It’s easy to going into Glee‘s second episode dedicated fully to a specific pop artist with a critical eye. Focusing on another pop star in Britney Spears doesn’t exactly ring true with Ryan Murphy’s claim for a more personal Glee that focuses on the characters. And once the word came down that most of the musical sequences would be drug-induced fantasies, it was even harder to not expect a messy, sloppy episode. However, because the season premiere was so damn good, I was ready to be pleasantly surprised by “Britney/Brittany.”
And while I am not fully disappointed in the episode, I don’t really know how to feel. This is not the worst or most tonally inconsistent episode of Glee, but is certainly the weirdest. It is disjointed and clunky in the way that it tries to balance fantasy and reality, but not really trying to connect the two well enough. Moreover, by allowing Britney Spears’ music to mean different things to different people without them meeting in the middle on any of their feelings creates an awkward attempt at thematic consistency. It’s rare that we walk away from an episode of Glee without having the theme beaten into our brains (mostly because it’s used in dialogue 100 times), but here, it’s either nonexistent or simply barely attended to.
Creating two distinctive “worlds” where in fantasy, Santana and Brittany can perform together or Rachel wears late ’90s sports gear in earnest is fine, and really, something interesting for Glee to do. Some people might have problems with the series stepping outside its “Let’s all perform in the auditorium!” framework, but I can fully embrace it because if the series is going to have performances with high production values, it’s more believable in a dream or fantasy sequence than New Directions simply having a bottomless budget (particularly when we know they don’t).
The fantasy sequences would be especially effective if what the characters desire in their fantasies actually pay off in the “real” world of McKinley High. This is most true for Brittany, as the episode starts in a way that suggests Heather Morris’ one-liner machine is going to actually be fleshed out into something of a real person (or at least as real as Glee can do). The character has a real, albeit goofy reason for not doing Britney Spears music (her name is Brittany S. Pearce and feels like she’ll never be able to live up to the namesake), but then finds that she can actually get up front and center to not only dance, but also sing. That’s a promising start, and one that fits right into the Glee aesthetic. Brittany is empowered by music she once feared and finds herself more confident (really too confident) in her identity.
But as soon as Santana joins Brittany for a second drug-induced go-around in the Spears video library, Ms. Pearce’s story is over. She has a few more one liners about her desire to get all the solos from here on out, but as the episode ends, it feels like the character who was supposed to be the centerpiece of the episode got shortchanged just as soon as the series was finished with her ridiculously fit body and great appearance in some of Britney’s most memorable outfits. I didn’t expect the episode to dive into Brittany’s psyche as if she were Artie or Kurt, or even Mercedes — though I’m not sure these beats are better or worse than Mercedes eating disorder in “Home” — but the first 15 minutes of the episode end up being a misdirection for what the episode is (trying) to be about.
Instead, the episode quickly turns to the main characters and Artie (!) to tell its story about the influence of Spears’ music. Unfortunately, the two characters who have stories directly tied to Spears fantasy sequences (Artie and Rachel) only further emphasize the issues between the fantasies and reality. Artie’s is particularly problematic because the end result of his desires in reality are exactly no different from what happens in his fantasy sequence. Beyond the fact that Artie playing football is ridiculous (no offense to him or the handicapped, obviously), his connection to Britney is the most shoe-horned in to the episode in attempt to prove a barely-there point about her music. The fantasy itself is a nice look to Artie’s psyche, but because both “worlds” are basically the same, the end result lacks the punch I think the episode is really trying for.
And for Rachel, the frustrations over how she’s perceived are something of old hat at this point, and even though she (and thus the series) mentions her previous attempts at sexing it up with the Grease-inspired cat-suit, that doesn’t make it okay just do the same thing again. This time the look might be less laughable and she might be trying to keep Finn and instead of get with him, but it’s still to serve the same ends in making her feel more unique and less marginalized.
Meanwhile, the stories for Will and Finn are much more substantial, if not again similar to what we’ve already explored before. Without Emma, without a wife and without a successful New Directions, Will is flailing and can’t really let loose. After his divorce, he jumped too quickly into changing himself that it didn’t really work or stick, particularly after the glee club got smacked down at Regionals. Thus, it makes sense that he would make a rash decision to buy the Corvette or perform with the kids, because Will never makes methodological choices. And, I guess I can buy that because Will is so uptight, he’s unable to see the value in letting the kids perform Britney. I guess, but more on this in a second. Finn’s desire to be popular is also a recurring theme that perhaps the series should get past, but if it’s going to be pursued, this episode does it well.
But all those stories don’t really come together in the way I think the episode thinks it does when Rachel gets up in front of the group and sings “The Only Exception.” We’ve moved away from Britney and back towards a more comfortable (and perhaps realistic) song, but the slow motion montage and the looks given by Artie, Will, Finn and Rachel (and really even the randomly angry Kurt) suggest this is really a poignant moment that brings everyone back together in some sort of shared acceptance of their current circumstances. Finn’s back on the team, and now Artie is too. Will’s okay with loving Emma from afar and Rachel realizes she can trust Finn, even if he’s popular. They’ve all been inspired by Britney’s music and even if that inspiration didn’t lead them in the right direction, at least they acted on it. But, again, I’m not sure I buy that.
That final scene is trying really hard to suggest that Britney’s music was super important in their developments, but I’m not sure it is earned. And good deal of that confusion comes from how the episode tried to use Britney’s music as if it were all things to all people, but refused to accept some middle ground. Will originally thinks it’s not for ND, Sue thinks it causes only sex riots (and she’s unfortunately proven right by the awful Jacob-heavy scenes in the library and gym during the “Toxic” performance). But Kurt and some of the other ND’ers think she’s empowering, for whatever reason. The problem is that no one can really come to an agreement about what is the value of Britney’s music or her image, so ultimately, the episode does not either. While Kurt is proved to be right thanks to Brittany or Artie’s new confidence, but isn’t Sue proved to be right as well? It doesn’t really tie together as well as either the Madonna or Lady Gaga dedications did, which doesn’t bode well for future artist themed episodes.
So therein lies the problem with this episode. It’s nice to see some serialized continuation of stories that started in the premiere, but those beats sharply contrast with the beat-for-beat dedications to Britney’s music video history. There is a lacking connecting tissue between what’s happening in one part of the episode and what’s happening in another part, more so than any other Glee episode before. The results are a weird, but not ultimately awful episode that suggests future artist themed episodes need more attention to detail on the story end than the spectacle end.