We gave it a B-
It’s Sylvester Stallone week on This Is Us, so rejoice if you’ve been waiting for the action star to arrive on that movie set with Ron Howard and Kevin Pearson and lay down some good ol’ fashioned paternal wisdom. This is the show’s first real guest star stunt, and “Deja Vu” intently tries to limit the flash of Stallone’s introduction and make it feel at least somewhat natural. Yet the outsize nature of his appearance inevitably detracts from the heavy, emotional, complicated stuff he’s walking in on, creating a strange mixture of stargazing and therapy session that goes down a little, well, Rocky.
Kevin is joined on the movie set by Kate, who’s around to watch her brother deliver a powerful monologue to Stallone in a scene. The scripted speech is about how everything in Kevin’s character’s life had led up to this particular moment — which, Kate notes, is also true for Kevin himself. The Pearson twins anticipate meeting Stallone. “Can you imagine?” Kevin asks, gleefully. “I’m on a movie set saving Sylvester Stallone’s life!” He then proceeds to do a hilariously bad Stallone impression, which, of course, Stallone walks in on. “Not bad,” he quips. (He’s being generous.) Kate’s speechless, Kevin’s delighted, and the Stallone show has begun. But there’s a moment earlier in this scene that portends trouble: Kate says, “I wish Dad was here,” referencing Jack’s profound Stallone fandom, and Kevin nervously shuts her down, exclaiming, “He can’t see it, though!” He’s not willing to go there.
After boasting — and proving — that she knows Rocky by heart, Kate confides in Stallone what he meant to her father. “You could made my dad feel good,” she reveals. “You could help him forget a 102-degree fever or a bad day at work. I just want to thank you for making my dad feel good.” Stallone is moved by her comments and gives condolences for Jack’s untimely death. Quickly, he’s deeply invested in the Pearson family saga; he even catches up with Kevin before they begin shooting to discuss Jack’s death. Kevin shrugs it off, saying it happened “a long time ago” while trying to change the subject, but Stallone — again, surprisingly invested — won’t let it go. “In my experience, Kevin, there’s no such thing as ‘a long time ago,’” he says, after telling a personal story of his own. “There’s only memories that mean something and memories that don’t.” Kevin, still visibly uncomfortable, nods and agrees, but as they’re called to shoot, Stallone squeezes in one more comment: “Let’s do one for your father.”
Stallone, good as he is here, can’t help but be a bit of a distraction: He’s more of a symbol than a character, and while the show goes to great pains to normalize his presence, there are those random, sprinkled-in Sly details — Sylvester Stallone likes frittatas, we learn; Sylvester Stallone hates fruit in water and longs for the days when “water was just water” — that remind you he’s a capital-G Guest Star.
In any case, Stallone throws his screen partner off his game. Kevin keeps fumbling his lines, struggling to stay in the moment as memories of his father creep in and haunt him. He gets through it, however, and the emotions of “Deja Vu” finally start to click into place. Kevin is steaming with anger by the time Kate tries to boost his confidence during a filming break, scolding her for telling Stallone about their dad’s death. “Our dad died and it’s very sad, but I don’t need therapy because of it,” he says. “I don’t need to be talking to Sylvester Stallone about it two seconds before the biggest scene in my entire career.” Kate pushes: “It kind of seems that it throws you no matter who brings it up or when — you never talk about it.” And Kevin pushes back harder and nastier: “I’m not like you. We’re different people. I don’t need to walk around and be sad and damaged just because you are.” He leaves Kate in tears.
They make up, of course, but that’s after another troubled night of shooting with Kevin, in which he hurts his “bad knee” — a reference to that split-second image of teen Kevin in a cast — during an action sequence. Stallone’s character is pinned under a Jeep. “Remember now, he’s like a father to you, and he’s going to die on your watch if you don’t save him,” Ron Howard directs, not making it any easier for Kevin to tuck away those childhood memories of his dad.
Justin Hartley gives what’s far and away his best performance to date in this episode. Kevin’s apology call to Kate is sweet, but he’s fighting through pain and grief at the same time, and Hartley plays it with devastating clarity. “Kate, it’s really hard for me with Dad,” Kevin admits as their conversation nears its end. She can only reassure him that it’ll get easier. “Maybe one day,” she says. He pops a painkiller after hanging up.
Kevin’s visions of his father are contrasted with scenes from the past: Jack is going to AA meetings while maintaining his distance from Rebecca. As Rebecca explains the state of things: “We mumble hello to each other in the morning and we kiss each other goodnight before bed.” She confirms to Shelly at lunch that she and Jack haven’t had sex in “a while,” and Shelly convinces her to pull a “Jack Pearson” and surprise her husband with a romantic night out. But Jack is in no shape to kick back and fool around in the car like they’re teenagers — he’s struggling through recovery and, like Kevin in the present day, is vying to confront those painful feelings and memories from childhood.
Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia share some solid scenes here, but for the most part, their arc is a retread; aside from their encounter with the dog young Kate was petting in the aftermath of Jack’s death, nothing especially new is illuminated, and the end-of-episode romantic reunion is telegraphed from early on. Barring special installments, Rebecca and Jack’s story lines tend to take on an identical shape from week to week — going from stated problem to attempted fix to hashing it out to feel-good reconciliation — and a little deviation from that formula could do them and the show some good. (Recap continues on page 2)