May 3rd, 2011
“Tell me why everything turned around?”
“Rumours” never pretends that it isn’t an episode built around the songs from the Fleetwood Mac album of the same name: heck, early on Will pulls out the LP with April Rhodes and displays it for everyone, and it becomes the Glee club’s lesson of the week.
What I found interesting, though, was how the somewhat artificial presence of the storyline was ultimately overcome by Ryan Murphy’s willingness to play with the album’s methodology in the script. Rumours, the album, was produced in a very focused environment based on historical record: as Will explains, they only spoke to one another about the music so as to avoid their personal differences from breaking them up before the album was complete. And yet Glee has often suffered for this very reason: because we see so little of these characters’ lives outside of the Glee club with the show so focused on the musical performances and New Directions’ trip to Nationals, the interpersonal relationships that would allow them to develop as characters are left by the wayside. And unlike the songs on Rumours, the songs on Glee are rarely infused with the emotions of unspoken (and unseen) personal conflicts, instead feeling like plot points or iTunes sales.
“Rumours” is quite effective because it allows the central theme of the episode to trickle down through its characters organically, never dwelling on the initial rumors and instead focusing on their psychological effects on ongoing character arcs. Despite the presence of a meddling Sue Sylvester spreading vicious rumors about members of New Directions, what follows feels driven by individual characters confronting their insecurities in a self-aware, nuanced fashion. Parts of it are manipulative, and certainly there are some of the show’s usual leaps of logic, but “Rumours” successfully uses a simple premise to reveal some complex emotions, nicely encapsulating the level of character momentum the show has heading into the final three episodes of the season.
This is going to be shorter than usual this week (which means only 1800 words), as it’s entering that busy time of year again, but there were three key scenes that sold me on “Rumours” that I want to highlight.
The first is between Artie and Brittany. To be honest, as much as I enjoy the increased presence of Naya Rivera and got a kick out of Brittany asking Lord Tubbington about the accuracy of The Aristocats, I think the show has established their relationship well enough at this stage: “Songbird” joins “Landslide” to form a world where Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks were secretly in love with one another and made some beautiful music, and right now the show is cycling them through the same storyline they’ve been in since their relationship first transitioned from a lesbian joke to actual character development.
I think the scene with Artie is more important because their relationship has never made sense to me, and has felt more convenient than meaningful. When I think back to the “magic comb” storyline in “Special Education,” I don’t really think of it in terms of their relationship: I think of it in terms of Brittany, who was clearly the focus of that particular episode. Artie’s side of the relationship has just been “horny dude happy to be dating hot chick,” which has never really sat all that well with me when you compare it to other relationships on the show (and that’s pretty sad considering those relationships). But here we got to see Artie show something of real anxiety about Santana’s threat to the relationship, and he got to respond more like a human being: sure, he was a dick for calling her stupid, but the idea that he didn’t want to lose her was the first time we got to see his stakes in the relationship.
While Glee often creates dramatic stakes on a macro-level, like placing New Directions in jeopardy, the idea of emotional stakes has been somewhat more elusive. This is perhaps most true with Will Schuester, who has been drifting all season without a sense of purpose. Much as “Rumours” offered Artie a bit more agency in his relationship, which was followed up with his performance of “Never Going Back Again,” Will is given purpose again with a single scene where he’s actually honest with himself. Sure, it’s a bit strange to see the character suddenly break down into tears talking with Emma, and the way April Rhodes returns (as part of Terri and Sue’s plan to hurt Will) is all a bit random, but Matthew Morrison deserves credit for playing it well and Murphy deserves credit for bringing it to the surface.
The episode is actually more about Will than it might seem at first glance: given that he performs “Dreams” with April, and that “Go Your Own Way” and “Don’t Stop” take on very different meanings when applied to his own situation, I’d actually say that the show is finally asking the question of why Will Schuester has tied his life to these kids. It isn’t quite the interrogation that I’d like, given that Emma encourages him to leave without actually calling him out on some of his more frustrating behavior, but there was a moment in “Don’t Stop” where it seems like Will is pondering his future in a very real way. As much as the song is about optimism, what is Will optimistic about: that his life in Ohio will make his Broadway dreams irrelevant, or that this is all one step in a larger journey? I worry that the show will go with the former, but elements of the latter remain, and were dealt with nicely here.
