Here’s how This Is Us outdid itself with ‘This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life’

Photo Credit: This Is Us/NBC/Ron Batzdorff, Acquired From NBCUniversal Media Village
Photo Credit: This Is Us/NBC/Ron Batzdorff, Acquired From NBCUniversal Media Village /

It’s not every day that network series delve into stories like Deja’s, but This Is Us went there with care and aired its best episode to date.

Following the latest bottle episode of This Is Us, the fan reaction was seemingly split. Part of the audience adored getting to know Deja on a deeper level, while others thought that series shouldn’t have devoted an entire episode to a “side” character when it should be focused on Jack or the Big Three. News flash: It’s called This Is Us — emphasis on “us” — for a reason.

It’s understandable that most viewers want to watch the lives of the Pearson family unfold, because we have spent the most time with them and, therefore, are emotionally attached. But the Pearsons are a mere entryway into even bigger stories. Each character who passes through This Is Us is an opportunity for the series to reach out to the one person in the audience who has never seen their truth represented on television and say, “I see you.” This week, it was Deja.

Photo Credit: This Is Us/NBC, Acquired From NBCUniversal Media Village
Photo Credit: This Is Us/NBC, Acquired From NBCUniversal Media Village /

“This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life” was the NBC tearjerker at its strongest. When was the last time you saw the story of a young woman of color, who’s in the foster system, play out as respectfully as on This Is Us? Sure, vital and socially relevant themes pop up in popular series all the time, whether often or simply during sweeps, but This Is Us used its penultimate episode of Season 2 to tell a self-contained backstory. That simply doesn’t happen in dramatic, serial storytelling on network television.

Here’s where I earn groans from the This Is Us fandom at large: I prefer when the series shines the light away from Jack. Apart from the culmination of his story, which was written and acted beautifully, I find most of his scenes to be contrived manipulations of reality meant to elasticize his wildly deemed perfection. Talking a car salesman into knocking down the price on the Wagoneer with one charming monologue? Cute, but supernatural.

Instead, as a television viewer and genuine fan of This Is Us, I would much rather watch the messier aspects of real life and deep-dive into the complexities that personify humanhood. Many episode of the series grant that wish, as evidenced by the multiple visual parallels that punctuated “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life,” but Season 2’s second to last waded further into these complexities for a character who just might end up as important as any other on the show.

Deja’s experiences and upbringing diverge from what we have seen from the Pearson norm. She practically raised herself and her mother, walked on eggshells as she wondered which bed she would sleep on next and if it would be safe. Kate, Kevin, and Randall didn’t have to deal with that. Rebecca didn’t have to deal with that. Jack, unfortunately, could understand best growing up with an alcoholic, abusive father. Still, the similarities and universality remain.

Although the connections might not have been clear, there were direct parallels between Deja’s past and that of the Pearsons. Those clips of family memories strewn throughout the episode weren’t an accident, and they weren’t a recap-style clip show a la ’90s sitcoms. This Is Us quietly but explicitly underlines the binding factor of existence: It might look and feel different, it might not be the same, but we’re all smacked with the same emotions.

One particularly striking relation made between Deja and the Pearsons featured two mightily disparate clips of mothers and daughters reuniting. In one, Deja returns to her mother after being placed in a foster home. In the other, Kate embraces her mother after years of unspoken tension. Yes, these situations are unalike. But no matter how you configure the equations, you’ll always end up with the same solution. Just as six plus four equals 10, so does eight plus two.

Next: This Is Us season 2, episode 17 recap: Deja’s big, amazing, beautiful life

Did we really need to know about Deja’s life? No. Could we have learned more about Beth or Toby or even Miguel before Deja? Sure. Will that come in time when it’s ready and relevant? Let’s hope. But there’s a method to the This Is Us madness, and we need to remember that. We’re not dealing with the cookie-cutter pinch hitters or the formulaic procedural dramas that used to teem network primetime timeslots. As Deja’s episode more than manifests, this is special.

Think of it this way: This Is Us saved viewers from menial wedding planning stories that would just have had as all grumbling and griping up and down social media. That’s the stuff we shouldn’t be interested in unless, for some reason, it has an underlying vitality to the family psychology (and, to a lesser extent, mythology). Quality over quantity.

For just under 40 episodes, This Is Us has raised the bar by tossing out the rulebook, going against the grain, and forgoing linearity for something more honest and unconventional than usual. As polarizing as its inventiveness can be, it contributes to the big-picture themes that tug on our heartstrings week after week. It’s quiet and divisive episodes like these that will keep the series in the critically acclaimed conversation for years — and many Emmys — to come. Here’s to a big, amazing, and beautiful life with This Is Us.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on NBC.