June 8th, 2010
“Life only really has one beginning and one end – the rest is just a whole lot of middle.”
In his attempts to inspire his Glee Club to achieve despite the nearly insurmountable odds placed before them at the upcoming Regional championships, Will Schuester makes the above remarks. And while I don’t think this was intentional, there’s a wonderful meta-commentary about the show itself in this statement: sure, the fragmented nature of the first season means that there were really two beginnings and two endings, but at the end of the day everything else was just a whole lot of middle that was more middling than I would have desired.
But if the back nine of Glee’s first season saw the series flipping and flailing wildly as it flew through the air, “Journey” demonstrates that this series knows how to stick a landing; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the show would be amongst television’s best if they did two-episode seasons made up entirely of premieres and finales. Sure, the episode more or less feels like “Sectionals 2: Electric Bugaloo,” following the same patterns as the fall finale, but there is an unabashed sincerity to its storytelling which remains grounded without having to be undercut at every turn. It makes the show feel like it has earned this blanket sentimentality, that it truly has taken these characters on a journey which has changed their lives.
Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a great essay earlier today about Glee’s radical sincerity, but when I think about it nothing about “Journey” felt radical: so embodying the resiliency of the series’ spirit, and unapologetically engaging in theatrics we might have rolled our eyes at just a year ago, Glee proves that even considering all of the hype and success there remains a confident, passionate, absolutely entertaining series about a glee club that, gosh darn it, refuses to stop believing in itself.
And while I’m still going to dock the series some points for its poor form in the air during its back nine, I’m willing to throw up a good 9.5 or so for its landing, as “Journey” is unquestionably a series high point.
To get it out of the way, the mashup of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the birth of Quinn’s daughter, Beth, was absolutely stunning. The number solves an important problem: the show obviously wants to show what New Directions is up against, but it doesn’t necessarily want to turn over the stage to Jonathan Groff and Vocal Adrenaline without connecting it to our characters, especially not for as long as “Bohemian Rhapsody” (as great as it is) runs. By having the number coincide with Quinn going into labour, the episode is able to show us the competition while grounding the performance with Quinn going through labour, allowing the series to show a large chunk of each event without necessarily slowing down the episode’s pace in the process. Sure, there’s a lot of television timey-wimeyness going on (as Rachel has time to get back from the hospital to see part of the number, and somehow Quinn gets to the hospital and has the baby in time for everyone to get back for the awards announcement), but it ends up feeling epic in a way that Glee doesn’t usually feel epic. As Todd VanDerWerff pointed out on Twitter, there’s a jerk reaction to scoff at having Quinn cry out the song’s lyrics during labour, but then you get caught up in the song’s various shifts, and then you get caught up in watching Dianna Agron and Mark Salling doing some really great character work, and then as the song finally comes to an end you feel like you’ve been in a journey within that single scene.
That is Glee’s most powerful quality, really, and something they’ve been trying to recreate all season: they want each episode to feel like a self-contained journey where characters face adversity and emerge with a new understanding of a particular issue. “Journey” gets to cheat, really, in that it mostly gets to bring journeys to an end: Quinn’s pregnancy has been the show’s longest running storyline beyond the Glee Club being threatened at every turn, and so we expect that moments like that will have a gravity to them which other episodes lack. However, I would argue that Brad Falchuk wasn’t resting on his laurels here, as that sequence went beyond my expectations. In some ways I hadn’t even been expecting it to happen, which is symptomatic of my disillusionment with the series in recent weeks and also indicative of the ways in which the series lost some of its momentum. However, once the show was able to get back to scenes and stories like this one, it was like the skies parted and the sun shone once more.
As noted, the episode is largely derivative of “Sectionals” in terms of structure: we get an extended glimpse of New Directions’ set (here with “Don’t Stop Believing” included in the set, whereas it was left unseen during “Sectionals”) in the form of a lengthy musical sequence, we see a bit of the competition (a bit more this time around), we see the results, and the Glee club sings Will a song about how much they care about him (although this time in the form of a ballad rather than an upbeat pop song). And yet, for once, the series’ repetitiveness felt purposeful: this time around, New Directions doesn’t win the trophy, and yet they’re still singing about their love for their coach, and they’re still positive about their experience. While “Sectionals” only works if the Glee club wins, Falchuk seems to be arguing that they’ve come too far as a group to be torn apart by a loss, especially one that they’re convinced is unfair (or unimportant). It’s not the most complex bit of serialized storytelling that I’ve ever seen, but the series nails the emotions of that conclusion: it’s hard not to be a little bit moved, if you’ve been watching all along, to see the non-leads get a chance to sing on “Don’t Stop Believing,” or to see all of the tear-filled eyes during “To Sir with Love,” or to see the sincerity with which Will serenades his class in “Over the Rainbow.”
