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Glee, “Special Education” (2.09)

“Leave all your love and your longing behind; you can’t carry it with you if you want to survive.” –  New Directions.

New Directions performs "Valerie"

The Glee cast are hitting Sectionals for their second year, facing off against a rerun of a Community joke and one of their former teammates. How do they do? A review of the episode, written by Brad Falchuck and directed by Paris Barclay, after the jump…

“Special Education” and the season so far…

If “Journey” (1.22) showed an increased sense of the show’s flaws, “Special Education” is the culmination of an early season dedicated to fixing them. In the first-season finale Schuester played with the New Directions Tropes of Finn/Rachel ballad then soft rock number, giving them the spotlight but also giving the others individual time to shine. Prodded by Emma’s criticism of New Directions’ (and Will’s) lack of stylistic flexibility, Will decides to throw the tropes out altogether.

And it works.

The first finale’s setlist was heartwarming but lukewarm, with the Journey numbers never even making it onto my iPod. Here, meanwhile, every piece from “Special Education” was something special. Chord Overstreet and Dianna Agron proved right Ryan Murphy‘s suspicions about their chemistry, personal and musical, with a strong duet, while Naya Rivera finally got a chance for a on-screen solo that also showed off the benefits of having two amazing dancers within the cast. And the Florence and the Machine number gave both Amber Riley and Jenna Ushkowitz a pair of deserving showcases. And the show’s two powerhouses weren’t left behind either, as Lea Michele and Chris Colfer gave a fantastic performance of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” that is possibly my favourite piece of the season, up there with the premiere’s “Listen”.

But the show has grown in other ways. These first nine episodes have done away with a number of problems that plagued the first season, particularly the odd four-lead system that gave the show the semblance of a lumbering Frankenstein. It isn’t completely solved, as the stories around Schuester are still so heavily removed from the kids that they stick out like a sore thumb, but there have been significant steps to turn this into not a quadri-lead monster but a proper ensemble piece.

The first season was split into 2-3 story arcs at any given time, always revolving around its ostensible leads: Schuester, Rachel, Finn and later Kurt. The bulk of the remaining cast were mostly there to fill out the leads’ scenes, which became frustrating. Especially when these story arcs were particularly messy (like Rachel’s romance with Jesse) or irritating (such as Schuester’s fake-pregnant wife). In the second season, almost every character has a cohesive arc, and while they may fade in or out of the narrative as needed, each character is getting some level of story. The show has served two stories predominantly in this pod – Schuester’s post-romance pursuit of Emma and Kurt’s dealings with bully Karofsky – without crushing the rest of the cast underfoot.

In between these two main plots, there are a number of romances (Quinn/Sam, Tina/Mike, Santana/Brittany/Artie, Finn/Rachel), individual character arcs (Puck’s attempts at redemption, Quinn’s attempts to stay Head Cheerleader), and the overarching reach of Sectionals-Regionals-Nationals. The show is stuffed, but in little bits its able to balance them much better than last season’s trifectas of doom. Each arc has different shadings and questions that make it compelling: the odd culture clash between Tina and Mike, the question of how genuine the Sam/Quinn relationship is on either side, etc. There are only two characters who lack a consistent story arc, Mercedes and Sue. Both are worth talking a little about.

Mercedes’ arc might be there, if you look at the constant references to her being ignored within the dialogue of the show. Mercedes has, a number of times, complained abut being overlooked as a vocalist within New Directions. Additionally, she’s dealing with being judged and forgotten by her best friend, Kurt, in the wake of his new pseudo-romance and later transfer to Dalton. I believe Mercedes does have an arc coming her way, but I hope we get a sense of it before the pod is over.

