Spoilers for last night’s Glee coming up:
There is something about the prospect of a singing competition that concentrates the often-distractable mind of Glee. Where the episodes in between can lurch from brilliance to incoherence, the series’ first two climactic competition episodes, “Sectionals” and “Journey,” worked because they remembered that the characters’ conflicts have stakes that matter and that last beyond the end of a particular episode.
I suspect it’s partly just structure; a competition episode has to fit in a fairly long musical stretch, the results and the denouement, so there’s less room for detours. But it also seems as if the competitions force the show to recall what it’s about at heart: about kids (and adults) with various reasons to be dissatisfied in life, for whom music is a way to escape, and to matter.
“Special Education”—and what was that title about?—was not a climactic episode (there’s a Christmas episode to close out this stretch of the season), so maybe for that reason it didn’t land as strong as its predecessors. But it was a grounded episode that made me hope—unreasonably?—that Glee will sharpen its character focus in the second half of its season.
Like some earlier Glee episodes, there was a whiff of metacommentary to some of the storylines: Santana and Will directly addressing how annoying and unlikeable Rachel can be, for instance, or Will talking about the need to share the spotlight. But these stories also worked well as stories. Lea Michele had some of her strongest non-singing moments of the season by showing not just how Rachel dealt with her problems with Finn but with being on the periphery of the group. By taking her out of the spotlight and having her connect with Kurt, we got bits like her imagining her own funeral, Evita-style—but we also saw that performance matters to her beyond its ability to make her famous: her silent reminder to Kurt to smile on stage was a perfect, sweet little moment.
As for Kurt’s storyline, it was a bit heavy on the obvious metaphor. (Do you see that canary in its cage, Kurt? Why does it seem so unhappy when it has its every need taken care of?) But Kurt’s difficulties adjusting at Dalton, and his discovery of its downside (it rejects intolerance, but at the price of discouraging individuality, at least within the Warblers) complicated his new school beyond the Earthly paradise it seemed to be when he first encountered it.
And the musical idea behind New Directions’ performance—that the group has a lot of talented people and need to spread the glory around—underscored that Glee itself has developed into a broad ensemble, where any of several characters is capable of taking the spotlight, even an originally comic-relief character like Brittany.
Brittany and Artie’s storyline, actually, showed that Glee does not have to make an either-or choice between character consistency and weird comedy. When the character stuff is working, the weird, heightened-reality stuff does too, and “Special Education” was as funny or funnier than some of the loopier, less-anchored episodes Glee has done. So you can have, in the same story, Brittany saying that the cricket who sings to her at night is stealing her jewelry (and believing in a magic comb), and showing how she has grown from a mean, slutty cheerleader who says funny things to one of the show’s most sympathetic—and in a strange way innocent—characters. The Will and Emma plot, meanwhile, got about 45 seconds of screen time—and I’m just fine with that—but again, the competition episode brought Will closer to the Will of the pilot again, rather than the often-erratic Will of the series.
The sectionals sing-off itself was a direct callback to the first season’s competitions. Quinn and Sam’s duet walking down the aisle was a pretty clear parallel to Finn and Rachel’s sectionals performance last year, for instance. But where last year’s regionals had New Directions lose in an ambiguous matchup with Vocal Adrenaline, from where I was sitting The Warblers didn’t do well enough to explain the tie. (This was probably partly the result of our seeing only one of their songs, and more so of the camera largely focusing on Kurt’s nervousness on stage during their performance.)
Still, if the solid-if-not-spectacular result was meant to show that New Directions had gotten its groove back, I’m hoping that a solid-if-not-spectacular episode is a similarly good sign for Glee. Now for the quick hail of bullets:
* “Do you ever fantasize about your own funeral?” “No.” “I do.” Many quick, brilliant exchanges in this episode, but that was one of my favorites.
* Speaking of the ensemble, I liked that the episode used Lauren for comedy without simply making her the butt of jokes: “I’m not nervous. You know why?” “Why?” “Because show choir is stupid.”
* “Aren’t there some great songs about betrayal or something? I’m pretty sure there are some Eagles songs.”