Episode 3.10: “Yes/No”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

In this episode, Glee goes back to being about relationships, the theme that kept the very strong season two afloat. Unfortunately, most of the stuff in this episode feels pretty old and tired. The focus here is mainly on Will/Emma, with Finn/Rachel providing the B plot, and Sam/Mercedes and Artie/Becky trailing behind. Shannon/Cooter was established but brushed aside early, in a strange decision to resolve it completely offscreen. That in particular reminds me of “Asian F” when Santana rejoined the glee club, after having been banned, with minimal explanation. Brushing aside established subplots is a longstanding Glee tradition, so I guess I won’t complain too much, especially since I really didn’t want to see the Shannon/Cooter subplot developed anyway.

So the day after I basically said that Will has become a background character, they decide to try to build an episode around him. It’s hard to neglect a character for as long as they’ve neglected Will and then come back to him like this. Will/Emma is also one of the oldest established relationships in Glee, so building an episode around it requires bringing something new to the table. The idea of Will proposing doesn’t really seem like enough of a new angle. Will and Emma are already living together, so they’ve already expressed interest in a long-term relationship with each other. After that, marriage doesn’t seem like that big a deal, dramatically speaking. It may be a big deal for the characters, but for the viewers, not very much will change.

Will’s desire to make a big production of proposing also seems very artificial, though I am completely willing to buy the idea that Will sees the glee club as his family. No, my problem is that proposing marriage is inherently a private thing, and I think it takes a real drama queen to make it so public. I don’t see that in Will, and I certainly don’t see that in Emma. That’s more like the way I’d expect Kurt to propose to Blaine.

Will acts like an idiot a couple of times in this episode. First, he decides to be old fashioned and ask Emma’s parents for permission to propose marriage. This is stupid because Will has met Emma’s parents, and he knows that (a) they’re completely insane and (b) Emma does not get along with them. Why would he think that it’s a good idea to involve them in his proposal plans at all? The second idiotic thing that Will does is that he takes the Pillsburys seriously when they ask Will if he really wants a nut like their daughter for a wife. He sits down with Emma and asks her if she’s really going to be able to deal with building a family considering her crippling OCD. This is insensitive because it suggests that her OCD will lock her out of living a normal life and it disrespects the fact that Emma has been in therapy and on medication trying to get better, for the first time in her life. Talking about the logistics of living with someone who has a disability like OCD is one thing, but Will at one point, in discussing living with Emma, says, “Sometimes, it just seems so hopeless.” That’s just about the cruelest, most heartless thing someone could possibly say to someone with a disease that affects other people who is trying her level best to get better. It undermines all the efforts she’s gone through in the past, all the efforts she’s going through now, and all the efforts she will go through in the future. In one sentence, Will tells her that she’s just not strong enough to beat her problems and possibly not strong enough to be his wife.

You know what I said about Will’s dark side being pretty much gone? Apparently I lied.

To be fair, some evidence of cracks in the relationship was dramatically useful because it lent tension to the proposal scene. I honestly did think there was a chance that Emma would say that she wasn’t ready to make such a commitment to a guy who only a short time ago had insinuated she was too crazy to raise a family.

Of secondary interest in this episode were Finn’s issues. He decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Army after graduating. However, Burt is counting on Finn to run his auto shop while he’s in DC. On top of that, Carole confesses to her son that she lied about his father’s “war hero” status. (Incidentally, it was never chronologically possible that Finn’s father died in the Gulf War. Finn would be at least 20 now if that were the case.) While Finn’s father did serve in the Persian Gulf, he actually came home alive. However, he was never able to re-accustom himself to civilian life and eventually turned to drugs and died of an overdose. That’s a lot to lay on someone who always thought of his father as a hero, and Carole does it none too artfully and in front of Burt and Will. Finn has gone through a lot this season, and this is particularly hurtful because it takes his past away from him not too long after his future (football) was taken from him. That leads into Finn complaining that he always wanted something special in his life, and Rachel doing a song in which she basically volunteers to be Finn’s something special. It’s a sweet scene, but we’ve seen so much Rachel/Finn that, even though they’ve showed restraint in season three up until now, it still doesn’t pack much of a punch.

