Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

Even among those who like it, This Is Us often gets discussed as if it’s a conventional, old-fashioned family drama. The show’s tearjerker status and Jack’s death-by-Crock-Pot have been the source of far more conversation than the fact that its structure is unlike anything else on TV. It’s not just that This Is Us juxtaposes stories set in the present with stories set in the past—plenty of TV shows have done that before. It’s that This Is Us has reached a point where it can seamlessly weave together images from dozens of different eras into a visual tapestry of the Pearson family’s history. This Deja-centric hour likely would’ve been successful even if it had followed a more straightforward narrative structure. But the episode elevates itself with lyrical montages that tie Deja’s story into the larger story of the Pearsons and, in many ways, a larger story about humanity itself.

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The episode explicitly spells out its interest in broad human experiences during Deja’s monologue to Randall:

Isn’t it weird how everyone goes to sleep at night? Like everyone in the whole planet. All these people, people I’ll never know. Some are poor, some are rich, some sleep in beds, some sleep on the floor. But at the end of the day everyone sleeps. And, I guess, if you think about it hard, there’s other stuff everyone’s got too: Things that hurt them, things that make them feel better.

Fittingly, the episode’s montages center on experiences that shape so many lives: birth, death, parental love, domestic violence, alcoholism, money woes, and even just small things making breakfast or going to bed at night. Deja’s grandmother (played by the legendary Pam Grier) reads 3-year-old Deja Goodnight Moon—the same book Jack read to his little brother Nicky, Rebecca read to her children, and Randall read to his daughters too. Those four childhoods couldn’t be more different, but Goodnight Moon is book that bridges race, class, and regional divides to unite them all.

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Allison Shoemaker wrote a really great piece about the way the CW musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend uses reprises to draw emotional connections between episodes that aired years apart. And this episode is doing something similar with its flashbacks. Take, for instance, the moment Deja is reunited with Shauna after her first stint in foster care. The scene of Shauna opening the door to see Deja is intercut with the scene of Kate opening the door to see Rebecca after her miscarriage in “Number Two.” Rebecca and Kate’s reunion was a huge moment of relief in an emotionally tense episode and since This Is Us hasn’t spent as much time with the Shauna/Deja relationship, we’re able to transfer those emotions from one mother/daughter relationship to another. Similarly, even if we don’t quite feel the emotional weight of Deja’s connection to her grandmother’s brooch, linking that brooch to Jack’s necklace immediately gives us a sense of how much it means to Deja. In other words, this episode uses those flashbacks as an emotional shorthand, one This Is Us is uniquely poised to offer thanks to its structure.

One of the biggest strengths of This Is Us’ second season is how much more confident the show has become with its time-hopping premise. This episode alone requires its audience to keep track of about a dozen different timelines and trusts its audience to do so without much, if any, hand holding. That’s because This Is Us spent its first season meticulously training its audience how to watch it. The show carefully laid out its overarching timeline, teaching us which hairstyles to associate with which eras and making sure we understood where the Pearsons stood in those various eras, both as individuals and as a family. The Pearson family’s happiest memories mostly come from the Big Three’s childhood, but that was also a time when Jack was struggling with money and trying to power through his drinking problem alone. So when we see a shot of Milo Ventimiglia with a mustache, we instantly understand the larger context around him at that moment in time. And when we see Rebecca with long blonde hair and a few more wrinkles, we immediately understand that the Pearsons are in the financially stable but emotionally fraught era of the Big Three’s teenage years.

“This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life” takes all that knowledge we’ve amassed over the course of watching the show and uses it to compliment and complicate this deep dive into Deja’s life. Deja’s journey is often very tough to watch, but screenwriter Kay Oyegun makes the smart choice to ground it first and foremost in empathy. The only true villain in this episode (and rightly so) is Mr. Miller, the abusive foster father Deja is initially placed with after she’s taken away from Shauna. Elsewhere, Oyegun is careful to humanize all of her characters, even Shauna’s not-that-great boyfriend Lonzo. But the moment Lonzo charms at the dinner table or offers to help Deja with the dishes is less about deepening him as a character and more about helping us see why Shauna fell for him and why she continued to support him after he caused her so much trouble. Because above all, this episode is hugely empathetic towards Shauna, even as it doesn’t shy away from depicting her major flaws as a parent.

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Shauna was just 16 when she became a single mom and only a few years older when her grandmother died, leaving her without any kind of support system. As a kid, Deja instinctively learned to pick up the slack and to be a co-partner in raising herself. “What would I do without you?” became Shauna’s refrain throughout their lives. And despite sporadic attempts to get her act in order and become a better mother, Shauna could never quite rise to the challenge. She does truly and deeply love her daughter, but it’s not until she sees Deja actually getting to act like a kid at Beth and Randall’s house that she realizes the burden she’s been unfairly placing on her daughter’s shoulders.

If I have one critique of this episode it’s that Shauna’s decision to leave Deja with Beth and Randall feels a bit abrupt. It’s not that I don’t believe it’s a choice she might eventually make, it’s just that I’m not sure this episode quite gets us to that place yet. To be fair, however, Shauna’s choice is a cliffhanger that could be complicated next week. And regardless, that’s a minor niggle in an otherwise stellar episode.

What I particularly love about Oyegun’s script is how much it centers on women, specifically black women. From the beginning, This Is Us has been a show with compelling female characters but its first season mostly explored them in relation to men. The show’s second season has done a much better job of allowing its female characters to have relationships with one another too (Rebecca/Kate mostly, but also Rebecca/Beth in “The 20’s,” Kate/Madison in “Clooney,” and Beth/Kate in last week’s “Vegas, Baby”). “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life” feels like a culmination of This Is Us’ interest in complex female relationships.

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The episode explores the loving bond between Deja and her “Gigi”; the more fraught relationships Shauna has with both her grandmother and her daughter; the warm but complicated friendship between Deja and her foster sister Raven (Ciera Hart); and social worker Linda’s own complex interactions with both Deja and Shauna. One of the episode’s best scenes allows Shauna and Beth to connect as two very different women who are nevertheless linked by their mutual love of Deja. Coupled with this episode’s structural inventiveness and its brutally honest depiction of the foster care system, “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life” feels like nothing else I’ve seen on network TV before.

“This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life” is up there with the William-centric “Memphis” as one of This Is Us’ strongest outings, and it raises the bar for how the show can utilize its time-hopping premise going forward. Most importantly, it provides a wonderful showcase for Lyric Ross, who solidifies herself as one of the best actors in the entire This Is Us ensemble. This episode would seem to establish Deja as a permanent member of the Pearson family and both they—and us—are lucky to have her.


Stray observations

  • Pam Grier is in this episode for less than 10 minutes and she manages to create a memorable, lived-in character who feels essential to the fabric of This Is Us. All hail Queen Pam Grier!
  • Ciera Hart as Deja’s foster sister Raven is another actor who makes a huge impression with very little screentime. The This Is Us casting department has a truly phenomenal eye for spotting young talent.
  • I’m really curious about This Is Us’ production schedule. When it comes to brief scenes like the Big Three kneading dough with Rebecca, does the show just shoot that footage on days when Mandy Moore is already in early 1990s hair/make-up for other episodes? If so, that’s a lot of advanced planning.
  • I love Debra Jo Rupp as Linda and I hope This Is Us keeps finding ways to bring her back. I’d even be down for a Linda-centric episode next season.
  • It’s a nice touch that The Manny is on in the background while Deja is attempting to cook dinner.

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Next week: It’s the This Is Us season two finale!