The top 10 musical performances of Glee’s second season

I’m not sure if anything held up to the best performances from the musically very strong season one, but season two had a lot of great music. It was hard to narrow it down to just ten. They will go in reverse order, with number being my favorite number of the season. Each of my top ten choices will have a video link to the performance from the episode, and I’ll talk briefly about why I like it.
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Glee season two overview; or, an autopsy of a plan that failed

(Spoilers lurk below.)

My opinion of the first season of Glee is on record. (Granted, it’s mainly on the record in the form of Facebook statuses, but that counts as a record.) I thought it was overall pretty terrible. I thought it was abundantly clear that the writers/creators expected to be canceled after their initial run of 13 episodes and were left having to re-establish conflict and almost start over again with their 14th show. I wasn’t sure there was much more they could do with the concept even under ideal circumstances. I thought that Fox’s renewal for two more seasons before the first was even over was premature. I fully expected the second season to crash and burn, the show to be canceled, and the creators of the show to receive a generous payout for Fox’s breach of contract. I planned for my Glee reviews to chronicle that failure.

Well, Glee has an amazing capacity to surprise me. The season two premiere was very bad, but it picked up a lot after that, to the point that it actually became a show that I liked not just for the music, but also for the characters and plot. I found myself actually at a loss for words in my reviews, not knowing how to handle the positive criticism that I hadn’t actually expected to have to dole out so much of. I hated two episodes this season (“Audition” and “Comeback”), a couple more were too boring to feel one way or the other about, and all of the rest were at least decent.

I actually came away from season two loving this show. It is seriously in my top five favorite shows ever.

But enough preamble. For this season overview, I have elected to use a format I call “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” “The Good” section will include things that I thought were done well over the course of the season. “The Bad” section will include things that I think were done badly. “The Ugly” section will include things that just made me go “What the fuck?”
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Episode 2.22: “New York”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

There are a lot of parallels between “New York” and season one’s finale, “Journey to Regionals.” Finn and Rachel get back together. There’s the looming threat of Will leaving. Quinn, a year after having her child, is facing another personal crisis. And, of course, the kids lost. While there wasn’t as much at stake this time, there was a lot more hope because of how much they’ve grown.

“Journey to Regionals” felt like a finale because it wrapped up season plotlines and gave hope for the future without leaving cliffhangers. “New York,” unfortunately, left a lot of season two’s strongest plot arcs unresolved. Santana and Karofsky are still in the closet. Santana and Brittany have not made complete peace with their feelings for one another. Quinn’s crisis was kinda resolved, but it didn’t feel really dealt with (seriously, a haircut?). Will’s threat of leaving the school was dealt with, but I never felt that as a real threat anyway. The one real plotline resolved well in “New York” was Rachel and Finn’s relationship, something that has almost become the core of Glee. There are many more interesting characters on this show now, and this is the third time we’ve had to buy Finn and Rachel getting together as a satisfying plotline resolution. In season three, set them aside for a while, please. Let them be happy and tell some other stories.

All that said, Rachel and Finn’s plotline was not badly done. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of their “romantic comedy” style New York date, but it went on just long enough for me to enjoy the parody, and then went on its way, so I won’t complain too much. While I don’t buy the idea that Rachel has to “make a choice” between her career and love (she’s in high school, for God’s sake), I can buy the idea that she and Kurt believe it (drama queens, come on), and her scene with Kurt on the empty Wicked stage was amazing. Their very fun performance of “For Good” also made a lovely contrast to season one’s “Defying Gravity” (also from Wicked) in “Wheels,” when they were in bitter competition. What the writers did with the relationship of those two this season was great. Finn and Rachel’s onstage kiss, while corny as hell, was about as satisfying a climax as they could have made for this plotline. The fact that it also may have cost them the competition also gave us the great character moment when Rachel admitted that it was worth it (implying that the choice between fame and love is not as clear-cut to her as she thinks).

