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'This Is Us' recap: Old wounds reopen, thanks to Sylvester Stallone

For The Baltimore Sun

This week’s “This Is Us” episode is brought to you by:

  • stupid gender roles and how they teach boys and men the only acceptable way to deal with emotions is to stuff them down and ignore them!
  • really bad rom-com marital advice from divorced friends telling you that sex will fix whatever ails your relationship!
  • and Sylvester — “Sly” if he likes you — Stallone! (Sly needs no elaboration.)

If you haven’t yet seen Tuesday night’s episode of “This Is Us,” turn back now, for there are spoilers here.

Everyone else, grab your burgers, get in the car, and let’s discuss what happened in “Déjà Vu.”

Back in the Day

It’s been three weeks since Rebecca told Jack to get in the car, and now he’s working the AA program diligently. He’s even trying to open up to his fellow attendees, even though it’s pretty much the least natural thing in the world for him right now.

Jack admits he’s having trouble connecting with his wife, which probably seems to the others in the room like the world’s most obvious statement — “Yeah, pal, you and every single person in this room” — but to us, the Pearson-ified, it’s a gut punch of the first magnitude.

Meanwhile, Kate thinks the family is falling apart, Kevin thinks she’s being ridiculous, and Randall is placing classified ads in local papers looking for his birth parents. When he gets a handwritten response, inviting him to meet in the park, he can barely contain himself.

Randall tells his brother and sister what’s going on, and they actually show up at the park to keep an eye on Randall and support him. When the wild-eyed white woman — who we all know isn’t Randall’s birth mother, because she died in childbirth — approaches him and says, basically, she knows he has money because he said in his ad he didn’t need money, Randall just silently gets up and walks away, and his brother and sister hustle off behind him.

Look, Randall has always been the smartest one in the entire family, and we all know it. But this is a rare depiction of the twins putting Randall first, and it is so welcome.

Meanwhile, Rebecca follows some advice from Miguel’s ex, Shelly, and plans a romantic surprise date for Jack. She picks him up after work with a bag of burgers. But the date doesn’t go so well. When Rebecca puts the moves on her husband, he’s resistant.

Jack admits his pre-Rebecca life was pretty much craptastic, and as a result, his preferred coping tool has been “run away from it and shove it down.” But now AA is telling him he has to sit there in the toxic psychic stew of those awful years, that it’s the only way to get to the recovery on the other side.

And there’s a ton of stuff Jack knows he needs to tell Rebecca — such as the fact he borrowed the money to buy their house from his awful father, which he does tell her. As for the rest, he’ll tell her that stuff, too, but it’ll take awhile.

And as they finally get out of the car, they see a dog devouring the bag of burgers Rebecca had tossed earlier. They’re both instantly smitten, and the dog loves them (the dog is no fool).

And that, kids, is how we met the Pearson family dog!

Present Day

In the present day castle of Our Lady and Sovereign Queen Beth Pearson, Sir Randall is cooking his feelings, according to the lady of the house — a lovely bolognese sauce, and now I’m both envious and hungry.

Randall’s real special sauce is, as always, anxiety. It’s been three weeks since they turned in the foster parent paperwork. He’s both anxious for the kid to arrive, and anxious that he won’t be able to handle the kid.

Do you want stress-induced blindness again, Randall? Because this is how you get stress-induced blindness.

And in true Hollywood fashion, that’s the exact moment the phone rings. Twelve-year-old Deja is on her way back into the system thanks to her mom’s latest arrest. All four Pearsons are excited and nervous about welcoming Deja — Annie and Tess are painting pictures for her — but when she arrives, her first words are basically “I want to go to bed now.”

While Beth shows Deja her new room (which, I believe, used to be William’s — ouch), Randall confronts the social worker quietly at the door. “She doesn’t seem OK,” he astutely observes. The social worker replies, “That is absolutely correct, Randall. She is not OK.”

Deja brushes her teeth and Beth decides to unpack the plastic bag of clothes she brought with her. That’s when she spots a pack of cigarettes among the clothes.

