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Glee, “Hold On To Sixteen” (3.08)

The Troubletones on stage.

A review of the latest episode, written by Ross Maxwell and directed by Bradley Buecker, after the jump…

Spoiler-free:

  • The best episode of the season, easily. Shows off everything the show does best when it’s on its game: warmth, humour, characters we love going on strong journeys, and fun music.
  • There are two surprise returns of characters from the past, one a one-time guest star and one a former recurrer. Three if you count one who is essentially background dressing here, but implies a wealth of danger further on…
  • No Sue! Making another argument for why the character no longer belongs on the show that Glee has become.
  • The episodes features music originally by Toby Keith, Destiny’s Child, Gloria Gaynor, The Jackson 5, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, fun feat. Janelle Monáe, and a number from Evita.
  • It’s Sectionals!
And now, the review proper…
First off, a bit about the previous two episodes, as I took an impromptu two-week hiatus from Glee reviews during exam season. I skipped reviewing “Mash Off” (3.06) and “I Kissed a Girl” (3.07) not just because I didn’t have much time, but because I honestly couldn’t find the words to describe them. More than any episodes this season have, they recalled the best and the worst of the show’s first two seasons: stunning musical numbers, jawdropping moments and zingy one-liners, as well as mind-boggling logic gaps, lack of tonal consistency and face-palming moments of cheesiness. For every heartrending scene between Santana and her abuela there was a love triangle between Beiste and Sue rehashing the last Beiste/Cooter romance plotline. So, I came out of those episodes just wanting to cherish the Adele mashup and Naya Rivera‘s skills, and move on.
But now…. my show is back.
It only seems to happen a handful of times a season, when everything is humming, when almost every scene feels earned and strong and powerful. Where every character feels undeniably themselves. Where everything feels balanced. And “Hold On to Sixteen” did all of that and more.
Glee is at its strongest when its characters resemble real people. I’m not sure whether it was Ross Maxwell‘s emotionally honest script or Bradley Buecker‘s strong direction, but every scene here seemed to feature characters that resembled people, who did things for reasons that made sense. And by eschewing the over-the-top humour that tends to fall flat on its face every time it appears, Maxwell and Buecker have teamed here for an episode that is heartfelt without being cheesy, effortlessly warm, with a hint of cheeky charm that makes Glee what it is.
The fact that it happened during a performance episode, which have typically been Glee‘s weakest offerings (barring last year’s “Special Education” [2.09]), is especially exciting. And the show made sure that it was a fair fight: all three groups were very strong, from Lindsay Pearce‘s return as the dangerous Harmony, to the Troubletones’ exciting “Survivor/I Will Survive” mashup, to a very Jackson trio of New Directions numbers. Every group had a fair chance at the trophy, and it was actually believable that New Directions could win against such stiff competition. Each of the numbers had its own flavour and mix of performers, each with a different layer of meaning behind them.
Jenna Ushkowitz took leads on “ABC “, backed largely by Harry Shum Jr., to remind us that both are grand performers and to help tie up Mike Chang’s plotline about his difficult father. Ushkowitz‘s Tina has spent three years on the sidelines, and in her first real competition lead number, she was fantastic. The show played Mike and Tina noticing Mike’s father in the audience very well, too, as time literally slows down without the number changing, as both shake it off and get back to work.
Keong Sim, Ushkowitz and Shum  did excellent work in that plotline, as its quietly threaded through the episode. Sim plays Chang Snr’s ambivalence over his son’s dancing very well, and though I think his change of heart could have been a little more convincing, it generally sold me on why he’d see why his son needed to keep dancing. The show also finally put Chang Snr. and Tina in a room together and had them battle it out over Mike’s future, and showed both sides witohut feeling like the show was ‘discussing’ the topic of arts vs. practical, employable degrees. It also showed how someone as passionate about their art could be beaten down by a parent’s rejection enough to let it go, as Mike does here. All in all, this was a good wrap-up to the plot thread kicked off back in “Asian F” (3.03).
The next number kicks off with a monologue from Quinn that essentially gets to the heart of her plotline: “This is a story about control. My control. Control of what I say, control of what I do. And this time I’m gonna do it my way.” That plotline is the throughline of this episode, as everything hinges on whether or not Quinn will use what she knows to have Shelby fired, giving the New Directions a win by default. I’ve thought Dianna Agron was great throughout this season, and even though her plot has sometimes been where the show has leaned a bit too heavily on its absurdist humour, I’ve enjoyed it a lot more than others have. I’ve understood at every juncture why Quinn, Puck and even Shelby were behaving in ways that might have seemed to make no sense, even when the episodes themselves (like last week’s “I Kissed a Girl”, where this plotline was particularly weak) didn’t grab me.
Quinn holds the lives of Shelby and Beth in her hands, and it’s a struggle between the vengeance and desperation that have been plaguing Quinn all season, and the hope that New Directions holds in regaining her joy as a teenager. There was a hint of that last week in Puck’s monologue about Quinn falling apart, and the foundations there leave an opening for Sam and Rachel to pull Quinn back from the brink here. This gave us four really good scenes: Quinn with Shelby, as she explains exactly how pathetic hooking up with Puck made her feel and her wish to feel as young as Quinn is now; Quinn with Sam, when he tells her that she needs to stop trying to escape her life when there’s so much potential to it; Quinn with Rachel, as she reminds her exactly what the consequences of her plan are; and finally Quinn with Rachel again, as she confesses that she isn’t going to throw Shelby to the wolves, and even accepts, tentatively, Rachel’s hand in friendship.