Sue is a more difficult nut to crack. In an unfinished review for “Duets” (2.04), I noted that it was odd that the series’ strongest episode so-far was one in which its breakout character was completely absent. Again, in “Special Education”, we have a strong episode where Sue’s absence is actually welcome. The way the show is written, with three equal voices, is problematic when its trying to establish a tone. The show has long been trying to decide whether its is heartfelt or over-the-top comedy. While the show has been leaning towards the former, with stories about bullying and heartbreak, Sue is the epitome of the latter, and her ‘muahaha’-based scheming now often feels completely out of place within this universe. Just look to how ill-fitting the ‘Sue-Sylvester-marries-herself’ plot fit into the show in “Furt” (2.08), to the point where it specifically clashed with Sue’s scenes as principal. The two stories were tonally inconsistent with each other, and it effected the episode. Could Sue be a case of a character who is so popular and easy-to-write that the writing staff can’t even consider the idea that she no longer fits within the show?

Either way, the show’s had more good episodes than bad this season, a vast improvement from the seesawing quality of season one. The only episodes that come close to the lows of last season’s “Hairography” (1.11) or “Hell-o” (1.14) are the filler episodes “Britney/Brittany” (2.02) and “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” (2.05), and even those pushed specific arcs along. As for “Special Education”, it also made sure to address each member of the cast in some fashion. Finn and Rachel had a very-teenage breakup, Schuester’s ‘one that got away’ finally got away, and Kurt had his first stirrings of being trampled underfoot at Dalton. Meanwhile, mini-plots furthered the other arcs in the run-up to Sectionals and after. Everybody played a part.

“Special Education”

Let’s take a look at some specific parts of the episode…

What is Glee?

“Being part of something special makes you special.” – Rachel

“We have got a lot of talent here, and I’m gonna highlight it.” – Schuester

“You’re not going to make it as a Warbler if all you care about is getting noticed.” – Blaine

For last year’s Sectionals, the situation was set up as the underdogs versus two unqualified teams who had reduced themselves to cheating in order to guarantee a win, only to lose. In addition to the troped and offensive way the show depicted New Directions’ opponents, it said very little about what Glee really was. That’s one reason “Special Education” is miles beyond the underwhelming “Sectionals” (1.13) in quality – particularly in quality of writing.

What this episode does is set up a very specific dichotomy between Dalton’s more conventional approach to show choir and McKinley’s messy-but-strong method. At Dalton, every member is merely a piece of a greater puzzle, an actual choir where the individual talents of each member are subservient to the mass wall of sound they are creating. This creates a really strong Glee club, but also creates a demoralising environment for singers like Kurt, whose voices are best suited to a showcase. Dalton really is a better glee club, in the traditional sense of the word, and may even be as good as last year’s Vocal Adrenaline in terms of sound.

New Directions, under Will Schuester, is not as conventional. Some members are more than happy to remain parts of the puzzle, but part of the aspirational tone of the club is that each member has the chance to be ‘special’ – carry a solo, sit at the centre of the mass. Someone like Santana (Naya Rivera), who spent the first season a bit player, can anchor a Sectionals solo all on her own. New Directions is more geared to individualistic performers like Rachel (Lea Michele), who wants to become a famous Broadway star. In New Directions, they lack the unity and purpose of Dalton’s Warblers, and the jockeying for solos and creative control complicates the power structure, but allows individual members to be showcased. Of course, Will focused on specific players for the bulk of the club’s life, but the success of this lineup at Sectionals means that truly anybody can be special in McKinley’s hierarchy.

And, in the end, despite the different cultures at each school (McKinley’s clubmates are losers while the Warblers are kings at court), they are ranked as equals. The show doesn’t rate one or the other as better, but merely more effective or less at specific things. Of course, as New Directions are our leads its likely they will survive through Regionals this time, but I’m still quite happy with how this played out.

The Competition

One other thing thing that heartened me in this Sectionals was how each competitor was treated with respect. Last season, the Hipsters would have been portrayed as a hapless bunch of old folks stumbling around the stage, desperately trying to recapture the youth of New Directions and stealing their

The Cast

There were plenty of stories and relationships touched on in “Special Education”, so here’s a runthrough of how each seems to be going down….

