'This Is Us' reaches a new series high by telling the life story of Deja

By David Canfield
March 06, 2018 at 11:38 PM EST
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
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You can’t say This Is Us does things generically. The show has consistently experimented with time and form in a way that feels fresh, even invigorating, for a broadcast drama. And so for the second season’s penultimate episode, expecting Dan Fogelman et al. to do things by the book — to bring each of the show’s story lines to a climactic head before the big finish — would have been a little naive. This is a drama fueled by the element of surprise, after all.

Still, if the show occasionally veers into gimmickry with its twisty structure, this week’s episode demonstrates how that kind of risk taking can pay off. In a little more than 40 minutes, “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life” attempts to tell the life story of Deja — and through that chronicle, in case the title didn’t give it away, to provide a sweeping panorama of the human experience. It’s remarkable the degree to which such a herculean effort succeeds.

The episode opens, fittingly, on Shauna, at just 16 years old, giving birth to Deja. Her grandmother Gigi — played by the incomparable Pam Grier — is by her side in the hospital. We witness Shauna’s initial reluctance to bond with her newborn, and then the love that overcomes her when she finally holds Deja in her hands. “I know you’re only 16, but playtime is over and it’s time for you to grow up,” Gigi tells her granddaughter, who’s set to raise Deja on her own. “This child is here now, and she deserves a mother who will put her first.” Millisecond-long snippets of the Pearsons experiencing the miracle of birth — Rebecca having the twins in that memorable image from the pilot, Randall cheering on Beth, and on — flow in and out throughout this first scene. It’s a brilliant little trick that continues on throughout the episode, comparing and contrasting the emotions, milestones, and circumstances of Shauna and Deja with those of the main This Is Us quintet.

As a young girl, Deja is already being left home alone too late by her mother; Gigi arrives at their apartment one night to find her awake and reads her Goodnight Moon. Shauna went out to be with a man long past when she should’ve; her grandmother scolds her for doing so, but we see genuine remorse on Shauna’s face. While we haven’t gotten to know Shauna especially well so far, this episode provides a resonant, empathetic, flawed character portrait.  Indeed, when Gigi dies — an image powerfully lined up with the Pearsons grappling with loss — her granddaughter is left all alone with Deja, and the financial toll is immediately clear. Shauna’s a good mother, not a perfect one, and life’s dealt her another blow. She walks into Deja’s room and asks, through tears, “What are we going to do now?” Deja, still too young for such heavy life lessons, reads her Goodnight Moon: a reminder to just get through things one day at a time.

It’s here that we see Shauna and Deja’s experience veer from the kind of family memories we’ve seen throughout This Is Us. Rebecca was able to, say, bake with her children, making cookie dough and licking mixing spoons; Shauna, meanwhile, races around paying bills, dealing with the water getting shut off, trying to be a good mother while also keeping a roof over her head. Again, she’s not perfect: On her birthday, while Deja’s cooking her dinner, she goes out for drinks with friends without telling anybody. Deja cuts herself using a can opener, rushes to the emergency room after her mother doesn’t pick up the phone, and, before she knows it, is meeting Linda the social worker.

Despite her and Shauna’s protests, Deja is taken to her first foster home, joining a spunky fellow foster child named Raven. The two share a tight bond, but they’re at the mercy of their foster parent, Mr. Miller — a miserable, jobless man who’s nasty and violent. We had heard and witnessed the effects of abuse Deja experienced in the foster system, but now we see it with our own eyes — how Deja helplessly watched Miller brutally beat Raven after the two were caught shoplifting, knocking her down to the floor.

Before long it’s been a year: Linda checks in on Deja and informs her that Shauna’s been in and out of treatment, to which Deja retorts, “She only started using that stuff because she’s missing me.” Linda doesn’t disagree, but has her hands tied. Before she leaves, she notices Deja’s hesitancy — and while Deja proves reluctant to reveal the abuse, she finally yelps “He hits us!” just as Linda’s walking out the door. Both she and Raven are escorted from the premises, leaving them without a home once again. “Do you know how many beds I’ve slept in?” Raven asks Deja, upset that she had to be removed. “I don’t, because by the year I turned 9, I lost count.” (Recap continues on page 2)

Deja moves back in with her mother, but the stay is relatively short lived. Here we see the origins of Shauna meeting Alonso, the man whose gun was in her car when she was arrested, the catalyst for Deja’s foster adoption by Randall and Beth. Alonso asks Deja to give him a chance; he says he met Shauna in rehab and fell for her. But we know how the story goes: He and Shauna begin fighting, he starts having his buddies over drinking, and Shauna’s efforts to keep things afloat once again become insufficient. She finds the gun in the house and rightly chastises Alonso for bringing a weapon into the house with a young kid living there. But we know how that story ends: with her getting pulled over and the cops finding the gun.

