(Spoilers lurk below.)
This was an episode about reaching for your dreams, and it worked on almost every level. Mike Chang broke out of two years as a background character to carry a subplot, and the Rachel/Mercedes competition was revisited in the best way yet. It’s interesting that, in its third season, Glee is starting to reach back to the first season again for inspiration. Rachel and Mercedes were very clearly enemies in season one, became friends in season two, and were set up again as enemies here. They also bizzarely referenced Figgins’s vampire phobia from “Theatricality,” Mike mentions Tina’s stutter, and the end of “Asian F” also had very obvious parallels to an early season one episode. But we’ll get to that.
I’ve been waiting to see more of Mike ever since “Silly Love Songs,” when he proved to be a decent actor in addition to an amazing dancer. “Asian F” basically represents the only character development he’s gotten in two years, so they had a lot of catching up to do. Somehow, they succeeded in turning the dancing machine into a three-dimensional character over the course of his short but effective subplot. He’s always been quiet, in the background, and now it’s almost like his life is coming to a crisis and all his worries are bursting out. Mike wants to be a dancer, but his father has his heart set on his son going to Harvard and doing something safer and more lucrative. He threatens to get Mike drug tested because he got an A minus in chemistry (“An A minus is an Asian F.”), and he not-so-subtly suggests that the glee club is holding him back. Turns out that Mike has a lot of issues with his overbearing father. As he practices dancing, he has visions of his father berating him, telling him that dancing is a waste of time. Meanwhile Tina encourages him to try out for the school musical, giving us our first experience of Mike as a singer. Tina has been helping him with his singing, a detail that adds depth to a very thin relationship. Mike’s performance was far from amazing in terms of vocals, but vocals combined with dancing turned it into something great.
It was a very easy place to go to have Mike’s mother be supportive of his dreams of going into show business, but given the kind of show that Glee is it’s pretty much the only place they could have gone. To have had Mike face the objections of both of his parents, on top of everything else he’s going through, would have been too much. I forget where I read it, but Ryan Murphy somewhere described Glee as being relentlessly optimistic. That just about describes it. Bad things can happen, but there has to be some kind of counterbalance. It can’t be all darkness. Mike’s offer to teach his mom to dance was also very sweet.
Meanwhile, Mercedes’s plot almost feels like a reboot. After Shane tells Mercedes that she is better than Rachel, Mercedes says that no one has ever said that to her before. I noted that Lauren said that to her just last season, in “A Night of Neglect,” and Mercedes’s plotline in “Asian F” is thematically the same as the plotline she had in that earlier episode. However, here it is done much, much better. The Mercedes in “Neglect” came off like a cartoon character, so it was impossible to empathize with her. The Mercedes in “Asian F” is heartbreakingly true to herself. She’s been living in Rachel’s shadow for two years, and doesn’t want to do it anymore. She takes her audition against Rachel for the part of Maria incredibly seriously, while Rachel (as evidenced by the past couple of episodes) took it for granted. It’s hard to say that Mercedes doesn’t deserve the part. After the runoff audition, even Rachel is prepared to lose it (to Kurt’s detriment—more on that later). The directors’ decision to doublecast the part is such a cheat that even Mercedes recognizes it as such. She refuses to have any part of it because she knows that, on some level, Rachel is getting bonus points just because she’s Rachel.
That brings us to Mercedes’s decision to defect to Shelby’s parallel glee club. If this feels familiar, it should. In “Preggers,” the fourth episode of the series, Will assigns a solo to Tina, over Rachel’s protests. Rachel quits the club, defecting to Sandy’s theater class. Rachel rejoins in the next episode, both because working under Sandy is a huge pain, and because she’s learned that she belongs in the glee club, with all her friends. Is this intentional parallelism? It works, on some level. I like seeing Mercedes compared to Rachel, because Mercedes virtually usurps the drama queen/entitlement crown from Rachel in “Asian F.” To see her do exactly what Rachel did two seasons ago reinforces the similarities. At the same time, I don’t see how this situation can end any differently from how Rachel’s short defection ended. Sure, Shelby will be easier to work with than Sandy was, but Mercedes will miss her friends, and she will not be able to find any satisfaction as the star of a club with no one to compete with.
