December 9th, 2009
“Winning could make everything good for a while.”
I do not understand the rules of the Sectional Show Choir competition, nor do I know exactly what comes after it in New Directions’ journey. Glee is a show that despite being about what seems like a shockingly bureaucratic existence (with sponsorship disqualifications and everything) wants absolutely nothing to do with that complexity, and as such “Sectionals” boils down to the above: if they win, things will be better.
But what Glee has been doing all season is hiding inherently sombre stories beneath the shiny gloss of over-produced musical numbers. Rachel Berry soars every time she takes the stage, but beneath that surface she has no friends and feels like that’s never going to change. Quinn gets up to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and yet her pregnancy is a source of constant anxiety as she knows how much Finn will be hurt when he, eventually, figures out the truth. And Will Schuester used Glee as a distraction from a marriage in tatters, dancing and mashing up songs when he should have been communicating and patching up his relationship with Terri (and, you know, touching her stomach and discovering her lie earlier).
I’ve accepted, at this point, that Glee’s delayed reaction to some of its early problems (including its somewhat mean-spirited comedy and the aforementioned fake baby storyline) is inherently part of its characters’ journeys – the show is awkward because teenagers are awkward, and it’s inconsistent because high school is inherently impulsive and volatile. And while I am far from suggesting that the show has been perfect this season, I at least feel like the journey it has taken with these characters is consistent with its investigation of what happens when the world of show choir intertwines with a collection of diverse personalities for the sake of both comedy and drama.
As such, “Sectionals” works as a finale precisely because it has no romantic notions about what “Sectionals” is: this is not a simple celebration of musical talent, nor a simple culmination of any one character’s journey. It’s a neon band-aid that makes a wound look a whole lot prettier, capable of healing those wounds but also capable of being ripped off and leaving scars that no neon band-aid will ever be able to fix. It’s an hour of television that highlights life’s futility while celebrating its transcendence, never once suggesting that one will ever cancel out the other.
And it’s a rather fantastic end to what has been a fascinating (if not quite consistently amazing) first thirteen episodes for the show they call Glee.
Very quickly, you can see that “Sectionals” is not interested in dragging out the show’s drama into some sort of cliffhanger. We know going into the episode everything that’s at stake: we learned that Sue leaked the setlists, so we know the trap that’s awaiting New Directions when they take to that stage, and we (and, as we learn, everyone but Rachel) know that Puck is the real father of Quinn’s baby. And, within the first half of the episode, both of these elements are completely out in the open, to the point where it almost seemed way too fast. The worst thing the finale could have done is made it feel as if the reveal of Puck as Quinn’s baby Daddy, in particular, is sudden or lacking in meaning. The show has done some deft (and some not so deft, see: Sonogram Ballad) work around this storyline, in particular with Dianna Agron, so it’s not like with Terri’s fake pregnancy where any ending is going to be a welcome one. They needed to hit this landing if we were going to buy into what else the episode wanted to accomplish.
And, I have to say, I think they nailed it. By the time we hit the first act break, Rachel’s pieced together enough to be willing to go to Finn with it, and things quite literally unravel. When we return from that act break not knowing if we’re going find the aftermath of the reveal or Rachel chickening out, and open with Finn punching the hell out of the camera, it’s the sort of visceral shock that defined Will and Terri’s confrontation last week. The aftermath is both physical and emotional, and as strong as the scene is as Finn tries to destroy Puck it works even better when it’s just a short series of conversations and glances between characters. The show acknowledges that Rachel was being at least somewhat selfish in her decision to tell Finn, but quickly has Quinn pull this back from becoming some sort of love square. That Quinn takes complete responsibility for what happened, suggesting that she was the one who hurt so many people with her decisions, is the sort of development I don’t think I saw the show handling well in its earlier episodes. Lea Michele, Dianna Agron, and (in Puck’s brief but rebuffed attempt to be responsible) Mark Salling all nailed just how much this would tear them apart, and more importantly Cory Monteith sold the hell out of Finn’s anger. There was a clear point where rage gave way to that sick feeling of having been lied to, and being able to see that onscreen was incredibly important (and undoubtedly his biggest performance on the show to date).
