Glee – “Special Education”

“Special Education”

November 30th, 2010

The performance episodes of Glee have been pretty universally strong: both “Sectionals” and “Journey” avoided relying purely on spectacle, delivering episodes which consolidate season-long developments. The first episode confirmed that New Directions could survive without Will and come together as a team, while “Journey” brought both Sue’s relationship with New Directions and Rachel’s relationship to Finn to a triumphant close.

“Special Education” is notable in that it is the first performance episode that doesn’t serve as any sort of ending. With “Sectionals” positioned as the closing hour of the show’s original 13-episode order (and filmed before the show became an established hit), and with “Journey” as the first season finale, there was always a sense of closure. By comparison, “Special Education” isn’t even closing out the first part of the season (the Christmas episode airs next week), which means that the event is going to be considerably less climactic than what we’ve seen before.

While not perfect, I quite like what Brad Falchuk and Paris Barclay did with this hour. A self-reflexive deconstruction of the balance between the individual and the group within the series, the episode lacks subtlety but resists the urge to smooth over its various conflicts. While the show doesn’t quite commit to the character drama to the point where it avoids the cheery group number at episode’s end, I thought it had some legitimately interesting insight into what that balance means to the series. The spirit of the show may not be broken, but there are enough cracks in the armor that “Special Education” successfully delivers spectacle and transition without resolving anything.

Allowing for the Christmas denouement next week.

In perhaps the least subtle moment in the entire episode, Kurt thinks that his canary (a sort of “Egg Baby” project for the Dalton Academy folk, but taken to its evolutionary conclusion) is dying. It has everything it needs in its cage, like food and water, but it simply isn’t interested. Turns out that Blaine, also an expert on small birds, knows the problem: the bird is molting, shedding its feathers. You see, in this metaphor Kurt is the bird, and the cage is Tolerance Narnia. What Kurt learns in the episode is that Dalton is not a place where you let your freak flag fly: rather, it is a place where a certain degree of decorum and uniformity allow you to be yourself within certain standards. When the scene began, I thought they were going with a gilded cage metaphor, suggesting that Kurt’s individuality would be stifled by this new environment, but the molting is a more positive notion. It tells Kurt that he can find his new skin, that he can find his place within this world (with its councils and rigid audition structures) if he only takes his time to grow some new feathers.

This seems like a painfully direct metaphor, and it is. However, it is direct in ways that I sort of like when you compare with the New Directions lesson. There, Will’s efforts to be a bit more unpredictable (after Emma meta-deconstructs the sameness of sectionals patterns) mean that the traditional soloists are cut out of the picture, and it becomes about “Me Me Me”: Rachel starts a protest, Finn suggests that pulling the starters for the reserve unit is something you do in practice, and Mercedes thinks their chances are slim when Sectionals will be “light on the Mercedes” (which makes her sound like mayonnaise, but that’s her word choice and not mine). Of course, New Directions ends up performing well enough to tie for the win at Sectionals as Sam, Quinn and Santana deliver some solid vocals while Brittany and Mike’s dancing was as crowd pleasing as it sounds in theory.

And yet the show resists suggesting that they need to start following the Warblers’ example. While they both wear “uniforms” while on stage which suggest a certain degree of hegemony, the fact that Finn and Rachel end the episode apart is a key to its success. In the case of the Warblers, Kurt learns that the power of song is not about self-expression so much as a quiet camaraderie; in the case of New Directions, the group learns that song can unite them but also that it does not erase their ability to be themselves. Tina shows up wearing her usual outfit instead of changing to please Mike, while Rachel and Finn split up in a legitimate struggle which nonetheless doesn’t threaten the very fabric of the club. Instead of asking the characters to conform, or suggesting that the conformity of the Warblers is inherently evil, the episode lays out some of the pros and cons of these approaches and says that music wins out in the end.

I’m not suggesting that this is among Glee’s most challenging episodes, or that it breaks any ground for the series, but there’s something about this conclusion that felt very honest to me. Even within some broader storylines that had the potential to slip into cliche, elements leading up to those stories did effectively focus on individuals without necessarily undermine the group connections. Kurt and Rachel’s relationship throughout the episode, for example, was strong for a number of reasons. Not only is it a direct callback to “Wheels” – a series highlight also directed by Barclay – in the split between Rachel and Kurt, but it also nicely inverts that relationship to move from competitive to cooperative. Their brief scene at Sectionals was the most honest acting I’ve seen from Lea Michele in perhaps the entire series, as if being freed from the threat of competition within her own club was like the weight lifted off her shoulders. It was what happens when someone who is desperate to be the star of their life is placed in the background and allowed to work towards a different goal, not unlike her characterization in “Duets.” When Quinn calls her out earlier in the episode for having gone from annoying to despicable, she’s right, and the episode builds on that in ways that I thought were actually quite interesting.