Meanwhile, the competition plotline was much weaker, while it should have taken center stage. It didn’t really make any sense that they got all the way to New York before writing their songs. That should have been taken care of weeks before. Will spent a lot of time ignoring the kids to focus on the Broadway thing only to eventually brush it aside without a hint of emotion. The kids themselves spent the majority of the time goofing off. They made it pretty difficult to root for them. Rachel and Finn’s kiss was an easy scapegoat for their loss, but it’s hard to look at the way they acted in New York and think that this was a team of destiny. However, the way that they acted was actually completely believable. They’re kids, they’re excited, and this is their first time in New York. Will was really the one who dropped the ball by leaving them unsupervised for so long (and not getting the songs written), and should really take the brunt of the blame for their loss.

The turning point, when the kids found out that Will was planning on leaving, failed on a couple of levels. First, the truth should have come from Will. Second, his motivation for staying should not have been revenge. I will say, however, that as corny as it was, I loved the group hug.

Sunshine reappears once more in this episode, and I have to wonder if there was a lot more with her this season that ended up cut out for whatever reason. I barely remembered her when she showed up in “A Night of Neglect,” and in her third appearance of the season I still don’t really know who she is or what she’s doing. I also don’t really see the point in Rachel finally facing what she did to Sunshine 21 episodes later, especially since she hasn’t exactly seemed troubled over it. And her way of helping Sunshine was a thumbs up? I’m glad she went to so much effort.

As I said above, Quinn’s having to face reality still didn’t come across as the major reality check she needs. It was nice seeing that moment among the three former cheerleaders, though. Santana and Brittany started out essentially as nothing more than Quinn’s posse before breaking into their own, but the three of them do share a history together and do care about each other. We also got this exchange: “I think I know how to make you feel better.” “I’m flattered, Santana, but I’m really not that into that.” It was funny, and it even showed Santana that she’s getting acceptance for who she is even before officially coming out. However, their solution was to give Quinn a haircut? I’m sure it was a lovely bonding moment for all of them, but Quinn still has problems that scissors can’t solve.

This episode kinda fizzled out for me in the second half, as it became obvious that we weren’t going to get a lot of satisfying resolutions. However, the last act did offer up a few moments of redemption. I liked seeing the rest of the night, after the results being posted, told as a flashback by Kurt to Blaine, especially since it spared us hearing Jesse’s speech (instead giving us Kurt saying that Jesse “went on and on”). We also got to see how little Kurt was upset by the loss, allowing him to contrast himself with the hysterical Santana (who saw this as her last shot as getting back an iota of her popularity). That led into Blaine’s spontaneous “I love you,” which was a lovely way to end the season for Kurt (who really has had “a pretty good year” all things considered).

Seeing Mercedes and Sam together was nice, but I have to wonder why they feel the need to keep it a secret.

Brittany and Santana had a very nice scene together that actually introduced us to the moral of the story. They get to spend one more year together with the people they love. As corny as that is, sometimes that’s the best you can hope for out of life. Brittany’s amazing ability to calm Santana and make her feel better was also nice to see. I wanted to see these two get together this season (instead we got almost everyone else getting together), but meanwhile they’ll still be friends next season.

All the music was good, though none of the pieces had the sheer epicness that you expect from a competition of this magnitude. The Journey medley from “Journey to Regionals” was much better than either of the original songs the club offered up at nationals. I bought into the idea of original songs once, but Glee was built on covers and mash-ups, and I think that they should stick to that. With that in mind, the musical highlight for me was “I Love New York/New York, New York.” I’m willing to forgive the inorganic nature of its inclusion because it was an amazing arrangement with beautiful on-location shooting.

This episode had its moments, but was overall fairly disappointing. I’m glad that Rachel and Finn are together (for the third time), but come on, let’s move on. How about a third season in which they actually don’t break up? There are lots of other stories to be told in Glee. They even started to tell some of them in season two, but didn’t finish. Let’s see the old and tired plotlines of the first two seasons left behind, and new ground broken in season three. Am I confident that that will happen? Not really, but I also thought that season two would be terrible, and it turned out being very strong compared to season one. So what do I know? I’ll be back for season three.

