“Born This Way”
April 26th, 2011
That is often the question with Glee, isn’t it?
First off, why was this episode 90 minutes long? While I’m sure FOX would like to claim that it is because the episode demanded it, in truth it’s because they wanted to bite into the first half-hour of NBC’s The Voice, which is trying to be NBC’s first successful launch this season.
However, I’d argue that “Born This Way” is in some ways an answer to the basic question of “Why?” To the credit of Brad Falchuk, who scripted the episode, we are given a pretty clear sense of why most characters do the things they do in the episode, and the central theme is one of those broadly existential questions that actually makes perfect sense for a bunch of high school kids. While the 90-minute episode is dragged down by its running time at points, points where the question of “Why?” becomes a liability for the show, there are moments here that show a desire to better understand who these characters are and what drives them. Even if that characterization does not stick, and even if most of it becomes reduced to what can fit on a witty t-shirt, the fact remains that the episode was not about Lady Gaga or about vague moralization. Instead, it used that moral to drive the show closer to its characters than we might be used to, and even if the results were expectedly uneven I would suggest they were compelling enough at the end of the day to make “Born This Way” a success.
Even if I’ve still got some “Why?” questions for Falchuk and the writing staff.
The one moment that struck me as entirely false in the episode surrounded Will Schuester, whose motivations remain problematically drawn. We could argue that the fluctuating impulses of the teenagers are logical in the sense that they are teenagers; this doesn’t excuse the unevenness, perhaps, but I would say that it offers a broad answer to the question of why Lauren tries to publicly embarrass Quinn, for example. Prom is something that inspires heightened emotional responses, and thus is something that we can relate to as an audience: unlike some of the show’s invented events (like the benefit concert in “A Night of Neglect”), there’s a history of prom bringing out the worst in people, which contextualizes much of the teenage behavior in the episode. Even Rachel’s nosejob, which seems sudden and is certainly discussed too often in group settings to be entirely natural, is something that I can see a teenager dealing with. Yes, the conversations that emerge out of these moments (like the discussion of role models and the like) feel ripped out of an after school special, but the way Glee got there didn’t feel like they had to rewrite the book in regards to high school drama.
However, we can’t say the same for Will, whose character remains aimless even relative to the show’s most marginalized characters. The truth is that Will’s t-shirt, complaining about his “Butt Chin,” was far worse than Emma’s unwillingness to announce her OCD; while she is battling a legitimate mental disease which has tormented her throughout almost her entire life, which would explain why she might not quite be willing to challenge it in public, Will is lying to himself if he thinks that there aren’t things he needs to change about himself. What about his need to live vicariously through his students? Or his psychological bullying of Emma, torturing her with unwashed fruit? The biggest problem the show has right now is the fact that I have absolutely no clue why Will would want to do these things, as I have lost any and all connection with this character. The only role that I’m willing to accept the character in at this point is the person who announces the week’s theme: after that, I do not care what he has to say, I do not care what he wants to do, and I certainly don’t care that he has owned up to his Butt Chin. In an episode where the show delved into the psyches of its characters to explain their behavior and their life decisions, Will was never scrutinized in the same light, and this is growing more and more concerning with each passing week (especially if they want to continue to claim that he constitutes the show’s male lead – there’s a “Why” question for you).
To be honest, though, the rest of the episode did a pretty good job of explaining why people make the decisions they do. I’m not saying that any of the logic was genius, but a storyline like Santana and Karofsky’s relationship nicely merged convenience (Santana happening to devise an expansive strategy that just happens to bring Kurt back to McKinley) and actual story function (with Santana’s plan highlighting her homosexuality, which remains a compelling storyline that I’m glad to see continue). Similarly, while the growing race for Prom Queen continues to feel a bit arbitrary, Quinn’s new back story as Lucy Caboosey actually does a much better job of explaining her desire to be Prom Queen than any of the voiceovers in previous episodes, and as manipulative as the circumstances might have been (and as obnoxiously they emphasized her previous “ugliness” for the purpose of comic/dramatic effect), I actually felt like things were adding up. “Born This Way” served as a point of convergence for multiple storylines, as Kurt’s return unearths the Karofsky story, which merges with Santana and Brittany’s relationship, which begins to intersect with the Prom storyline. Even Lauren’s run for the crown, sudden as it is, was given a bit of backstory – through flashbacks to her pull-up pageant days – so as to justify her involvement.
None of this is rocket science, and none of it is the kind of in depth character work I called for in my review of “A Night of Neglect” I wrote at The A.V. Club, but if the show were like this every week I think it would be much better for it. Sure, I’d cut out the excessively long musical numbers (like the dance mob with random “Barbra Streisand” utterances that felt like it was pieced together from outtakes), and the stuff with Will was obnoxious, but there were some actual honest character moments to be found in here. I thought the mashup of “I Feel Pretty” and “Unpretty” was rather beautiful, and actually gained in meaning when you consider Quinn’s involvement in light of what we learn later in the episode, while “Born This Way” at the end managed to use the t-shirts quite nicely to ensure that each character’s involvement (or non-involvement, in the case of Santana) in the number was meaningful. If you were to ask why these numbers existed, the answer wasn’t as simple as “Because Rachel was considering getting a nosejob” or “Because this is the Gaga episode.” The way the numbers were designed seemed purposeful on the whole, even elegant in some instances, which is growing increasingly rare as the show moves forward.
