Episode 4.20: “Lights Out”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

This episode features a blackout whose length is only matched by how symbolic it is. The blackout is actually fairly unique in Glee terms in that, while it provides an obvious hamfisted theme and an easy excuse for Will to make up an assignment for the kids, it does it with style and the theme goes deeper than it usually does in these kinds of episodes. If it seems like a stretch that a blackout at a school would last so long (internal clues suggest it went on at least 24 hours) with classes going on like normal, well, it is. But it provides a lovely chance to look at these settings and characters in a different way. With the lighting darker and everyone’s mood different due to losing access to their beloved technology, everything just looks and feels new. Even the New York half of the episode plays along, taking us to the Vogue building, which we haven’t been to in a long time, and a theater which we’ve never seen before, leading into an extended and very unusual performance of “At the Ballet.”

In a way, it’s almost like the blackout was written into the script to force the Glee writers to get back to basics a little bit. Overproduction has been a recurring problem on the show (though not to the same extent as on Smash), and by muting the visuals and cutting down on the instruments, they have to work a little harder on the numbers. Of course, even in an “unplugged” episode they find a chance to deviate, with the imaginary and wacky “Little Girls” and the painfully artsy “At the Ballet.” At the same time, the other numbers moved away from that, and we saw a lot of characters letting their guards down and connecting with each other, both through music and through normal, everyday dialogue.

Like most of season three, this episode doesn’t feature a main plot so much as it features a variety of subplots. Unlike most of season three, they are all united by a common theme and it works. Everyone is trying to figure out who they are and what they want. Ryder continues to be drawn toward his lying Internet girl(?)friend despite getting closer to and getting hit on by the definitely-existent Kitty. Sue has found a new life as a personal trainer at a gym and thinks that it’s what she was always meant to do, even as Becky tries to convince her to try to come back to the cheerios. And Santana is confronted by Kurt and Rachel for wasting her life and talent despite having come to New York Fucking City to chase her dreams.

Ryder’s issues were short on plot, but long on emotion. One of the reasons he is clinging to Katie, his Internet girlfriend, is that he’s been able to open up to her more than anyone else he’s ever known. Jake rightly points out that maybe he should be opening up to people he actually knows, and Ryder decides to take him up on that. He tells the glee club that he was molested as a child by his babysitter, something that he’d only ever told Katie in his entire life. Everyone is shocked and sympathetic right up until Ryder reveals that it was a 17 year old female babysitter, and Sam and Artie suddenly decide to let their hormones do the talking for them. It sounded horrible when they thought it was a man, but they can’t understand why he would be upset at being felt up by a girl. It’s an unfortunate attitude, but one that is believable coming from kids. Ryder can’t even convince them that he really is upset and traumatized by it. He just “admits” that it was awesome and drops the subject.

I think that sexual assault is one of those disasters that it’s difficult for non-victims to connect with victims about. I can at least understand what it might be like to lose one’s house to arson, or be the victim of a murder attempt, or be robbed, even if none of those things have ever happened to me. But how would it have affected me if I had been molested as a child, by a woman or a man? What difference would the level of violence have made? What if it had had the illusion of consent? I can’t answer any of those questions, so I can’t possibly say how Ryder felt or feels about it, and I’d just have to trust what he says. Sam and Artie, who have never been molested, make the mistake of projecting their current hormone-addled feelings onto the situation, and assume that any guy must feel the same way.

Ryder does reach one person, however. It turns out that Kitty was molested when she was younger as well, and she opens up to Ryder about it as a show of sympathy. She was made the object of derision when she told her parents what had happened and everyone in her school found out and assumed that she was a liar. She connects with Ryder not just because they were both molested, and not just because they both had trouble admitting it, but also because they both didn’t get anything like the response they needed from their friends when they did admit it. It apparently takes really heavy things like school shootings and child abuse to get Kitty to show some emotion, but Becca Tobin really nailed the performance here.

