This Is Us Season 2, Episode 17
“This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life”
Posted by Shannon
I love a good thesis statement. It’s the English major in me, I’m sure, but a comprehensive thesis statement can’t be beat. It’s adaptable but steady, and as the work goes on and on, new opportunities to check in with your thesis feel a little like magic. When Kevin painted for Tess and Annie back in the first season, it set up a thesis for This Is Us that keeps being reimagined and expanded without losing its punch. In “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life,” we follow Deja from birth to present day, framing her life with known or unknown milestones she shared with the Pearsons. It could have easily come across as cheap, but instead what develops is a beautiful, thoughtful shorthand. As we come to the close of the second season, this episode underscores how far the show has come – and how much will always stay the same.
Shauna was just 16 when she gave birth to Deja. Shauna and Deja did have help – Shauna’s grandmother, GG. Shauna’s mom is out of the picture, as is Deja’s father, but Grandma was there to teach Shauna how to hold her newborn, to keep a roof over all their heads, and to make sure Deja and Mr. Bear got their bedtime stories. As the first few years of Deja’s life go by, Shauna is living her life as any other teen would – she doesn’t particularly want to help clean up the house, or chip in to pay the bills, or stay at home with her daughter after Deja’s fallen asleep. Shauna had dreams of her own – to be off at college with the rest of her friends, having fun before she had to make a life for herself. But that’s not her reality.
GG was a rock for Shauna in every way possible. She was the only steady family Shauna had, the only person she could rely on. And so, when GG passes away suddenly, it’s completely destabilizing. “What are we gonna do now?” she asks Deja. It’s easy to jump to judgement here; how could a mother ask her newly mourning child, who’s five, to support them emotionally in a time of crisis? But Shauna herself is 20 when she loses her grandmother. As she says later in the episode, her age is not an excuse. But this is one of those moments when the context of the show drives home the impossibility of Shauna’s life. She was just a few years older than the Big Three were when they lost Jack. None of them would have been in a state to care for a child, much less maintain the appropriate emotional boundaries with that child. Deja’s a phenomenally special kid, though, and she can answer her mother’s question. Now they carry on, they read her favorite bedtime story, they moo along, and laugh and cry together.
Shauna and Deja hold it together for the next stage of their lives. Deja’s starting to resemble the kid we know and love, and while she’s the one who has to keep track of her mom’s work vest and water bill, she’s capable and happy. Shauna’s still keeping her old habits, staying out later than she should and leaning a touch too far towards unreliability. (Deja’s follow up question to her mom saying she’ll be off work at seven is “Seven like seven, or seven like ten?”) Still, they live a loving, if difficult, life. Deja wants to take the opportunity to celebrate her mom’s birthday, making her GG’s jambalaya in celebration. She heads home with all the groceries she needs, and sets about cooking for her mom. And then, an old manual can opener changes the course their lives. Deja slashes her hand by accident – badly. Shauna doesn’t answer her phone and since the water’s been turned off, Deja can’t clean the wound herself. (Though realistically she couldn’t have anyway. It was far, far too deep.) She takes herself to the ER to get cleaned up and nothing’s ever the same.
After Deja gets cleaned up, the attending physician is interrupted by Linda. The reality of the situation here is that Deja was a minor, and her mom wasn’t where she said she was. Of course child protective services got involved. Linda’s kind but matter of fact, and she heads off Shauna at the pass when she runs into the waiting area in a panic. I can only imagine that Deja’s first instinct here is to blame herself; if she hadn’t been cooking for her mom and hadn’t gotten hurt, she wouldn’t have spent the night on the couch of Linda’s office while she tried to find immediate placement. But the other side of it is that Shauna had gone out with her boyfriend for her birthday dinner – KNOWING that Deja was home waiting for her, so excited at the opportunity to cook for her mom.
