We can all breathe now: The Madonna episode was, for the most part, epic. Despite a shaky start (how coincidental that Sue has today decided to pursue her Madonna passion! With a nicely spelled-out journal entry!), ultimately we got actual plot advancement (Sue gains Kurt and Mercedes’s vocal skills; Jesse transfers high schools), long-simmering issues explored (why don’t the secondary characters get more solos? And will Mr. Schue ever have a comeback for Sue’s hair jokes?), and the musical numbers running the gamut from flashy, over-the-top crowd-pleasers to quieter pieces more grounded in the plot.
Here’s a clever premise: Sue, the ultimate put-down queen, relishes keeping a whole bunch of little ladies (and Mr. Schue) under her thumb, but she worships Madonna, the queen of self-empowerment for all women (she’s also responsible for Sue’s “self-conscious tendency to be always desperately looking for someone named Susan.” Har, har). For Sue, this translates into a dictator-esque campaign, involving blasting Madonna’s “delicious hooks,” as Figgins would say, over the intercoms, making her Cheerios date small children (Brittany on her new beau: “He plays soccer with my sister. He’s 7.”), and coaching a hilariously frightening cheerleading routine to “Ray of Light.” Mr. Schue, still determined to turn all of Sue’s evil plots into, well, rays of light and goodness, hopes to use a Madonna assignment to inspire more respect toward the girls. And though this number full-on rocks — those costumes! Those totally spot-on dance moves! And we can actually hear discrete voices from people other than Lea Michele! — we’re more amused by the boys’ reactions: They’re all staring at the ceiling, save Kurt, in his amazing “Galliano Gazette” shirt, who looks like a kid on Christmas morning.
“Open Your Heart/Borderline”
Madonna’s all about honesty, even when it hurts, and we saw several characters attempt to open up this week, namely Rachel, who approaches her female glee-mates with a problem: Jesse wants to “do it” (as we see in total Spring Awakening déjà-vu flashback!). Santana’s laugh-out-loud response (“Yes, you should move to Israel”) and Quinn’s “loser” doodlings (but who’s the loser? Is Quinn perhaps still in the self-loathing stage? Oh, and, note, Ryan Murphy: Isn’t this girl pregnant? Where’d the bump go?) are a fine diversion, and we found this little moment of girl talk touching. Rachel confesses to Finn that she’s still dating Jesse, which prompts Finn’s first “I’m Seriously Upset, Seriously” outburst of the episode (drama from Cory Monteith! Believable? Maybe). A truce is drawn to the tune of two of Madonna’s most catchy songs, which work fairly well together; aside from some awkward transitions, and choreography that mostly involved running in circles, this mash-up summed up Finn and Rachel’s conflicted feelings (I want you! But it doesn’t work right now!) with elements of fantasy (Madonna impersonators all over!), and still stayed grounded in reality (well, they’re still at school, anyway).
Mr. Schue has his revenge — and how sweet it is! While Kurt dreamily contemplates his devotion to Madonna with Mercedes (“I’m going to Kabbalah. Is that too much?”), Sue and Schue face off, but Will’s not gonna take it anymore! We’re incredibly pleased with his comeback to her “margarine” comment: “How’s the Florence Henderson look workin’ out for you? Maybe you should try a new setting on your Flowbee. Oh SNAP!” Sue’s confidence is visibly shaken (kudos to Jane Lynch for showing us the brittle little girl, abandoned by her Nazi-hunter parents, who lurks under the track suits), and it will take a music video meticulously produced by Kurt, Mercedes, and Artie to get her back in the saddle. And while this near-perfect remake is a wowza and all, dare we say that we’d have liked it better without seeing last week’s sneak peek?
“Like a Virgin”
Well, it was bound to happen. At least this triumvirate of singing ladies in lavender (two virgins, one Santana) had a few surprising high points: the ending switcheroo (the whole thing was imagined!); the later, totally believable face-off between Finn and Rachel; and, above all, Naya Rivera at center stage! Girlfriend was consistently, diabolically deadpan, whether laying down some truth for Finn (“It’s exhausting to look at you”), explaining her plan to deflower him (“I meant for me. It’s win-win for me”), or dispensing pillow talk (“After the first twenty times, the feeling of accomplishment starts to sink in”). And though it was hard to tell who was singing when, we have it on good authority (by which we mean a Fox rep) that whenever lips were moving during this number, that person’s voice was coming out — technically there were six solos, and Rivera’s stood out as surprisingly appealing.
This was, in our humble opinion, one of the best numbers on Glee thus far. Kudos to the writers for cramming so many of the best things about the show into one bombastic scene. An eye-popping routine that, yes, a really talented high-school marching band could realistically put together? Yes! Fabulous solos for Mercedes and Kurt? Hurray! A slightly less predictable song choice? Thank goodness! And best of all, a series of silent character reactions perfectly summing up their current personae (Quinn: sweetly impressed; Schue: flabbergasted; Sue: smug; Rachel: on automatic pilot to refuse press quotes).
“What It Feels Like for a Girl”
Though Puck remains pleased with his masculinity (we’ve gotta give it to him for this takedown:“I think we're gonna need a new baritone, 'cause Finn would like to become Finnessa”), the other boys eventually realize that, whether or not they’re completely sincere, making things right with the girls is the best way to move forward as a group. But first, it’s dude sing-along time! This spoken-word-into-acappella take is oddly moving (and even resembles actual rehearsal). After the harmonizing, it’s each man for himself. For Artie, this means telling Tina (spewer of the best feminist rant we’ve heard on TV for awhile) exactly what she wants to hear; for Finn, it means soberly informing Rachel and Jesse he’ll abide their relationship (while not-so-subtly slipping in his feelings for Rachel). And best of all, for Jesse it means arranging clandestine meetings in the library’s Stephen Sondheim biography section with Rachel, assuring her that he will be “fastidiously groomed” when and if they “do it,” and then, when they don’t, coaxing her out of the bathroom with a sweet, “Just come out so we can talk. Or sing about it.”
“Like a Prayer”
Preach, Madonna: "Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone," but (we paraphrase) singing makes us all feel a little better about it all. Might as well be the motto for the kids of New Directions, huh? It’s a classic Glee episode-ender: a life-affirming, big choral number with slightly unrealistic trappings (oh look, a gospel choir!), but enough warm fuzzies (aw, look how everyone has their own little dance at the end! Like Puck’s fist-pumping!) give us a nice feeling to start. But wait, aren’t we forgetting a few things? Jesse’s transferred to McKinley High, motivated only by his love of Rachel — really?! Much as we love the Groff (and his immense stage presence), we’re highly suspicious. Kurt and Mercedes dividing time equally between glee club and the Cheerios sounds like a recipe for disaster. Finn has, in fact, lost his virginity, and he’s none too happy about it. And Emma’s about to seek counseling for her OCD (actually, that’s good). But hey, onwards and upwards to next week, when we at least know there’s lots more Kurt and Mercedes to look forward to!
Todd VanDerWerff at the A.V. Club says, "I need something more than Will saying, 'You girls aren't feeling good about yourselves. Let's sing Madonna songs!' to feel good about the episode," noting (and we agree) that while most of the numbers were great, several did nothing to add to the emotional depth of the narrative.
Thank you, Tim Stack of EW.com, for also noticing that Quinn seems to have lost her baby bump! Also, he reminds us that Jane Lynch looked pretty damn good this episode.