May 17th, 2011
“I’m Lima good. Not New York City good.”
Last season, we didn’t get a “real” penultimate episode: “Funk” was moved into the penultimate spot arbitrarily when FOX wanted to move the Lady Gaga-enhanced “Theatricality,” which created a whole issue in regards to plot continuity.
This time around, “Funeral” was meant as the penultimate episode all along, and I’ve got to be honest: this just doesn’t work. I actually understand the logic here, as Ryan Murphy takes us back to the pilot by staging a new set of auditions and returning us to the hopes and dreams of Will Schuester. I actually really like parts of this, and the idea of Nationals unearthing some of the initial divisions of talent within the Glee club is actually sort of logical – the line above really gets to the heart of the hopelessness that drives the show’s small town aesthetic, and I really like when the show revisits that idea.
But the way Murphy goes about it only highlights how heading in this old direction undercuts all of the other directions that have been built into this season. As a standalone piece, “Funeral” is a fine showcase for Jane Lynch’s ability to depict the emotional turmoil that makes the character the way she is, and a fine musical showcase for a variety of members of the show’s cast. But as an actual penultimate episode as part of the show’s second season, it takes too long to find the story threads it needed to find to feel connected to that which came before, even if it connects nicely into what comes after (which remains an inherent possibility).
The setup for next week’s finale is pretty simple here: Jesse St. James’ feverish strategy of pitting the Glee Club against one another shakes up the rank and file to introduce some tension, Will’s rejection of that scheme allows the show to reiterate it’s “All for One, One for All” motto (and let’s Will take the higher ground, as per usual), and Will’s plans to remain in New York to be on Broadway in April Rhodes’ show will be revealed and potentially distract New Directions to the point where they are unable to perform in the competition. It’s a pretty solid setup for the finale, thematically and even in terms of narrative: so solid, in fact, that Friday Night Lights basically did the exact same thing in its first season.
But even if it’s reductive, it’s practical, which is something that I would argue goes against everything else we’ve seen this season. This season has been complicated and messy among the Glee club, dealing with issues of sexuality, bullying, and relationships that have been more multi-dimensional than what we’ve seen in the past. I’m not going to say that the show has been consistent in portraying these things, but it has clearly been investing more time on character development this season, with relationships like those between Brittany and Santana, Kurt and Blaine, and even Puck and Lauren having more clearly defined arc structures which have been strung between multiple episodes.
I guess Murphy is arguing that “Prom” effectively dealt with all of those issues, though, given that the show is dramatically flattened in “Funeral” despite what was technically a fairly messy conclusion. Sure, “Dancing Queen” seemed to get everybody up and moving around, and the photos in the closing montage obviously indicated that they were enjoying themselves, but the recurring storylines and character relationships that have been most interesting for me are almost entirely absent here. All of a sudden, it’s like this enormous plot just gets dropped down onto the character, with little attempt to bridge the space between the upcoming trip to Nationals and the personal relationships that have been driving the season in the absence of that plot.
I understand what Murphy was trying to accomplish here: “Funeral” is a palate cleanser, using the death of Sue’s sister to force some things into perspective and using Jesse St. James’ douchiness to reinforce what really matters to New Directions. The problem is that Murphy’s idea of a palate cleanser is ignoring pretty much everything that has happened to this point and focusing on something else instead, which does a disservice to a number of the storylines he ignores. To quote Jesse St. James, “Funeral” is just sort of lazy: while Murphy crafts an effectively emotional storyline for Sue Sylvester, and is not entirely off-base in gesturing back to the pilot, none of it feels like it earns a connection to previous events. It’s possible that there will be a stronger connection back to these storylines in the finale, but that doesn’t mean that this didn’t end up feeling like a cheat from the word go.
For the record, I’m willing to give Murphy the benefit of the doubt and believe that he actually intends on transitioning Sue Sylvester into a member of the house of representatives so that the show can start making direct political commentary. Do I actually believe this? Not really. But at this point, they have gone the furthest they have ever gone with the softening of Sue Sylvester, and have done so right before the show heads off to New York and she’s likely not coming along with it. At the very least, I’m fine reading this storyline as if Murphy wasn’t just playing with our expectations, and on that level it seemed effective. Some early anger is logically driven by her sister’s death (with the cruelty of firing Becky being a bit of a tipoff, at least for me personally, that something was up with Jean), and then we see her fighting against her usual attitude and some pretty realistic depictions of grief in a situation like that one.