This segment ends when Kitty invites Ryder to join her for lunch, but he refuses because he’s waiting for Katie to come back online. Kitty is really hurt at being rejected for someone who is mostly in Ryder’s mind (“Why would you take an online fantasy over an actual fantasy?”), and points out the harsh truth that Katie is whoever Ryder wants her to be. It’s easy to play people over the Internet. She then sadly leaves him to his computer. I think that this scene actually humanizes Kitty more effectively than either the school shooting scene or the earlier admission-of-being-molested scene. Here, she’s just a normal girl who is really sad that a guy she likes is passing her over. It’s also a lot easier to relate to her in this situation, because we’ve all been there. Again, Becca Tobin proves that she has some acting chops, and I hope that Kitty gets more chances to be a real person in the future.

Santana’s subplot, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as strong. However, it was filled with nearly as much emotion, even if a lot of it was artificial. Kurt and Rachel find out (via Tina, somehow) that Santana has been working as a cage dancer, something that we sadly don’t get any visual evidence of. … But anyway, her friends think that she’s wasting her talent being sleazy and that she should do something, anything, to try to better herself. Santana is the first to admit that she has no idea what she wants out of her life, and she thinks that this is a fine excuse to just hang around and do easy stuff until something better comes along. This very non-proactive approach is challenged when Kurt (who is apparently still working at Vogue.com) gets them backstage at a benefit gala for the New York Ballet and Santana suddenly admits that she used to take ballet. She liked it, she likes “serious” dancing, and by the end of the episode she decides to join a dance class sponsored by NYADA (for non-students) to try to rediscover that “artist” in her.

At the heart of this subplot is “At the Ballet,” which, at over five and half minutes, is a serious contender for longest single performance in the history of Glee. It even goes on for two minutes longer than the intrinsically epic “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” It’s undeniably artistic and emotional, but it starts to lose the plot after a couple of minutes, when it stops being about Santana and takes a long, unnecessary, self-indulgent detour with Sarah Jessica Parker. Plus, it’s ludicrously overproduced, especially for being is an episode that is supposed to be about focussing on the basics. This storyline would have worked a lot better if it had spent some more time developing Santana and her struggles. Santana almost comes across as a tertiary character in her own story, as we spend a lot of time with Kurt, Rachel, and Isabelle. Most of her issues in this episode are not shown, and instead of watching Santana struggle and change, we just have to listen to her tell us about it (That makes me feel angry!).

Sue’s subplot goes nowhere and does nothing. The main character here should have been Becky, who is genuinely struggling with the fact that Sue, her idol, got fired for protecting her. But, we end up spending a whole lot of time with Sue, including a pointless scene at her new job as a personal trainer, and a very weird, pointless, but fun performance of “Little Girls.” We’re led to believe that Becky fessed up to Figgins at the end of the episode, but any consequences are not revealed.

So this was a reasonably enjoyable episode. If it’s not an instant classic, at least it’s classic Glee. It had a lot of emotion, a lot of ambition, and some questionable decisions. That’s Glee for you.

This was a strong episode, musically. Even the needlessly self-indulgent “Little Girls” and and the overlong “At the Ballet” were fun. With “At the Ballet” it was especially easy to forgive it its many sins simply because it was so well done. Even if I feel like it needed to do more to justify its length, and despite all its other flaws, I’d still call it the highlight of the episode. It’s that good. Sam’s “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” was a nice intro to the simplicity of the music of the glee kids’ part of the episode, as they refused to add in even any imaginary instruments. It was carried by Sam’s guitar playing and the vocals of the club. Ryder’s “Everybody Hurts” was reasonably emotional and a good way to lead into his opening up to his friends. Blake Jenner sold the feeling behind it well. “We Will Rock You” was fun but pointless, which made me wonder why they devoted a minor plot point to Artie being inspired by Sam to set the whole thing up. “The Longest Time” was fantastic, even if it didn’t reach the heights of Glee‘s best a capella number, “How Will I Know” from season three.

