Two weeks ago, Glee served up a fun-fest of musical numbers, but this week it’s all about Big Life Lessons — never has the stark black-on-white Glee logo looked so menacing! Somehow we didn’t sink under the weight — finally, the characters dealt with believable problems (a school’s reluctance to pay for handicap accessibility; the concrete problems that come with teen pregnancy; having a crush on someone who won’t take a chance on you), and the plot actually moved forward. Quinn finally tells Finn to grow up or get out; Kurt and his dad learn the perils of being different in a small town; Rachel realizes talent isn’t enough if no one likes her; and even Sue gobsmacks us with a huge surprise in the humanity department. Now it’s our turn to judge the glee club’s self-proclaimed “diva-off.”
Billy Idol (With Generation X), “Dancing With Myself”
Artie takes center stage for much of this episode; his wheelchair means the glee club has to get a handicapped van they can’t afford for the trip to sectionals, and the kids are all too happy to let him ride along with his dad instead. In a moment of secret longing, Artie wheels off to the auditorium alone and gets his own, seemingly non-imaginary number, a low-key, jazzy version of the pop hit. While we secretly hoped this would turn into a fantasy sequence with tap-dancing girls and Artie in a top hat, we enjoyed the wistful feel — after all, so much of Glee is about how, in insecure personal moments, we all want to break out into song at some point. Cue Schue, always ready to teach Peace, Love, and Understanding in the most awkward way possible. After seeing Artie singing alone, he mandates wheelchairs for everyone in the glee club, plus a bake sale to raise money for the HandiCapable Van (Santana’s excellent reaction: “Bake sales are kind of bourgie”).
Stephen Schwartz, “Defying Gravity”
(You can hear Lea Michele and Chris Colfer’s full solo versions here.)
Let’s get one thing out of the way: This episode belonged to Chris Colfer. Sure, he amused us with a new batch of Kurt-isms: operating a wheelchair with panache (legs crossed at all times!), wearing a spider-adorned McQueen sweater, delivering the line-of-all-lines “I’m full of ennui” with appropriate pathos, standing in balletic third position while singing this solo. But he also broke our hearts with that face of ice, listening to his dad explain how he could only stand up for his son to a point. Idina Menzel’s showstopper from Wicked is the rare ultraliteral song choice that works: a declaration of independence that also conveys a sense of loss, just what Kurt has experienced by coming out in a close-minded Ohio town. Rachel sounds great — this song is written for her range and style — but we’re blown away by Kurt’s rendition (we beg to differ with his dad: He sounds even MORE like a woman than Ronnie Spector). “I love you more than I love being a star,” Kurt stoically tells his dad later — words Rachel could learn from, for sure.
John Fogerty, “Proud Mary”
Something about this bluesy, slightly down-tempo version of a usually funky song is right for the end of the episode. It's a believable ensemble arrangement and cute attempt at wheelchair choreography, the first major solo for Jenna Ushkowitz, and it has a little uplift thanks to the bake-sale victory (or more precisely, Puck’s pot cupcakes). But all’s not well with the glee club. After a sweet wheelchair date (Artie: “I want to be very clear. I still have the use of my penis”), Tina confesses to Artie that her stutter is fake, a device she came up with in elementary school to distance herself from peers — but he’s not exactly sympathetic, and he wheels off in a huff. Puck makes a little progress with Quinn, coming as close to pouring his heart out as he ever has, and it seems like she’s buying it — until Finn shows up with an ill-gotten job (fake handicap + Rachel threatening the local car dealership with the wrath of her two gay dads doesn’t spell anything good for the future). Best of all, Sue puts Will in his place AND sums up the episode’s themes wonderfully when she lets a girl with Down syndrome onto the Cheerios (“You’re asking me to treat her differently because she has a disability, when actually it seems like she just wants to be treated like everybody else. You don’t know the first thing about me”). The glee clubbers all put on endearingly brave faces at the end of “Proud Mary,” but some stark realities are now on the table. Will Quinn ever get past Finn’s all-American-boy façade and tell him the truth about the baby? How long will Puck stick it out? Will annoying Mrs. Schue return? And will the glee club actually recycle all these songs they’re supposedly preparing for sectionals? (We assume not, but these performances seem to always appear fully formed ... we’d like to see the rehearsal process sometime.) The mysteries of Glee continue next week!
Over at Speakeasy, Raymund Flandez makes an astute observation: Puck gives Quinn plenty of attention (something an ex-cheerleader might be craving more the longer she's off the squad?); Finn only does so when she yells at him. Also: the ramps in the wheelchair number look like the Wu Tang logo!
At the A.V. Club, Todd VanDerWerff abandons his “Glee is essentially a sad show” theory in favor of the idea that it’s about performance — the face the kids show versus how they really feel about themselves.
At EW.com, Dan Snierson gives an ultra-thorough quote-by-quote analysis; we’re pleased to see he also noticed Finn’s look of other confusion when Mr. Schue promised Mercedes “something else to dip in chocolate.”