Sue is one of the most uneven characters in all of Glee, but her sister has been consistently depicting as a softening point, so to see her at her softest (once the anger subsides) because of Jean’s death makes perfect sense. Is it a bit of a cheap way to get her there quickly, using a single big event as a catalyst to what seems like a complete personality change? Absolutely. But I thought the funeral was well-designed, and Lynch is a fantastic actress who can sell this kind of material effectively. That doesn’t mean that this makes up for how uneven the character is, and it doesn’t keep them from undoing it all next season, but it was an effective storyline that could impart real change on the character, and that this potential remains when the episode ends is remarkable in and of itself.
I can totally see why Jean’s death would be an event that could stop the season’s storylines in their tracks, but I’m not so convinced about Jesse St. James. Basically, when Jonathan Groff isn’t singing, Jesse St. James is an absolutely abhorrent character, and here gets turned into an awful combination of Will and Sue’s worst qualities. The smugness and cruelty were fine in small doses, like the little gag about his UCLA class on Reality TV judging, but it became an extended performance which felt like an unwanted insurrection. We never saw why New Directions felt they would need his help, outside of an excuse for Groff to return and stand in the way of Rachel and Finn being together; sure, the show is artificial all the time, but the complete lack of fun or even interest to be found in his presence has been momentum-killing since “Prom.”
Late in the episode, after Jean’s funeral leads Finn to dump Quinn when he realizes that there’s a difference between a leash and a tether, it just becomes the same love triangle we saw at the end of last season. In a season where we’ve seen more interesting relationships, for the show to suddenly re-align itself around the same old characters completely undercut Will’s decision at episode end to focus on the entire club. With Will headed off to Broadway behind their backs (and I like how that was revealed in a matter of fact fashion, surprising even the audience), and with Rachel caught in relationship drama, this is just the same pattern the show has already gone through a few times over.
While we got some strong solo performances from Mercedes, Santana and Kurt in tonight’s episode, the actual “plot” of it all was all about Rachel and Will. While Will paid some lip service to how far Mercedes has come, and the fact that Kurt and Santana returned to Gypsy and Rose’s Turn explicitly gestures to their own evolution, it’s done without any sense of emotion. This wasn’t an overarching return to the pilot where everyone looks at how far they’ve come: this was a token return to the pilot to justify ignoring a season of story development and redefining continuity as “Rachel/Finn/Jesse!” and “Will is Pulling an Eric Taylor.”
And that’s the worst thing a penultimate episode can do. While there is always a value in sort of stopping and catching one’s breath before a finale, reiterating what storylines might be most important, this was so narrow that the big picture just kept shrinking with each completely meaningless musical number. While Jean’s death was well-drawn, and returning to the pilot is in theory a decent strategy to really focus on how far the show has come, neither become effectively weaved into the seasonal arcs that the show actually bothered to have this year, and only served to build storylines that repeat similar patterns to where the show has been before.
It’s possible that it could still result in a show-stopping finale, but stopping half of the show’s storylines a week early sort of makes that a bigger challenge.
- After she was so delightful last week, the absence of Heather Morris here (outside of that moment filming Jesse and Will for no discernible reason) was criminal.
- The whole rerouting the plane to Libya situation/Terri magically got the tickets situation was silly, but I sort of like the idea of Terri having one moment of nostalgic for their relationship. I presume that Gilsig is gone after this, barring a return trip from Miami, so I like the bittersweet sendoff with Will seeming like he finally closed a chapter and Terri still feeling like she blew it.
- Speaking of the tickets: I wonder how much American Airlines paid to be known as a company who supports the arts.
- If they stop equating songwriting to reading a rhyming dictionary, I’m going to…what rhymes with dictionary?
- It’s been a while since I’ve seen Willy Wonka, and I honestly hadn’t remembered that song. My main question is how many of Glee’s younger viewers were confused because they don’t remember it from the Johnny Depp version.
- Some fine acting from both Cory Monteith and Dianna Agron in their post-funeral breakup – nothing fancy, but solid stuff, and some of the most “raw” material the show has done in a while.
- Apparently, Quinn’s big plans for New York involve a haircut? Scandalous!