Episode 4.10: “Glee, Actually”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

To say that Glee has a spotty record with Christmas episodes would be generous. Season two’s “A Very Glee Christmas” and season three’s “Extraordinary Merry Christmas” both fell pretty flat. So when I say that “Glee, Actually” is the series’s best Christmas episode, that’s damning with faint praise. Still, it’s not bad, as it doesn’t aim for much except to show us how a few select characters spend their Christmas.

I am glad to see Glee still experimenting in its fourth season, since even when it fails it tends to be interesting. And this is not a failure, even if it isn’t an unqualified success. While both the title and Sue refer directly to the film Love Actually, my recollection of that movie (though it’s been a long time) is that its stories cut back and forth and are at least slightly intertwined. “Glee, Actually” instead presents a series of unrelated stories, and refuses to cut among them during the course of the episode. Each of the first five acts is devoted to a single story that focusses on one or two characters, and the sixth act is used to kinda tie everything together and wind down. Though each story shares the time period of mid-to-late December, there’s a pretty fair variation among them, both thematically and tonally.

Of course, Glee has done multi-story disjointed episodes before, as in season two’s “Duets” and nearly all of season three (most successfully in “Saturday Night Glee-ver” and “Dance with Somebody“), but it’s never been done quite this way before, with so many stories so disconnected. In many ways, this episode almost comes across as a deconstruction of season three, with the various unrelated storylines that characterized the season separated from the melange of subplots, put back together, and shown in a row. Imagine “Heart,” for example, torn apart and put back together this way. It would lend an entirely different view of the proceedings. Each “subplot” gets its own segment, nothing steps to the forefront and it doesn’t feel like anything has to. I don’t think that structuring season three this way would have particularly worked, but it would have been more honest.

Our first story features the requisite It’s a Wonderful Life parody, as Artie gets to see what life would have been like if he’d never gotten paralyzed, guided by Rory as an angel. Much of this feels like rehash from season one’s “Dream On,” both because of its revisiting of Artie’s issues with being in a wheelchair (which we haven’t seen in a long time) and its using a dream sequence to show off Kevin McHale’s usually neglected dancing skills (when Glee first started filming, the choreographer was quite annoyed to learn that his best dancer was the guy playing a paraplegic). I also unashamedly hate It’s a Wonderful Life (though that’s a rant for another day) and I always wonder why these scenarios always involve things being way worse than they are in the prime universe. The implication is that we are apparently living in the best possible universe, and even the slightest change to anything would bring about total devastation, The Butterfly Effect style. Sure, things would be different if Artie had never gotten paralyzed, but it’s dishonest and a bit offensive to suggest that he had to get paralyzed so that life wouldn’t suck for his friends. I don’t think that’s the intended lesson, but it’s the one that comes across.

The second story is probably the strongest, showing Kurt and his father hanging around New York City. Mike O’Malley and Chris Colfer have always had a lot of chemistry together, and they really make you believe in the reunion of father and newly-moved-out son. I don’t know what the purpose of Burt telling Kurt that he has cancer was — it comes out of nowhere and smacks of artificially adding emotion to the story, especially annoying because it didn’t really need it. Kurt’s reunion with Blaine was suitably awkward, and resolved nothing while at least allowing the two of them to communicate civilly again. It was also great to see Blaine confident and sure of himself again, as opposed to the whiny sad sack he’s been since “The Break-Up.” Blaine’s suggestion that he may apply for NYADA suggests fodder for season five.

The third story sees Puck and Jake hanging out together, which is good since they were pretty much glossed over in “Thanksgiving.” Jacob Artist and Mark Salling may not be the best acting duo ever, but they are believable as brothers. That makes Jake’s quick turnaround from lost rebel to nice guy a bit more believable, since it took Puck a good three seasons to make the same transition, making him unusually suited to help Jake avoid the pitfalls. It’s pretty weird how much time Jake and Puck spend hopping back and forth between Lima and Los Angeles (a 32-hour drive according to Google Maps), and their entire adventure in LA is pretty silly, but the payoff when Jake and Puck’s mothers meet each other makes the whole segment worth it. They find common ground because their sons feel like brothers and they all have a lot of deserved hatred for the absent Mr. Puckerman. This segment contrasts the newly-forming traditions of the Puckerman brothers with the old Hummel family traditions that Burt continuously refers to in the prior segment.

