between her and Dunne in an enlightening Netflix documentary.
"This Is Us" at its best illustrates our battle with the past, what we seek to save, and what we seek to escape.
Directed by "30 Something's" Ken Olin, Tuesday's episode titled "One Small Step" indicates that no matter how long, we can come to see ourselves at last.