“Journey” is simply designed to show the series at its best, especially when it comes to a character like Sue Sylvester. We get the requisite jokes about Will’s hair, sure, but we also get to see Sue come to terms with the fact that she’s not entirely unlike the Glee Club herself. The scene in the judges’ room (which, like the judging room in “Sectionals,” was a bit too broad for its own good even if I enjoyed Groban’s hammy performance) is a bit problematic in that the local news anchor should be painted with the same brush as Sue in the argument being made, but the idea that Sue is herself only a celebrity in Ohio, and that she won’t be flying back to L.A. after the competition is over, is just perfect for the kind of show that I want Glee to be. I want Glee to use its positivity and emotion as a way to allow these kids to have a dream of escaping small-town Ohio. And when Sue begins to think of it in those terms, she starts to see herself in New Directions, and when she has her “Dr. Linus” moment (that’s a Lost reference, for the uninitiated) at episode’s end and blackmails Figgins into saving the Glee Club (after having voted for them to win Regionals) it nonetheless feels consistent with her character. She still expresses her desire to rub Will’s face into a monkey’s butt, but there was a sincerity to her statement that she respects what Will does even if she wants to continue antagonizing him. Sue works as an antagonist only in so far as she wants to maintain her own superiority rather than her desire to “crush” the competition: it’s one thing for Sue to fight with Will or come into conflict with New Directions’ aims or goals, but it’s another to want to wipe them out entirely. I think Falchuk nicely set Sue up to fill the former role next season, and I’m hopeful that balance is something that can be maintained in the fall.
Otherwise, the character development in this one was actually quite limited, largely there to either put a button on a season of development for the sake of a small emotional beat (like Rachel and Finn sharing a kiss in the hallway and Finn dropping the L-Bomb before the performance begins) or to foreshadow future developments (like Emma announcing she has a boyfriend and yet still fighting for the Glee club, leading Will to make his move and proclaim his love for Emma). Sure, Rachel gets one last moment with her mother, but it’s there less to create another chapter in their story and more to justify Shelby adopting Beth and putting a nice button on the adoption issue. For a show that is usually so terrible at plot, it actually drives most of the action in “Journey;” the difference is that most of that plot is in the form of musical numbers, and the overpowering emotion of it all means that they can use it as a way to create journeys for characters who perhaps didn’t have journeys. Those tears in “To Sir with Love” shouldn’t all be the same: Santana shouldn’t be as moved as Kurt, while Finn should be more emotional than Other Asian, and yet the show is going to treat them all the same because it doesn’t want to compromise its message.
Normally, I’d consider this to be a problem, but I think episodes like “Journey” earn that sort of message. Note that the conclusion doesn’t feel like the characters are learning some sort of generalized lesson which doesn’t really apply to them: instead, they’re reflecting on their own journey, about how Mr. Schuester and New Directions have changed their time in high school. It’s a beautiful little counterpoint to the earlier scene where the group tearfully mourns the imminent demise of the club in the wake of Sue being named judge for Regionals: both scenes involve tears and self-reflection, but the difference in attitude is a complete 180 that I think the episode justified. For once, I felt like I could understand how one set of emotions could turn into another, the power of music being asked to reinforce existing emotions rather than inventing motivations within its characters. The Journey medley was not a sudden influx of new feelings that these characters had never felt before, but rather a reminder of how far they’ve come: “Don’t Stop Believing” is an iconic song for the series, but it’s more iconic for these characters, and performing it again with the entire cast getting to have their moment confirms that New Directions has become a true ensemble, and that their earlier concerns about the end of Glee Club being the end of their friendship were, at the very least, exaggerated.
