Glee‘s competition episodes should be a big event. Of all the things the series does really well, it’s big, celebratory moments. Those moments don’t require any subtlety and instead the series can just revel in grand gestures, lots of smiles and soaring hooks. The wedding sequences last week we just wonderful, despite the angelic rendering of one Kurt Hummel. The two competition episodes from season one, “Sectionals” and “Journey,” are certainly near the top of my list of favorite episodes.
And so, while “Special Education” lacks the narrative lead-in of “Sectionals” or the emotional punch (however unearned it was) as “Journey,” and more or less serves as a structural remake of the former, it’s hard to deny that the formula works pretty damn well and ever harder to deny that this is a a very enjoyable episode.
In terms of narrative potency or any sort of impact, “Special Education” falls somewhere between the generally fantastic “Sectionals” and the awesome, but totally unearned “Journey.” The season one finale featured a number of great moments that the series does so well — Finn and Rachel’s pre-performance conversation, Sue’s realization in the judges’ room, etc. — but felt like a finale to the series that should have continued after “Sectionals,” but did not because the series’ writers started reading their own press and doing awful things like making Mercedes a cheerleader and the entirety of “Funk.” Sure, it was emotional to see the likes of Santana and Matt (may you be hyping up the audience with your jumping and clapping skills wherever you are, wayward soul) cry while dedicating a song to Will, but it wasn’t really something that I could totally buy into.
Here, there are definitely a few moments where Brad Falchuk’s script gets close to “Journey” territory, especially with Will, but it does feel like a number of the small character beats we’ve seen over the course of the season are being ramped up for a specific dramatic purpose. However, because I seemed to be unwilling to let go of the fact that Will could be anything more than a terrible, undefined character, let’s start with him and the framework of the episode, which drives so much of the character moments, that while good, still serve that framework to such an obvious extent.
If you remember back to “Sectionals” it was driven by three main plots: Finn finally finding out a secret that everyone else in the group knows about, the group dealing with fallout of both Finn’s departure and Will’s temporary suspension and finally, Will’s love for Emma. Well, for the most part, “Special Education” follows that same sort of pattern, but only jumbles up some of the details a little bit. Heck, you could make an argument that it even steals the “one final obstacle” of “Wheels” as well with the need to find a final member, of which both situations were solved by Puck.
Anyway, you liked the drama that came from Finn uncovering a big secret that everyone else knew? Well, then you’ll love when the same exact thing happens to Rachel!* You enjoyed how “Sectionals” painted the ND’ers as a fractured group that couldn’t overcome their personal issues and lack of direction to be the clear winner they should have been? Well, then you’ll love when the same exact thing happens here when Kurt’s absence and Will’s directive for presenting all the talented members of the group — not just Finn, Rachel and Mercedes — creates a vacuum of self-aggrandizing and entitlement from everyone in the club! And you really, really loved how Will and Emma finally found each other at the end of “Sectionals?” Well then, you’ll totally enjoy how this episode returns to their relationship for the first time since the “Rocky Horror” episode and sees Emma make another drastic decision in marrying John Stamos the Dentist!*
*I’m not sure why the whole group had to know the secret of Finn sleeping with Santana. That reveal is the most obvious “we’re doing the same thing and you love it!” part of the episode.
*Which really isn’t any different from how Emma disappeared in the last half dozen episodes of S1 and then returned just to tell Will that she had a boyfriend.
So it’s obvious, performance episodes have a very specific framework: Secret + Group drama + Will being a normal person + Emma appearance + romantic duo starting the main song in the crowd = Glee‘splosion. But because that formula works and we are again given a likable will, it doesn’t even matter.
And much like “Journey” and unlike “Sectionals,” this episode’s Will is admirable, but hard to trust because we know he’s been nothing but a train-wreck or inappropriate kisser of football coaches. I though Falchuk smartly commented on the series’ deficiencies with Will’s characterization just as “The Substitute” did, but at some point, pointing out that you have made your lead character a totally unlikable person for 95 percent of the season isn’t enough. I think Will has a number of good, sometimes even great moments with his speech about letting the spotlight shift to someone else and his ability to give the group some tough love when they need it, but good lord, this is the same guy that pushed himself into a creepy “Toxic” performance and into a high school production of “Rocky Horror.” He also maturely handles Emma’s stupid marriage announcement, which suggests the writers are at least somewhat interested in making Will the guy from the pilot and “Mattress” and “Sectionals” again.