Episode 2.21: “Funeral”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

If this means an end to the constant parade of temporary redemptions for Sue, I’m all for it. I don’t think that Sue should suddenly become a nice guy, but if she could keep her promise to stop going all supervillain on the glee club this time, that would be good.

This was an episode that was meant to be very emotional and actually succeeded on that front, not just with the funeral. They got Sue’s ludicrous plot to reroute the glee club’s plane to Libya out of the way at the very beginning, and then allowed Sue to be a real person for the rest of the episode. Sue has never shown signs of being close to anyone in the show aside from her sister, and her death had an impact. Having Sue describe it rather than show it was an interesting choice, but I think it was one that worked because of how it showed what Sue is going through. That said, going into that right after witnessing her performing her Evil Plan of the Week made it hard to believe it was sincere. That came clear not long thereafter, but it hurt the moment. We’ve seen Sue vulnerable before, but not to this extent, which is why I’m not going to complain as much as I usually would about another episode featuring Sue’s redemption. To see her literally unable to speak from grief was a powerful moment.

It could have been difficult to buy the idea that the glee club would step in to help Sue after all she’s done to them, but it worked for two reasons. First, death has a way of clearing the air when it comes to grudges, even very deep grudges. Second, having Kurt and Finn lead the call to help her was very appropriate, considering that they both lost parents (though the writers could have been a bit subtler with that theme instead of having them both announce it). That combined with Finn standing up and demanding, as a leader, that they do it really helped to sell the concept.

It could easily have come across as weird to have a glee club at a funeral, but they set up “Pure Imagination” with the Willy Wonka tape so well, and the song came across as such a bittersweet tribute, that I think they pulled it off perfectly. They also didn’t try to do too much. They did one song, with the only “show” part of it being images of Sue’s memory of her sister. It was simple, it was appropriate, and it worked.

This is the most serious characterization we’ve gotten for Sue in a long time. Contrast her depression here with her “depression” in “Comeback.” While both had every right to exist, only this one feels earned. Sue in “Comeback” came across as a joke, an emotionless cartoon character, a master manipulator. Here, she was just sad, confused, and lost. Her interaction with Becky also felt real, and actually tied the whole thing together.

So much for the plotline that worked; now for the Jesse stuff. I wondered in my “Prom Queen” review why they brought Jesse back, and now I’m still wondering. His techniques clash with Will’s, and I don’t see any evidence that his advice helped Will or the club one bit. I don’t understand why Will would even hire him. They’ve gotten as far as they have on their own. Bringing in a consultant is actually just messing with a successful formula (as Will points out in the end). The infighting that Jesse encouraged is something we’ve seen before, and it’s been done better (see “Special Education,” “Rumours” and virtually any early season one episode). I don’t really see what Jesse’s presence accomplished, either in terms of narrative or theme.

I will admit that Will’s refusal at the end to pick a “winner” as the featured soloist for nationals (Jesse’s pick being Rachel) fell a bit flat considering that Rachel was their featured soloist at regionals.

The bit with Rachel and Jesse at the end was effectively foreshadowed (why else would Jesse have torn down Santana, Mercedes, and Kurt, but had nothing but good things to say to Rachel?), but it didn’t feel earned. Rachel shouldn’t fall right back into his arms like that after what he did to both her and the club. I need a little sense of motivation here. Rachel is coming across as more a prop than a character in this situation, which is weird because I don’t care at all about Jesse as a character. However, I do need a sense of motivation for Jesse too. Is he really in love with her, or does he actually have a hidden agenda‚Ķ again?

It was good to see Finn break up with Quinn, because she’s been in desperate need of a reality check. That said, he could have been a little gentler about it considering that he probably knows she’s in a bad place. The breakup scene did feel very real, however. The bit with Finn walking in on Rachel and Jesse while holding a flower, though, made me realize that we might have to see a rerun of season one here. Rachel/Finn/Jesse again? Really? I don’t think the pentagon needed another side.

The one good thing about the Jesse plot was that it set up the auditions for Santana, Kurt, Mercedes, and Rachel, which were all awesome.

I didn’t detect a thematic link between our A and B plots this time. They were just kinda two stories moving in parallel. They could have been split up into other episodes and it really wouldn’t have made a difference.

