Tuesday, March 6, 2018

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Deja's Life is Defined by Tragedy and Hopefulness in 'This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.17 "This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life"

Randall and Beth welcome visitors to their home.

Near the end of "This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life," Deja turns to Randall and confesses to him that she was confused by his big speech to her about "deja vu and seeing his life in her story" from the first day that they met. Even now, she doesn't quite see how the two are similar because of the outward appearances of their lives. He is still wealthy, happy and successful. Deja only gets close to that when she is with his family. She is happy here. But her life has been so depressing for so long that it's hard for her to see it becoming any better than it is now knowing that her mother still wants to be a part of her life. All of this is a very effective moment. And yet, the show can't help itself when it comes to over-indulging on all the metaphors for how Deja's life really is deja vu with the Pearson family. She didn't grow up in the same environment. But her story of adversity and happiness does mimic what has been going on with various corners of this family. That just seems like a completely unnecessary plot device though. It's a way to ensure that the entire ensemble of characters actually appears in this episode - even though it's mostly archival footage from previous episodes. But that has never been a huge concern before. Yes, the show does typically follow a familiar pattern with four stories in each episode with one being set in the past and the other three in the present-day with the siblings. But it's not beholden to that rule. It has done solo outings before. This episode is trying to be that. It's trying to further illuminate this child's life and how it has always been complicated based on the family she comes from. It's after a brutal and tragic episode with an uplifting ending because of the influence from Randall and Beth. But all of the references to the Pearsons just seem so forced in order to ensure that the audience understands that all of this has happened before and will happen again.

And of course, the most inspired moments of Deja's life come when there isn't an easy parallel to draw with the rest of the Pearson family. There are flashes of Jack and Kevin struggling with addiction when Shauna keeps returning to her self-destructive patterns. There's a whole montage of various characters giving birth at the same time as Shauna is as a 16-year-old. There's the tragedy that comes from sudden death. Here, that's seen through the inevitable demise of Shauna's grandmother. Her collapsing on the floor of an apartment hallway seemed likely because Shauna and Deja needed to be isolated as the only family they have. Of course, it was moving to watch in the opening stretch of the episode to see the grandmother attempt to get Shauna to take responsibility for her actions and not repeat the same mistakes that her mother did. It's a very strong and moving performance from Pam Grier. That was a huge casting get for this show. But it's only a few moments later when she dies right in front of her granddaughter and great-granddaughter. That's the first tragedy that Deja witnesses. It's not the event that forever shapes her life. That's much more simple and unfortunate later on. Plus, it's interesting to note that the flashes of similar Pearson tragedies in that moment include Rebecca losing Jack and Randall losing William. But the show conveniently leaves out Jack's reaction to the death of his brother - which is significant because an early moment makes sure to remind the audience of his existence and that being a story that is still yet to be told.

It's also important to note that Deja has always had to be the mature one in this family dynamic. Shauna would be completely lost without her in her life. She needs her daughter in order to remain focused on what's important. When she is trying to get sober, she has a reason why. She wants to be with her daughter. It's when she has her daughter that her focus starts to slip and she is susceptible to her destructive vices. Deja's journey into the foster care system starts with her cutting her hand on a can opener and going to the emergency room by herself. The system cares for her. Linda is the first social worker she meets. She has always been looking out for Deja. She has always wanted things to work out with this family. And yet, there is the sense that this was inevitably going to happen as well. It's one thing for Deja to be left alone in the house and injuring herself like this. It's another troubling sign that Shauna can't be contacted for a long time. She claims to be at work. But it seems like she no longer has a job there. Her whereabouts are unknown. The show highlights this tragedy without providing too much clarity on it. It's still effectively being told from Deja's perspective. Shaun's perspective is important as well. Plenty of this episode is devoted to her - especially the last part. But this hour is all about determining what's best for Deja. She has led this rough life. She has always wanted to be good and live with her mother. But the years have constantly shown that that may not be a good idea at all.