It seems that Sam has been grievously beaten with the Stupid Stick, since he’s back down at Brittany’s IQ level for our fourth segment. Sam and Brittany are the only kids in school who believe that the “Mayan apocalypse” is ending the world on December 21, and they decide to make the most of their time together by getting married. Shannon performs their wedding ceremony on the 18th, but when the 22nd rolls around and the world still exists, they’re a bit taken aback… and they also think they’re really married. Relevant question: what did they do for the four days they were waiting for the world to end? Because “fucking without protection” is the only theory I can come up with. Shannon reveals in the final segment that she was only pretending to be an ordained minister so that they could get some enjoyment out of their “final” days without really doing anything stupid, but I think that it sometimes might not be a good idea to think the world is ending, because that’s exactly when you’d be likeliest to do something stupid? Shannon also decides to give them a little more by telling them that the end of the world has been pushed back to 2014. I can’t wait to see the followup on that, if Glee by some miracle is still on the air in 2014. At least Shannon’s excessive sentimentality here hearkens back to her role in “A Very Glee Christmas,” and is in character in general. Still, it’s pretty irresponsible.

Lastly, Sue gets to play Grinch again, although she doesn’t try to steal Christmas this time. Instead, after drawing Marley’s mom’s name out of the hat for faculty secret Santa, she decides to give the Roses the Christmas they deserve. She comes to this idea when she overhears Mrs. Rose telling Marley about how they’re spending all their Christmas money on Marley’s therapy for her eating disorder (though telling her this seems like something that could just give her another complex). This segment unavoidably feels reminiscent of “A Very Glee Christmas,” what with Sue’s heart growing three sizes, but Marley and her mother always make for a good scene, and I’m glad to see some followup on Marley’s issues.

The final segment brings everything together, as Marley and the glee kids thank Sue for what she did for the Roses, Sam and Brittany figure out where to go from here, Kurt and Blaine set the table for Christmas dinner, and Puck decides to move back to Lima to be close to his brother. Also, Artie is there.

This was a clearly flawed episode, but I appreciate the experimentation. We had quite a few scenes that worked, and as a whole it was a nice experience, but a lot of things failed to deliver as well. Sam and Brittany’s segment was especially disappointing, largely because it continued the stupidification of Sam that has characterized his fourth season ever since “Makeover.” It was also particularly aimless.

The music wasn’t spectacular, but I would like to say I’m glad they went with a lot of Christmas standards this year rather than contemporary music. “Feliz Navidad” and “Jingle Bell Rock” were uninspired, but everything else was pretty good. “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,” despite being the most awkwardly set up number of the bunch, was both a nice way to see Puck and Jake interacting and to remind people that, you know, some of the people on this show are Jewish, which “Extraordinary Merry Christmas” kinda forgot. The highlight of the episode was the final “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which, while it included montage elements, really felt like it brought all the disparate plotlines together.

Other thoughts:

I hate to harp on this, but Sam and Brittany started dating one episode ago. Give us a little more lead time before a marriage proposal happens. Even Nashville‘s Juliette waited three episodes before proposing to Sean.

Artie’s dream sequence was fun for the dark references to season one. Will is a drunk because he can’t stand living with Terri, and Emma is trapped in a relationship with Ken Tanaka.

I also liked that Artie’s musical number did nothing to convince the alternate universe kids of the power of music. “That was so gay!”

As of this episode, Puck has been back to Lima a total of four times (assuming he went back to LA after Thanksgiving), once crossing three time zones for the sole purpose of giving a lecture to Jake.

Marley and her mom hug with joy after finding that someone had broken into their house and left them gifts and much-needed money, but Marley suddenly realizes “We should probably still call the police.”