Terri apparently has met the end of her plotline, although I don’t really see what either she or Howard accomplished for Sue in this episode. Sue could have hacked into Figgins’s e-mail account on her own. In fact, I would be shocked if she’s never done it previously. However, bringing Terri back actually did serve a thematic purpose. Will and Terri’s relationship did need some kind of resolution, considering how explosively their marriage ended and how awkwardly Will dealt with her in “The Substitute.” It’s good to see that Terri really is getting better, and it’s good for Will to finally see a clean ending to that part of his life. I wish her character all the best in Miami, and I hope to never see her again.

I’m not sure what to make of Will planning to go to work with April on Broadway. It seems like he really plans on coming back for the next school year, but it doesn’t explain why he’s not being honest with the kids. It doesn’t feel right for his character. His acceptance of April’s offer is also something that should have occurred on camera. Doing it this way makes it feel like they’re trying to avoid having to sell it to the audience.

Like I said, all the musical numbers were very good. “Pure Imagination” probably wins in the emotion department, but to me the musical highlight was Santana’s “Back to Black,” which she belted out beautifully. It was also a nice contrast to the sound of the other auditions which, while very good, were sounds we’ve heard plenty of times before (soul and showtunes). I’ll admit I’m probably starting to sound like a Santana fanboy. I do like her character a lot.

While Rachel’s “My Man” was a very solid performance, in terms of emotionality they might want to stop having Rachel sing songs to Finn. After “Get it Right” in “Original Song,” just about every one they do is going to be unfavorably compared to that.

I’d say this was about half of a good episode. Aside from the weak B plot, it also suffered from the same thing that plagued “Prom Queen”: a lot of it was setup for the finale. I hope the finale can live up to all that.

Episode 2.20: “Prom Queen”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

This was an episode I was expecting a lot more from. They’ve been building up to it for a while, and I just expected more things to be resolved at the climax of the plot arc. Instead, what we got for most characters is apparently their “all is lost” moment for the season as a whole, with the poor bastards as far from their goals as ever. Santana and Karofsky are still closeted, and Santana and Brittany are still not together. Artie is deep in the dumps. Quinn is witnessing her fantasy world fall apart. Rachel is as confused about the men in her life as ever.

But at least one thing had to be resolved or they couldn’t really have called this a self-contained episode, so what we got was Kurt having to face the fact that he hasn’t really “won.” There is no victory in the path to acceptance. It’s a journey with no destination. Throughout most of the episode, we saw the Kurt we remember from most of season one (if a bit happier because he has a boyfriend): cocky, self-centered, so sure of himself that no one else is even worth listening to. He tamed Karofsky, returned to his old school and found himself apparently 100% safe there, so he did have some reason to regress. The prom queen announcement was (with qualifications) the perfect way to break Kurt’s confidence. It came out of nowhere, nothing leading up to it, and yet proved that he’s still seen as a joke around the school. Kurt’s decision to come back in and accept it actually worked on two levels. It proved to everyone that he isn’t scared of them, and it showed that he’s not going to give up his self-confidence just because he doesn’t have nearly the respect around the school that he thought he did. This moment was also well foreshadowed when Blaine told Kurt about his experience getting bullied at a dance at his school. Kurt would have done well to remember that Dalton is a lot more progressive than WMHS, and he should have taken the danger of getting hurt seriously.

Now, the qualifications about the prom queen announcement. It’s completely unbelievable that the principal would actually read Kurt’s name from the card, much less that he’d actually crown him prom queen. Why would a school administrator be complicit in a cruel practical joke? What would have happened in the real world, if Kurt really had received enough votes to win, is that they would have gone down to the second-place winner and announced her. Glee has a tendency to combine the absurd with the dramatic, but there has to be some justification. If it had been a student doing the announcement, it would have been a lot easier to buy (though there still would have been plenty of objections). With Figgins announcing it, it comes off as completely unbelievable.

