Christmas is a time for family to get together in The Wonder Years. For Dean Williams and his family, that means Dean’s brother Bruce (Spence Moore II) coming home from the Vietnam War. His mother, father, and sister treat him like royalty upon his arrival. Dean is initially okay with this until he goes to class the next day and learns how traumatized some war veterans become after returning home. He begins to worry that his own brother will be the same way. Because of this, Dean decides to follow him everywhere around town to make sure he will not turn out like the soldiers he heard about.
This is one of those episodes that showcase a painful lesson about this story’s era. Not all veterans were treated the same on their return from war. Some were well respected and adjusted to life accordingly as time went on. African American veterans went back to being treated like second-class citizens where the best job they could get was being a janitor. This episode showcases unequal treatment for people serving our country and the gravity of putting in the work to serve your country and being treated like you’re subservient. This is obviously a lot for Bruce to take in, given how much he sacrificed. The audience actually follows Bruce as he goes to comfort one of the families who lost their son in the war. The moment shows how much Bruce cares about his work overseas. Furthermore, the action cements to Dean how much of a hero and a courageous person his brother really is.
The conclusion of this story is honest, but it is heart-wrenching. Bruce deciding to go back into another tour for Vietnam didn’t surprise me, given the treatment he received at home. As a soldier, he knew how to lead, and he came to realize he had no identity at home. It would make complete sense to go back to what you know, and I love the shock that everyone has to just live with his decision. I hate how that temporarily fractures Dean’s relationship with Bruce, but I understand how Dean could be deeply upset not to have someone older to look up to.
Episodes like this exemplify why television can be such an important medium to educate children and families. The truth is we all read about these atrocities in school and the unfair treatment that follows, but it’s never really shown to us on screen. I’m glad that The Wonder Years elected to shine a light on this dark moment in history. This story proves that taking risks with television storytelling can pay off. The problem is, this shouldn’t even be considered a risk, given the era of history we’re talking about. This should be required storytelling. Creators have become so afraid to offend that stories this strong don’t get a voice. I’m glad this time around that a story like this was told, and I hope more are coming like it.