And while the supporting players got some spotlight in the solos, I quite liked the work with Artie and Brittany here. I didn’t buy the way they got together in “Duets,” and I certainly didn’t buy when they started a real relationship in more recent episodes, but here I thought Heather Morris and Kevin McHale got some actual material to work with. Yes, it’s condescending for Artie to treat Brittany like a child with the whole comb thing, but seeing Brittany respond to something in an emotion fashion let Heather Morris expand on that quiet, sad moment at the end of “Duets” as she reenacts Lady and the Tramp. The character remains a bit brainless, but the presence of a heart takes that brainlessness to a really exciting place: her initial fear, mixed with cockiness, was extremely charming, and her fear of disappointing Artie about the lost comb was some really great acting from Morris. I especially loved that the character was allowed to both commit a logical misunderstanding of a word’s meaning (adultery, if you don’t know what it means, would seem to have something to do with adulthood) and point out a logical fallacy in Artie’s behavior (in that he gave her a trash comb to brush her hair with). There were levels to that scene (which sounds like a pun since Artie’s in a wheelchair, but that was unintentional) that Brittany didn’t get in her own episode, and for that I am truly grateful.

There were even layers to the Green Room scene, which could have been more exaggerated drama. I love that the logical path of information in regards to Finn and Santana fits into previous logic – as inconsistent as the series may be, it makes sense that Mercedes would tell Kurt, and that Mercedes would learn it from Quinn (if we go back to “Home”), and that Quinn would learn it from Puck who would have probably heard it from Santana. As much as this episode could have seemed like all of these relationships imploding at once, I thought it was all handled fairly well considering the series’ track record. Even the introduction of Lauren, as hackneyed and forced as it was, at least got enough time to run through the episode that her dynamic with Puck offered a couple of fun moments (and some less aggressive moments for Mark Salling to play).

Now, it is a concern that so much of the episode’s “Stick together despite your differences” narrative comes from Will slamming down clip boards and yelling in his “Fake Pregnancy Showdown” voice, but I’d rather Will play this role than to have the show investigate his romantic life further. While we got those bits and pieces of the Emma story here, as she goes off and gets married and breaks his poor heart, there is no point at which that threatens to take over the teenage narratives. I’m fine with Will having a role in the series, and frankly I’d rather he be an enforcer of episodic themes than to have him actually be a part of the themes in question.

This all sounds very objective, which I think is a symptom of writing a lot of academic papers recently, but I think it’s also because I don’t think this episode had a particularly high burden. Because it isn’t closing off a section like the other competition episodes, we can’t expect “Special Education” to operate the same as “Sectionals” or “Journey,” especially since this is their second time at the competition so we sort of know what to expect. And since the season is going to move on, and it’s going to be the Christmas episode that really brings things to a close, there’s no need for any sort of narrative resolution. Instead, Falchuk feels comfortable with allowing the episode to draw some comparisons between these two glee clubs and the role of the individual within them, resisting the urge to use this spectacle to reunite Kurt with New Directions, or to smooth over every single personal relationship.

By letting Kurt and Rachel breakup over Rachel’s betrayal, and by suggesting that the group can still all come together to sing some Florence + the Machine despite these personal struggles, it’s a sort of proof that the show can be triumphant without triumphing over everything (just as Tolerance Narnia can be tolerant without making Kurt feel entirely welcome). I like what that says about the show, and liked “Special Education” as a result.

Cultural Observations

  • I really, really loved “Dog Days Are Over,” a really skillful effort from Barclay. The way they used the song’s bridge, maybe its highlight musically, to have Rachel and Finn share that brief look of understanding intercut with Rachel taking off her necklace (and taking down the creepy poster), and the cuts to Will/Kurt/Emma were similarly insightful. Combine with the way the camera moves and angles nicely sell the hectic nature of the song, and it’s just a really strong scene that did a lot to endear me to the episode.
  • I know that Alan Sepinwall pointed out in one of his rare Glee reviews (of “Journey”) that New Directions didn’t seem that impressive compared to their competition, but frankly? Their tie with the Warblers here seemed sort of bizarre. This was some of the most dynamic performance we’ve seen from New Directions with Brittany and Mike doing their best “So You Think You Can Dance?” so the tie felt like a bit of a forced conclusion to justify keeping Kurt away. However, since I like that choice, I’m down with the forced stalemate.
  • I presume that Mercedes and Tina are this week’s unsung heroes in that they were the only female members of New Directions without a solo? That only works if we’re talking the show rather than the show’s world, since Rachel’s solo was in private, but let’s go with it (since Rachel was deferring, after all).
  • Some great reaction shots during Sectionals: I think I saw Puck tearing up at the Hipsters, for example.
  • The “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” performance told me two things that I already knew: Michele and Colfer can sing, and I had only ever heard – or only ever remember hearing – the chorus to that song.
  • I am always a sucker for a mention of shark week, but Artie’s brief matter-of-fact “Of course not, it’s Shark Week” when Tina suggested potential adultery? Cracked me up.
  • Darren Criss did what he could with the rather awful “Hey Soul Sister,” but man did he ham it up. His face during “I’m so Gangster, I’m So Thug,” in particular, was ridiculous.
  • Anyone have any readings on the decision to name the episode “Special Education?” That term obviously has specific meanings in regards to students facing learning disabilities, and the lack of those issues here meant that this went to a broader, more generalized notion of “special” as the way millennial generations are being considered in popular cultural narratives (a connection which Jeremy Mongeau pointed out in a tweet during the episode).
  • As a quite note on the whole “Three Glees” theory (which continues to update every week), Twitter users Tim (rural_juror) and Cameron (EnergyTanks) both suggested independently that the episode had an Ian Brennan vibe (in the self-reflexive humor, in particular) despite being credited to Falchuk. This goes to some recent A.V. Club comments from people supposedly close to the show which suggest that the scripts are written as a group and then simply credited to different individuals, which would complicated parts of the Three Glees theory. However, that Brennan’s aesthetic remains distinctive enough that people are picking it up within an episode he didn’t script still suggests that the core of the concept (that the three separate writers and their particular styles could explain some of the series’ inconsistencies) remains true, so I think it still has some value as a study of sorts.
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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Glee – “Special Education”