Finn and Rachel: This one is key to the episode, as it has been to the season. Finn and Rachel, when together, are fun: confident, scheming, playful, with a strong sense of banter that allows each’s personality to flourish. However, as demonstrated here, it also brings out some of their worst parts – specifically, their place in Glee. Rachel’s place in the club has constantly been to throw her superior talent in their faces, but this was always undercut by her sympathetic desire to be liked. Once paired up with Finn, her self-esteem skyrockets to the point where she goes beyond being insensitive to being smug, entitled and genuinely rude to her teammates. Meanwhile, being the leader has always (rightly) felt like a bit of a burden to Finn, who is loveable but not exactly the best male vocalist within the team. He’s progressed with leaps and bounds, but he’s either equalled or outclassed by every guy in Glee barring Mike. However, between Schuester’s overidentification with him (landing him with all the male leads) and Rachel pumping him up, the Finn we’ve seen in season two has been manipulative, selfish and entitled. Considering his relative place in the team compared to Rachel, it’s an even less flattering look for Finn than it is for Rachel.

But they are who they are, in the end. Rachel is still constantly afraid of being abandoned, and the discovery that Finn slept with Santana awoke plenty of her self-worth issues that Finn probably doesn’t even see. She engineers her breakup with Finn almost as a way to defend herself from having her heart broken when she least expects it. For Finn, meanwhile, the final issue isn’t that she betrayed him, but that she was mean. She specifically betrayed him in the way that would be the most hurtful, knowing exactly what she was doing. What I love about this couple is that they both have specific undercurrents emotionally that we don’t see but we notice if we look deeper. Finn doesn’t realise that Rachel was testing him, and thus fails the test. Rachel doesn’t realise Finn doesn’t see her fear, and probably doesn’t even understand why she did something so strong to Finn, and is devastated… but, also, almost happy. There’s a sense of victory to her “You said you’d never break up with me!”, as if it were a challenge she took on, as if she’d won the right to be heartbroken. And it was all wonderfully, wonderfully teenage and immature, which is exactly how it would happen.

Rachel and Kurt: I’ve been waiting for their friendship since last season’s “Defying Gravity” diva-off, and it finally blossoms here. After hints of it since their duet in “Duets” (2.04), they finally cemented it here: no longer eachother’s competition, they are finally are able to be friendly to one another. Rachel tries to be kind, and Kurt follows in kind. After Idina Menzel‘s near-miss as mentor to Rachel, I’ve long been hoping they’d bring Kristin Chenoweth back as a mentor for Kurt, creating a perfect set-up for the two to perform Wicked’s “For Good” on eve of their graduation next year. They work beautifully together here, which gives me hope that it will continue in the future. Of course, it could follow the same path of Mercedes and Quinn’s friendship and slowly disappear*. That would be a shame.

* Or has it? After all, the chain of secrets ran from Santana to Brittany, then through Quinn to Mercedes and onto Kurt. But is there some reason we haven’t seen Mercedes and Quinn really be friends since last year? Another person leaving Mercedes behind?

Kurt and Finn: They didn’t have a plot together this week, but it bears noticing that after Finn’s long tribute to Kurt at the wedding last episode (“Furt”, 2.08) and became stepbrothers, they haven’t even spoken. It would be nice to get some information why. Did Finn freeze Kurt out after he felt like he was being abandoned? Did Kurt avoid talking to Finn out of guilt? It was so specifically noted that I have to wonder where this is going.

Kurt and Blaine: After Blaine came off as the perfect guy for Kurt in previous episodes, it’s nice to know that he’s not quite perfect. In the context of Dalton he’s much less charming, well meaning  but ultimately a cog in the machine. He’s friendly but condescending to Kurt, practically insulted by Kurt’s desire for spotlight, despite Blaine’s own hogging of it within the Warblers. It will be interesting to see whether Kurt’s mentor continues to lose shine under scrutiny, and whether cracks will develop in their fairytale non-romance.