Other thoughts:

I’m glad that the recap narrator agrees with me that it’s fucking crazy that Sue covered up for Becky.

When Santana admitted that she didn’t know what she wanted out of life, it was a great moment, well-acted, and the one part of her story in this episode that felt like it belonged to her.

Their attempt to lampshade Blaine’s aborted “sabotage the cheerios from within” subplot by having him mention it was pretty lame.

What was with the flashbacks to people getting slushied during “Everybody Hurts?” That’s not exactly near the level of pain that Ryder was trying to express.

Isabelle reminded me of Holly Holliday in that her attempt to help Santana could have ended up being hopelessly wrong (every little girl wanted to be a ballerina!), but she managed to stumble into success.

So… you reckon they used any autotune on those “unplugged” numbers?

Episode 4.19: “Sweet Dreams”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

After a run of four episodes that ranged from bad to unremarkable to undefinable, and with the specter of two more seasons looming before us, it’s good to be reminded of why I watch this show. “Sweet Dreams” wasn’t exactly perfect, but it was good, easily standing out not only in a weak fourth season, but on its own merits. Taking a cue from season three, this episode fondly recalls some of Glee‘s earlier work, as Shelby reappears in Rachel’s life, the club takes a shot at performing a member’s original songs, Puck and Finn revisit their slacker days, and, of course, Rachel reprises the series’s most iconic number.

“Sweet Dreams” is thematically strong, a rarity for Glee even in the best of times, but especially this season. It is not just about chasing one’s dreams, but about the fact that, to really do it and achieve it, you have to stay true to your own character and your past. It wasn’t her love of Barbra Streisand that got Rachel on that stage: it was the support and love of her friends, the genes of her mother, and the journey she made along with the glee club. Finn and Puck may fall into the trap of slacking and partying all the time (which is easy to do in college — my third roommate immediately joined a frat and dropped out after one semester), but that’s not who they really are. Puck has dreams of success, built on his struggles to graduate high school and be different from his father, and Finn’s dreams of becoming a teacher are based on the good things he managed to accomplish in “Swan Song” and “Dynamic Duets” while connecting with the kids. And Will dreams of continued success with his club, but dictatorial rule is neither his style nor the key to victory.

The episode starts with voiceover, a stylistic signpost that points back to season one. Rachel talks about her upcoming audition for “Funny Girl,” and Marley talks about her desire to see her songs performed by the club. In this, we see Rachel moving on from her childhood, even as Marley struggles to break out of her shell. Rachel wrote songs in season two, but she had numerous failures before she managed to crank out “Get it Right,” a very good song, but apparently the only real good song she had in her. Despite that, Rachel was full of confidence and pushed her songs on the club relentlessly. By contrast, Marley is a natural songwriter, but timid about expressing it. Her songs may not (yet) be amazing, but they show talent, and they express real feelings. This is one of those (sadly rare) times when the parallels between Marley and Rachel feel like real fodder for story and theme, and not just lazy characterization.

Rachel, convinced by Shelby and Finn that she needs to do something personal and different for her audition, makes a decision that is nearly as gutsy for her as it was for the producers of this episode: she reprises “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I didn’t know this was coming, and you should have seen my face when that music started coming out of the piano. It’s dangerous to reprise a song, especially such an iconic one, and one they already reprised once before (it appeared both on its own in “Pilot” and as part of a Journey medley in “Journey to Regionals,” both from season one), but it’s been nearly three full seasons since we heard that song on this show, and bringing it back has a real impact. Using it for Rachel’s audition was perfect, as the song itself alludes to where Rachel came from and how she got there.

Compare this to Shannon’s throwaway story about how her estranged sister helped her get through her divorce. We’ve never met Shannon’s sister, and we didn’t see anyone in particular help her through the divorce. The writer just made that up for this episode. But we’ve seen nearly the entirety of Rachel’s growth as a person and performer, and “Don’t Stop Believin’,” in many ways, was the beginning. Bringing it full circle emphasizes that journey, and brings it to the mind of the viewer. That number, in “Pilot,” also never could have happened without everyone in the club working together, just as Rachel never could have gotten to that stage on Broadway without their support. One could argue that Rachel’s reprise was overproduced because of the imaginary season one club members singing along with her, but I think that it worked perfectly.