“I wanted to thank you for what you did for Marley and me.” “I had nothing to do with the making of that movie.”

Shannon says that the Mayans were “wiped out” by the Spanish and smallpox. There are actually around seven million Mayans alive today, and a dozen or so Mayan languages are still spoken. They also don’t think the world is going to end in 2012.

Episode 4.09: “Swan Song”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

Before the hiatus, I was starting to wonder why I even watched Glee anymore. Now I’m starting to wonder why I’d ever stop. “Swan Song” continues the recent stretch of quality episodes with a great one. Glee episodes can sometimes have a hard time finding a theme, but when they do manage to latch onto a strong one it usually makes for a fantastic episode. “Swan Song” is about moving beyond the superficial, about finding the heart, the reason, why people do the things they do. This question is one that can’t be answered by the brain. The answer lies in the soul, and every character on the show tonight finds themselves having to search their souls for that answer, either because they no longer have any choice, or because the superficial option was taken away.

On the part of the glee kids, the catalyst for all this is Marley’s on-stage fainting episode. The other kids understandably freak out, and carry her offstage to the choir room, where she regains consciousness. Interestingly, Kitty shows some signs of remorse here, volunteering the information that Marley needs to eat before anyone else has realized why she fainted. Kitty’s feelings are a thread for another episode, however, since they aren’t brought up again here. Marley is okay, but it turns out that abandoning the stage (“for any reason”) is grounds for disqualification, and the oddly heartless judges decide to award the sectionals victory to the Warblers without letting the New Directions finish their set. This ends their competition season before it even started. There will be no regionals, no second national championship, absolutely nothing visible or tangible to work towards. Significantly, the club’s trophies from prior years are put on grand display throughout this episode.

The decision by the producers to completely cut the competition circuit out of this season is a gutsy one, but a very smart one for several reasons. First, competitions have been done to death since season one, and we don’t really need them in our face anymore. Second, it avoids having season four look too similar to season three, as the New Directions are now a powerhouse and should be expected to win in the absence of extenuating circumstances. And, if there actually is a fifth season, it gives the competition circuit a new meaning as a shot at redemption, both for the club and for Marley.

Sue immediately swoops in and secures the choir room as a secondary practice space for the cheerios, which she can apparently do because school activities whose seasons have ended have no claim on meeting space. With nothing to work towards and nowhere to practice, the despondent kids start to go their separate ways. Tina and Blaine join the cheerios, Ryder and Jake join the basketball team, Artie joins the marching band (as a drum major), Wade joins roller hockey. This whole scene reminded me of the Taxi two-part episode “On the Job,” in which the garage goes bankrupt and the cabbies all go out and get other jobs. In both cases, a surrogate family has been torn apart, and it both cases the former colleagues are still drawn together. And, in both cases, they can’t abandon their past.

The only time and place that Finn can secure to practice is the auditorium from 9:54 to 10:00 (yes, for six minutes), but he tells the kids that he expects them to be there. Only Marley, who Tina keeps blaming for the whole situation, cares enough to try to make this ridiculous situation mean something. Everyone else just fades away into their new activities.

How do Finn and the glee club find a way and a reason to keep going? Well, that brings us to our thematically-linked other plotline. Rachel is given an invitation for an exclusive ten-student competition at NYADA from Carmen Tibideaux herself. Cassie berates Rachel for expecting to impress people at it, and they end up in a dance-off, of course. Rachel concedes defeat on the dancing front, but she thanks Cassie for reminding her that if she’s going to win, she’s going to have to do it with her voice, not anything else.

Meanwhile, Kurt has submitted an application for the upcoming NYADA semester. He boldly approaches Carmen in her office to ask about the status of his application, and is brusquely told that his performances lack heart, that he is all surface and no substance. Looking back on how overproduced many of Kurt’s big numbers have looked in the past, it’s hard to disagree. Kurt pretty much loses hope at that point.