Puck and Rachel: Last year, their brief romance in “Mash Up” (1.08) was actually one of the season’s highlights. It brought out some self-awareness in both parties that was a breath of fresh air. The show’s been pretty consistent with its hints about a possible rekindling with the two; first the “Puckleberry” subplot in “Bad Reputation” (1.17), then the rekindling of their friendship here. Could Puck’s redemption lead to an extended arc of Puck and Rachel revisiting their relationship? I’d enjoy seeing that, I think.

Puck’s Redemption: Ever since Puck revealed some semblance of a soul in “Never Been Kissed” (2.06), they’ve been working towards making him a better guy. The events her may not have been strictly necessary to cause Good Puck to appear, considering his planned redemption at the hands of Artie

Brittany and Artie: I don’t know how I feel about these two. They’re pretty adorable when they make up, but their relationship has mostly been about Artie alternately punishing Brittany for her sexuality and condescending to her. I’ve liked that they’ve removed Artie from the lovable inspirational wheelchair user trope, but it feels like he’s curled in the opposite way: he’s a bit of a douchebag with some good qualities, rather than a good guy with some douchey tendencies, and it feels like he’s supposed to be the latter. Santana may be awful to everyone else, but she’s been pretty good to Brittany, gay panic scares notwithstanding. That said, the more Brittany we get, the better. And Artie, despite his jerky ways, does mean well in the end. So I guess I’m a mild fan.

Tina and Mike: Does anyone else think that, just as Artie’s become a bit of a jerk, Tina’s also taken a  turn for the worse? There’s something about how she’s constantly getting involved in Artie and Brittany that’s been hitting me the wrong way. Their squabbles in “Duets” (2.04) felt real and amusing to me, but some of her reactions to her breakup with Artie and her relationship with Mike have given me a bad impression of her, particularly her move here. I appreciate she’s moved beyond the shy nothing of a girl from last season, and I’m really interested in seeing a bit more of this bolder new Tina and what really makes her tick. Also, what’s up with Mike and Asian-ness? Seriously, what’s up with that?

Sam and Quinn: This is something I’m really looking at, for a number of reasons. There have been hints that this relationship is all about popularity for Sam, who’s been coming on strong to Quinn ever since approaching her to be his partner back in “Duets” (2.04), especially in “Never Been Kissed” (2.06). Meanwhile, though Quinn’s made statements to the same, look at her face during “I’ve Had the Time of My Life”: she’s completely into Sam, to the point where I wonder if she’s not in line to get her heart properly broken by this boy by end-of-season. As Chose Overstreet is pretty much the only Glee club member not to get the bump to regular status, I have to wonder if his exit is already planned, and if so, whether its because his dalliance with Quinn goes sour.

Schuester and Emma (and Carl): As little space as I can offer these two, not because of any weaknesses in the performers, but because its so uncomfortable to watch. Both of these two are desperate to have their best friend from season one back, and it just doesn’t fit. I want to blame Schuester for being a wet blanket to Emma all of the time, but he’s clearly doing the best he can to make it easy on Emma, while Emma is not doing the same to him. He’s been very clear that he’s still in love with her, and yet she continually tries to use him as a confidante about her romance with Carl, and is predictable dismayed when he can’t congratulate her with any enthusiasm. If either one were kind, they’d try their best to go their separate ways; even though Emma’s professional advice for the Glee club is usually spot on, personally they do nothing but hurt each other. I hope that Emma’s marriage to Carl will help this process, but it won’t.

Lauren Zizes: Lauren’s begun to take up the screentime that the odious Jacob Ben Israel once ruled, and I can’t help but be gladdened by this. Though sarcastic and kind of mean, Lauren’s also a very enjoyable character to have around, and getting her to join the Glee club is a fun way to keep her as a background character. One thing that this episode subtly did was reestablish New Directions as a family that really draws you in. Even though Lauren considers Glee club stupid, she’s not only a warm body during Sectionals; she stays in the club afterwards and performs during the ‘for fun’ number at the end. That made me smile.

Ultimately, this season is a massive improvement on the first season, even if there are some tonal issues still being worked out. Still, “Special Education” was a treat. I hope there’s more in store.

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