SPOILER ALERT: The following reveals major plot points from Wednesday night’s episode of The Wonder Years.
In the episode, Dean’s (EJ Williams) big brother Bruce (Spence Moore II) has returned home from Vietnam injured and with a secret—he has a girlfriend and she’s an older woman. While convalescing at home, the family wanted to know everything about Tammy (Yvonne Orji), who is later revealed to be a divorced, single mom.
Things are moving fast between Bruce and Tammy, much to his mom Lilian (Saycon Sengbloh), and Dean’s chagrin. Dean isn’t ready to share his brother with Tammy’s son Joey, and he’s even less excited about being his babysitter.
Bruce, a former sports star, is trying to put get his life in order and is faced with few options. As a Black veteran in 1960s Alabama, the best job opportunity available to him is a janitor position leaving Bruce feeling frustrated.
During dinner, it was casually revealed Bruce had been awarded the Bronze Star for bravery in combat, a fact he preferred to keep tucked away in a drawer. At present, his challenges and survivor’s guilt convinced him he needed to rush back to work so as to provide for his own family with Tammy.
When Bruce proposes, Tammy graciously declines but they agree to keep dating.
When he returns home, Bruce finally finds the courage to open up to his family about what happened in Vietnam that earned him the medal. He and his men found themselves on the receiving end of enemy fire, three were already down. He and his friend Brian went back to save them, leaving Bruce injured and Brian dead.
Bruce revealed they had made a promise to one another should anything happen they would write to the other’s family. When he finally sits down to correspond with Brian’s family, it is revealed that Brian is Winnie Cooper’s (Danica McKellar) older brother who died in Vietnam in the original series.
Series creator and executive producer Saladin K. Patterson spoke to Deadline about the big reveal, how executive producer Fred Savage felt about it, and whether or not McKellar knows about the expansion of her character Winnie’s story.
DEADLINE: What insight can you share into the decision to give Bruce this impactful storyline?
SALADIN K. PATTERSON: When Lee Daniels, Mark Velez, and I first talked about who we wanted the Williams family to be and how we wanted them to be different from the Arnold family, we decided we really wanted to shine a light on what would have impacted Black families in a unique way.
We knew we wanted to tackle things like civil rights and the Vietnam war. We decided early on that Bruce would come back, but we wanted to show how difficult it was for Black soldiers and all the extra baggage they were carrying. Bruce says he felt more racism here at home than when he was in the military overseas, which is why he reenlisted.
But we also wanted to talk about the sacrifices all soldiers make, to their minds and their bodies.
DEADLINE: And there’s the element of survivor’s guilt for Bruce that leads to a powerful reveal.
PATTERSON: Yes, the big reveal of the episode is when Bruce shares with his family he’s been dealing with survivor’s guilt. That helps the family understand why he’s making what seems like a drastic decision on the surface, like jumping into a relationship.
The tie-in to the original with the Brian Cooper character, that’s something I pitched to ABC when we originally pitched the show for the pilot. That was something I said I would love to have as part of the Bruce character’s backstory, and as an homage to the original series in a very respectful way.
If there was going to be any overlap or an Easter egg between our two series, I thought this was a really respectful way to tip my hat to the original. It also makes a statement for the characters in our world because Vietnam was the first war where Black soldiers served as leaders of white troops.
DEADLINE: Do you have any plans moving forward to carry on with Brian’s story?
PATTERSON: For now, the plan is to have it just as a nod. We don’t have any plans for the overlap but that doesn’t mean that it won’t. We want that to live in and of itself for now.
DEADLINE: How did Fred Savage feel about how you were linking the two shows?
PATTERSON: He thought it was a very powerful and respectful way to have the lineage overlap. Fred and I were both very protective of making sure that this reimagining of The Wonder Years has its own narrative and can stand on its own two feet. Fred also didn’t want to feel like we revisited things he had done before. But both of us also recognize that we are inheriting a lot of the tone and the feel and what was great about the original and we wanted to pay our respects to that.
We made the decision early on that there won’t be any crossover guest stars and things like that because that felt like it wouldn’t be true to our world.
DEADLINE: Did you guys give Danica the heads up?
PATTERSON: Yes, we did. Danica has been supporting us since day one. She reached out previously to Milan Ray who plays Keisa to sort of pass the baton metaphorically.
So when we knew we were going to do this easter egg we reached out to her to make sure she would be okay with it. She immediately said she felt it was a wonderful idea and was very supportive and she was more than happy to have us use her photo.
DEADLINE: Yvonne Orji did such a wonderful job as Bruce’s girlfriend, Tammy. Will we see more of her this season?
PATTERSON: It was great having Yvonne on the show, she’s an amazing actress. She can handle both the grounded reality of it, the drama of it, and the humor. We really wanted to give her an opportunity to show all those tools and skills that she brings to the table. We would love to have her back.
The Tammy character is mentioned again later in the season, but because of schedules we weren’t able to have her back but we purposely left it open. They’re still in a relationship. We’d love to have Yvonne come back and play with us again in Season 2.
The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.