Can This Is Us Handle Its Newest Character?

Photo: Courtesy of Ron Batzdorff/NBC.
Now that they’ve bickered enough to come to a decision about adopting, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) have finally become parents for a third time. It’s not at all what they were expecting, though. If you watched Tuesday night’s episode of This Is Us, you know that the new addition to the Pearson home comes with a lot of baggage, way more than we have come to expect NBC’s wholesome family show. It raises a serious question about whether or not the series is equipped to do its new character justice at all.
After weeks of waiting, the Pearson’s finally get a call that a teenaged girl named Deja (Lyric Ross) will be joining their family. Randall is excited. He has read all of the books about fostering kids and feels ready to take on this new challenge like he does everything else, near perfectly. But when Deja arrives, escorted by a social worker, she's extremely apprehensive about the people that are supposed to be her new family. She just wants to go to bed, and for good reason. Her mother was just arrested, and she has found herself once again in a foreign place with people that she doesn’t know. She’s not interested in any of the smiling faces, kids' paintings, or grand tours being offered to her upon arrival.
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To make matters worse, within hours of her arrival, Deja and Beth have a heated altercation that turns physical over a pack of cigarettes Beth finds in Deja’s belongings. Deja calls Beth a “bitch” while trying to strongarm the pack back. When Randall walks in to deescalate the situation, Deja flinches and shields herself from the physical reaction she’s expecting. Now, the the couple’s young daughters Annie (Faithe Herman) and Tess (Eris Baker) are afraid of Deja, and the adults realize that they are in way over their heads. And to top it all off, Deja’s file indicated that her mother is likely going to serve some serious time in jail, which sets off yet another tantrum from the teen.
This Is Us has the amazing ability to make the best out of any situation. The show taps into the humanity of its characters and makes meaningful, productive moments out of their crises. For example, after everyone has gone to bed, Deja enters the room where Annie and Tess are sleeping and gets the lay of the land in the Pearson household. She’s impressed that each of the girls has their own iPad, and they in turn offer her the chair in the room to sleep in if she’s scared. The next morning, Deja apologizes to Beth and insists that the cigarettes weren’t hers. They were her mother’s, who Deja assumes will be coming back to get her at any moment. Randall shares his own adopted status with the teen and bridges a gap between the two of them. It’s a classic, full-circle This Is Us moment. And even though Deja breaks a picture of Randall’s family, viewers end the episode with the feeling that everything will be ok.
I’m not so sure, though. While this episode did a great job of humanizing Deja from the moment she walked into the Pearson house, I’m worried about them being able to keep it up. Deja doesn’t just have an “attitude problem.” She isn’t a moody teenager going through puberty. She is a Black girl being directly impacted by the criminal justice system. Studies have shown that Black girls her age are twice as likely to be suspended from school and seen as less innocent. To do Deja justice is to address the systemic issues that lead to her human emotions. I hope This Is Us is up for the challenge.