This Is Us Recap: Parenting Isn’t Easy

This Is Us

Still There
Season 2 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

The plot twists on This Is Us can be exciting. They can be manipulative. They can be so emotionally affecting that they turn you into a sobbing piece of human trash who cannot get out of the fetal position for two to four hours. Everyone has their own thoughts on the matter. So much is said about the big, series-changing twists, that a much subtler but better crafted plot turn in an episode can be overlooked.

Let’s talk about the Deja story line.

When This Is Us decided to tackle a foster child story line, I was admittedly worried. Would it be too clichéd? Would they make such extremely complicated subject matter too simplistic? Although I hesitate to use the word “pleasantly” when discussing something so heartbreaking, the final act in Deja’s plot this week was so authentic and emotional, and so not where I thought it was headed, it was a very welcome surprise.

The Randall and Beth Pearson household is having some hygiene issues. For some reason that Randall and Beth have yet to figure out, Deja won’t wash her hair. It’s been two weeks. Beth thinks it’s time to have a hygiene heart-to-heart, but Randall is worried Deja will feel even more alienated than she already does. Randall wants to take the lead on this. His plan is make Deja feel comfortable as a part of the family, and then have the awkward discussion with her when she may be more receptive.

This plan backfires spectacularly.

The first misstep is that Randall takes Deja, Tess, and Annie bowling. BOWLING. Randall, aren’t you supposed to be the gifted one? People only willingly go bowling for the cheap beers and deliciously gross nachos and the ability to say that they had cheap beers and deliciously gross nachos somewhere other than their couch. (Unless you’re in a bowling league or something, which, good for you for having activities.) As they wait in line to get their bowling shoes, another young girl makes a comment under her breath about Deja’s hair. They get into it, Deja pushes her, and then Randall and the other girl’s dad get into it. The evening is a disaster for everyone. Except for us, who get to watch Sterling K. Brown take off his glasses in anticipation of a physical altercation which is a hilarious spin on the “oh, I’m taking off my earrings” fight escalation.

Knowing he has failed, Randall passes the Operation Hair Wash baton to Beth. And as if you expected anything less, Beth is wonderful about the whole thing. She doesn’t force anything on Deja, she shares a little bit about her past and her family’s tradition of doing each other’s hair, and she even offers up a trip to the salon, if Deja would like that. It doesn’t take long for Deja to make up her mind: She wants Beth to do her hair.

And so she does. When Beth starts combing Deja out, she discovers why Deja’s been so reluctant to do anything about her hair: She has bald patches. Beth doesn’t miss a beat, and lets Deja know that her sister has them too. It’s alopecia and it’s not anyone’s fault; some people are just born with it and it can flare up due to stress — like, say, moving to a new home with strangers. Beth’s words resonate with Deja, who almost assuredly thought that it was something to be ashamed of. Thanks to the practice from braiding her sister’s hair, Beth is sure she can braid Deja’s to cover her patches. It’s the first time we see the hint of a smile on Deja’s face. Maybe Beth is someone she can rely on and trust.

That small win doesn’t last long. What happens next is the little plot turn I was so jazzed about. I honestly thought Beth and Randall would get one of those “highs” they were talking about in foster parenting, but instead they get a very low low. After Randall hears from Beth about what’s going on with Deja, he attempts to make a connection with her by sharing that he’s had nervous breakdowns, and that he runs to alleviate stress, should she ever be interested. What could be a bonding moment is completely destroyed because all Deja hears is that Beth shared her secret with Randall. That tiny bit of trust is immediately gone. Later, Deja is so hurt that she takes scissors to her beautiful braids and cuts all of her hair off. When she comes down to breakfast, Randall is stunned and the hurt on Beth’s face is so palpable that nothing needs to be said. Foster parenting isn’t easy, and it’s nice to see This Is Us isn’t trying to wrap it up neatly with a bow.

Randall is having a rough go of things in another timeline, too. It’s the early ’90s, the Big Three are the Little Big Three, and Jack’s Hot Dad Mustache is back. Also, there’s a terrible snowstorm, the Pearson house is infected with chickenpox, and Rebecca’s overbearing, hypercritical mother has arrived to “help.”

We already know Rebecca and her mother don’t get along: She criticizes Jack, she perpetually separates Kevin and Kate from Randall when discussing her grandchildren, and she is basically an evil she-beast hidden by the disarming face of Elizabeth Perkins. Now we get to see her in action. She dresses up her negativity with smiles, but she is still doing things like telling Kate to consider her too-small Little Mermaid costume a “goal” dress, and giving Randall his third basketball even though he doesn’t and has never played. That gift, paired with comments about being surprising that Randall is the one in private school, makes it overwhelmingly clear to Rebecca that her mother is very much a racist.

In a scene with an excellent performance by Mandy Moore (the girl is bringing it to season two), she tells her mother exactly that. She won’t be exposing her son to such awful behavior anymore, so once the snow clears up, she needs to leave. Unfortunately, Randall overhears the entire thing, which leads to an awkward conversation between Randall and his parents about how racism can take many forms, and leaves him with a new outlook on his grandma.

The next morning as she packs her things, Rebecca’s mother attempts to apologize. She’s trying, she says. To which Rebecca responds, “You shouldn’t have to try.” Not all hope is lost: When she says good-bye to Randall, he shows her his science-fair project, quotes Newton’s Second Law, and she tells him that he’s a very special boy, as if finally seeing him for the first time. “Took you long enough,” Randall replies. So it’s official then: Randall has always been the best Pearson.

This Is the Rest

• Big news: Kate is pregnant! If she has a boy and names him Jack, the inevitable discussions about Kate’s weight and Toby’s insufferableness going next level as a father-to-be may just be worth it. Like, a tiny bit.

• Old news: Toby is terrible and Kate deserves better. Yes, if Kate were working out for ten hours a day or throwing out every piece of food in the kitchen except for baby carrots, he should be concerned. But harping on her because she wants to make her yoga class? Or because she wants to finish the last 15 minutes of her workout? Because she threw away junk food? Let the woman live! Just because you don’t work out every day, Toby, doesn’t mean it’s wrong of Kate to do so.

• Brian Grazer tells Kevin to fix his knee situation, so he has a quickie surgery. He doesn’t give himself much healing time and confides in Toby that he will not allow his knee to curtail his dreams again. Kevin had a real shot at a football career until he fractured his knee in high school. (You know, the Sign of Jack’s Death injury.) He’ll do whatever it takes to keep his acting dream on track, so he pops some painkillers and heads back to set as if nothing happened.

• Sorry not sorry, but does Kevin just travel with a copy of the high-school football reel Jack made for college recruiters? Also, if Jack made that video around 1997, it would most definitely be on VHS. Did he convert it to Blu-ray? Does Kate have a VHS player? Instead of getting emotional at seeing Kevin watch Jack’s cameo in his reel, I was just confused and distracted.

• Jack and Little Kevin growling at the chickenpox. Jack and Little Kevin shoveling a path in the driveway so grandma can get the hell out of town. Jack and Little Kevin everything.

• This is my truth: I would take hundreds of cute little family scenes in video-rental stores over finding out how Jack dies.

• Praise be! Something had been missing from season two and I finally figured it out: MANDY’S HATS. The hat drought is no longer, because Mandy is sporting a heavenly teal knitted beret. Her signature type of hat, no less!

This Is Us Recap: Parenting Isn’t Easy