Episode 3.18: “Choke”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

Sometimes, good intentions just aren’t enough. This is a truly awful episode, full of awkward character moments, artificial plot points, and emotional manipulation. It feels like the concept came first here: they wanted to do plots focussing on domestic violence and flunking out of high school, so they wrote this episode around those ideas. Glee has done “message” episodes before (ex. “Sexy,” “Blame it on the Alcohol,” “Born this Way,” “Laryngitis,” “Bad Reputation”), but such an episode only works if characters and plot are not overshadowed by the message. When the message becomes overpowering, as is the case in “Choke,” everything starts to feel didactic and artificial, as the lesson drives the story and characters.

And aside from all that, it’s hardly controversial to come out and say that domestic violence is bad and flunking out of high school is not a good idea

Should Glee even be doing “message” episodes? Let me put it this way: envisioning a work of fiction from conception as a vehicle for a message is a mistake. Stories have to come from characters and plot first. If a message arises, then fine. But to force it in there is to ruin the organic nature that fiction should strive for.

What’s truly bizarre here is that Kurt and Rachel’s NYADA audition, a plotline that they’ve been building up since the beginning of the season (and it’s also the reference in the title), is relegated to C plot territory. Frontlining this episode are dual plotlines that strangely split the glee club up right down the middle along gender lines. The girls get involved in a plot about domestic violence because Shannon walks into school with a black eye and Santana cracks a joke about it, and the guys try to help Puck pass the last test he needs to graduate from high school with his friends. In contrast to the long built-up NYADA audition plot, both of these came out of nowhere.

The domestic violence plot is especially weird. Shannon doesn’t even seem to hear Santana’s crack, but Roz does, and she and Sue, for no adequately-explained reason, become incredibly offended by it and try to force the girls to learn some kind of lesson by making them sing songs about female empowerment? (We last did “female empowerment” as a theme in “The Power of Madonna,” an episode that at least had great music.) It turns out that Shannon actually did get hit by her husband, and she’s having trouble dealing with it. So she moves out of the house and thanks the girls for saving her life? How? Because Santana made a dumb joke that she didn’t hear, and then they did a wholly inappropriate song from Chicago in their underwear? I’m so confused.

If I’m using a lot of question marks in describing this plot, it’s because I really do not get it.

Where the fucking hell did this come from? It would make some sense if the offense at Santana’s joke had come from Shannon, since she is actually in an abusive relationship. But Roz and Sue take all the offense and then basically force Shannon along for the ride, while she’s claiming that she got hit in the eye by a punching bag and everyone seems to believe her. After all, Sue knows Cooter, and he’s always come across as a harmless goof. Very few people would have believed he would be capable of hitting a woman until Shannon opened up about it. But Shannon was never an active player in this plot. It was just awfully convenient for her that Sue and Roz took offense for her.

I could imagine, in some alternate universe, a version of this plot that works, but Shannon has to be the main character. In forcing this to be about Sue, Roz, and the glee girls, it just never had a chance at working. The only glimpses we’ve even had of Shannon and Cooter’s home life is in the brief flashbacks in this episode. We just can’t feel what Shannon is going through.

Speaking of Roz, even Sue is referring to her as “Black Sue” now. And she makes up nicknames for the kids just like Sue does. And she has no purpose in this episode. Delete her and give her lines to Sue and it would have worked (or not worked) just as well. Someone get this character an identity!

Meanwhile, Puck’s plan to bone his history teacher in order to get the passing grade he needs doesn’t work out. He decides to drop out, until his father conveniently comes along for the first time in five years to borrow money from his son. Puck doesn’t want to be like his father, so he decides he wants to graduate. This pater ex machina (Latin joke; too much college) is such a lazy writing decision, especially since nothing has previously been established about Puck’s father. It’s easy to bring in a new character and fix things, because you can make that character be anything you want! Isn’t that handy! Anyway, the guys decide to help Puck study and we’re treated to a study montage set to “The Rain in Spain.”

Both of the above plots are characterized by awkwardness in establishing them, but Puck’s is the worse of the two. It’s never been mentioned before that Puck could be in danger of not graduating, and suddenly everything is riding on one test? For a season that has tried to establish multi-episode plot arcs, this is absolutely unforgivable. Making up something like this for the sake of one episode late in the season just doesn’t work. Not only that, but the way Puck accepts help from his fellow glee club members goes against character. Puck is a rebel by nature, virtually the definition of an individualist. Things like the shot glass speech last week and the “you guys taught me to be a man” speech this week just don’t jibe with the character that we’ve seen for the past three years. I mean, it’s fine if Puck has developed beyond the guy who drove a truck through the wall of a bank and stole an ATM, but I haven’t really seen any evidence of that character development. One visit from his deadbeat dad isn’t enough either.

Beyond all that, there’s the C plot, which thankfully actually does work. Kurt makes the gutsy move of singing something a little different and a little unrehearsed for his NYADA audition in “Not the Boy Next Door” (though his sudden change of plan seemed awfully well… planned), while Rachel decides to go with the tried-and-true “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” a song she’s been singing her entire life. In a cruel twist of fate, Kurt knocks his audition out of the park while Rachel chokes, faltering twice before the judge finally cuts her off and leaves.

Watching Rachel choke and fail on her audition is heart-rending. In terms of Rachel’s overall plotline, we’ve been building up to this ever since “Pilot,” a fact that is referenced in the opening voiceover of this episode, a scene that almost could have been directly lifted out of season one in terms of style and character. The moment is all the more tragic because “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” pulled off at the last second in “Sectionals,” was one of the absolute best songs of season one. We don’t even have to be told that Rachel knows this song inside-out, we know it. And… she just crashes and burns. There are no excuses, there are no second chances. There’s just the sorry sight of the ruins of Rachel’s life standing on stage, shocked beyond reason.

This really is one of the most powerful moments in the entire series, and I just wish it could have come in a better episode. In an ideal universe, this episode was actually about Kurt and Rachel, not Shannon and Puck.

This episode tries to redeem itself in the ending, as it tries to tie together all three plotlines under the umbrella theme of failure. Shannon goes back to Cooter. Puck fails his test. Rachel cries in Finn’s arms, in what is a better indicator of what Rachel is going through than anything she could have possibly said. This is a poignant ending, wallowing in the sadness of characters who tried their best and still failed. It’s an ending that is entirely undeserving of the episode that preceded it.

Incidentally, I don’t really see the big deal about Puck failing his test. It’s one class. Take it in summer school and bam, high school diploma.

(To see a much better take on the theme of trying your best and still failing, check out “Bart Gets an F,” my favorite episode of The Simpsons.)

The songs this episode were mostly underwhelming. Special mention goes to to both of Puck’s numbers, “School’s Out” and “The Rain in Spain,” for having the most awkward transitions and being the most inappropriate in tone of any other song on Glee in my recollection. They’re trying to do a serious Puck plotline here, and they punctuate his decision to drop out and his later decision to study and pass with these goofy songs? Anyway, Kurt’s audition was actually pretty good, but the highlight to me was Rachel’s “Cry,” which was a heartbreakingly emotional performance on top of giving atmosphere to an ending that was so much better than the rest of the episode.

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