  1. Eric

    I’m deeply troubled by the tie. I realize it was done to keep Kurt with the Warblers, but how could the Show Choir Rule Book not specify a voting system that chooses one winner to advance to Regionals? It made it impossible for me to continue to suspend disbelief.

  2. Making my first cameo appearance in a Myles McNutt blog… is me. With a side of me. Definitely not light on the me.

    But enough about me.

    I think the title “Special Education” is simply a deviation from “normal” education in that it isn’t about academia so much as it is about romance (since most of the non-Sectionals-related plots were romantic — Finn/Rachel, Artie/Brittany and Tina/Mike, and Will/Emma/John freakin’ Stamos). It’s quite a stretch, though, and I really dislike when I have to stretch to justify an episode title.

    I think you’re right on about Three Glees — it may be complicated to know that the scripts are written collaboratively, but I still can’t shake that feeling that I was watching plot and dialogue from an Ian Brennan episode. Falchuk’s voice was certainly present (and boy does he know how to pick and use songs, Hey Soul Sister notwithstanding), but there was a particularly subtle quality about the whole episode that was unmistakeably Brennan. I probably only noticed it because Brennan is my favorite of the Three Glees.

    In any case, I’m sure the Christmas episode will conveniently forget and/or conveniently fix a lot of this episode’s goodness. Such is the nature of Glee.

  3. Danny

    1. Brittany actually thought adultery was a-dolt-ery, and meant being an idiot (“like, a dolt”). Confused me at first too.

    2. I actually would’ve given the Warblers the win, only because Time of My Life was so weak. Not a great song choice and Quinn isn’t enough of a powerhouse to carry an entire performance, despite how much I like Agron and her work on the show. And if the show wants us to buy the stakes of these competitions I can’t get on board with using them as a time to experiment by giving less seasoned (and worse) singers the featured roles. That just doesn’t make sense; Finn’s argument, while selfish, was absolutely right. It worked better with Santana, though, I will admit. And once the episode ended, it seems ridiculous that they wouldn’t have just performed the far superior Dog Days Are Over at Sectionals in the first place.

  4. Steve

    I agree with you about the comparison/contrast of the structure of this episode with last season’s “Sectionals.” The difference seems to be that in season one, the plot and character development of the first several episodes all led up to what happened in “Sectionals” and it felt honest and satisfying. This season, I think they “frittered” away the first several episodes with “gimmick episode, guest star, gimmick, gimmick, guest star” and then suddenly found themselves at sectionals and had to cram every bit of plot, character, conflict, drama and catharsis into this one episode. For the most part, it was handled very skillfully and I really enjoyed this episode. But, at the same time, some of that “cramming” seemed awkward. For example, the fact that Kurt got to sing with the Warblers at all five seconds after he got to the school, including being prominently placed right behind Blaine at the performance, seems to make any claim about his talent and individuality and input seem kind of rushed. Stuff like that. But mostly, this felt to me like the “Glee” that I like to watch.

  5. Annie

    I’m starting to think that the fairly simple scene with the molting canary has more to it than I realized! (I’m also really glad they didn’t kill it off.) I was talking to someone who saw that scene more as a reflection of the flaws in Blaine’s life, giving him a touch of depth himself. He may have made his way to a safer environment of tolerance, but he had to give up his own uniqueness for it. He’s also the bird who has everything he needs to live, has gotten used to and happy in his cage, and shed his own colors.

    After talking about this, it made me happy that Blaine wasn’t just some gay mentor type but a kid with his own problems, too. Seeing Kurt as the bird also works, too, and I love that it goes both ways.

  6. Tausif Khan

    I know this is a little off topic but I know that every once in a while you write about movies that my touch on the cultural zeitgeist of the time and have something to say (Inception and Toy Story 3). Because of you interest in the pain of performance are you going to see Black Swan and write about it for this blog?

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