With April coming back just last episode, and now Jesse returning in this episode, it’s as if the writers suddenly remembered that stuff happened last season. That’s all well and good, but I prefer to see story reasons for these things. April’s return had some purpose, even if she was underused, but I don’t see why Jesse had come back. Thematically, we were done with his plotline in season one. In terms of this episode, they apparently wanted to use him for the confrontation with Finn at the prom. I appreciate the anger Finn has towards him combined with seeing him hitting on Rachel, but I think they would have been better off using some generic guy in that role. The whole episode with Jesse didn’t seem to have much effect on Rachel, but I think it should have. She had a lot emotionally invested in this guy at one point, and now it just seemed to roll off her back when he got into a fistfight with Finn and got thrown out. She didn’t even go after him.

(Also, who else was expecting Finn to spout the line, “Hey, you! Get your damn hands off her!”?)

Artie’s pursuit of Brittany was probably necessary for his character arc, but it didn’t work all that well. It was hard to tell what I should have been hoping for when Artie came in to sing “Isn’t She Lovely” in an attempt to win Brittany back. The situation seems to demand that I hope for Artie’s success, because he’s a nice guy and I naturally want to see him happy. However, I also want to see Brittany get together with Santana, I don’t think Brittany and Artie are really compatible anyway, and for God’s sake I didn’t want to see them get together for the 3rd time in the same season. There has to be a limit. I’ve also pretty much had it with love triangles, pentagons, and polygons of any sort. Finn/Quinn/Rachel/Sam was bad enough without giving us Artie/Santana/Brittany(/Karofsky?).

That led into Puck and Artie’s plan to spike the punch, which honestly I didn’t see the point of. It wasn’t funny, it didn’t work, and it didn’t have any noticeable effects on the characters.

Quinn finally faced the reality check she desperately needed, with Finn proving himself not to be the man she wants and her prom queen campaign losing to a stupid joke. Her conversation in the bathroom with Rachel was cathartic and a good character moment for both of them, but the plotline still doesn’t feel resolved. She still needs to confront Finn, and she really needs to face the fact that there is a middle ground when it comes to the future. It doesn’t necessarily have to be all sunshine and roses after high school, nor does it have to be all downhill. She needs to realize that there doesn’t have to be so much drama and worry. Maybe the future can just be okay.

Finn’s continued quiet interaction with Rachel still works, but I’d like to get to the resolution of their plotline. That said, Rachel giving Finn corsage advice was almost unbearably cute.

Most of the rest of the episode consisted of a lot of little moments, most of which worked. Seeing Kurt help the girls out with prom dresses was fun. It was nice getting a glimpse into Finn and Kurt’s home life, and I wish we could see more of that. The moment that Brittany and Santana shared was poignant, and Brittany’s “Because I voted for you” was probably the nicest thing Santana’s heard anyone say to her in a long time. Karofsky’s mini-breakdown in front of Kurt seemed to imply that he really was sincere in his apology to the glee club in “Born This Way” despite being forced into it, something I suspected at the time. It was nice seeing Mercedes get a little happiness, even though she still has yet to have a real relationship on the show (while Rachel has had, what, five?).

All the songs were fun, though none really stood out all that much. I will say that even though I didn’t really see the need for Jesse to come back, his duet with Rachel of “Rolling in the Deep” was probably the highlight of the episode. The man can sing. I also feel the need to say something about “Friday.” The first time I heard the Rebecca Black number, my reaction was “I haven’t heard that much autotune since the last time I watched Glee.” However, the Glee version actually sounded a lot more natural. The lyrics are asinine, but I actually enjoyed it. They really seemed to have fun with it. It also fits the high school setting.

This wasn’t a terrible episode, but it felt a lot more like setup for coming episodes than a self-contained episode of its own. The Kurt plotline worked; the rest still lack resolutions.

Episode 2.19: “Rumours”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

This was a quietly effective episode that thankfully didn’t try to do too much. It did have the problem of being something of a sequel to “Special Education” with rumors threatening to ruin relationships in the club, but while the issues in “Special Education” were mostly imaginary, the problems they face in “Rumours,” ironically, are founded in truth. They are exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous, but there are real issues here for most of the characters. Quinn and Finn really don’t have a good relationship. Rachel and Finn really do work together better as a couple. Santana really is in the closet. Will really does have some desire to hit it big on Broadway. And Sam has his own problems as well.