That said, the scene in which Finn proposed to Rachel was actually well done, and it introduced something new into the dynamic of their relationship. Even though Rachel does see her relationship with Finn as long-term, Finn’s proposal broadsides her in several ways. First, they’re still in high school and it’s early to be thinking of that kind of commitment, even if they really do love each other. Second, Rachel is highly concerned about the results of her NYADA application. Domestic life isn’t exactly the part of her future that she’s concerned about at the moment. What’s also funny is that Finn’s simple proposal comes right after Will’s elaborate one, and I think the Emma and Rachel probably would have preferred each other’s style of proposal.

Sam/Mercedes still has the reek of a subplot that the writers wanted to pick up at the beginning of the season. Now that Sam is back, we can apparently go ahead with his subplots as if he were never gone. I think we also need a little more explanation of what went on between them over the summer aside from a performance of Grease‘s “Summer Nights.” (And why the hell did they originally want to keep their relationship a secret?) That said, if this was the only excuse for the scene in which the girls performed “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” and flash back to the first time they saw their significant others, it almost justifies itself. That scene was really cute. However, I need to see Sam and Mercedes play off each other a little more to have any chance at believing that they are meant for each other, and I need to know where their relationship came from.

Artie/Becky was one of the most awkward subplots of the series. The first thing I’d like to say about this is that giving Becky’s inner monologue the voice of Helen Mirren may have been funny, but it strikes me as incredibly disrespectful to the character. Voiceover, as much as I hate it, it kind of a mainstay of the series, and just about every character has had extended voiceovers in one or two episodes. Becky, however, was not allowed a voiceover performed by her own actress, Lauren Potter. Her voiceover was intended to establish Becky as a sexual being, as she tries to figure out who she wants to date and then tries to get over Artie’s rejection of her. By giving the voiceover to someone else, the director showed no confidence in Potter’s ability to develop her own character. Essentially, by taking the character out of Potter’s hands for the voiceover, the director is saying that a character/actress with Down Syndrome has certain insurmountable limitations. I simply think that if you’re going to go to this place with this character, you have to go whole hog. Have the confidence in your actress and your character to let them develop without bringing in a reliever.

Aside from all that, the episode tries to set up a parallel early as Artie tries to ask out Sugar and is blatantly rejected because he’s handicapped. Artie then has to face the situation of rejecting Becky because she’s mentally handicapped. It should go without saying that those two situations are not analogous. A major problem for Artie and Becky, for example, is that Becky may actually not be legally capable of giving consent to sexual intercourse. And thinking about that kind of thing is just a bit uncomfortable. So in the end, I kinda wish that they hadn’t brought the whole thing up.

This just wasn’t a very good episode. They made far too big a deal of the Will/Emma thing, Will was way too much of a jerk, Sam/Mercedes was underdeveloped, and Artie/Becky was just awkward. The one thing I liked here was Finn’s drama about his future, and I wish that that had been closer to the forefront of the episode. Glee should follow its instincts and keep Will as a background character. His proposal should have been a B plot, not an A plot.

Funniest moment of the episode: Santana guessing at how Will proposed to his first wife: “‘Hey Terri, I want to make a fake baby with you!'”

One really nice thing in this episode: Sue was almost a normal person throughout, verging on underplayed. Keep her like that and she won’t drive me completely up the wall.

The songs were all good, though “Moves Like Jagger/Jumping Jack Flash” stood out as the most forgettable. “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” was a nice reminder of all the relationships that work in Glee, and I was also glad that they didn’t make it all about Finn and Rachel like I thought they were going to. It was also really nice to hear Jayma Mays sing again in “Wedding Bell Blues.” And the production for Will’s proposal, as much as I thought it was overwrought and didn’t fit the characters, I have to admit I enjoyed quite a bit (though since it came as a last-minute suggestion from Sam that Will apparently loved, I do have to ask why exactly the idea was so much better in water than on stage). As much as I hate to admit it, I think that the musical highlight was “Summer Nights.” It’s just such a fun musical portrayal of high-school-type relationship gossip, and Amber Riley and Chord Overstreet really knocked the performance out of the park. Another cute thing I noticed was that Kurt was with the girls while Blaine was with the guys. It’s a small thing, but it shows attention to detail because that’s exactly the division I would expect.

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Why do I like Glee anyway?