I think the show also avoided making motivations too clear, maintaining some sense of complex emotions at the heart of even the most arbitrary developments. Karofsky and Santana’s relationship, for example, was laid out to us as a master plan, and at first I felt they were setting themselves up for a fall: by having Karofsky fake his apology, and by having Kurt and the Glee club get tricked into it, just seemed like a really problematic direction to take a character that we are on some level supposed to empathize with (even if we are meant to abhor his methods for coping with his identity crisis). However, the choice to have Kurt see right through him and to have Karofsky admit up front that this is all part of a grand scheme was important to the episode. It’s just not just about telling the audience why something is happening, it’s also about making that point clear to other characters. Did I feel that Kurt was a bit too “in control” of the situation, his time at Dalton having perhaps made him too comfortable in his own skin to the point where he seems to be above the show’s discourse about identity crisis? Yes. But the scene was necessary to keep Karofsky’s motivations from becoming too cruel, and to emphasize that he’s doing this partly because Santana is forcing him but also partly because it’s what he might actually do if he were brave enough to do it.
I’m not convinced that Glee will be able to stick the landing with any of this, but I find myself interested in the eventual conclusion of this storyline (albeit somewhat artificially given the fact that we already know at least part of that conclusion, based on the Prom spoilers which leaked online and caused a whole kerfuffle). Indeed, I would say it is the first time that Glee has had actual storyline momentum in a long while; scenes in this episode feel like they have a purpose beyond filling time, allowing for a particular musical number, or paying lip service to a particular issue. Now, “Born This Way” had its share of those less purposes, but that’s just the way the show was born: after-school special is in its DNA, and that means that Finn is going to have managed to print a wallet-sized portrait of Quinn to put in his wallet, and Karofsky is going to mention the teenagers who jumped off bridges, and Will is going to become the great adult hope to a generation of teenagers and an adult woman who would be better off without his intervention.
But whereas some episodes use this position as a fallback when they run out of story to tell, Falchuk quite nicely weaved it into “Born This Way.” If you were to cut out some of the overlong numbers, in fact, this would be one of the tighter episodes the show has done. The 90-minute runtime was definitely a concern, allowing certain scenes (like Rachel holding a forum on her nosejob during a glee club meeting for reasons I do not quite understand) to run longer than they really should, but the bones of this episode were about as solid as the show has been since “Silly Love Songs.” Nothing was exactly even, but the good and the bad seemed to balance out: something like the t-shirts, for example, managed to be self-referential (Sam’s “Trouty Mouth”), legitimately clever (Puck’s “I’m with Stupid” with an arrow pointing…down there), procedural (Rachel’s “Nose”), transformational (Emma’s “OCD”), and aspirational (Santana’s “Lebanese,” which also managed to be a nice Brittany joke). What could have felt arbitrary felt symbolic, suggesting a degree of meaning that the show needs to aspire towards more often.
They could have had the same meaning in 60 minutes, but I don’t think that the longer running time entirely undermined the “Why?” at the heart of “Born This Way.”
- The increased role for Naya Rivera this season has been incredibly welcome: she has a real command of the character’s identity, and is very capable of throwing herself into bitch mode without losing the essence of the more emotional moments. There’s an anger that drives her in both instances, but the intensity shifts, and it’s been a highlight in a season light on highlights.
- A lack of Sue Sylvester is growing problematically correlative to stronger episodes of the series – “Duets,” “Silly Love Songs,” and now “Born This Way” were all Sue-free.
- More direct “musical” moments than usual, with both “I Feel Pretty/Unpretty” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” playing out as a combination of glee club practice performance and emotional journeys through the characters’ daily experiences. I’m generally a fan of these moments, and I felt it was particularly fitting – if, as mentioned, overlong – as a way to signify Kurt’s return. It eventually became indulgent, certainly not worthy of joining “Bohemian Rhapsody” as single-song acts, but it started out in a charming place.
- I have a feeling that Finn’s number would have been on the cutting room floor had the episode been cut to sixty minutes – the number wasn’t terrible, but it felt more “pointless” than any other.
- It’s not often that Jayma Mays actually gets to act on this show, but she was pretty fantastic during her visit to the Psychiatrist. I doubt we’ll see more of this in the future, as she’ll undoubtedly fall into a relationship with Will and lose moments like this, but if the added running time gave us more of that scene than I’d say it was worth it.
- Bit of an odd slip-up with Will suggesting that their club is one of the only ones that represents almost all races/sexual orientations/etc. The race part may be true (if you remove the “almost all” and replace it with “more than three”), but without Kurt (who had not yet returned to the club) they don’t actually have an openly gay member. Sure, we know Santana is gay (and the episode is very much interested in that fact), but Will doesn’t, so the comment struck me as a bit odd.
- I’m unashamed to say that “Somewhere Only We Know” is a song I enjoy, so the Warblers’ performance of it was perfectly acceptable even with the random outdoor piano factored into things.
- Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon gets points for that enjoyable shot from the inside of the lockers, and loses points for struggling to find something interesting to do with that mall location that should have been written off after Whedon used it so effectively in “Dream On.”