Episode 5.09: “Frenemies”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

Well Glee is finally back and, just as the prophets fortold, so am I. You’d think that after a two-month hiatus Glee would be able to come back with something truly Earth-shattering, but you’d be wrong. “Frenemies” is okay, but nothing to write home about. Like “Feud,” this episode manufactures conflict between a few pairs of characters and expects us to buy it as plot. Unlike “Feud,” there is one conflict with good history behind it that stands at the forefront and drives the show. Unfortunately, the remaining conflicts, like the ones in “Feud,” no one really cares about.

The driving force in this episode, of course, was the conflict between Santana and Rachel. As the opening scene unartfully reminds us, Santana and Rachel have been friends for a while, despite having been mortal enemies in the past. Santana even admits to having been Rachel’s main antagonist among the “unholy trinity” of Santana, Brittany, and Quinn, that she only pretended that Quinn was in charge. I’m not sure I believe that, given the size of Santana’s ego, but the fact that she says it does say something about the depth of hatred that used to exist between them.

The current state of their friendship, however, is not stable. As Santana claims later in the episode, Rachel is glad to have Santana there as someone to lord her success over, and when Santana threatens to have success as well, it upends things. At the same time, Santana really is jealous of Rachel’s success. While Rachel has dreamed of Broadway since she was capable of having dreams, Santana has always violently desired success as well: recall Kurt’s description of Santana’s unbridled hatred of Rachel when she thought she cost them a nationals win in “New York.” Santana has also always thought she was just as good as Rachel, being relegated to the back just because of Rachel’s whining and complaining (something Mercedes called her on in season three, though that plot thread was never resolved). So when Rachel and Santana have a falling out, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Far from it: it is built on four seasons of history. Sometimes burying the hatchet isn’t as easy as singing a song together.

Rachel and Santana’s breaking moment comes when Santana auditions to be Rachel’s understudy in Funny Girl, without telling Rachel about it, by singing “Don’t Rain on my Parade” (about which more below). The fight that they have afterwords speaks volumes about the things that they have both been holding in, Rachel even making it racial at one point by claiming that Puerto Rican Santana is not right to play Jewish Fanny Brice (Juan Epstein would probably be offended). Kurt refuses to take sides, but it’s pretty obvious that Rachel is in the wrong here. The Rachel we see in “Frenemies” is a self-absorbed shrew who would rather tear down everyone around her than share the spotlight, something we see in her attitude towards having an understudy even before Santana tries out for it. This is the Rachel I remember from season two’s “Audition,” in which it already felt out of character. Here, though… and I’m not sure I’m not reading too much into the intentions of the writers, because this is very subtle, and “subtle” is not something that the Glee writers tend to do well… but this kinda feels like a real reaction to Finn’s death. I found myself thinking, while Kurt was unsuccessfully attempting to mediate between Santana and Rachel, that I wished Finn were there. Rachel would listen to him. To a large degree, without him Rachel has lost her anchor, the thing kept her grounded. Without him, she’s free to go crazy, and she is doing so. She’s turning her back on her friends and embracing the idea that stardom is what life is all about. She has regressed to the Rachel of season one, without anyone to save her from the spiral.

Anyway, that was the good part of this episode. The rest ranged from pointless to dumb.

On the pointless end of the spectrum, we have Kurt’s concern that Elliot may be planning to take over the band, leading to him spending a lot of time with Elliot just so he can keep an eye on him. We already did this in “A Katy or a Gaga,” and, though it makes sense that Kurt might still not have a ton of self-esteem, the idea that he’s still concerned that Elliot is targeting him feels like a rehash of a previous plot point — especially since Elliot hasn’t shown the slightest hint of any kind of ruthless ambition or animosity. It’s just Kurt being insecure. There was a certain enjoyment in seeing Kurt and Elliot hanging out together, but I wish it had been separated from the plot thread of Kurt’s insecurity. After several scenes of Kurt trying to suss out the traitor in Elliot, Elliot finally says that he has no designs on Kurt’s status as the leader of the band, and they become friends… again.