What I hope to see instead is Rachel taking the lead, proving how much she’s grown, and working something out with Mercedes. We saw this in the uglier, stupider cousin of “Asian F,” “A Night of Neglect,” but it was hollow there. Rachel has a chance to make amends with Mercedes in a meaningful way here. Rachel is far from blameless, because she’s bitched and moaned about being the star over and over again since the beginning of the series, and, in some ways, she’s the star because of that. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
I’m not going to complain about all the rehash in Mercedes’s plotline, just because it was done so much better this time around than it was done originally. I’d just ask that, in the future, the writers get it right the first time. I also note that “A Night of Neglect” and “Asian F” were both written by Ian Brennan. Maybe he felt like he had to make up for something?
Tying the Mercedes and Mike plotlines together was the theme of pushing yourself. Mercedes feels like she’s working harder than she ever has in her life, only to find no sympathy from Will (who really comes across as a hardass—nationals competition must be changing him) and no way of besting Rachel in sight. Mike feels overwhelmed, trying to please his grades- and status-obsessed father as well as himself. In the end, they both learn that it’s impossible to please everyone. Mike tells his mother that what he wants for himself is not what his father wants for him. Mercedes, unable to find the plaudits she thinks her hard work deserves with New Directions, decides to see if she can find it with Shelby.
Kurt and Brittany continue to lock horns as class president candidates. I have trouble believing that there are so few people running that it comes down to only Kurt vs. Brittany, but for the sake of the show I guess I can buy it. I also have a hard time buying that Kurt can be truly competitive with Brittany, who has been long-established as one of the most popular girls in school, while Kurt has been long-established as a school joke (see “Prom Queen”). As soon as I saw the reaction to Brittany’s “flashmob” performance of “Run the World (Girls),” my reaction was that that was the way the campaign should have looked from the outset. Kurt is completely out of his element.
Rachel’s decision to run for the position as well kinda came out of nowhere, but I can believe it because Rachel is desperate for something to help her stand out in her application to NYADA. She’s running for the same reason Kurt is. At the same time, Kurt was beaten out for the role of Tony by the younger Blaine, and Rachel barely scraped by getting the role of Maria by the virtue of her identity as the perpetual star. They don’t seem poised to get into a top-tier drama school. They both may be setting themselves up for a fall.
Rachel’s decision to run also places Finn in a bad position, as the show quickly reminds us, forcing him to choose between his girlfriend and his brother (and yes, after “Furt” I won’t shy away from calling them brothers).
The only part of this episode that felt out of place was the Will/Emma stuff. By the end, it just felt like they were getting in the way of the more interesting characters. That said, it was nice seeing a new spin on the situation of meeting the inlaws. Emma’s parents are truly nuts, and probably irredeemable after only one appearance. That said, their attitude of “ginger supremacy” was ludicrous. I give Glee props for continuing to merge the ridiculous with the serious, because it’s so risky, but it almost never works. Even though the situation worked as a way to address where some of Emma’s problems come from, a way to see Will take a stand for his girlfriend, and a way of showing that Will is clueless but willing to learn when it comes to building relationships, it’s hard to take it all seriously after listening to the Pillsburys rant on about the purity of the redhead race.
The songs were all good, but she standout, far and away, was the ensemble performance of “It’s All Over,” played out in Mercedes’s mind as she contemplates leaving the glee club. You know that a song has to be good for me to overlook an inorganic inclusion, and this song was amazing. It’s the first real contender of the year for a spot on my end-of-season top ten. It’s visually impressive, it’s character-centric, it’s thematically perfect, and, in the style of true musicals, it drives the plot forward, somehow despite being imaginary.
This was a very good episode of Glee, and I’d even go so far as to call it one of the best. Easily the best of the season so far, and probably one of the best of the series. I also note that Sue was nowhere to be found in this episode. It’s a bad sign for your “breakout star” when that feels like a good thing.