But more importantly, Will’s new directive creates a boat-load of drama for the New Directions. Again Falchuk seems to be commenting on the fact that amid all the gimmick episodes and Kurt blessings, Glee has kind of forgotten that it has a number of great characters at his disposal, and although some of them still don’t get anything to do — SERIOUSLY, nothing for Mercedes until that final song? — there is enough of a transition away from Kurt and bullying that this feels like the early S1 Glee that made us fall in love.
“Special Education” focuses on a lot of the relationships established and presented in “Duets,” which is obviously smart because that’s the best episode of the season and the series. Thus, Artie and Brittany, Mike and Tina, Quinn and Sam, Rachel and Kurt and Finn and Rachel get beats here, to varying degrees of detail. Quinn and Sam’s development from “Duets” is referenced in their winning of the competition, so they get to lead the first song at Sectionals, and that’s about it, but the other four duo’ stories from the season’s most dramatically effective episodes — “Duets,” “Never Been Kissed” and “Furt” — are explored again in somewhat interesting ways.
Artie and Brittany become intertwined with Mike and Tina because of Will’s everyone is special(!) directive that puts the dancers out front and thus randomly makes Tina think that Mike and Brittany are hooking up on the side — even though she has no real evidence to support that. And though the possible adultery story doesn’t really go anywhere, it serves as another way for Glee to convince us that Artie and Brittany are somehow the cutest and most stable relationship of the New Directions Incest Club. The pairing felt completely random and odd when introduced earlier, but both characters are being developed nicely because of it: Artie is learning to be more supportive and Brittany has actually been given some depth. Mike and Tina are less cute and less developed, but both couples’ mini-reunions have enough impact.
More importantly, I feel like this season has done a fairly sizable disservice to Lea Michelle and Rachel, who has seemingly fallen in line behind Kurt, theme episodes, Finn, Will and even Sam to an extent. There hasn’t really been an episode with a Rachel-focus, which I find kind of unfortunate. That might seem like a weird complaint for someone who just praised the series for using its deep arsenal of characters and performers, but Rachel is still the female lead and she’s been oddly under-used for most of S2. Last week was a nice step in the right direction, and “Special Education” does some good things with her as well.
This is particularly true in reference to her relationship with Kurt. The two have always been major competitors, the episode admits as much, but they’re still similar in a lot of ways, so it was nice to see them randomly bond over Kurt’s solo audition anxieties. Last week did enough legwork to convince of the fact that Rachel actually cares about Kurt as a person and not just as another good back-up voice, so I can totally buy that she would help him choose a song. And of course I can buy that Kurt would go to her for help because S2 Kurt always does the right thing it’s too hard to second guess him.
And oddly, because I’ve found myself frustrated with the lack of Rachel this season, I kind of felt for her complaints about being usurped in terms of a solo performance. We know that inside the ND group, Rachel and Finn are the leads, but we haven’t actually seen much of it this year. A number of Rachel’s big performances have been solos in the literal sense that she’s alone in the auditorium or creepily singing to Burt Hummel.
However, I don’t know what to think about Finn and Rachel. Somehow, I really like them. I loved their big moments in “Journey.” I mean loved them. I knew the secret sex with Santana was a ticking time-bomb, but I feel like Rachel’s decision to make out with Puck to make Finn jealous was just Falchuk trying to pull the “Sectionals” comparisons further and perhaps too far. I know the two of them will get back together and I was glad to see Puck actually stop Rachel because he didn’t want to hurt Finn, but Finn’s “I never thought you’d be this mean” or whatever line was dreadful.* Dreadful.
*Puck is awesome. He needs more to do. Stupid Mark Salling and his music career.
And much like the other two competition episodes, “Special Education” reminds the group and us at home that none of this crap really matters when they’re up on that stage singing their hearts out. It’s why the characters can always have fun in a song even if they hate one another outside of that context, and while I do like when the series tries to undercut this idea of singing makes it all better, I don’t mind things when Glee hammers that point home again with a great final group performance of “Dog Days Are Over.” Sure, it doesn’t have the emotional or narrative weight of “My Life Would Suck Without You,” but not too many of the series’ performances have. The serialized impact of this episode and ending point of all these scattered, horrible things are behind them isn’t as effective as Falchuk and the rest of the Glee team thinks it is, but that’s okay.
Sometimes formula is a really good thing and it seems like Glee‘s competition episode template is one of those instances.