It was good seeing April again, but she was disappointingly scarce. I also would have liked to see her get one more musical number. Her appearance here did make sense, since she apparently always comes back to Will like a lost puppy when she needs help. The whole plot with her one-woman show was fairly underdeveloped, though. I never really felt what Will saw in the opportunity. He’s never shown a lot of ambition before, and he gave up bigger things for teaching as far back as “Acafellas,” so to believe that this opportunity could be the one to tear him away, we really needed to see more motivation there. As it is, it was ridiculously easy for him to brush aside the newspaper rumor.

Artie’s confrontation with Brittany could have come across as just an excuse to break them up, but it actually did feel real. Artie has mainly been a prop when it came to their relationship before, so it was good to see him actually taking an active role. Obviously something has been going on between Santana and Brittany, between Brittany’s comments on her YouTube video and their performance of “Landslide,” and you’d have to be a fool not to see it. You could tell by the way Artie’s face slightly fell after “Landslide” that he knew something was up. Speaking of fools, Brittany doesn’t even see her relationship with Santana as cheating, as she tries to explain to Artie. The climax, when Artie calls her stupid, served both as a realistic way to end their relationship, and an illustration of why their relationship never would have lasted anyway.

I’m having a hard time getting a handle on Santana here, but I think that’s intentional. Artie and Brittany broke up, something that Santana has to have been wishing for ever since she came out to Brittany. But now Santana has the whole master plan with Karofsky going on, and she wasn’t sure how to react. She probably didn’t expect it to happen so soon. Her rendition of “Songbird” to Brittany wasn’t as emotional as “Landslide” in “Sexy,” but it was just as beautiful, sincere, and effective, especially since this time it was sung by Santana to Brittany, not mediated by Holly Holiday. But Santana, still wanting popularity, and still terrified to come out, just can’t make herself bring her feelings for Brittany into public. I feel almost as sorry for Santana as I do for Brittany. She’s passing up something that would make her a lot happier than she is now.

By the way, this is how you build romantic tension. The constant relationship revolving doors in Glee, aptly parodied in the recap voiceover (“I have a question!”), tend to destroy all sense of tension because relationships begin and end all the time, sometimes with little to no justification. Rachel and Finn were together before the first season was out. Even if it didn’t last the first time, the tension was broken. Kurt/Blaine was done better, but it was still only ten episodes between Blaine’s introduction and his officially getting together with Kurt. In the case of Brittany/Santana, this is a relationship that, as far as we know, has existed since the series began, but which Santana can’t bring herself to acknowledge. There’s a lot more tension built up, so it’s more effective on the audience.

All the stuff going on with Sam kinda came out of nowhere. Sam hasn’t even had all that much characterization prior to this, so it’s hard to say that this was earned. That said, Sam has been a presence in the show whose absence would be felt, so it worked as far as audience empathy went. Sam’s plot did serve a purpose in illustrating an aspect of the episode’s theme. Sam was afraid to talk about his family’s money problems because he didn’t want to add anything to the rumor mill. Thus, his money problems never made it into the paper. But they also almost never made it to his friends. Rumors can be dangerous not only in what they spread, but also what they suppress.

In many ways, however, this plotline had a lot more to do with the journey than the destination. Finn’s reaction to the rumors of Quinn’s infidelity was entirely believable, especially if you remember his violent reaction last season to finding out that he was not the father of Quinn’s child. That he would go as far as to spy on her is harder to swallow, but I’m willing to buy it. Where Rachel fits into all this I’m not positive. Clearly she has a vested interest in breaking them up, but I’m not sure why Finn would bring her along on his stakeouts. It could just be as simple as that they’re friends and he wanted some support. I could be willing to believe that.

In the end, this whole plotline served to show the obvious cracks in Finn and Quinn’s relationship getting bigger, even if, in the end, no one was cheating on anyone. Their relationship has definitely regressed back to the way it was in early season one, with the notable exception that Finn is carrying around a lot more suspicion for his girlfriend. Their angry rendition of “I Don’t Want to Know” was a beautiful illustration of what it’s come to for them. And of course, Quinn has gone back to issuing ultimatums on a regular basis. They need breaking up badly.