Deja’s placed in a foster home with a girl about her own age, a fun, energetic love of a girl named Raven. Deja hasn’t had many friends, at least not that we’ve seen, and with her mom so close to her in age their relationship is shown as more peer than maternal. Still, Raven’s the first person to try to get Deja out of her shell, and it goes a long way for Deja to have a little fun. But we’ve known that her previous placements in child services had a darkness to them, and sure enough, Mr. Miller, the patriarch of this particular house, is physically abusive to Raven and has at the very least threatened Deja as well. Raven’s been in the system for most of her life. She’s a lighthearted kid, but she’s got a hard edge to her, one that only comes with experience. “When he gets drunk he’s gonna hit me anyway,” she tells Deja matter of factly, before pivoting to the upcoming school dance. They both have outfits, and Deja’s been learning some dance skills, but neither of them have any makeup. Raven prompts them to shoplift from a sweet old man who owns a nearby corner store. It’s neither girl’s shining moment, and I’m not advocating for shoplifting, but there’s just not a lot of joy in their lives. So seeing them muck around with contouring in that clownish way that tweens have when they start playing with makeup made me smile, even though I knew it couldn’t possibly end well.
Sure enough, Mr. Baldwin comes around to talk to Mr. Miller, and as soon as he’s back out the door, Mr. Miller comes down hard on Deja and Raven. Raven throws herself in front of Deja, and even though the show stays away from showing anything too graphically violent, it’s really tough to watch. No child deserves this. When Miss Linda comes for her next visit, it’s plain on Deja’s face that something is deeply wrong. She ends up telling Linda everything and the two girls are shown out immediately, with their previous “caregiver” in custody. While Deja is scared but relieved, Raven is angry and disappointed. “At least he only hit. We could have stayed in those beds for years. Now we’ll get separated. It’s like a storm once it starts, Deja. Bed after bed after bed.”
After a few other unseen foster homes, Linda finally brings Deja home to Shauna. She’s been in recovery for at least a year and their reunion is a clear relief for both of them. Shauna even offers to cook GG’s jambalaya for Deja, and everything seems to be off to a decent start. But Shauna also wants to bring by her boyfriend from rehab, Alonso. If you’ve got a sharp memory for character names he might have rung a bell. Sure enough, this is the guy who left the gun in Shauna’s car, launching her into jail and Deja into the Pearson family home. But before all of that, things started off well enough. Alonso was sweet and funny, and poked fun at himself and his “Disney villain” laugh. But he’s also a volatile alcoholic (a message the audience receives quickly after flashes of Jack and Kevin at their lowest). The gun makes its way to the house first, and while Deja tunes the frequent fights between Shauna and Alonso out for the sake of her studying, the stress of it all is unavoidable; her alopecia starts, leaving her scared and panicked, but never saying a word about it.
Alonso and his friends have basically taken over Shauna and Deja’s apartment, leaving food and dirty dishes all over the place. Deja has always had the feeling of a woman beyond her years; even when she was five and reading to her mom. But she never seems older than she does here, staring daggers at Alonso while he finally offers to help clean up, daring to ask her about her schoolwork. She’s a whole different kid at school, prepping for the dance slam. She’s still cautious, but at least she’s laughing. It all comes crashing down – again – when the police interrupt her solo to take her to Linda.
Such was her life before we met her. It’s after that final school day interruption that Deja is placed with Randall and Beth, and we touch on the biggest moments of her life at the Pearsons. Beth doing her hair, Randall driving her home from the party, Randall setting up her science fair projects with her. Deja meeting and connecting with Tess and Annie, all the while remembering Raven’s parting words of wisdom; “The next time you find a bed that feels even a little safe, don’t blow it.” And as we know, it’s still a temporary stay; Linda picks her up a few months later, returning her to the same apartment with Shauna for one more try. She promises Alonso’s gone, that she’ll get it right this time.