For someone who likes Glee as much as I do, I’m remarkably willing to admit that this is a legitimate question. When questioned about what I really think of Glee I usually respond by saying that I think that it is a deeply flawed show, but that I love it anyway. This is an important point: I love it despite its flaws, not because of them. Almost any complaint you could make against Glee I’d be willing to agree with. And I’d admit that it bothers me a lot. But I’d also admit that it doesn’t stop me from loving the show. But what exactly do I mean when I say that Glee is “deeply flawed?” I’d like to explore that a little.

To adequately answer that, we have to go way, way back. Way back to “Pilot,” which I watched because a friend told me, “You should watch this, it’s terrible.” In many ways, it is. It introduces a lot of characters who are either broad stereotypes (Sue, Terri, Quinn, Rachel, Kurt, Puck, Emma, Mercedes) or completely blank slates (Artie, Tina, Santana, Brittany). The only characters that we can really identify with in “Pilot” are Finn and Will, which I guess is appropriate because the story of “Pilot” is really about Finn and Will, despite the script’s alternating attempts to convince us that it’s about Will and Terri, or Finn and Rachel, or Will and Emma, or Finn and Puck.

Will is a kind of bitter, depressed man, caught in a loveless marriage that he doesn’t even realize yet is loveless (on both sides). The only time of his life that he can remember being happy is when he was in McKinley High’s championship glee club back when he was a student. The fact that the enormous tragedy of this is underplayed in the episode either means that the writers were way better at being subtle back then or that they didn’t recognize it as tragic. I honestly think it’s a tossup which. Either way, Will, who in some alternate universe I could imagine ending up in some kind of American Beauty-type scenario, instead decides to reinvigorate his life by taking the helm of the school’s glee club, which has fallen on hard times. This is Will trying to relive his old high school glory days, in the same high school, in the same activity. This is the kind of thing that’s virtually guaranteed to be a futile effort, except insofar as he can live through the kids. The alternative, however, is Terri’s attempts to get Will to take a job as an accountant, which would be much more lucrative and would fund her extravagant self-centered lifestyle. Still, as long as Will is bringing home some kind of bacon, Terri will be willing to live with it. Stuck as he is in this marriage (and, despite the temptations of Emma, Will’s marriage never shows as much as a crack until the whole baby plot comes to a head), reliving his old high school glory days, vicariously through his students, and remembering the only time in his life that he was happy seems like his best option.

Finn, on the other had, is, as Will points out at one point, a lot like a young Will. He plays football while Will was a singer, but in Will’s day glee club was the popular thing to do. One could almost imagine that Will was, in a bizarre reversal, originally in glee club because of social pressures. Finn is even trapped in a loveless relationship with Quinn, just as Will is with Terri (and Finn/Quinn even shows no cracks until their own baby drama eventually comes to a head). Because Will needs star power in his club, and a leading man for Rachel if he wants any chance of having her stay in the club, he crosses a not-at-all ambiguous moral line, planting marijuana in Finn’s locker and blackmailing him (with the threat of the loss of his college education, incidentally) into joining the glee club. Finn is still dealing with the loss of his father, even if it was over ten years ago, and is trying to deal with his relationship with Quinn. Will has been with Terri so long that he can’t see any other way, but Finn is young enough that he is able to sense that there’s something wrong with his relationship, even if he can’t put his finger on it. His attraction to Rachel confuses him, because she’s not the kind of girl he’s “supposed” to be attracted to. He’s the star quarterback, he should be with the captain of the cheerleaders. One can sense the parallels, as Will was star of the glee club back when it was popular and Terri was captain of the cheerleaders. Anyway, Finn fits in well enough with the glee club until Will, upon being informed by Terri that she is pregnant, decides to quit his teaching job and take the accounting job, because he has to think about his family. That’s actually an incredibly selfless thing to do, as he loves teaching, he loves the glee club, and he hates his wife (even if he doesn’t know it yet), and, even if most of his extra money would go towards Terri’s extravagant and weird tastes, it would still end up giving his baby a better financial upbringing. The trauma of growing up in a loveless household can’t occur to him yet, obviously.