And yet, the show also proves that things could be even more tragic. When Deja is placed in a new home, she is forced to endure the physical abuse of the foster dad. She forms a strong new friendship with another girl in the system who is willing to accept the pain because of the stability elsewhere in this living arrangement. She rationalizes it by saying it could be a whole lot worse. And then, it does. This girl may not be a good influence for Deja. She's forcing her to regret coming clean to Linda about the trauma that is happening within these walls. She's being asked to see her life as interchangeable with whatever family she ends up being placed in. She is being stripped of her personality and her spirit. Linda is looking out for her. But this is a dispiriting system as well that is threatening to forever change Deja. And yet, she finally does return to her mother. They can pick up their lives as they once were. But that same day is when Shauna introduces Deja to her new boyfriend who she met in rehab. After that, it's the tragic and inevitable story of him being a bad influence because he joins a gang. Shauna believes she's doing the right thing by being upset about the discovery of a gun in the household. This guy thinks he's doing right by taking an interest in Deja's schooling. And yet, she just wants to be herself while dancing. That's what makes it so tragic when she is removed from that specific class when she learns about Shauna being arrested.

All of this is largely backstory to the life Deja lived long before she met Randall and Beth. But the episode needed to catch up to the current events as well with Deja asking for money only to eventually end up living in Shauna's car. She came into their lives and completely changed them. It was heartbreaking when she left to go live with Shauna again. And now, it's clear that she returned with a system in the hopes of breaking the pattern. She wanted Shauna to be more responsible this time around. And yet, it's her discovery that Shauna has used the money she got for the gas bill to help pay for her former boyfriend's bail that she realizes this pattern may never break. Shauna may just be incapable of fixing these issues. It's tragic because it threatens sending Deja right back to the same system that has always turned out so well. As such, it's miraculous that Randall and Beth show up right when Deja and Shauna need it the most. That was only the first night of the two of them sleeping in a car. Randall and Beth then welcome them both into their home. It's a night of just simple pleasure. They watch movies and play card games. It's a night that just seems so effortless. And yet, it's a powerful realization for Shauna. She sees this as the life that Deja deserves. She looks at this life not out of envy but out of acceptance. Randall and Beth are willing to help her. They care about Deja and would love for her to be a part of their family. Her influence was deeply felt even long after she was gone. But they genuinely want to help Shauna as well. They are willing to figure what all of this means. Instead, Shauna makes the decision to leave Deja behind with Randall and Beth. She accepts that this is the perfect life for her and that it's unfair that she has always placed so much responsibility on her. This is a simple solution for what Randall and Beth have always wanted this season. But it's tragic too. Deja is being abandoned. She just doesn't know it yet. Randall and Beth will have to help her cope with that. Plus, it always leaves the possibility of Shauna one day returning as a new person ready to make her claim for Deja once more.

Some more thoughts:
  • "This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life" was written by Kay Oyegun and directed by Rebecca Asher.
  • This show employs a number of really gifted child performers. Many have stood out in noticeable ways in various episodes across the two seasons. And yet, I don't know how many of them could actually carry an episode of this show. The nature of the series and always having to connect every action to what has come before makes it seem less daunting. But it's still inspiring to see just how easily Lyric Ross carries long stretches of this episode.
  • Every performance in every generation of Deja's story though is quite strong. Joy Brunson is great as Shauna who is trying her best to accept responsibility in her life despite the allure of her addictions. Pam Grier is fantastic as the grandmother who wishes she wasn't living this life all over again. And even the younger Deja is wonderful as she witnesses her grandmother's death and has to help her mother cope with it.
  • It's kinda miraculous that Shauna and Deja lived in the same apartment for their entire lives up to this point. The landlord must have been okay with them being late on the rent for a long time. She finally hits her breaking point here. But there's a stretch of time when Deja is in foster care and Shauna is in rehab. So, it seemed unlikely that the apartment would still be waiting for them. But it was.
  • Deja appreciates Randall keeping her plants alive from her science project. It's just a small and simple gesture that proves that this family still loves her. She asks if she can return to the same room she slept in before. It's there that she sees how much love is still present for her. And yet, she still thinks that Randall is completely corny with his humor. She's absolutely right to think that as well.
  • When the show inevitably returns to the flash-forward storyline, one of the biggest questions will be - what has happened to Deja? This season has made the audience invest in her and her journey with the Pearson family. This is the big climatic ending for the season. But in getting a glimpse of Randall and Tess' future, there is the likelihood of the world as the audience now understands it to be different. Hopefully, that doesn't mean something more has happened to Deja between now and then.