In Movies & TV Reviews

Kevin and Sly Stallone go to war in Monday night's "This Is Us."

"This Is Us" recap: "Deja Vu" opens up about opening up - and also Sly Stallone

"Deja Vu" was a really good episode for "This Is Us" – and an even better episode for Sylvester Stallone. Appearing with a meatier part than you might've expected as a special guest star, Sylvester Stallone got to spend half the episode humblebragging about his career – "why yes, I ignored the rules and wrote, directed and starred in one of the most beloved films of all time, casual" – then playing profound philosopher king for Kevin talking about how the past is always present, aka preaching the mythos of the entire show.

And you know what, I'm not even mad at it – mostly because Sylvester Stallone (and he is exclusively referred to as "Sylvester Stallone," both names necessary) is great in this all-around pretty great episode about the struggle to open up.

Kevin's dream role with Ron Howard comes to fruition in "Deja Vu," as he's been cast in a massive war movie alongside The Italian Stallion – a big deal for his career, but maybe an even bigger deal for Kate because their dad loved Stallone. She's got "Rocky" memorized – and she proves it to an endearingly impressed Sly at the craft services table. She probably even loves "The Expendables" movies.

While Kate (mostly sidelined this week as "Deja Vu" focuses on the Pearson men's personal battles against stoic, stereotypical masculinity) is happy and moved by seeing her father's hero, however, Kevin is shutting down, refusing to talk about Jack's death and certainly not appreciating Kate telling his famous scene partner about it. He even brutally snaps at Kate, saying "I don't need to walk around sad and damaged just because you are." Oof, Kevin. To make matters worse, after blowing up at Kate, Kevin blows out his bad knee – which we see new glimpses of in flashbacks – distracted by his dad while running across the fake war zone.

For as much of a blunt-force melodrama "This Is Us" can be – even here, with Howard directing Kevin that Sly's character is "like a father to him" – it always manages a few clever and welcome turns on what you expect. I fully expected the Jack memories to result in a big powerful onset speech for Kevin, the feelings pouring out in his dialogue for the movie, and instead the show crippled him.

It's not one of the jaw-dropping, tear-jerking twists the show is famous for, but it's a sly (pun intended) turn on expectations. The show's very smart at zigging just a bit differently from how you expect it to zag. And while Kevin's secret addiction battle with pills – because a show like this doesn't introduce a bottle of pain medication to just show a character's consumer loyalty to CVS – might be a touch cliche, it's nice Kevin's storyline finally feels like it's getting some more emotional meat on its bones.

Also: Kate being the least of the Pearson clan means no Toby this week – and no Toby means no complaints from me. FIVE-STAR EPISODE.

While Kevin might seem cold on his father, it might just be because he's more like Jack than he wishes, as both spend "Deja Vu" battling with the burdens of their past and shutting down – "taking it like a man" as the outdated cliche goes – rather than being open about their emotions. Jack's three weeks sober, and as he tells the AA group, he's trying to shut down less and open up more (like Jordan Catalano on "My So-Called Life," which NEVER TRY TO BE LIKE JARED LETO!). But that's easier said than done after a lifetime raised around cold, broken masculinity.

Rebecca's struggling with it too; Jack comes to bed late after going through his steps alone in the kitchen and leaves quickly and curtly in the morning. Worst of all – at least, according to her brunch mate – the two haven't had sex in a while, so Rebecca plans a spicy date night, complete with a trip out to an empty parking lot and a bag of burgers, but he politely as possible shuts it down (I mean, she wanted to jump into it right away, but those burgers are gonna get cold; think of the logistics here, Rebecca).

He doesn't want to do it when his mind's not right – but by the end of the night, he's at least opening up a little. The two lovingly chat in the car, while he explains his struggle with sharing his emotions, that he's carrying a lot with him that he's not used to burdening with others.

As always, the chemistry between Moore and Ventimiglia (who, for some meta fun, played Stallone's son in "Rocky Balboa") is lovely and sells the emotional conflict perfectly. But it's nicely written too. The conversation when the two return home, with Jack opening up about opening up, is moving, with the perfect cute little capper of the pair tossing the burgers away and deciding to stay in the car to continue the chat.

"This Is Us" may be known for its big monologues and emotional bombshells, but that little breakthrough of a moment – and of two people in love just wanting to spend more time to discuss life – was so sweetly and charmingly real.

Plus, it results in A PUPPY! Yes, the dog from the season two premiere seems to have arrived, scarfing down the burgers Jack and Rebecca littered in front of the house.

Last night's episode was so packed and good, I'm just now getting to Randall, aka still the best storyline. I mean, my god, as soon as Sterling K. Brown and low-key MVP Susan Kelechi Watson show up bouncing back and forth about him cooking his feelings – that bolognese though – and getting rid of the landline, "This Is Us" goes off like fireworks. The two have such charismatic snap and chemistry. This week, though, it's put to the test as they get the call: They're getting their foster child – and she's on her way. Now.

Randall predictably Randalls about it; he's studied the books and instructional sites, so he knows to repeat their names a lot and things like that. But studying is easy. Humanity is messy, as is the case when Deja arrives, cold and cloistered after her mom's been arrested yet again and she's in another new home. It's a smartly directed scene, following closely behind Deja's head with everything else out of focus, her new world far away and distant.

Things don't seem to improve when, that night, Deja and Beth fight about the latter finding cigarettes in her room. When Randall arrives to settle the argument, Deja's tragically immediate response is to recoil away from a blow that this time never comes. As the (most unhelpful) foster assistant noted, there will be good times and bad times – with no guarantee when you'll get either.

That tricky humanity getting in the way of Randall's plans yet again – though Deja does grow a little into the house, asking the Pearson daughters for the lay of the land while mom and dad cutely listen in through a baby monitor. Apparently the daughters are good at this, because one welcome flashback shows one of them talking William into staying during one of his first nights at the home.

Speaking of flashbacks, throughout this all, teen Randall is hoping to meet his true birth mother, and while he gets a response, the strung-out woman he meets isn't her – and definitely isn't who he wanted her to be either. In a busy episode, these bits are the least developed and integrated with the rest of the episode, but they lead nicely into Randall's heart-to-heart with Deja, opening to her about his own experience as an adopted child and about how his seemingly messy life led to a beautiful one.

His openness, and his wonderful speech, seems to get through to her – but only for so long, as he has to break the news that her mother is looking at serious prison time, not just a simple in-and-out. Deja takes it poorly and smashes the family photo Randall gave her. It's one of those nice "This Is Us" smart emotional turns, undercutting the saccharine with a cold splash of realness.

Because hey, not everything in life can be as wonderful, easy-going and rewarding as meeting Sylvester Stallone.

This Is Sadness Rankings

"This Is Us" went pretty easy on your tear ducts Monday night. It was still an emotional night, but mostly tender and sweet emotions rather than heartbreakingly devastating ones. So I give it a Watery-Eyed Zac Efron:

So like a five out of 10.


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