At the same time, Annie and Tess ask their dad if they can “give [Deja] back.” Randall encourages his daughters to develop a little empathy for Deja.

But it’s at that moment that the Beth-Deja conflict over the cigarettes boils over, sending Randall running to check on them both.

It’s an incredibly fraught scene — Beth’s voice raises, even as she’s struggling to retain a grip on her words; Deja calls her a “bitch” — and as it hits a fever pitch, there’s some physical move that causes Deja to fling herself against the wall, hands up, flinching, not meeting Beth’s gaze. It’s painful to witness, for us as well as for Beth and Randall.

Yet later on, Deja tentatively asks Annie and Tess who’s in charge. Answer: Beth. And what happens when you don’t obey the rules? Answer: You have to talk about your feelings for a million hours, then you lose your iPad privileges. Deja cannot conceive of a house in which each kid has an iPad to lose in the first place, and pronounces the house “crazy.”

That triggers what is undoubtedly the most moving scene in the entire episode. Annie, the youngest Pearson daughter, remembers William’s first night in their home, when she caught him trying to sneak out the front door.

She tells William about the time she went to a sleepover but got homesick and left, because she was sad, but then she realized she could have had so much more fun if she’d just stayed. And it works! William laughs, calls the house crazy, and decides to stay.

And you guys, just like that, I pronounce little Faithe Herman, the actress who plays, Annie, the MVP of this episode. Sorry, Sly. It was never even close, really.

Speaking of Sly, let’s check in on the left coast contingent! Kate is visiting Kevin on location. They’re filming some big war scene where Kevin’s character leads a mission to rescue Sly’s character, who is — metaphor alert! — his unit’s “father figure,” according to Exposition Fairy Godfather Ron Howard.

Kate is beyond thrilled to meet her late father’s favorite movie star. Stallone invites Kate to pick Jack up and bring him by the set so Stallone can meet him, forcing Kate to admit Papa Pearson died some time ago. That’s uncomfortable to say the least, but it leads to a lovely monologue from Stallone about the nature of time and how there’s really no such thing as “a long time ago” because meaningful memories can take you right back to that place and time.

The monologue doesn’t help Kevin, though, who stumbles his way through his first scene with Stallone, requiring endless assistance and patience from the crew and his famous scene partner.

He confronts Kate angrily about her decision to confide in Stallone about their father’s death, and it’s suddenly clear that Kevin’s surface display of cheery go-with-the-flow equanimity is all surface, at least when it comes to Jack dying. Kate points out gently that he might benefit from some counseling on this issue, but Kevin shoots back at her that he’s not like her … because he doesn’t need to walk around all “sad and damaged.” Oof.

When Kevin tries desperately to walk that statement back, it’s already too late. Kate has turned and left without a word.

Later, the distraction of his emotional pain turns dangerous for Kevin, as he slips and re-injures his knee while filming an action scene. It’s the same leg that we see encased in a cast the awful day of Jack’s death. And it’s clear it’s causing him a significant amount of pain now as he writhes on the floor, clutching that knee as Expositional Fairy Godfather Ron Howard yells “cut!”

Kevin tells Kate about it on the phone later, and she’s deeply concerned. He promises her it’s all good, or will be. He admits to her that he’s not comfortable talking about their dad’s death — tell us something we don’t already know, Kev — and can’t hang up fast enough. Kate looks toward Jack’s urn on her mantelpiece and sighs, “He’s just like you.”

And then we see Kevin open a bottle of prescription medicine and take a pill, as the music suddenly turns ominous and swells.

I am really, really hoping that the show doesn’t go down the “addiction to pain medication” path with Kevin. It’s a cheap way to signal emotional pain avoidance. It’s lazy storytelling, and plays right into one of the chief criticisms of the show — namely, that it uses clunky plot devices to manipulate the audience’s emotions.

The show is far more effective when it simply focuses on the story of these flawed, awesome people.

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