Meanwhile, the main character development here was Sam, who we learned has been taking care of his brother and sister in a motel room while his parents are out looking for jobs after the family lost their home. It’s a clever storyline in the way it manages to make our fundamental lack of information about his personal life into a storyline instead of a sign of the show’s inability to address its supporting characters. There actually isn’t a whole lot of development here: we don’t actually meet his parents, the kids are cute but ultimately props, and we’ve learned about tough home situations before (like Quinn moving in with Mercedes) and seen no impact on characterization.
But that moment where Finn brings in Sam’s guitar, purchased back from either a pawn shop or whoever he sold it to, was legitimately meaningful. While “Don’t Stop” became that moment not unlike “Lean on Me” or “Keep Holding On” where everyone comes together to celebrate their promising future together, that guitar managed to do the same while maintaining a smaller sense of scale. It was just Rachel and Finn as representatives, and Sam as the lone recipient allowed a moment to pause and be overwhelmed by it all. Say what one will about Chord Overstreet, but he was very strong in that scene, embracing the sadsack nature of the storyline and dialing in his usual sadsackness accordingly.
Sam’s storyline was also an example of how the show never actually allowed any of its rumors to be potentially true, at least from the audience’s perspective. While I guess they technically played with the audience regarding Sam, first playing into the presumption among many that Sam was initially planned as a love interest for Kurt and then that Sam and Quinn were reuniting, I never bought either pairing and it was a pretty obvious case of half-hearted misdirection. This allowed the show to focus more on how the rumors affected the characters, treating them less as plot points and more as variables; this is at least partly because the show doesn’t seem like it needs more plot right now, as there are enough entanglements and story arcs ongoing that the characters, rather than the “plot,” can carry the story into prom.
On the one hand, I want to say that the success of “Rumours” is very simple: great music (even if they left off my favorite songs from Rumours), a straightforward central theme, and a focus on characters over plot. However, at the same time, a lot of what makes the episode work is how this simplicity is used to add depth to one-sided relationships, to reveal ongoing character anxieties, and to emphasize a sense of unity that may be central to the series but is rarely displayed on such a small, emotional scale. It’s not exactly what I would call subtle, but I would say that it shows a more nuanced emotionality than I’m used to seeing from the show.
While I think other episodes have been more satisfying, often because they’re allowed to be more self-contained (like “Wheels” or “Duets,” for example), I thought this was probably Glee’s best non-performance episode that actually dealt with ongoing storylines head-on. That seems like a very qualified endorsement, but I think it’s the kind of episode the show has really struggled with in the past, so to see the show succeed is actually quite heartening.
- My favorite songs from Rumours, by the way, are “The Chain” and “Second Hand News.” I guess they thought the latter would be a bit on-the-nose given the gossip storyline, but “The Chain” is actually kind of perfect but was instead used to soundtrack Rachel and Finn’s stakeout. It was a missed opportunity, but I guess I shouldn’t be too shocked.
- Since I complain about it with The Office all the time, the graphics on “Fondue for Two” were a bit too high-rent for what is supposed to be an amateur production, although I appreciated that they at least tried to make it seem lower quality than the rest of the show.
- As far as over-the-top uses of Sue Sylvester go, the disguises in the coffee shop were a lot of fun: broad and silly without having to live in their broad silliness for very long. Ridiculousness is fine when it’s in moderation and isolation, and I actually think this was “vintage” Sue.
- I love Kristin Chenoweth, but April’s involvement here was pretty pointless, and continues to move the character further away from the way Brennan introduced her back in season one. Also, it has to be said: she is looking way too thin. As someone on my Twitter feed mentioned, get that girl back to The Pie Hole.
- I really wish the show would let a passive aggressive musical performance like Finn and Quinn’s “I Don’t Wanna Know” sound as passive aggressive as it looks.
- This is Tim Hunter’s first episode of the series, and he’s definitely coming from a dramatic background – he’s got six episodes of Man Men under his belt, and a handful of Nip/Tucks that probably led to this gig. I didn’t think this was particularly impressive in terms of direction, but it was solid.
- I’ve got to admit it: I like the show a little bit better when Kurt is just another supporting character for a change. After last week’s showcase number, it was nice to see Kurt shift to the background, but still function as part of the storyline.