Meanwhile, in the dumb part of the episode, Tina and Artie have a subplot. I kinda liked Artie and Tina’s initial scene together, because it gave Tina a chance to be something other than whiny and bitchy for the first time since season three… then we had the meeting with Sue, and Tina went right back to being whiny and bitchy. To be fair, there is some history between Artie and Tina, but that history exists, for the most part, in season one for its entirety. Tina and Artie have had virtually nothing to do with each other onscreen since then, so trying to sell this “Tuesday lunch” thing between them just does not work. The ensuing fight for valedictorian (that’s not how valedictorian works, by the way) did not show Tina in a good light, as she acted like a total jackass, including pushing Artie out of his chair, in her quest to get what she wanted. When Tina’s valedictorian campaign speech turned out to be in favor of Artie, it was believable because of course Tina might be feeling some guilt for what she did to him… but what was up with Artie deciding to campaign for Tina in his speech? What did Tina do to deserve that? She’s been nothing but a huge bitch for a season and some change now, and in this episode she pushed Artie out of his chair. It feels like there was a scene missing where they made up.

All in all, Glee is back with more of a “meh” than a “bang.” Still, this is a relative high point for season five.

Regarding the music, the first thing we have to talk about is Santana’s “Don’t Rain on my Parade.” Glee has used reprises a few time in the past couple of seasons, and it’s always been pretty effective. This is no exception, as Santana apes Rachel’s classic performance of the same number from season one’s “Sectionals,” not to mock Rachel but to make the point that Santana is on her level, not just an underling meant to strive and fail so that Rachel can look down on her from a position of stardom. The unfortunate thing about this number, however, is that, in inviting comparisons with Rachel’s earlier performance, the fact that Lea Michele is a much better singer than Naya Rivera is put in stark relief. I kinda feel rotten saying that, because Rivera is great, but Michele is simply in a class by herself. Rivera has talent, Michele has power. Rivera entertains, Michele astounds. To be fair, I think that part of what we’re meant to take away from this is that Santana is not as good a singer as Rachel either, and the point stands that Santana is Rachel’s equal, not her poor stepsister who never gets invited to the ball, but the mental comparison robs the moment of some of its power. This is the musical highlight of the episode, but more for the excellent choice in song and choreography than for the performance, which pales in comparison to the original.

The rest of the music was, for the most part, good. “Whenever I Call You Friend” was nice, but without any previously established strong relationship between Artie and Tina, it didn’t carry the weight that it wanted to. Still, it was a solid number. Santana and Rachel’s “Brave” was a decent way of bidding farewell to their friendliness with each other, as Santana allows herself to play second banana to Rachel for the last time. Artie and Tina’s “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” was quite good, but again it suffered from Tina and Artie’s poorly developed relationship. Kurt and Elliot’s “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” was good, but a bizarre choice for the situation. What did that have to do with guitar shopping? Rachel and Santana’s “Every Breath You Take” was another good song but bizarre choice. I get the idea that they want to keep an eye on each other, but as a duet it sounds like a song about two obsessed lovers, not mortal enemies. Some clever editing might have helped. Still, it was a good performance and the choreography was great. “Breakaway” was a good way to end: it hit all the right notes for Rachel’s departure from their apartment. I liked the contrast between the hopeful nature of the song and Rachel’s hardline stance against making up with Santana.

Other thoughts:

Artie refers to it being “a couple more Tuesdays” until graduation. Hang tight people, we’re almost home free.

Speaking of which, the newbies had nothing to do in this episode. Preparing to cut them loose?

Sue continues to lean on the fourth wall, referring to glee club members who “come and go with no explanation.” Anyone seen Sugar or Joe lately?

Why didn’t Sue appoint an odd number of judges to stave off the possibility of a tie?

This director sure likes having people talk at the camera. It got pretty weird after a while.