by David Canfield | via Entertainment Weekly
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 storylines 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 yells “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.”
Click HERE to read the rest of the recap, “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life.”
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