But what really sold me on how this story unfolded was that it wasn’t wrapped up in a pretty bow. Sectionals brings them together for those final moments to prove they can overcome the challenge set before them, and in their victory Glee Club remains something that is capable of uniting these personalities under one banner for the purpose of winning a competition or telling Mr. Schuester how they feel about him. However, that moment at Sectionals when Finn tells Puck that they are not okay, and when Quinn gives him that look, reminds us that not everything is okay just because people sing a song about it in the end. No, the episode doesn’t specifically end with a reminder that all the singing in the world won’t make Finn forgive Puck and Quinn for what they did to him (or himself for letting it happen), but that the victory at Sectionals was never turned into a catch-all cure for the tension that remains between the show’s characters is a huge step forward for the show.
Of course, Sectionals was big and exciting enough to start to mend some fences, but it’s important that those connections were less about complex interpersonal relationships and more about questioning where certain characters fit within the Glee Club. Mercedes is still waiting for further development in my eyes, but pitting her and Rachel against each other before having them each rise above their sense of entitlement to compliment the other (Rachel giving Mercedes props for “And I’m Telling You (I’m Not Going)” and Mercedes suggesting Rachel take on the impromptu solo during the competition) helps to resolve that power struggle that’s sort of made New Directions frustrating to watch at times. The idea that everyone hates Rachel, having lengthy phone conversations in which she (and, to be entirely fair to them, Matt and Mike) isn’t involved and during which she’s deemed crazy (which, to be fair again, she sort of is) just doesn’t feel right, the same way having undercover cheerleaders in the club seemed like something that never clicked.
The best moments for New Directions were ones like their impromptu (and live) performance of “Ride Wit Me,” where it’s just people hanging out and having fun, and the episode was about bringing them back to that point with that final number. Although most of the time was spent on Will’s realization mid-song, that performance was perhaps the most “fun” I’ve seen this group having in a very long time. Coming together at Sectionals, everyone getting their moment without having to leapfrog over someone else to get it, was the sort of thing that could have been saccharine but instead felt like the show was finally establishing its natural order. It didn’t feel like any characters changed to fit into that mould (as Santana admitted she would kill anyone for telling people Glee is the favourite part of her day), and instead it felt like they changed the mould to accommodate the changes in their dynamic. Rather than focusing on a single character amongst the high schoolers in this finale, the development went to New Directions as a whole. There will still be drama (this is, after all, high school, and there is a teen pregnancy in the mix), but it will be drama that isn’t tearing apart the fabric of Glee club each and every week.
Of course, the other half of this episode wasn’t about New Directions at all, unless we take out the capital letters and take Will’s new direction to be his inevitable kiss with Emma in that final scene. I never thought the driving beat to Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” was that inherently romantic, but there was something about the song that really fit with Will running down that hallway after the woman that he’s had a crush on for pretty much the entire season. Jayma Mays is a fantastic actress, and does in fact make a spectacular bride, but Emma Pilsbury’s journey on this show has always been problematically tied into the monster that was Terri Schuester. That Emma was in love with Will was always clear, but for us to root for her the show had to turn Terri into a shrill harpy. And for a moment, it seemed like the show understood the leap that it had taken to get to this point, as Will crashes Emma’s cancelled wedding and she rebuffs his efforts to make some sort of connection by acknowledging that he “just” left his wife. Considering that the scene we had just seen, with Terri earnestly telling Will she is seeking help and quite accurately self-diagnosing her problems, it seemed like the show was heading towards a sad sort of conclusion where Will goes back to his wife (who promises to reform herself) and Emma is forced to sit on the sidelines once again.
However, forgiveness is a four-letter word in the Glee universe, as both Finn and Will refuse to forgive those who wronged them as Will is more than happy to run after and snog Emma. And it’s not that I dislike this development, as I’m glad to see the show willing to move onto something new, but I’m kind of surprised that they were willing to cut Will loose from Terri so easily. Is a whole 24-hours enough time for him to be able to get over what happened, and is a single anthem of twisted romantic dependence enough to convince him that Emma is the solution to all of his problems? We’ll have plenty of time to ask these questions over the next four months, but for right now the ending was everything the show wanted it to be: emotional, exciting, and just surprising enough to feel like something noteworthy. Sure, if we retroactively consider the season to be about Will and Emma finding each other, their happy ending implies that the show didn’t take more than a few missteps in constructing this pairing, but I think that the show earned a sweeping romantic conclusion considering the sort of restraint they showed throughout the episode. This is, at the end of the day, only 13 episodes out of 22, and those back nine episodes will not be so much a new season as a new chapter in the journey that reaches a stopping point with a big trophy and a kiss in the hallway.