After Shauna is arrested and Deja’s dance class is cruelly interrupted by police (who bring her back to Linda), we find Deja where we first met her: on Randall and Beth’s doorstep. That sequence was filmed from her perspective originally as well, but this time, we get new insight into what was going on in the back of her head while she lived with Randall and Beth. Despite her anxieties and fears and traumas being so intense, especially at first, Deja remembered what Raven told her after they left Mr. Miller’s: “The next time you find a bed that feels even a little safe, don’t blow it.” Then there’s the heartbreaking montage of Deja’s time there: her laughing at Randall’s corny jokes, witnessing Beth fight with her own mother, saying goodbye, hugging Randall one last time.

The story continues, revealing what happened between Deja and Shauna after Deja returned home. Initially, things are peaceful. Deja tries to keep on her mother about paying bills on time — bringing back Shauna’s favorite question to her daughter, “What would I ever do without you?” — and even gives her the “home bank” she made in school to help them start saving. It’s gut wrenching to watch the happy reunion slowly fall apart. Deja senses something’s wrong, leading her to that moment when she showed up at Randall and Beth’s, and from there things get worse. The money bank is emptied because Shauna tried to help pay Alonso’s bail, reasoning he’s in there partly because of her. “We have bills, Deja,” she stresses. The money runs out, they’re evicted from their apartment, and before long we’re right where we left off: Randall and Beth, knocking at where Deja and Shauna are now living — their car.

One of the most understated moments of the episode comes just before this, when Deja, in a moment of desperation, tries selling off whatever she can to keep them in their apartment. She remembers her grandmother’s broach — and we cut, symmetrically, to the image of Kevin tightly holding onto his father’s necklace, a major motif this season. Deja decides not to sell the broach, shaking her head quietly, and it’s a decision that in many ways defines “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life”: how she, despite not having Kevin’s privilege or emotional problems, could implicitly connect with him in such a cosmic, profound way.

She and Shauna temporarily move in with Randall and Beth, if only for a few nights, and the comfort of the experience makes for what might be the most devastating sequence of the episode yet: Shauna watching her daughter so at peace, so comfortable, in another family’s home — playing card games, laughing at old movies, telling stories at dinner. Joy Brunson, who plays Shauna, is silently stunning here, nailing the mix of joy at seeing her daughter happy and pain at realizing she’s not the reason why. It’s so gorgeously sad to watch.

But then there’s the performance of Lyric Ross. As Deja, she’s been a breakout all season on This Is Us, but this is her moment to shine, and goodness does she deliver here. While Beth and Shauna bond downstairs, Deja reconnects with Randall, and writer Kay Oyegun hands Ross a monologue that puts the entire episode — entire show, perhaps — into perspective, about the human condition in all of its messy, beautiful, painful glory. Deja recalls how Randall told her she reminded him of himself, and how she didn’t understand why at first. “That was kind of weird, honestly, because you seemed so weird to me,” she says. “It just didn’t seem so deja-vu-y to me. But then I started thinking: Isn’t it weird that everyone goes to sleep at night? Everyone…. Some are poor, some are rich, some sleep in beds, some sleep on the floor.” This Is Us speeches can get cloying, no doubt, but in Ross’ sensitive delivery, this one lands perfectly.

Shauna, meanwhile, has come to a realization: She and Deja can’t keep going the way they’ve been going. “I failed Deja,” she tells Beth. “I failed her and I can’t keep failing her.” Leaving Deja upstairs, Randall heads back to the living room, and he sees Shauna with her bags packed, on the way out with Beth standing behind her. He looks at Shauna, almost blankly. “I gotta go — and I can’t take her with me,” she says. Shauna leaves. Randall and Beth had been desperate to reconnect with Deja, but the feeling’s different now that she’s there to stay. Like them, we got to know Shauna better — her shortcomings, yes, but also her spirit, her grit, and her unyielding love for her daughter. That she ultimately couldn’t make it work with Deja, while also leaving her in more secure but equally loving care, is bittersweet.

This Is Us has put its characters through the wringer this season, putting a magnifying glass to each Pearson family member we’ve come to know over nearly two seasons. But as “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life” so potently reminds, sometimes it’s the stories of those we know the least that hit home the most.

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NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.
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