Glee only occasionally gets accused of realism–musical, dramatic or otherwise. But at its best, the show can be emotionally real and raw; it finds ways of capturing truths about growing up that teen shows rarely notice. Its season three finale “Goodbye,” I wrote last spring, caught something familiar about the rushed feeling of graduation—how it “feels like something that happens to you, suddenly and all at once, like going over a waterfall.” And “The Break-Up,” the best episode so far of season four, was a kind of companion piece that showed how, even after saying goodbye, moving on can be a a messy, painful process.
The episode was structured around three student couples—Finn and Rachel, Kurt and Blaine, Brittany and Santana—as well as Will and Emma. Even before knowing the title of the episode, it did not take much story-sleuthing to know that these long-distance (or soon-to-be long-distance) relationships were in trouble.
And yet the Ryan Murphy–written episode, in a simple, straightforward way, made each of these reckonings achingly real and specific. In part, it was the structure of the episode: the stories were neatly parallel, there were not too many plots jammed together in the hour, and there was some of the best use of the soundtrack in a long time. After too many episodes, for instance, in which Blaine spoke two lines and burst into song because we needed Darren Criss to sing, his raw, voice-cracking ballad version of “Teenage Dream” was possibly the most affecting acting-through-the-song on Glee since “Defying Gravity” in season one. I’m seriously misting up here typing about it. You’ll have to excuse me for a second.
As Linda Holmes wrote yesterday in a preview of the episode at MonkeySee, another neat trick “The Break-Up” pulled off is to make the characters’ dilemmas parallel Glee’s, as many of its characters have graduated: What’s next? What matters? Can we really stay connected to Lima in the same way? Who will stay with us, and who is going to fade away?
I’d missed Naya Rivera, and it was Santana’s breakup speech and serenade to Brittany that really captured that feeling. It was about more than how she loved Brittany and hated that she couldn’t be with her. It was, like many goodbyes at this stage of life, a kind of taking leave of her childhood. She grew up and changed with Brittany, she still loves her and she hates the idea that their love would ever decay with time and distance—but she also knows that it will happen, can feel it already starting to, and she has to cut things off for the sake of both their memories. This is very Glee: it’s a joyous show (hence the name), but with a running sadness, like a minor chord in a pop song.
So the closing montage of flashbacks, to that wonderfully spare on-stage version of “The Scientist,” was more than just a clip reel of Glee greatest hits, or a way of sentimentalizing its characters. It felt, in an earned way, like a goodbye to the first three seasons of the show.
Like a kid going off to college, I don’t know what comes next for Glee. I don’t know if it can tell stories in New York and Lima and keep them equally compelling. (Last week, for instance, the show was rifling through its own hand-me-downs, telling another class-election story.) I’m not really sure that it can sustain interest in the new McKinley characters, however well written.
On the other hand, I was truly impressed to see Will and Emma actually have a believable, grown-up relationship problem, about diverging ambitions and careers instead of OCD and wedding plans. And while I don’t know where or how Finn will fit in to the new Glee, the hour emotionally sold his not-fitting-in–his journey from New Direction to no direction. From the beginning, his character has been as essential to Glee as Rachel’s: if she’s there to show the power of reaching for dreams, he, with his constant fear of ending up a “Lima loser,” is a reminder that simply having a dream doesn’t automatically lead you somewhere better.
“The Break-Up” showed that Glee still can do what it’s best at, working through simple, real conflicts and paying them off in three-minute explosions of transcendent pop emotion. For an hour, it set aside the stunts and did, as Santana called it, “the mature thing.” Like many mature things, it was painful and necessary, and it hurt beautifully.