November 11th, 2009
There’s a moment in “Wheels” where we fear the worst of Sue Sylvester, testing our ability to see past what we expect her character to do (something offensive and mean-spirited) to what she could potentially do (something transformative). And, in some ways, “Wheels” is very much the same sort of proposition. Ever since I learned ahead of time that “Wheels” was written by Ryan Murphy (as the writers appear to be cycling the scripts between the three of them), I have been fearful of when his worst habits (like his penchant for Terri and the more outlandish storylines) would emerge.
So, I spent most of the episode waiting for the episode to take some sort of turn, to go from being charming and funny and resonant to become outlandish and overbearing. I kept thinking that any scene which felt the least bit emotional would suddenly become undercut by something mean or cruel, and that this was all some sort of Sue Sylvester-like trick.
However, it appears that Murphy has been inspired by his fellow writers, because “Wheels” works in ways that Murphy’s previous episodes simply have not. The episode isn’t perfect, trying to do a few too many things at once, but each and every one of those elements manage to connect at som level. It is an episode that more than any other thus far feels as if it works because of, rather than in spite of, the show’s recurring storylines.
This isn’t to say that everything’s rosy, but it is to say that “Wheels” was certainly a watermark for Murphy’s work on the series, and easily the most starkly dramatic hour yet.
The scene I refer to with Sue Sylvester above is perhaps not as ambiguous as I made it out to be, considering that I don’t think even Sue Sylvester would in any way disparage or humiliate someone who has Down Syndrome. And, as it turns out, she was seeing part of her own life in young Becky, as she has a sister who has a disability and who she doesn’t visit as often as she might like. The scene of them together, Sue reading from Little Red Riding Hood and delivering a pom pom, is so blindly dramatic that I was admittedly taken aback: what happened to Ryan Murphy to turn him from the broad comedy of “Vitamin D” or the lightning fast pacing of “Acafellas” to something this emotional and methodical?
The episode is in some ways a greatest hits of sorts, taking some of the strongest elements from previous strong episodes and building an episode around them. Kurt’s relationship with his father was a highlight in “Preggers,” as was a more humanizing look at Quinn’s pregnancy and in particular Finn and Puck’s roles therein. And rather than filling the rest of the episode with love triangles or hysterical pregnancies (both Emma and Terri are completely absent from the episode), the show maintains thematic consistency by bringing Artie to the forefront in much the same way Kurt rose in “Preggers,” giving him a story of his own that also gets turned into a broader theme for the entire episode. The sort of manic pacing that seemed to plague Murphy’s earlier episodes was entirely absent here, letting these types of characters moments shine through.
What worked about the episode was how much of its emotional resonance came through scenes that were almost shockingly normal. The baking goods fight between Quinn and Puck was one of those moments that felt more genuine that many of the other “romantic” scenes that the show has done before, and it was a huge contribution to the eventual sense that we feel bad for Puck. He’s someone who wants to be a father to this baby, and while he may be stealing from a friend in a wheelchair he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s a deadbeat dad. He and Quinn had legitimate chemistry during that fight, and while the scene ends with Finn walking in as is wont to happen in this cliche it allows us as the viewer to see all sides of their conflict. In “Preggers,” this story worked because it gave new depth to these characters, but here it worked even better because previous episodes have given them depth: out of her cheer uniform Quinn is far more nuanced, and now that he had a reformative experience (to some extent) with Rachel Puck seems like his bad boy act is, in fact, just an act.
The episode was similarly strong when it came to Artie’s story, who has been entirely ignored to this point in the series. Ever since the pilot, Kevin McHale has been sitting in that wheelchair for no reason, and the lack of development for his character has always seemed somewhat strange. The show has risked turning him into a stereotype, which is still a problem for most of the Glee club members but seemed particularly problematic for Artie. Here, however, Artie turns into a human being who has feelings (which are hurt when the club refuses to rally around him for a wheelchair accessible bus), urges (an attraction to Tina, who he feels is somewhat like him with her stutter), and a past (where he remembers being able to walk, having only been in the chair for half of his life following a serious car accident).
Notice how these elements are all introduced in different ways. The show uses song, in the form of a lounge version of Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself,” to first really bring Artie to the surface of the series, and then by putting everyone else in wheelchairs demonstrates that his life would be hard for anyone else to live. Then it picks up on Artie’s flirtations with Tina and has them have an enormously charming conversation where she asks him about the accident, which is emotional and resonant and then hilariously broken up by Artie ensuring that she knows his man parts are fully functional. It’s a line that’s very in-your-face, very overt, but yet felt like the perfect way to break the tension of that scene: Artie likes this girl, and is still an awkward teenage kid wheelchair or no wheelchair, so he says something stupid that, conveniently for the show, is hilarious for the audience.