Now, I say all of these immensely positive things about “Journey,” but it doesn’t change the fact that this season has been very, very messy. I’m still frustrated that Kurt and Finn’s relationship was never ironed out beyond the saccharine conclusion of “Theatricality,” and that the nuance of the situation was never fully expanded by the series. I’m also frustrated that Mercedes and Quinn’s relationship, which emerged again in “Journey” and has some potential, was so inconsistent in the previous eight episodes. I’m frustrated that the show didn’t do better with the rivalry between the two Glee clubs, or the resolution of Rachel and Jesse’s relationship, or Artie’s position within the Glee Club, or Tina’s identity, or just about any other complaint I’ve had about the show this season. And if I really think about it, the characters haven’t come that much further since “Sectionals,” as their brief statements of personal achievement which opened “To Sir With Love” could have been more or less the same after the first thirteen episodes. However, “Journey” so thoroughly delivered in terms of presenting New Directions as a community that all of my individual complaints melted away for the time being: I’m still hopeful the show pays more attention to the character development that makes up the “middle” which they so often ignore in order to get to their desired ending, but in those final moments I couldn’t help but smile.
At the beginning of “Journey,” Falchuk gives us a beginning we had never seen before, as a Mohawk-sporting Puck convinces Quinn to lose her virginity by arguing that three years from now they won’t care who Finn is. And as Will points out later in the episode, there will come a time when they will need to look through yearbooks to remember people’s names and when they will struggle to remember the songs they sang at Regionals. I think that Ryan Murphy and Co. more or less treat the show the same way: we’re probably going to forget about that time Will tried to seduce Sue by the time next fall comes around, and any memories of that awkward bit of racial profiling in “Throwdown” has likely already fallen out of our collective memory. What’s going to stick with us as Glee’s legacy are sequences like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or performances like “Don’t Stop Believing,” or the scenes between Kurt and his father; Glee is content to be maddeningly inconsistent because it knows how powerful those moments can be, and because it knows that episodes like “Journey” are doing something that no other show on television is trying to achieve.
It’s not going to keep me from calling them when their form is off, and it certainly won’t keep me from being frustrated when the show rests on its laurels and lazily uses its unique qualities to justify weak storytelling, but it will keep me from suggesting that Glee is anything close to a failure. As messy as this show has been, I am perfectly willing to accept those missteps so long as its ambition occasionally results in episodes like this one which deliver on the series’ potential to be something truly great.
- For those of you who didn’t pick up on it earlier, Ausiello and Co. released the identity of Emma’s dentist boyfriend – I won’t spoil it, for those who are concerned, but I will say that as a fan of Clone High I am most looking forward to this development for the sheer amount of references that no one else will get which I will be able to make.
- I’d say that I was disappointed about Rachel and Jesse not getting one final moment to reconcile (or for Rachel to get back at him for the egging in “Funk”), but I like the idea that Jesse will return in some capacity next season (perhaps as the new coach of Vocal Adrenaline, since I believe he was graduating, not that this matters in TV land) and that Rachel will get her chance for vengeance then.
- I didn’t get to see the “Previously On” segment due to the DVR recording starting after the episode had begun, but I presume they showed Quinn’s mother in it – it took me a few seconds to realize who it was, and I’m guessing those who watch less obsessively would have been pretty confused without the heads up.
- I doubt, however, there was a reference to Sue’s failed relationship with Rod Remington – I read it into the judging sequences as a subtext of tension between the two characters, but the episode had no interesting in following through on the idea, which isn’t that surprising considering the intense focus of that scene on indulging in Groban/Newton-John’s satire and building Sue towards her redemption.
- Should Matthew Morrison be nominated for an Emmy, he will likely submit the Extended Pilot (which restores his performance of “Leaving on a Jet Plane”), but I think he did his finest dramatic work here: sure, a lot of it is just crying, but the scene breaking down as “Don’t Stop Believing” comes on in the car was really well done, and helped sell the turnaround quite nicely. This would also make a fine submission for Jane Lynch, but I think she’ll go with “Wheels.”
- I had been spoiled by listening to the CD ahead of time, but I still did a little fist pump at the key change in “Don’t Stop Believing” – never underestimate the power of a good key change, ladies and gentlemen.
- I like the simple Sue insults – like her book title, “I’m a Winner and You’re Fat” – as much as the next guy, but I much prefer the particularly clever ones: references to both Song of the South and Little House on the Prairie were quite enjoyable.
- One complaint about the episode: no definitive Brittany line, even during “To Sir with Love” (where she just gets a spinoff from Santana).
- Not to be a complete nerd, but I’ve been trying to figure out how precisely New Directions finished in third place if Sue had them in first and Vocal Adrenaline in third. I don’t know how the scoring system was weighted, but considering the positive things that Groban had to say about New Directions it seemed like they wouldn’t be last on his ballot, so I’m not sure how we got the result we got.
- I’m glad that New Directions got to bring the Piano Player with them so he could get his moment in the sun – still waiting for the episode told entirely from his perspective.