Sue’s plotline in this episode at least served the purpose of giving her something to do at the school: newspaper editor. That said, I’m not really sure why she thought this would work. She’s always worked at the rumor mill to try to get at the glee club. Why would it be different just because it’s in print? At least Sue has taken to outright admitting that she’s going insane (“I think I’ve totally lost my grip”).

Terri didn’t really seem to serve much purpose here. Even as a sidekick, she was pointless.

Quick question: during the taping of Brittany’s YouTube show, who is holding the camera?

Before seeing this episode, I would have thought that doing a tribute to a single album would be too limiting. Artist tribute shows are bad enough. However, not only were all the songs in this episode very well done, but they all fit the themes and feelings of the characters performing them. They were also all organic to the plot and, for the most part, fairly low key. I like seeing that. It doesn’t always have to be all about big extravagant numbers with Glee. With that in mind, the musical highlight for the episode was Santana’s “Songbird.” One singer, one audience member, one room, only a piano for accompaniment, but so beautiful and heartbreaking. And I once again can’t say enough about Naya Rivera. I can’t believe she was wasted in the background for most of season one.

Episode 2.18: “Born This Way”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

When I saw the opening with Rachel breaking her nose and considering plastic surgery, I was worried that this was going to be an episode that focused on Rachel and her problems. However, it ended up having a very engrossing theme that encompassed all the characters, packing in very nice character moments not only for Rachel, but for Lauren, Quinn, Brittany, Santana, Kurt, Emma, even Karofsky. This episode really took the theme and ran with it. Not satisfied with doing anything half-assed here, they gave pretty much every member of their ensemble cast something that they needed to overcome, and, amazingly, none of the storylines felt curtailed.

The theme of accepting who you are has been done to death on various other shows, especially ones that focus on high school life, but this episode took the added step of admitting that there are some things about yourself that, even though you have to accept them as part of you, are real problems that you have to address. Emma has been fighting with OCD throughout the series. Although she seemed to be getting better with Carl, that was apparently temporary, and now she’s worse than ever. Seeing Will man up and tell it to her like it is was a good character moment for both of them. I was a little surprised to see that she’s never sought treatment, but this is one of the few times in the series that Emma’s condition has been treated as a mental illness rather than a quirk (something they lampshade by having Will point it out). Emma has shown signs of refusing to face her problems in the past (and her near marriage to Ken was actually symptomatic of that), so this isn’t exactly out of left field. She tries to play the “that’s just who I am” card with Will, and he doesn’t buy it. The moral is encapsulated later when Emma’s therapist tells her, “Your illness is not who you’re supposed to be.” While it is something she has to live with, it is also something she can fight to change in order to improve her quality of life.

Contrast that with Rachel’s plotline. She is self-conscious about the size of her nose, something that does not impact her quality of life at all and, in fact, adds to her uniqueness and character. I had trouble buying this plotline from the beginning because Rachel hasn’t shown many signs in the past of having image problems, but I eventually went with it for a couple of reasons. First, Rachel got the idea from the doctor that it could improve her airflow and thus her singing (and her talent is much more important to her than anything else). Second, they sold the whole thing very well. While I wondered why Quinn and Rachel were hanging out, bringing her in as Rachel’s “nose goal” was a stroke of brilliance, because the contrast between the highly image-conscious Quinn and Rachel helped to sell the idea that Rachel was starting to go in for image consciousness herself. It also led into Rachel and Quinn’s “I Feel Pretty/Unpretty,” which I assume was meant to go towards healing the rift between the two characters. It didn’t feel totally earned, but the song worked so well that I’m willing to buy it.