The one misstep was having Rachel explain all that to the audition judges. The song spoke for itself.

Meanwhile, Will, who is still in a bad mood because of Emma and Finn, lays down the law and refuses to listen to any of the kids’ suggestions about a regionals setlist, including Marley who desperately wants to see some of her songs performed. She finally sings one alone with Blaine, Sam, and Wade, and the song, “You Have More Friends Than You Know,” serves as kind of a parallel to Rachel’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Rachel’s number is the end of one journey and the beginning of another. Marley’s is all beginning. She’s asking for the support she needs to keep traveling this path, while at the same time showing that she has the talent to make it. Her song is not great, being simple and shallow, but it shows promise, and it very effectively expresses feelings the way that a teenager would express them.

Anyway, Will overhears Marley and her friends singing the song, finally realizes that he’s a jerk, and decides to give her songs a fair shot in the club.

Meanwhile, Finn made a good effort to be a serious student at the University of Lima, where he is now enrolled, but UL turns out to be the biggest party school in the country, and he can’t resist giving in and just partying all the time, especially when he finds out that Puck is hanging around the college too. Puck isn’t enrolled, he’s just hanging around. Will reaches out to Finn and apologizes for the way he treated him (several episodes late) and asks him to come back to help him run the glee club. Will senses that he’s losing his connection with the kids, and thinks that Finn can help him. While I questioned Finn’s purpose at WMHS, especially after Will came back, it is true that Finn has a better rapport with the kids than Will does these days. That’s more because Will’s been a total douche lately than because of any natural charisma from Finn, though.

Anyway, Finn has none of it and tells Will to fuck off. However, Puck finally comes to his senses and tells Finn that they both need to buckle down and work on their dreams. Puck has a screenplay to write and Finn needs to go to class and work hard if he wants to become a teacher. It actually makes sense that it would be Puck who comes to this realization first, because he struggled with similar failures near the end of his high school career, and is better able to recognize the danger in what’s happening. Anyway, Finn gets his advisor to agree to give him college credit for working at WMHS with Will, and he agrees to come back.

Other things happening in this episode include Sam bizarrely pretending to have a British (Australian?) twin brother (like that episode of Three’s Company when Jack pretends to have a Texan twin) and Roz taking over as coach of the cheerios (ugh).

A few issues aside, this was a strong episode. I have hopes that this season can finish on a high note, and we can go into season five and beyond with some hope that this show will find its way again.

When it comes to the musical numbers in this episode, I think that it’s obvious that there’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and then there’s everything else. Rachel’s audition was the highlight by a country mile. However, there wasn’t a bad number in the bunch. As mentioned, Marley’s “You Have More Friends Than You Know” was also good. Her other number, “Outcast,” felt a bit like a revisiting of the themes of “Loser Like Me,” an original song from season two, which, given the context of the episode, was a good thing. Shelby and Rachel’s “Next to Me” was a great way to reintroduce the characters to each other. Finn and Puck’s “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” was a blast, especially since the song was originally written as a mean-spirited parody, but has been consistently misinterpreted as literal by people like those college kids for years.

Other thoughts:

Why did Blaine bother fighting to keep his position on the cheerios, considering that he was forced into it, that Roz didn’t want him there, and that Roz is at least twice as crazy as Sue?

Seeing Finn and Puck as college roommates was a lot of fun. They should have their own spinoff. They could call it Undeclared. Wait…

Tina: “It made me realize… I have no idea if I’m on the cheerios or not.”

I liked Will’s quiet moment of contemplation in the hall after he yelled at the kids. Before he even heard Marley’s song, it showed that he was struggling with this side of himself, and it lent some much-needed humanity to a character who has really been a dick lately.

