Glee, “Born This Way”

When it was announced a month or so ago, I just assumed a 90-minute episode of Glee would be one of the worst things ever. Some of the episodes from this season have felt extremely long within the 42 minute structure, so I couldn’t even really imagine having to deal with another 20 minutes. Ultimately, I was only sort of right. “Born This Way” isn’t the worst thing ever. In fact, it’s probably one of the best episodes of the season. But it would have been much, much better had it been a normal-length episode. As it aired, the extra time of the episode more or less served to drag out an emotional farewell and an emotional return for Kurt, a whole act that could have easily been cut out to make this episode more streamlined and thematically consistent.

During the last hiatus, I wrote this long and rambling piece about why Glee had started to lose me and for the most part, that all stemmed from the lack of narrative momentum. Even with the built-in framework of the competitions and what they could provide to the narrative, this season has mostly been aimless, taking one fairly pointless detour after another. Sometimes detours can be really great, but most of those on this season of Glee have not been. But despite all its Gaga-related posturing and random in-episode distractions, “Born This Way” suggests that this season is actually going somewhere — in fact, it suggests that it’s been going somewhere for a long time. I’m not sure I completely buy what this episode is selling, especially in terms of the long-term development of some of these storylines, but it’s nice to feel like Glee knows what it wants to do and the stories it wants to tell.

Although this season will most certainly end with the New Directions in NYC at Nationals, that’s not really the story this season has been telling. If “Born This Way” is any indication of what is really important to the writers this season, the prom episode will the climax of the story they’ve been plotting (which makes the outrage over the prom-related spoilers make a lot more sense). The race for prom queen has been hinted at over the last few episodes with Quinn’s attempts to make sure she and Finn are lined up for the royal throne, but the story is much more overt crystallized here. Even more impressively, this episode does a fantastic job of dovetailing a number of disparate season two plots into the prom situation, or at least sets them up to (and your knowledge of the spoiler can carry those set-ups further). Smartly combining those narratives here doesn’t necessarily make up for some of the mistakes earlier in the season, but it’s a nice turnaround nevertheless.

The battle for prom queen is far from an original storyline, but it’s one that completely fits into the Glee world. This series is often very good when it allows the teenage characters’ emotions and whims to get the best of them (like in “Silly Love Songs”) because it is actually realistic. Teenagers are emotionally combustive creatures and “little things” like Valentine’s Day or prom become the most important things of all-time without much context. Glee is the perfect series for those kind of stories because the framework of the series requires the characters to be so inherently dramatic to begin with. And so the execution of that story here, with the widening of the field of candidates, was pretty fun.

Quinn’s motivations for wanting to be prom queen have been sprinkled over the last few episodes in mostly mediocre fashion, but Brad Falchuk does some nice work filling in the blanks. Having Quinn be an overweight, acne-faced middle school student that went on an extreme diet, used Proactiv and got a nose job before coming to McKinley is pretty extreme, but it’s also effective in explaining so much of Quinn’s activity over not only this season but the whole series. She’s been Rachel, she’s been worse than that actually, and she will never, ever go back. She’s clearly been denying some of those feelings of self-doubt and the body image problems all high schoolers have, but she’s mostly been covering them up with this prom queen run. Getting that crown will be the apex of her rise from Lucy Caboose to Queen Q and while that’s a completely shallow and typical motivation for a high school girl, she’s a high school girl. She’s been bullied, she’s been pulled down and she doesn’t want that anymore.*

*I’d be interested to go back to the pregnancy arc to see how Quinn reacted while her body changed there. I’m pretty sure the writers didn’t have this planned, but it would be interesting to see nonetheless. 

Lauren’s run at the crown doesn’t really serve much purpose other than to point out the hypocrisy of high school cliques and hierarchies and bring us the Quinn reveal, but it’s still fairly fun to watch her thrown her hat in the ring. I also liked that the episode made sure to have her apologize to Quinn for revealing the past. Sometimes this series forgets scenes like that one, which only stretches the believability that these people are friends or can at least tolerate one another in glee club so well even further. Apologies are important, Glee.

But the most impressive part of this episode is how it somehow manages to pull in two of the season’s most important storylines: Santana’s journey to coming out and Kurt’s tension with Karofsky. We all knew that Kurt would eventually make his way back to McKinley, but I’m surprised at how well the series seemed to pull it off — and with a fairly complex story. Santana’s lesbian awakening was one of the most impressive developments of the season and I’ve liked how the series hasn’t let her lose the bitch edge, but instead emphasize it more as some sort of coping mechanism for her conflicting emotions. And there’s really no better way to cover up the fact that you’re a lesbian than hook up with one of the baddest mofos on the football team and subsequently win prom queen. This is a completely believable motivation for Santana and I loved the complexity of her plan to call Karofsky on his closeted lifestyle and subsequently pitch him a smart cover-up. This allows Santana to look simultaneously heartfelt (in that she helps get Kurt back to school and in ND) and totally conniving, which is pretty awesome. Naya Rivera has become one of the series’ best assets and I’m very pleased that the season’s primary climax will directly involve her.

But of course, Glee could have set us up for a massively manipulative situation wherein we know about Santana and Karofsky’s plan, but Kurt and the rest of the club does not. That could have led to more bullying and perhaps something worse. Thankfully though, this episode lets the characters be smarter than that. Kurt rightfully snuffs out the sketchiness behind Karofsky’s newfound sympathy and penance and the whole plan is actually unraveled within moments. And yet while Kurt gets his moment of lecturing to Karofsky, I like that the series is actually making Karofsky earn his more complex persona. I thought that he was mishandled earlier in the season, but this episode does a nice job of making him both sympathetic and awful at the same time. He might be part of the anti-bully task force because it helps cover up the fact that he’s a closeted gay man, but it’s a nice step in between “horrible bully” and “full-on queen,” which is the subtly I assumed the series would be working with at the end of this story.

Now, the race between Quinn and Santana actually means something, as the relationships and meanings for the characters a bit more complex than I think we all expected them to be. This storyline doesn’t necessarily tie into the “Born This Way” montra of the episode, mostly because Santana refuses to admit her situation, but it means good things for the rest of the season as a whole. For the first time in a long time, it feels like Glee has some momentum and that it’s actually leading to something. It could totally stumble on the landing or not even get there, but it’s nice to feel confident in the series’ ability to craft a story for once.

Other thoughts:

  • Rachel’s nose job story was mostly harmless, and thus, pointless. I loved the “I Feel Pretty/Unpretty” performance, so I guess if that’s what story we had to endure to see it, I’m cool with it.
  • As most reviews are probably noting, the tee-shirt gag was wholly confusing. So many of the shirts were either dumb, not really emotionally centered or just flat-out self-lying (sup, Will?)
  • Speaking of Will, I didn’t hate his interrogation of Emma with the unwashed fruit as many people did. He’s a terrible human being, but it made sense to throw a little bit of reality at her, if only for a second. I’d rather him do more complicated things like that than be the full-on savior that I assumed the season was setting up last week. It wasn’t great, but he’s most certainly done worse things.
  • Similarly, I do really like that the series is actually committing to telling an Emma story. Jayma Mays is awesome and it’s nice to be reminded of that without the terrible relationship between Emma and Will weighing her down.
  • Once again, no Sue. It’s clearly more than a trend that she’s missing in all the season’s best episodes, which is so unfortunate. Jane Lynch is awesome and I still like the character, but this is the reality of Glee now.

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