Back in 2008, just after Fox green-lit the Glee pilot, Ryan Murphy gave an interview describing the purpose of the show. “There's so much on the air right now about people with guns, or sci-fi, or lawyers running around. This is a different genre, there's nothing like it on the air at the networks and cable. Everything's so dark in the world right now … [Glee is] pure escapism.”
Things have changed, I guess.
The episode is already being talked about as Glee’s “school shooting” episode, which is a tiny overstatement. In a fit of panic about whether she’ll be prepared for real life after graduation, Becky brings a gun to school with her, and it goes off in Sue’s office. No one’s hurt, but there’s a lockdown during which the New Directions kids are cloistered in the choir room with no idea what’s happened. (Also, there are two feline guest stars!)
I’m not saying Glee isn’t allowed to try to tackle Big Issues, but real talk? It's not very good at it, in the same way that, say, the cast of Breaking Bad probably wouldn’t be very good at performing Ke$ha covers. There are certainly ways for teen-centric shows to address violence in schools in a way that furthers the discussion. My So-Called Life introduced the idea that guns could turn up even at schools nice, middle-class families sent their children to. Degrassi: The Next Generation did a school shooting arc that went on for years, devoting time and consideration to the causes, the event itself, and the aftermath. But all this episode of Glee did was attempt to re-create the deeply horrifying experience of hiding from a gunman in a building where you’re supposed to feel safe.
Some might chalk that up to “raising awareness,” but where I’m standing, it seems almost impossible to be unaware of gun violence in schools by now. What’s more, it seems far more respectful to point to real stories with real consequences as a means of generating awareness, rather than making up a story where everything turns out just fine in the end.
All of that said, the ten minutes between the shots being fired and the all-clear signal were pretty damn compelling. There are some bigger moments — primarily a physical struggle between Sam, Schue, and Coach Beiste when Sam tries to go to look for Brittany — but the smaller touches build the tension. A pot boils over in the cafeteria as Marley’s mom cries in the corner. A shower continues to run in the abandoned locker room. A metronome ticks in the center of the choir room floor. Brittany crouches on top of a toilet to hide her feet and sobs. Artie somberly films the kids’ good-bye messages. Tina loses it outside of the school because she’s not trapped in the choir room with everyone else.
It’s visceral and immediate and completely unscored but also, THIS SHOW IS CALLED GLEE, SO IT’S MAYBE ALL A BIT MUCH. I don’t want my caps lock rage to belie how strong some of the performances are here, especially from some of the newer kids — it’s the acting and not the writing that keeps the episode away from complete melodrama. And there’s no departure (not even a commercial break) from the gravity and terror of the situation. No one cracks a joke or bursts into song, which is impressive given Glee’s track record.
But the depths of the emotional manipulation are unforgivable, even putting aside the fact that the ten gut-wrenching minutes are followed by literally everything being fine/never mind, guys. Sam gets wrestled to the ground for trying to leave to save Brittany, but then Mr. Schue (for unknown reasons) goes to save her later anyway! Confrontation and rescue! The manipulation is so ingrained in the episode that the cynical part of me wants to believe that the preshow disclaimer about violent content was less a genuine warning and more a way of building suspense at the outset — after all, there wasn’t a similar warning before Karofsky’s equally graphic suicide attempt last season. (Also, not for nothing, but if you’re really trying to be realistic, don’t have everyone decide that the threat has passed and burst into group hugging as soon as some random, disembodied voice yells “All clear!”)
Sue takes the fall for Becky, claiming in an impassioned speech to Figgins that the gun was hers and she’d been keeping it in her desk for years. It’s a great scene between the two, both of whom have to spend a lot of time regulated to punch line status, but while it’s really trying to be some sort of higher examination of guns and culture today (I legitimately would not have been surprised by a “guns — can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” joke here), it’s exhaustingly heavy-handed. It’s also really not okay that Glee chose to make the sole character with Down syndrome the shooter (even if she didn’t have nefarious intentions), but it doesn’t come as any sort of shock, either. I’m not sure whether this whole debacle means Jane Lynch is out (or on her way out) for good, but honestly, I hope she is. She’s so much better than what Glee has given her in the past couple of seasons.
The other issue is that the shooting and its aftermath comprise less than twenty minutes of the episode, and the rest is basically nonsense. Much of it is devoted to Ryder’s catfishing; depressingly, the show is actually calling it that now. When a girl identical to his “Katie” turns up at McKinley and realizes she’s not who he thinks she is, she excitedly says, “You’re being catfished! It happened to Mani Te’o!” It’s almost appallingly lazy, and it’s really bizarre that this plotline has been dragged out for as long as it has. Ryder tried to call “Katie” during the lockdown and a phone rang in the choir room; I’m pretty sure that means she’s either Tina or Unique.
Meanwhile, Coach Beiste asks Will on a date after professing her love. I don’t know why, either.
For the second time in seven episodes, Brittany is convinced the world is about to come to an end, and she’s desperate to make amends with Lord Tubbington before it does. They’ve been fighting because Lord Tubbington is in the KKKK (which is the KKK, but for cats) and not even a candlelit rendition of “More Than Words” can bring them back together. The entire thing somehow gets resolved when Sam gives Brittany a new cat, Lady Tubbington, who’s on the fatter side so that she won’t have a negative impact on Lord Tubbington’s self-esteem. His mention of the cat in his “if I don’t make it out of the choir room” iPhone video isn’t enough to save the episode or anything, but it did make me laugh. “Mom. Dad. I love you guys. And there’s a cat in my backpack in my locker. Please feed her for me.”
The episode ends exactly how you’d think — with everyone singing John Mayer songs and talking about their feelings. (Truth be told, that’s what I did in high school without any shootings.) But, God, Glee, if you wanted a story line that ultimately boils down to kids crying to each other about love, regrets, and living for today, there are far slicker plot devices than a school shooting. Hint: wine coolers! It seems at least a few minutes of what’s left of this season will have to address the fact that the shooting actually occurred, especially if there’s some exoneration for Sue in the works, so Glee can’t totally ignore that this happened going forward, as it usually does with its Very Special Story Lines. That said, if anyone invokes this whole mess as the reason why the New Directions have to give it their all at Regionals, I will lose it.