As difficult as I think it will be to use Finn effectively in storylines at WMHS, at least his presence has legitimacy now. However, I don’t really think he can insist on being treated as an equal. Isn’t he basically a TA?

I’m glad Rachel got a callback but… how do they top that audition?

Episode 4.18: “Shooting Star”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

Is it possible for two outstanding acts to save an entire episode? Is it possible for one very offensive and wrong-headed writing decision to tank it? And what can you say about something that contains the absolute bottom of the barrel, the absolute cream of the crop, and a lot of meandering and mediocre bullshit? I’ve never been more glad that I don’t assign ratings to episodes I review, because for “Shooting Star” it would be absolutely impossible. I don’t think I could boil my opinion of this episode down to anything shorter than a few paragraphs. And lucky you, you’re going to get something quite a bit longer than that.

The first two acts are among the goofiest that Glee has ever done, while at the same time taking a break here and there for something serious. Brittany announces that she has discovered an asteroid/comet/meteor that is hurtling towards Earth and will kill them all, and she really feels like she needs to make amends with Lord Tubbington before that happens. Then we spend a lot of time watching Brittany try to connect with her cat while her friends, including Sam and Will, just seem to encourage her. Brittany generally comes across as “funny” dumb, but in this episode she started to veer into “scary” dumb territory. It really felt like she needed to be on some kind of medication. Anyway, she eventually discovers that the comet was actually just a dead ladybug on the lens of her telescope, and also that her telescope was actually just a Pringles can, and in shame she disbands the Astronomy Club that she somehow was president of. So much for that utterly pointless plotline. Next!

Ryder finds out (shock horror!) that his online girlfriend Katie hasn’t been entirely truthful to him when he finds the girl whose photograph she sent him, Marissa. While he seems to have had a shot at scoring with Marissa after his oddly smooth approach at her, he becomes more concerned with finding out who’s been tricking him. Katie claims that aside from the name and photo she’s been entirely truthful, but Ryder understandably thinks that someone is fucking with him. In a difficult-to-watch scene, he accuses Marley and Jake of doing it, just because they know him well enough to pull it off. It’s sad to see Ryder so upset that he’s lashing out at two of his few friends. He eventually agrees to meet Katie after school and sort everything out.

Also, Shannon makes a pass at Will, who has to break it to her that he’s back with Emma. We then see the return of weepy insecure Shannon as she proves she can’t take rejection.

All of this wandering unfocussed shit leads into the two standout acts of the episode, as Will, the kids, and Shannon meet in the choir room and suddenly hear two gunshots ring out from somewhere in the distance, but not quite distant enough for comfort. After a moment of horrible indecision, Will orders everyone to spread out and hide, and he turns off the lights and locks the doors. What follows is claustrophobic and terrifying. The show refuses to let us out of the choir room for a long time and does not let us know what’s happening, so the audience feels as lost and hopeless as the kids.

We watch as Sam, who knows that Brittany is somewhere out there, waits, gets impatient, makes an attempt to leave to find her but it talked out of it by Will, and finally tries to force his way out of the choir room and has to be physically restrained by Will and Shannon. Artie starts allowing people to leave video messages on his cell phone, because “if we don’t get out of here, then people need to see this.” Kitty is finally able to have a real emotion (this is what it takes, huh?) and makes a confession to Marley in her terror of dying without making some kind of amends. Ryder calls Katie for the first time, because “she’s someone, and I still care about her,” only to hear someone’s phone in the choir room ring in response (they can’t tell whose it is). The only sound in the room, throughout all this, is a ticking metronome in the middle of the room that got knocked down in the confusion.

When we’re finally shown brief glimpses of the outside world, we see a stampede of kids leaving the school. We see Brittany hiding in the bathroom, standing on the toilet seat and crying. We see Tina, safely outside, begging Figgins to let her back in so she can be with her friends.