In terms of where the show goes from here, I’m planning on writing more about this tomorrow morning, but it’s clear that the challenges that lie ahead are more external than internal. Sure, there’s drama between members, but New Directions is more united than ever. Whereas Sectionals it seemed like the goal was avoiding beating themselves (united we stand, divided we fall), at Regionals their competition is the villainous Vocal Adrenaline, and all casting points to their group being a big part of the upcoming season. And Sue Sylvester, now suspended and with a chip on her shoulder, is more hell-bent than ever to destroy Glee Club, which while perhaps becoming a bit over the top has every time been elevated and saved by the comic genius that is Jane Lynch. For the club itself, the stage appears to be set for the characters to discover what it’s like to face real competition, and there are plenty of, well, new directions for the show to investigate while maintaining those elements (like Sue’s antagonism, like relationship drama) that has defined the show to this point.
I’ll reflect more on the season as a whole tomorrow morning, but Brad Falchuk, both writing and directing the finale, made one important distinction within his script that demonstrates how far the show has come. There’s a scene late in the episode when we see the inside of the judges room as they debate the results they saw at Sectionials, and there we start to see some of the humour that turned some off the shoe early on. While we in the audience may be thinking that the deaf students’ rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin'” was somewhat painful to listen to, Candace Dystra (Fifth Runner Up in Miss Ohio) says it, and in a highly offensive fashion. And despite being one of those who feels the show has graduated beyond those types of jokes, I liked it because it demonstrated that they have learned their lesson. It’s one thing for a character we ostensibly like, or will eventually grow to like, to make a joke of that nature: it pains them in a negative light in a way that will forever mark them in the show’s universe. Dystra, meanwhile (despite being played by a familiar face in True Blood’s Anna Camp), will likely never appear again, and thus the scene works.
It seems that the creative team have finally figured out what matters and what doesn’t matter, and how its comic tone should be situated between those two elements. Some of Glee is all about one-liners, like the moment where the show implies Santana and Brittany are having sex or when Puck drops a note about being unable to take the baby for testing due to “having Fight Club tonight,” which exist primarily to create sound bytes and tweets and anything else to make the show memorable on a weekly basis. However, those can never be the “point” of this show, nor can they be used as a shiny distraction from the real meaning and drama inherent to the show. There is a lot of heart in this show, and it was on display in “Sectionals” in a way that acknowledged that as much as a musical number can bring these kids together and as much as a big trophy can change the course of the future, there will always be some element to these characters that is susceptible to that heart breaking.
Winning does make things better, but with it comes a whole host of new insecurities and a set of new directions that these characters might be ready for. “Sectionals” works because it never once presumes that these characters are more ready than they really are, and manages to have its big happy conclusion without undermining the conflict that very much remains in the show’s universe. It might not have been everything we wanted, perhaps, but I certainly think it’s something (if not, of course, everything) the show needed.
- Dude, Mike (aka Other Asian) actually spoke. And yet, I never wrote down what he actually said, so it’s like he never spoke at all (my evidence is only circumstantial, after all).
- The act lengths were probably the biggest problem in the episode: it was clear that they organized it so that there would be a number of short breaks leading up to a longer, uninterrupted Sectionals performance (with both “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in one medley), but it made for some tedious viewing.
- The show certainly took itself to a very sombre point when it has Will sadly helping Artie onto the wheelchair bus as everyone looks on lamenting Finn’s exit. It was perhaps the lowest the show has been, which made the eventual conclusion that much more powerful (while maintaining enough conflict to prove it doesn’t fix every problem).
- There was really no point in Jacob making the trip to Sectionals other than creating an excuse for the setlist leak and not Finn’s absence to seem like the more pressing concern, and I thought that the one or two jokes they did use the character for were kind of duds.
- Favourite visual of the episode: Emma on the phone with Will describing Artie ramming himself into the wall, and Artie ramming himself into the wall in the background. So great.
- You know, boarding the Sue Sylvester Express just sounds dirty, but I’d probably buy a ticket anyways, Destination: Horror or no. And, it’s becoming clear that attacks on Will’s hair is a great runner for Sue (and for Eve, who dropps a Jerry Curl reference).
- When does Glee return? The answer is April 13th, 2010. It’s going to be a long winter.