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)
As for where the episode gets its title (as well as its most satisfying material): Randall and Beth abruptly welcome their new foster child, Deja, a 12-year-old whose mother has just been arrested and who’s been in and out of the system for years. Randall is ecstatic when he learns of her impending arrival — he sees it as a chance to honor his parents’ legacy and William’s life — but is then intimidated when she actually shows up at the door. In a gorgeous tracking shot, we view Deja’s arrival at the Pearson home from her perspective: The camera follows her through the front door, and then rests behind her as she looks at her “new family.” She sees them in a blur and hears the information they’re passing on like jumbled, incoherent blather. It provides a potent reminder that for all of Randall and Beth’s excitement over adding a new member to their family, on the other side is a young girl wrestling with feelings of profound confusion, displacement, and potential trauma. The show does right by Deja by introducing her on her terms and giving us a sense of the alienation she feels — and why.
Randall picks up on her discomfort and expresses his concern to the agency’s representative. She doesn’t sugarcoat things in her advice to him: “Have zero expectations and don’t try to predict how a single day will work out.” Randall takes it to heart, and indeed, things don’t run smoothly: Deja declines to spend time with the family and says she wants to go to bed, and she later snaps when Beth finds cigarettes in her room, calling her a “bitch” for going through her things. (Deja later admits the cigarettes are her mother’s, and she wants to hold on to them for when they reunite.) Randall tries to intervene, his voice calm but raised enough to shock Deja and freeze her in her tracks. She retreats in fear, a raw indication of a history of abuse.
But this being This Is Us, “Déjà Vu” doesn’t end on so bleak or unsettling a note. We see the meaning of the episode’s title play out in a pair of pivotal flashbacks. The first, which runs in fragments throughout the episode, centers on teen Randall’s attempt to track down his birth parents. He runs an ad in the newspaper and quickly gets a response from a woman claiming to be his mother; his siblings back him up as he goes to meet her and console him when it’s clear to him that it’s not her.
As an adult, Randall draws on that experience to communicate with Deja — and to prove, in case anyone was still doubting it, that he’s headed straight for the TV Dad Hall of Fame. “My whole childhood, I felt split inside,” he says while showing Deja pictures of Jack, Rebecca, and William. He then explains, tenderly, why she’s given him a feeling of déjà vu. “I’ve got this big, amazing extended family — I’ve got this big, amazing, beautiful life,” he says to her. “And if I’m seeing me in you — if seeing you is giving me that sweet, sweet déjà vu feeling — I think that means it’s going to happen for you too.” It’s a lovely moment, realistically undercut when Randall informs Deja that, contrary to what she believed, her mother is staying in prison for much longer than her previous stints.
Yet an earlier scene involving Deja might be even more significant to the episode. After her fight with Beth, she wanders into Tess and Annie’s room in the middle of the night. The girls look afraid, but it’s clear that Deja is just trying to connect and find her place in her new home. The girls engage with her. Deja asks who makes the rules (“They both do, but” — in unison — “mom”) and what happens if you break them. She’s informed by Annie that she might lose “iPad privileges” if she does something wrong. Amazed that there’s such a thing as “iPad privileges,” Deja mutters, “This house is crazy.”
We then flash back to William’s first night at the Pearson home and an encounter he had with Annie. He wasn’t planning on staying beyond that initial meet-and-greet, but just as he’s about to secretly leave in the dark of night, Annie catches him trying to figure out how to disarm the alarm. She tells him he should stay; William says he won’t. “I’ve been sleeping in my apartment doing things my way for a long time,” he explains. “What if I’m bad at — I just don’t want to let any of you down.” Annie, who tells him a story about a time she wished she hadn’t left a slumber party early, reassures him he won’t.
It’s our most focused moment with one of Randall’s daughters to date, and it’s telling, in that it’s part of the show building out its definition of family — extended family, more specifically — to reveal how bonds are made in unexpected ways. Just like Deja, after Annie convinces him to stay, William says with a smirk, “This house is crazy.” It’s in the show’s open-armed tradition that a little goodness, a little reassurance from a child without so many burdens to carry, is where the healing process can really begin.