I watched last night’s Glee with a friend who gave up on the series a couple of seasons back; when we were a few minutes into the episode, she asked, with sincere curiosity, “Do people like Rachel?” It’s a perfectly valid question, considering the fact that she spent most of the episode “cybercutting” and being horrible to her friends in the face of their genuine, generous kindness. Don’t get me wrong — I really liked the episode, but I don’t think I like Rachel much, and I’m a little confused about whether I’m supposed to like her. But we’ll get to that.
I wasn’t expecting an episode about Rachel’s opening night as Fanny Brice to focus on Sue so much, but I’m delighted that it did. I particularly loved her duet of Annie’s “NYC” with Mr. Schue — sure, it was a little bit campy, but it’s maybe the best vocal performance she’s offered, and what’s not to love about a musical number that features both a comically oversize prop hot dog and a magical snow globe that’s a portal to a new city? While I’m a little sad that Chris Parnell wasn’t appearing in character as Leo Spaceman (I need a universe where Dr. Spaceman’s pamphlets and Emma’s intersect as soon as possible), he and Sue had an effortless chemistry in their little love vignette. Glee so rarely takes advantage of Jane Lynch’s ability to make Sue both hard and soft, and so it’s lovely to hear her singing romantic songs and to see her slow dancing. And leading, because obviously.
What’s fascinating about Sue is that even after everything she’s been through, from her Nazi-hunting parents down to her marriage to and divorce from herself, she’s still capable of real vulnerability, and she still truly wants to be loved. Seeing her have that for a second is really moving, and it’s bittersweet to see her hop in a cab back to Ohio, changed but still the same. She still hates the theater — nothing will ever convince her that the Tony Awards are anything other than a “bi-curious minstrel show of self-congratulation.” She still hates Rachel Berry enough to have sex in her bed on her opening night. But she likes New York City now. I hope she’ll come back some day.
Based on the extent to which Rachel full-on lost it, it would seem that the core moral of this episode is, “Never, ever, ever read the comments.” Rachel’s obsession with reading the reviews from Funny Girl’s out-of-town run causes her to come completely unglued. She’s plagued by bad dreams featuring lost teeth, missing Finn necklaces, covers of Cranberries songs, and every person who was ever mean to her in Lima.
It’s odd that Rachel seems to still need so much approval from the people she went to high school with, especially since she spent years insisting to them (and to the audience) that she was way too bright of a star for McKinley to contain. Seeing that her classmates’ disapproval is still her worst nightmare is just as jarring as it was to watch her so desperately try to out-diva Mercedes in the choir room a few weeks back. But there they all are in her nightmare — there’s mean cheerleader Santana, derisive Sue, pervy Jacob Ben Israel, and angry Becky. Regrettably, angry Becky seems to have lost her marimba of rage. But here’s your weekly Dave Karofsky outrage: Oh, great, a chance to reconnect with the worst version of him. Well, hope you’re still alive and everything, present-day Dave!
Kurt’s efforts to create a hermetically sealed bubble of love in the loft ultimately fail, but Santana’s the one who’s finally able to rouse Rachel “out of this bed, ready to fistfight the Taliban,” and in doing so, she informs Rachel that she can’t stand her 90 percent of the time. The thing is, I can’t either. Sure, she was lovely last week as a supportive friend to Mercedes, but more often than not, she’s downright unkind, and it’s chalked up to “Rachel being Rachel” — talented but difficult. We hear from all of the characters — mostly Kurt, since he’s the closest to her — that Rachel’s a little much, but they love her anyway. Episodes like this make it hard to see why. Of course Rachel’s nervous, and of course nerves make people do awful, crazy things, but the trouble is Rachel’s like this when she isn’t nervous, too.
On top of that, the Funny Girl parts weren’t particularly compelling, especially since so much of the episode was dedicated to them. I’m wondering if I found them to be a little slow since I’m not at all familiar with the show (I’ll just wait here for the police to come over and force me to relinquish my Musical-Theater Nerd sash). But I’m pretty sure the majority of Glee’s viewership hasn’t seen the show either, and it’s hard to fully enjoy the excerpts without proper context. I understand why Fanny Brice is the perfect role for Rachel, if for no other reason than how the show has emphasized it as her dream part so consistently, but I wish the show-within-a-show were more familiar or (fine, I’ll say it) fun. Wicked would’ve been great, or Thoroughly Modern Millie, or, if Glee wanted to double-down on the meta, I would’ve loved watching Rachel Berry try to tackle Wendela Bergmann in Spring Awakening. She sings the part well — come on, of course she does — but ballads out of context tend to be a bit of a drag. Rachel’s reviews are great (and so was Sue’s legitimate surprise that they still print the New York Times), but since her operating principles in the past few episodes has been more, bigger, better, I’m wondering if excellent reviews will be enough for Rachel.
The flip side of Rachel’s episode-long tantrum is that it the supporting cast really shines in their efforts to support her. Tina Cohen-Chang returns from Brown as Tina-y as ever, saying all the wrong things to Rachel and finally getting kicked out of the loft, even as she protests, “What if Rachel needs my love and validation from the buffet?!” Oh, Tina. I want so much more for you than the phone number of a gay DJ. Sam manages to get mileage out of a few jovial head-bobs during Rachel’s performance, and Kurt’s epic patience is both hilarious and a tiny bit sad, as is Blaine’s sincere belief that one massage from his magical fingers will surely fix everything. And it’s wonderful to see all of them dancing and cavorting at a gay bar in the Village together — sure, it’s a pretty rosy picture of a city that violently beat down Kurt a few weeks back, and we know now that New York isn’t the magical solution to everyone’s problems, but in that particular moment, it got better. Also, not to sound like the cast’s grandmother, but they all look so grown-up!
Oh, and at some point, Mr. Schue tells Rachel how glad he is that “we” finally made it to Broadway. He quickly tries to correct himself, but the pronoun’s out there, buddy. He also names his child after a Kenny Loggins song and Finn, and I don’t have a single non-mixed feeling about any of that.
Next week, there will be Shirley MacLaine. I ACCEPT.