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Sylvester Stallone helps This Is Us explore mental health and masculinity

Photo: This Is Us (NBC)
Photo: This Is Us (NBC)
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“Déjà Vu” is an episode full of interesting ideas that spreads itself a little too thin in an effort to fit them all in. The various plot threads wind up feeling like they’re jostling for attention rather than working in harmony with one another. Nevertheless, there’s still a ton of meaty thematic material to dig into in tonight’s episode. Plus Sylvester Stallone is on hand to lend gravitas and some unexpected sweetness to the proceedings.

“Déjà Vu” centers on people burying their emotions and the ripple effect that can have, sometimes for generations. The episode has three main storylines: Jack and Rebecca continue to work on their marriage in the 1990s; Randall and Beth spend their first night with their new foster kid, Deja; and Kate visits Kevin on the set of his Ron Howard film. There’s also a runner about teenage Randall trying to find his birth mom, which feels both scattered and underdeveloped. Plus a sweet scene flashing back to William’s first night at the Pearson house, which allows for the always-welcome return of Ron Cephas Jones. Like I said, it’s a lot for one episode.

As is so often the case, Beth and Randall once again walk away with the episode’s most interesting storyline. Introducing Deja—both into their lives and into the world of This Is Us—is such a monumental step that I found myself wanting to stick with that story rather than returning to the others. There are plenty of things to like in the Jack/Rebecca and Kevin/Kate stuff, but both of those threads cover somewhat familiar territory for This Is Us. The Deja storyline is something entirely new.

Lyric Ross is really fantastic as Deja. Like so many of the main characters in this episode, Deja copes with the harshness of life by burying her emotions. And Ross conveys Deja’s standoffishness and awkwardness in a way that feels palpably real, not like a made-for-TV personality quirk to be easily overcome. Though fostering a child isn’t as easy as Randall optimistically hoped it would be, he proves he’s uniquely suited to the task as he uses his own history to relate to Deja. He hasn’t been through the foster care system himself, but he does understand the idea of feeling out of place in a home that has all the creature comforts and love one could ask for. His speech breaks through Deja’s tougher exterior, if only for a moment. And though it’s obviously not enough to make her suddenly okay with the idea that she might be living with the Pearsons while her mom is in prison, it’s a brief high among a lot of lows. There’s still a ton of material left to be explored in Deja’s story, particularly when it comes to her history of abuse, which comes to light in a heartbreaking moment in which she instinctively flinches from Randall. Given how well This Is Us generally handles the Randall/Beth stuff, I’m looking forward to seeing the show explore a new, challenging chapter in their growing family’s life.

Deja’s standoffishness parallels the standoffishness of Jack, Kevin, and teenage Randall in the episode’s other storylines. But there’s an extra layer added to the show’s exploration of the Pearson men, too: The way stereotypical masculinity all but forbids emotional openness. It’s right there in Jack’s opening AA speech. The broodiness of Jordan Catalano may be all the rage on network TV, but Jack has a hard time shaking the idea that being a man means shouldering your burdens alone and imperceptibly. Anger seems to be the one socially acceptable emotion men are allowed to express and since Jack long ago decided he didn’t want to approach life with anger the way his father did, he has with no real tools for managing his emotions. His 12 step program has encouraged him to work through his feelings, rather than stuffing them down, but though Jack knows he should talk to Rebecca about his problems—and wants to in fact—he simply has no idea how to go about actually doing so.

As with the Deja storyline, there’s something that feels really true-to-life about Jack’s story. Miguel’s ex-wife Shelly gives Rebecca the standard TV sitcom solution to her martial problems: Placate Jack with sex. But This Is Us refuses to lower Jack to the level of so many sex-crazed sitcom husbands before him. He’s a complex human being and his emotional crisis isn’t one that can’t be patched over with a quickie in a parked car. During much of its first season, This Is Us came dangerously close to depicting Jack as a saint, and it’s been great to see this season explore the flawed but lovable man behind that seemingly perfect exterior.

For instance, though Jack and Rebecca awkwardly, tentatively work their way to a more emotionally vulnerable place, Jack has already unknowingly passed on a lesson about stoicism to his sons. He may have been more open and loving with them than his own father was with him, but during their childhoods Kevin and Randall both clearly internalized ideas about “real men” stuffing down their emotions. Teenage Randall struggles to talk about the constant yearning he feels to find his birth parents. And even as an adult, Kevin is completely unable to discuss his father’s death, decades after it happened.

And that brings us to Sylvester Stallone. Though I assumed Sly would have little more than a cameo appearance in this episode, he actually carries a surprising amount of the dramatic weight in Kevin’s storyline. It’s weird in the way that celebrities playing themselves is always weird, but it’s also unexpectedly moving. Stallone is one of those actors who has defined the concept of masculinity since he emerged on the scene in the first Rocky film in 1976. But while he’s perhaps most associated with the machismo of roles like Rambo, there’s always been a thread of softness to Stallone as well. Rocky Balbao may be a tough-as-nails boxer, but he’s also a soft-spoken romantic. It’s no wonder he was Jack’s idol. There’s a real sweetness to Stallone’s scenes in this episode, particularly in his immediately chummy friendship with Kate. And he makes a fascinating foil to the other men of This Is Us.

“Déjà Vu” is chock-full of ideas, far more than I have room to fully expand on here. For instance, there’s a fascinating subtext about the ways in which women are able to help the men in their lives access a fuller range of emotions. (That Randall is so much more open as an adult than he was as a teen seems largely due to his partnership with Beth.) Or there’s Stallone’s lovely monologue about the nature of time, which sums up so much of This Is Us’ ethos. But in the end, “Déjà Vu” is an episode that works a little better on paper than it does in practice. It bites off more than it can chew and therefore winds up feeling too on-the-nose one moment and too underdeveloped the next. Yet even so, I give the show a lot of points for raising a much-needed conversation about masculinity and emotional openness in general. Because, hey, finding meaning in missteps is surely something Rocky Balboa would approve of.


Stray observations

  • Jack Death Watch: We now know a little more about the dog Kate was holding the night Jack died: Rebecca and Jack take in a stray they find on their lawn after their date night.
  • So let’s talk about the last shot of Kevin and his pills. I appreciate This Is Us’ commitment to exploring addiction and the ways in which it can be hereditary. But, man, “handsome movie star becomes addicted to painkillers while hiding an injury” feels like a plot from a Lifetime movie.
  • In case you were unaware, Milo Ventimiglia played Sylvester Stallone’s son in 2006’s Rocky Balboa so there’s a whole lot of meta stuff going on in this episode.
  • Her conversation with William is really the first time Faithe Herman has been asked to carry a scene by herself and she absolutely nails it. The This Is Us casting department has a great eye for child actors.
  • Neither Toby nor Sophie make an appearance in tonight’s episode. Toby is already so woven into the fabric of the show that his absence doesn’t feel weird, but I’m curious to see if/when This Is Us will offer any sort of payoff for Kevin’s whirlwind romantic reconnection with Sophie.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.