Anyway, with his blackmailer gone Finn sees a way out of the glee club, until he has an epiphany while saving Artie from being locked in a porta-potty and tipped over (something that frankly could cause serious injury or death, especially to a paraplegic). Finn realizes that life isn’t all black and white, you can’t subdivide the world into good guys and bad guys. He can be a football player and a member of the glee club, and if his friends don’t like it, they can shove it. This is punctuated by the reappearance of a man from Finn’s past, an ex-boyfriend of his mom’s who he remembers fondly as a friend. A man who betrayed his mom in a heartbreaking way, leaving her for a younger, prettier woman. Finn has to feel some resentment towards this man for what he did to his mom, but at the same time there are just so many good memories there that he can’t help but feel a little hope for seeing him again. Is he good? Is he bad? He’s both, as we all are. Finn is kinda stupid and insensitive, but he cares about his friends and he thinks a lot more about his future than a lot of high schoolers do. Will is idealistic and optimistic, but he’s shortsighted and has a blind spot for his terrible wife, and is willing to cross blatant moral boundaries in order to get what he wants. They play off each other in interesting ways. Will, by trying to stay in his comfort zone, actually pushes Finn out of his. Will, by acting selfishly, actually does Finn a huge favor. These two are, at least in “Pilot,” what you call characters. They have some depth and complexity, they have a dark side and a good side, they have believable motivations, and we the viewers are interested in their fate.

Finn decides that the glee club can continue even without Will, even without any teacher at all, as he steps up as a leader for the first time. He knows his fellow singers well enough to know that they have enough talent to get together a show. They all work together and get music, a band, costumes, and choreography, and start to rehearse on the high school stage. And this leads into what is one of the best scenes ever put on television, and most of the reason that I watched every episode of season one. The song they sing is “Don’t Stop Believin’.” The choreography is simple but elegant, the music is good but not overwhelming, the performance of Finn and Rachel is good but filled with subtext. All in all, the performance gives the exact impression of something cooked up by extremely talented high school kids who are really motivated and are trying the very best they can. It’s good without being too good. The costumes match, but they don’t match exactly. The performers look confident but just a little wide-eyed. And, of course, the song choice is perfect.

As Will is about to leave the school forever, he’s stopped dead in his tracks by the sounds of “Don’t Stop Believin'” starting up. He reacts like he’s hearing a ghost from the past, wandering, almost as if hypnotized, towards the sound that he hears more with his heart than his ears. The look on his face when he enters the theater is something that speaks more than anything the Glee writers have ever come up with, and Matthew Morrison deserves a ton of credit. He’s shocked, he’s amazed, he’s saddened that no one else in the school can possibly appreciate the beauty of what he’s seeing and hearing, he’s afraid of what will happen when he decides he’s staying at the school after all (and make no mistake, the decision was made the instant he heard that muffled music in the hallway), and he’s filled with love for students that he now sees truly understand the real beauty and power of music.

That scene was so amazing that I was willing to give Glee almost unlimited goodwill, just watching and watching, waiting for them to them to equal or even approach that level of greatness again, like the Wandering Jew waiting for the Second Coming.

So if “Pilot” was all that good, why did I agree above that it could be described as terrible? Because the synopsis above is only a little bit of what happened. We also have Rachel being crazy and awkward, Sue being over-the-top and maniacal, Quinn and Terri being separately devious and bitchy, Emma being eccentric, Puck and company being dicks. And nothing that happens outside of the Will/Finn dynamic (with the partial exception of Finn/Rachel) works at all. The episode is populated with characters that I assume are intended to be funny, but are actually just annoying, like Sue, Terri, Quinn, Sandy, and even, to a large extent, Rachel. No one else is even given enough development to care about. I could understand that if they just wanted to introduce those characters and develop them in short order, but the fact is that very little character development happened in season one. If you remember the first few episodes of the series (especially “Acafellas”) Glee tried for a while to convince us that this show was about Will. And, without the tragic element from the pilot and the dynamic with Finn, that didn’t really work at all, so the show ended up being an ensemble. In season three, Will is almost a side character, and his dark side is pretty much gone. It’s really a shame that the dynamics from the pilot were never seriously picked up again.

And that’s pretty much been Glee to me ever since. When it’s good, it’s very very good. At its best, it’s among the best shows on TV. At the same time, when it’s bad, it’s really bad. Not only that, but it’s often both really bad and very good within the same episode. In the hands of writers who could exercise some restraint and know what to cut out and what to leave in, Glee could be a truly amazing show. As it stands, it’s both an amazing show and a terrible show, a grotesque Siamese twin that at this point can never be separated. So I accept the bad with the good. I’m okay with all the bad things that Glee throws at me because when it’s good, it’s so good that it makes it all worth it.