Rachel wows the audience at the competition (through singing only, no production). Carmen, noticing Kurt there and sensing a chance to catch him unprepared (in a good way) announces to the audience that Kurt (“if he’s ready”) will be performing after the intermission. Kurt and Rachel have a very nice scene together in which he bemoans that he has nothing prepared, that he needs costumes and sets to feel comfortable. Rachel alludes back to Kurt’s performance of “I Want to Hold your Hand” (back in season two’s “Grilled Cheesus“), citing its simplicity and power as proof that Kurt doesn’t need anything extravagant to be amazing. And, he doesn’t. His performance of “Being Alive” shows the heart and power of simplicity, as Kurt does not hide behind props or costumes, but simply sings.

At this point, Rachel calls Finn, and our plots meet both literally and thematically. Rachel reminds Finn that the glee club is about having fun, about dreaming, about friendship and even romance — just like about any high school activity should be. Without nationals, without any winning at all, Rachel says, her experience in the glee club would still have been worth it. Rachel and Kurt had to learn for themselves that superficiality doesn’t sell in the real world. The glee kids still at WMHS have to learn the reason why: the deeper stuff is more rewarding and special. Vocal Adrenaline, portrayed as soulless automatons in season one, can win nationals. But that’s not the reason to participate in a social activity, or in life. The quote on the former glee club teacher’s plaque, which has existed since the pilot but been oddly on display the past few episodes, states the reason for participating: “By it’s very definition, glee is about opening yourself up to joy.”

Rachel wins her competition, Kurt gets accepted to NYADA, and Marley finds an (outdoor) practice space for the glee club, to which they all dramatically show up while singing a song. And all is well. The purpose of singing is to sing. The purpose of living is the experience itself. Not only do there not need to be any goals, but goals can be self-defeating, as they can rob an experience of inherent meaning.

In the C plot, Sam and Brittany decide to start dating. I’m not sure I buy Sam’s claim that he has always been attracted to Brittany, since they haven’t interacted much prior to this season (though I can believe he was afraid of Santana), but they definitely have tremendous chemistry together. On the strength of that alone, this relationship works. I love these two as a couple.

This was a great episode that manages to steal the dramatic thunder of a typical competition episode while being something else entirely, almost an anti-competition episode. Season four got off to a rocky start, but it’s on a roll now.

The music was good, but, unfortunately, not spectacular. Sam and Brittany’s “Somethin’ Stupid” was a nice way to start their relationship, and a good display of Chord Overstreet and Heather Morris’s chemistry. Rachel’s two numbers (“Being Good Isn’t Good Enough” and “O Holy Night“) were very powerful, but they were oversold. Rachel has done better. She has done so many amazing numbers that it’s going to be hard to give us another “performance of her life” that doesn’t end up looking oversold. The highlight was Kurt’s “Being Alive,” which was both a musical number and an epiphany for Kurt as a character. “O Holy Night” is a close second, if only for the skillful intercuts of Finn clearing out the choir room and the quick shots of the audience mouthing the words along with Rachel, speaking to how much Rachel was reaching them.

Other thoughts:

I’m guessing we’re going to follow up on Marley’s issues at the same time that we deal with Kitty’s apparent remorse.

There was some great comedy in this episode, but the best bit was Brad the piano guy breaking his series-long silence to thank Sue for destroying the glee club.

Sue’s villainy had thematic purpose this time, so I’m willing to forgive it.

Sam: “The Walking Dead isn’t based on a true story. I checked.” Brittany: “That’s not what I was going to ask, but oh.” That’s an example of an only moderately funny punchline that works way better than it should because of the delivery. Heather Morris is a seriously gifted comic actress.

Speaking of Sam, his stupidity/intelligence ratio seems to have evened out in this episode to an acceptable level. He’s not idiotic, but is prone to silliness (which he always has been, really).

I mentioned Taxi once above, but I was actually reminded of it a second time because of “Being Alive.” Alex sang that song in my favorite episode, “Alex Jumps Out of an Airplane.”

I’d ask why the hell Kitty showed back up at the practice location Marley found, but just about anything she does can be explained by “girl’s got issues.”