And what works perhaps best of all is that Artie and Tina aren’t given a happy ending. While I thought the scene was perhaps a bit over the top with the theme that those going through something can’t possibly relate to those who aren’t (Finn unable to relate with Quinn, Glee being unable to relate with Artie), Tina’s honesty about her stuttering nicely reminded us that not everything goes smoothly, and that although Tina thought she was doing the right thing she hit a nerve with Artie that wasn’t something he could do. Note how, in the scene, Artie wheels away and Tina stands to go after him: it’s not the most subtle thing you could imagine, but it points out that these people are different, and that these sorts of differences don’t just go away due to a high school crush or anything else. It’s the same lesson Puck learns when he discovers that money isn’t enough for Quinn to view him as a potential father for her child, and that Finn’s earnest efforts are what she has decided should be her child’s future, and although it’s not exactly rocket science it’s something that resonates through the characters on a fairly human level.
As far as the other major storyline in the episode goes, with Kurt and Rachel squaring off on “Defying Gravity,” I think it has one major problem. That problem is that Rachel, although part of major storylines and central to many episodes, is not actually a developed character. In a situation like this one, she does become a Diva, in the sense that you can’t foresee a scenario where you would want her to beat Kurt, who is trying to prove himself worthy and who is trying to make his father proud. For the storyline to completely work, we needed to see why Rachel would want to win that solo outside of being selfish and desiring to be a star. There was a scene where Rachel notes that she doesn’t like being at the whim of Will’s quests for fairness, and I think that’s a valid argument, but the show never really lets Rachel make it nor does it give her anyone to really back her up.
The Kurt side of the story, as it was in Preggers, was legitimately great. Scenes like Kurt standing alone at the piano trying to hit the High F nicely captured his internal struggle, while his conversations with his father maintained the tone from the end of “Preggers” where his father only wants to see him be happy and to try to honour his wife’s memory by doing right by their son. The father is still wonderfully skeptical about it all, but he’s so earnest (an important quality for this show, overall) about it that you can’t help but smile. When Kurt eventually loses the part in the “Diva Off” after failing to hit the high note in question, it is perhaps a bit too predictably to keep his father from getting even more flack about his sexuality, but the scene hit so well emotionally that I’ll take it.
And yet, through all of this, the episode also had the gall to try to personalize one of the other Cheerios in Glee Club. Brittany got to be both a friend of Becky’s, buying her a cupcake and introducing her into the story, and someone who doesn’t know her right from her left. No, it’s not the most complex character development of all, but the episode was really interesting in that it really did seem to focus on a lot of side character. The final “Proud Mary” number was a fine example of this, as the bulk of the sung was performed by Mercedes (which made the most sense for the song), Artie (which made sense considering the chosen mode of transportation for the song) and Tina (which makes less sense, but works considering she was an important part of the episode). No, it’s not new to have Mercedes central, but this is one of the first “big” numbers that got a fairly lengthy run time which had no Rachel or Finn, which I think is nice to see in general.
Sure, the episode had a few faults: Finn getting a job due to being in a wheelchair promises to extend the wheelchair gimmick beyond its welcome, and the Principal seemed a wee bit too impulsive to justify some of the story leaps. But there was no moment where it seemed like characters were acting like caricatures, and more importantly there was no moment where one element of the show felt like it was fighting around rather than working with the others. Now, this is in an episode that sidelined all of Will’s drama, even in places (like Terri’s offer to pay Quinn’s bills) which the show has implied were its domain in the past. While Murphy claims that this is the kind of tone he wants to strike going forward, this was a very isolated example that can’t be recreated every week without turning into a cliche of its own, albeit one I enjoy when it’s well-executed.
But it was an episode that fits into what I most enjoy about Glee: a story of high school kids trying to find themselves, told through a somewhat fantastical but ultimately grounded perspective punctuated by musical numbers. The episode hit all of these beats without feels as if it was drumming incessantly on one of them over the others, striking a balance that Murphy (and perhaps the show as a whole) has not achieved in the past. As to where this goes from here, I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that I’d take more episodes like this any day.
- The director of this episode, Paris Barclay, also directed last night’s amazing episode of Sons of Anarchy, and he seemed like a good fit for the more dramatic material.
- I definitely think there’s more room for the show to do broadway numbers: I’ve had some discussions with Dave Chen in the past about how we’re not sure where the show’s broadway sensibilities (and stars, like Michele) go from here within the world of television, and I think exposing more of the show’s young viewers to Broadway would be a great way to use the show for the power of good (and, let’s face it, as a marketing tool: FOX is going to milk this for all it’s worth, and get away with it).
- I liked that Puck’s initial offering to Quinn was $18, which was the amount remaining from his pool cleaning after purchasing dip (I presume of the chewing tobacco variety as opposed to french onion) and nunchuks. Mainly, I just like that the show, even in humanizing the character, still makes him the kid of guy who owns nunchuks.
- The news that Sue once tried out for Baywatch felt like a Party Down shout-out to me for some reason.
- Good use of Stephen Tobolowsky this week: Sandy’s too broad a character to dominate an episode, but his cameo here made the fairly predictable weed cupcake storyline hit more effectively.
- It may have been rote, but I was still jazzed about Puck and Finn’s wheelchair fight: blame Murderball.