I’m guessing at Deja’s current age, since as far as I can tell we don’t know exactly how old she is. (Hit me up in the comments if I’ve missed it!) But if Deja’s around 12 or 13 here, Shauna isn’t even 30 and she’s got the weight of the world on her shoulders; she’s recovered from addiction, she’s made it through jail time, and she’s got her daughter back. It goes okay, for a while. Maybe even better than ever. Deja makes them a home bank and helps Shauna keep track of their income, but there’s still always bills they can’t pay. This time around it’s the gas bill – and so, after a few months of smooth sailing, Deja shows up at the Pearsons for money to get the heat back on. If Deja’s instincts were sending off warning signs about the state of that home bank, she was ignoring them. And who could blame her? But the landlady knocking on the door and yelling about a bounced rent check can’t be ignored. Deja knows for a fact that they’d budgeted for rent, and that there’s no reason the check should have bounced. Except Shauna’s been paying Alonso’s bail. “He’s locked up and it’s my fault,” she mutters, before yelling at Deja to watch her tone. Again, Deja tries to step up to her Grandmother’s level, tries to fix everything for her and her mom. A trip to the pawn shop leaves her empty handed, after she refuses to pawn the one remaining broach she has from her GG. Back at home, Shauna and Deja pack up what they can and head out into the car.
The edits within the show implies that it’s their second night in the car, at the most, when Beth’s spidey senses lead her to Deja. They immediately open their home to both Deja and Shauna. Tess and Annie pile on top of Deja with abandon, but Beth and Randall know this situation is far from easy. Still, they make sure Shauna feels as respected as possible, orchestrating an idyllic Pearson family night complete with a game of Uno and a viewing of Police Academy 4. It’s an impossible situation for Shauna. Her pride and defensiveness with the Pearsons a few months ago was completely understandable; but now, she’s faced with the most comfortable, most relaxed version of her daughter she’s ever seen. Deja is right back at home and she can barely wait to sleep in her old room again. Beth sets Shauna up on the couch and they chat about track and D’Angelo, settling into a cautious familiarity with each other. At first, I was surprised to see Shauna open up to Beth so quickly. But Shauna hasn’t had a support system in her life since her Grandmother died. She’s been at a loss, whether she’s wanted to admit it or not. Shauna knows she’s put unfair pressure on her daughter, but she hasn’t known what else to do. (“Who puts that on a kid? Who does that?”) And now, for the first time in years, she can connect with a woman who knows and understands her situation. Someone who can help.
While Beth and Shauna talk downstairs, Randall hops up to check on Deja. She’s moved to see that he’s kept her plants alive (“I just made sure they got enough light, enough Beyonce, enough water.”) and settles down onto her bed in a bit of a daze. The week this girl has lived through is nigh unimaginable. And still, because Deja truly is a tiny Randall, she has all the emotional awareness of a woman more than twice her age. Her monologue is stunning, and all the props to Lyric Ross for this scene. Sterling K. Brown is nothing if not an exceptional scene partner and as he kneels next to her to listen, he never once takes his eyes off her. Every movement of her face as she talks about her life, connecting her experiences to the lives of everyone else on the earth, is so peaceful while being so deeply sad. When she finally cracks and admits that “I’m really tired,” my heart broke open right along with Randall’s.
Deja finally goes to sleep in the safest bed she’s known for most of her young life. And when Randall comes downstairs, it’s just in time to see her mom make a choice: “I gotta go,” Shauna admits to Beth and Randall, her bags packed. “And I can’t take her with me.”
Colors of the Painting
- When Deja was cooking alone at home, The Manny was on TV. Well done, show.
- My whole life for that drill team instructor.
- Randall and Beth’s management company is called R&B Properties because they were meant to be.
- I’m sorry but just imagine how much William would have loved Deja.
- Randall’s unabashed cackle watching Police Academy 4, though.
- Sterling absolutely killed his hosting gig at SNL (not like anyone should be surprised), so let’s all take a moment to enjoy his monologue:
What were your thoughts on this episode? Are you ready for the season finale? Let us know in the comments!