We finally got a little sense of what’s going on with Quinn as her “dark past” was exposed. It kinda came out of nowhere in that we haven’t seen much evidence before that Quinn had issues in her past (I don’t even remember references to her having moved to Lima only a few years ago), but on further reflection it does go some way towards explaining her attitude. Quinn’s relentless pursuit of popularity makes a lot more sense in the context of her entire life, if she really lost a lot of weight, got contact lenses, got a fucking nose job, and essentially changed her identity all before she entered high school in order to find acceptance. Next to all that, her demure acceptance of Sue’s abuse for half of this season almost looks normal. That said, Quinn was badly in need of being knocked down a peg because, as I said in my “Original Song” review, Quinn is setting herself up for a huge fall that will be worse the later it comes. It might not even come until years after high school, which would be absolutely devastating (think Terri levels of devastating). Unfortunately, the reveal of her dark past in this episode didn’t have much of an effect on her after all, and she even made amends with Lauren. Quinn still needs help.

That brings us to Santana, and the other half of this episode’s theme. It’s one thing to accept yourself for who you are, but it’s another thing to be unashamed of it and to not care if the world knows about it. Oddly enough, it turns out that Santana, since having her revelation, is perfectly comfortable with being a lesbian. She’s just not comfortable with other people knowing about it. I was actually surprised that she even told Karofsky, though she does hold a pretty powerful threat over him. Brittany’s confrontation with Santana about her being “Lebanese” was funny, but it also gave us one of the greatest character moments of the series for Brittany and her relationship with Santana. Brittany is actually disappointed that her friend is ashamed to tell people that she’s a lesbian. This is one of the few times we’ve really seen the balance of power in Santana and Brittany’s relationship shift over to Brittany’s side. Santana really was hurt that Brittany was disappointed in her. It was a nice touch to see Santana wearing the shirt at the end, even if she didn’t come out. She definitely still has issues to work through.

Which brings us to her plot with Karofsky. It’s kind of insane, though I can believe it from her character. I imagine she’s feeling the loss of popularity a bit since she ditched the Cheerios, and I could see her wanting to compete with Quinn, which is something she’s done before. Santana acted like getting Kurt back into the school was all about trying to build herself up and get prom queen votes, but in the end that doesn’t really make any sense. Kurt isn’t very popular at WMHS except at the glee club (and it’s sometimes questionable even there), so why would helping Kurt garner popularity for Santana? I think the writers actually snuck a little subtlety in on us again. From the smile I saw on Santana’s face while Kurt was performing “As if We Never Said Goodbye” (his glorious “I’m back” number), I got the idea that Santana actually likes Kurt and legitimately wanted to help him (see her defense of him in “A Night of Neglect” for further evidence). I would like to see that relationship furthered, and I think we will when Santana comes out of the closet. Maybe she can teach Kurt how a gaydar works.

Karofsky got a lot of much-needed characterization here, but my regret is that he was treated mainly as a pawn, controlled by the people who know his secret: Santana and Kurt. I think we’ll see that going into the future until he learns to accept who he is, which seems closer but still far away. (As an aside, I hope that Kurt and Santana realize that they’re playing with fire when they manipulate someone as tightly-wound as Dave Karofsky.) At the end of the episode Santana may have been wearing a “Lebanese” shirt, but Karofsky was wearing his letter jacket, and they were both sitting together, continuing their mutual charade.

When I saw the title of this episode, I was worried that we were in for another Lady Gaga tribute (and I don’t dislike her, but I hated “Theatricality”). However, the only Gaga piece was the titular “Born This Way,” and the rest of the episode’s music was fairly varied. It was also all really good. Seeing Finn sing “I Gotta be Me” while dancing with Mike was a huge delight, and I loved the lounge sound to the song, which is a style we haven’t seen much of from Glee. Kurt’s “As if We Never Said Goodbye” was the perfect way to welcome Kurt back to the school: give him the spotlight and let him run with it slightly too long. The musical highlight, however, was most definitely “Born This Way,” which was a ton of fun and very energetic. It also gave Tina (a real neglected character) a short moment in the spotlight. It was fun seeing what they all came up with for their shirts (Puck’s was probably the best), and the song fit the episode’s theme beautifully.

This was one of the best episodes of the series, right up there with “Pilot” and “Grilled Cheesus.”

(My shirt might say “overuses parentheses.”)