Spoilers for the season 2 finale of Glee below:
Seen one way, New Directions blew their visit to New York by wasting a lot of time. They spent their visit mooning around Broadway stages, running around the fountain in Lincoln Center and getting into pillow fights, while spending apparently all of five minutes slapping together two original songs for their performance. And the results showed, in their twelfth-place finish at nationals.
Seen another way, they used the time exactly right. They exposed themselves to fantastic sights most of them had never seen, they got a glimpse of their dreams, they got a chance–well, at least Rachel and Finn did–to hook up. Winning isn’t everything!
Those are also two ways to see “New York” itself. It had a lot of moments and put some of Glee’s themes into sharp relief by taking the kids out of Lima and putting them in a city that represented the hope, or the terror, of their future. But it wasn’t the most efficient use Glee has ever made of an hour.
That judgment, of course, depends partly on how invested you are in Rachel and Finn compared with, well, pretty much everything else that has transpired on the show. “New York” brought up, and then quickly dispensed with, Will’s temptation to leave the choir for Broadway. Otherwise, the bulk of the visit focused largely on Rachel and the dueling attractions of Manhattan and Finn, which, she realizes, are probably mutually exclusive.
The rest of the choir was mostly placed in their service—figuratively, when Kurt spent most of the episode as Rachel’s sidekick, or literally, when Puck and company provided the couple a Lady and the Tramp serenade in Greenwich Village, which the episode conveniently located within a short walk of Sardi’s. The other simmering storylines—Brittany/Santana, Kurt/Blaine, the quick glimpse of Sam/Mercedes—were mostly relegated to an epilogue. albeit a very strong one I wish “New York” had more time for. (On the other hand, if you were not ready to let season 2 end without some resolution of the Sunshine Corazon storyline, this was the episode for you!)
Because I haven’t found Rachel and Finn 2: The Re-Finninning to be the most compelling story of season 2, I didn’t enjoy “New York” as much as I might have. But if I try to see it from the standpoint of someone more invested in the story, I can see how it would work much better. The candy-colored scenes of Manhattan—corny as they might seem to someone who lives here—very effectively immersed us in Rachel’s worldview; to her, there’s really no other way to perceive the city than the spotless backdrop for a ’50s/’60s movie musical. (When she walked up to the swelling notes of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” it was pretty much like putting on Rachelvision glasses.) And Glee, for whom high stylization and saturated color have always been friends, did a fine job with the various cinematic references.
But there was more to the visuals than the chance to have some fun re-created Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was a chance to see Rachel enter the promised land, the anti-Lima, the place she has imagined herself while taking all those slushies in the face. Unfortunately, she gets to see this just as she gets a second chance with Finn, for whom she realizes New York—the city and what it represents—is probably never in the cards.
It’s a return to a theme Glee has had since its pilot: the dream of escaping vs. the fear of actually doing it. (The flip side of that dream is reflected in Quinn, and Diana Agron did a fine job selling how her character feels that what she wants is slipping away—an especially fine job considering how little this season has given her to work with.)
I wish it were better executed, though. The musical performances in the episode, both the better and the worse ones, mostly felt like padding, without anything that offered a strong connection of contrast with the story. (Compare, e.g., last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) It’s rarely disappointing when Lea Michele and Chris Colfer duet and “For Good” was a sweet moment for the two characters, but I’m not sure it was one they really needed dramatically. (Not to mention, what will Glee do when it exhausts the Wicked soundtrack?) As for the opening New York number, I think I liked “My Cup” better.
For all that, the last ten minutes or so gave us a glimpse of the good Glee, the one that’s committed to its stories over its soundtrack. I may not be that invested in Finn/Rachel, but the startling moment where the audience disappeared in the middle of their kiss made me feel like I was. And “New York” did a really fine job handling its epilogue, in which New Directions had their hopes crushed, went back to Lima—and found that it was a pretty awesome experience regardless. Brittany connected with Santana, a brief scene that reminded me how far both characters have come this season. Kurt didn’t get a championship, but he has Blaine, and he has a taste of what life can be like for him after graduation.
Of course, as the finale reminded us, most of these characters have only one more year left in high school, and one more shot at Nationals. They’ll need to make better use of their time. And I hope that Glee—which spent the year hinting at its potential but constantly getting distracted—makes better use of its time next year too.