Perhaps the best of all is Quinn’s scene with the disgraced Troubletones, laying out what the theme of this season is supposed to be: “In six months, we’ll all be gone. When we see each other it will be a special occasion. It’ll be different. I’m not ready to grow up yet. I don’t want to lose you girls. I’m seventeen. I have the rest of my life in front of me. I love Glee club – and I love you girls. And when we’re 27, or 87, I want us to be able to look back at these last couple months, and talk about how it was the best times of our lives. Can'[t do that if we’re not all together.” That is the show, and everything it wanted to be going into this third season. Quinn started the season out of control and broken, and her redemption is the key to the show’s themes: she’s been trying so hard to be an adult that she’s not letting herself be young. And now she’s realised exactly what she was running away from. It’s damn good, and a lot better than I’ve expected from this show for a while. This isn’t after-school special Glee, but real Glee.
“Control” also subtly concludes another of the finale’s plot strands: the growing tension between Finn and Blaine. The show’s been smart about this conflict, hiding it in moments rather than having Finn snark at Blaine every time he’s in the room. I liked that, because if these two characters have weaknesses, those are clearly Finn’s entitlement about being Glee club leader and Blaine’s perpetual need to be liked by everyone. Darren Criss is not the cast’s strongest actor, but his scene with Finn was one of his strongest so far. The revelation last season that Blaine was a victim of bullies in his youth has been underplayed, but having it rear its ugly head here was a nice touch. Cory Monteith is one of the cast’s stronger actors, but his character didn’t do much here that he hasn’t done a hundred times before, so it was a wee bit less impressive. I liked watching the two come to a peace of sorts, with Finn acknowledging that Blaine is more talented, and Blaine accepting that, for better or for worse, Finn is the leader of this pack. It doesn’t mean he headlines every song like he used to – clearly, from how the wealth was spread at Sectionals – but it does mean that he uses the head for strategy he’s developed to marshal the Glee Club’s forces when need be.
And “Man in the Mirror” closes it off to win it for the New Directions. I liked that, without Lea Michele‘s Rachel and a humbled Finn, the show finally did what it should have years ago: stop relying on one blow-away voice and instead let New Directions act like a Show Choir. The show has so many good performers that it’s nice to see them all be serviced here.
All in all, a great mini-finale before next week’s standalone Christmas episode. The best-written episode all year, with plot threads weaving tightly around strong themes and good music. More of this when the show returns next, please.
Onto other, smaller notes:
  • After spending most of last season being blandly adorable, Chord Overstreet is the MVP here, bringing a new charge to the show. Upon hearing he’d be back, I didn’t think he’d earn the fanfare his return was getting. Yet, somehow, Overstreet somehow strides back in a hundred times more magnetic and engaging than he was the first time around. For one thing, Sam is striding with a new confidence borne of a young man who has not only professionally performed, but professionally stripped. That turn of character is nicely tipped as the reason why he’s so eager to speak his mind, to grin as Santana lists off a string of fond Trouty Mouth Jokes (and hug her afterwards), to make a play for Mercedes despite her linebacker boyfriend, to tell Quinn exactly what she needs to hear… and, generally, gives him a swagger to fit the charm he’s always had. Sam wasn’t an essential part of this team when he left, but he very well may be now that he’s returned.
  • After two straight episodes focused on the ‘Santana is a lesbian’ plotline, the show takes a step back to let Santana and Brittany perform as Troubletones members and not dwell on their romance. That’s a nice touch because there’s nothing to say about them here; “I Kissed a Girl” nicely resolved this stretch of that plot, which gives the episode room to close off the rest of this half-season’s plot threads…
  • … and kick off new ones. Sam’s return hints at a new plotline surrounding Sam, Mercedes and a love triangle. Normally I have no patience for a love triangle, but Mercedes’ current boyfriend is such a headache, and Overstreet brings so much charm to the role of Sam, that this one is almost welcome.
  • This show is clever, almost too clever by half. After hinting that scary Harmony (Lindsay Pearce) is a senior by having her command the NYADA mixer earlier this season, it reminds us that someone as overambitious as Harmony could easily be attending college mixers while still a sophomore – which, it turns out, she is. And by seeding Harmony as a sophomore this year, the show can bring her back either as a series regular next year, or as a yearly villaina la Vocal Adrenaline. As a big fan of her, I’d love to see her in a regular capacity, but she’s also a fantastic choice as a villain. It’s almost a real shame we won’t get a real arc of Harmony vs. Rachel.
  • Poor Damian McGinty as Rory, though. Since his too-much debut in “Pot O’ Gold”, he’s been a non-presence since. My suspicion is that they’re seeding him into the background not to play out his .mandated seven episodes, but grooming him while McGinty gets acting lessons to prepare him for heavy lifting in late season and to pick up some of the slack next year from departing bigshots.
  • I thought this competition’s music was very consistent quality-wise. None of it was hair-raising to the level of “Mash Off”‘s Adele mashup, but every competition number was good enough to be performance grade, and enjoyable to boot. Lindsay Pearce had another nice showcase at the centre of “Buenos Aires”, and I loved the “Survivor / I Will Survive” mashup, possibly as my third-favourite number of the season after Adele and “The First Time”s “America”. And Sam’s return number, “Red Solo Cup”, as also up there, with a great laid-back level of fun that the show tried to capture with the “Last Friday Night” number in “Pot O’ Gold” (3.04) that didn’t quite work so well.
  • I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for those ‘winners are announced’ montages, and this one was no exception. Will sending air kisses to Emma, and the Troubletones standing completely still as the lights turned off around them. Nice stuff.

What did you think?

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