Finally, the SWAT team comes through and gives the all clear. And at the end of these two acts, we know nothing about what happened or why, just like the kids.

Glee has never been afraid to go to a dark place, and with the major exception of last season’s “Choke,” they’ve been fairly successful at it. The two acts of the kids waiting in the dark choir room, scared, confused, lost, and helpless, made for some of the best writing, acting, and directing the series has ever done. The refusal to let the audience know anything about what was happening and the refusal to cut the tension at all until the very end were brilliant decisions that allowed this part of the episode to really stand out.

And, fortunately, these acts stand on their own. Fortunate, because the rest of the episode does not live up to them.

Several days later, with metal detectors now at every entrance to WMHS and a school-wide locker search ongoing for the still missing shooter and gun (no witnesses and not so much as a bullet hole was found, but everyone heard the shots), Sue finally confesses that it was her gun. She tells Figgins that she kept it in her office for security, and that she accidentally dropped it while cleaning it, causing it to go off. With no other choice, Figgins fires her. Sue is very blasé about the whole thing, and we finally find out why via flashback: the gun was actually Becky’s. Scared of graduating, Becky lost her shit and brought the gun into Sue’s office, although I’m still not sure what she planned on doing with it (she claims it’s to “be prepared”). Becky drops the gun by mistake when Sue tries to take it, and it goes off. Sue takes the blame to protect Becky, and her last request to Will is to “keep an eye on Becky.”

Sue’s behavior here is presented as noble, but it’s actually pretty reprehensible. Becky just proved herself to be a danger to herself and others, and Sue learned that Becky, a child with Down Syndrome, lives in a household with parents who do not know how to adequately secure their firearms (Becky swiped the gun from her dad). How long until Becky has another episode and shoots someone? How long until she accidentally shoots herself? She clearly has problems even beyond Down Syndrome, and by covering up what Becky did, Sue is preventing her from getting any help. She could easily be condemning Becky, who she loves, to die of her own psychosis because no one is going to know about this horrible warning sign. That is absolutely and utterly disgusting, and instead of seeing Sue leaving as a hero, I see her leaving as an idiot who endangers children because she doesn’t want to face that Becky has a major problem, and perhaps should not be in public school. It’s selfish, it’s wrong, and it’s unforgivable. It’s definitely not heroic.

Oh yeah, also the kids had some reactions to the scare too. Tina admits that the glee club is her family and has a pretty good crying scene with Blaine, and Ryder waits to meet Katie but she doesn’t show up.

Also, Will helps Shannon post a profile on an online dating site, and the first response was from Ken Tanaka, which was pretty funny.

And Sam bought Brittany another cat.

My feelings were all over the map during this episode. I was bored, I was riveted, I was terrified, I was confused, I was angry, I was offended, I was disappointed. What did I think about it? See above. I’m not even going to try to put any kind of summation of my opinion down here.

This was a very musically sparse episode, at three songs the sparsest we’ve had in a long time. While “More than Words” was decent on its own, the very fact that it was being sung to and about a cat that Brittany was trying to make amends with before a comet that she discovered destroyed the world… kinda robbed it of any dignity. “Your Song” was actually a lot of fun, and it could have been a lot more awkward if Marissa hadn’t decided that Ryder managed to fall on the “charming” side of the charming/creepy dichotomy. “Say” was the highlight of the episode, as it gave a quiet moment of contemplation as we came down off those awful all-around events, and allowed Ryder to find where he belongs right now. The further shots of messages from other glee kids on Artie’s cell phone as the song ends were cloying, but they came from a real place and it made for a nice coda to the episode.

Other thoughts:

Word I learned from Glee today: “textlationship.”

I’m impressed at Marley’s industriousness if she actually built a fake bottom for her desk drawer just to hide some songs she wrote.

Why the hell did they leave the bathroom (and all at once) after Will found Brittany and two other students hiding in there before the all clear?

At least Blaine can quit the Cheerios now? That plotline sure went nowhere.