There's so much to say about the network television history Glee and Sheldon Beiste made last night, but you know what I didn't need in an hour of groundbreaking television like that? Twenty full minutes about Will Schuester and his feelings. To be fair, I didn't have a stopwatch out, so it's possible that Mr. Schue's story simply felt like the most time-consuming, but even so, it seems kind of tone deaf to juxtapose Sheldon's transition with Will's. Sheldon goes through the most profound change of his life; Will bravely leaves his fancy football tickets and hefty salary behind to return to McKinley. He also raps. Again.
But even though he didn't have a corner on screen time, this episode belonged to Sheldon (and to Unique, and to the choir of hundreds of IRL trans people). I'm definitely looking forward to reading transgender critics' and viewers' thoughts about the episode, but I'm personally pleased with (and a little proud of) the way Glee carried this story off. It succeeds because it's simple and small. A bit too simple, really — the only people who harass Sheldon are the members of Vocal Adrenaline, Glee's current designated Bad Guys. Everyone else is over-the-top supportive, including Sue, demonstrating once again the extent to which she cares both deeply and meanly. Even Sam has come prepared with "guy talk" topics he and Sheldon should start with and a list of potential pronouns for him to choose from.
Is gender transitioning far thornier than that? Of course. But focusing on what the episode could realistically communicate in the few minutes dedicated to it worked well: It was hard, it was scary, Sheldon did it because he needed to finally "make the outside match how he felt on the inside" (he repeats this more than once), and people love him for who he is. And there's profound freedom and joy in being able to finally, fully be that person. The song Unique and the transgender choir perform, then, is perfectly chosen, because it's a song that's equal parts hope and struggle — it's one of those Glee moments that conveys what words or explanations simply couldn't. It's an imperfect piece of television history, but it's a pretty lovely one, too.
None of this would work with an actor less skilled than Dot-Marie Jones. Glee's thrown a lot of curve balls Coach Beiste's way in four seasons, from an abusive partner to a crush on Will Schuester to a really bewildering stint as a very affluent Santa Claus. What's kept Sheldon from slipping all the way into caricature the way some other Glee characters have is the way Jones made him unfailingly kind and quietly weird. Jones has been nuanced and intentional about playing Coach Beiste since day one, and that absolutely pays off here. Well done. And while we're passing out compliments: What a talent Unique's Alex Newell turned out to be. Newell was a contestant on the first season of The Glee Project (which I maintain was and is better than Glee itself) and struggled both to keep his ego in check — a pretty big task for any 18-year-old on a television program — and hit his stride as a performer. Watching Ryan Murphy and Glee's casting director Robert Ulrich help him get there was incredibly rewarding, but not as rewarding as seeing him gorgeously captain that massive choir. (It's worth pointing out that I'm trying very, very hard to keep these last six recaps from devolving into the equivalent of the drunk girl at the high-school-graduation party staggering up to people and telling her how much she loves them, but I make no guarantees.)
Meanwhile, Rachel's childhood home has finally sold — despite her valiant attempts to hide as a shower ghost and scare off potential buyers — and she's not handling it particularly well. To help her cope, Sam and Kurt hijack the theme of the week and make it "transitions," which is a shame, because I was really looking forward to an all-Ohio artist episode of Glee. Is it too late to squeeze that in before the finale? One of the newbies asks why the lesson of the week has nothing to do with them, but Kitty quickly shushes that concern away.
Sam also announces that they'll be throwing a last-hurrah party at Rachel's house and someone drags in an incredibly elaborate wheel of musical fortune, which they spin to choose duet partners. Mercedes picks Roderick, and once someone's clued her in on which one he actually is, they put together a nice little rendition of "All About That Bass." Of all the newbies, Roderick is the one I most would have liked to have around for a full season. He's like a more trained, bluesier Puck.
Kurt rigs the wheel to score himself a duet with Blaine, who asks him not to tell Karofsky they'll be singing together. Kurt walks him out of the party after their fun performance of "Somebody Loves You," which is the exact kind of number I wish Glee had done more of. It's the sort of performance that real-life show-choir kids put on in their basements all the time, complete with silly costumes and sugar-high spastic dancing. In the driveway, Blaine kisses Kurt, then runs off. Later, Blaine breaks up with Karofsky, whose response is (paraphrased) that he doesn't want to be with someone who doesn't love him and that he'll find someone else, and it's all right. Remember how I've spent years asking Glee to show us that Dave Karofsky will be okay? I think they just did, and I'll take it.
Sam and Rachel finally and sweetly connect at the party, sitting in front of the wall in Rachel's childhood bedroom covered in photos from the glory days of the New Directions. They kiss, and Sam helps her make peace with the idea of packing up the wall. (Curiously, there are no pictures or mentions of Finn, which I can't quite get my head around.) As they sing "Time After Time" and pack the photos away in a scrapbook, the pictures come to life, a little montage of moments from the series — Rachel and Blaine as Tony and Maria, the Funny Girl marquee, the kids at school dances. It's the first time we're seeing a Glee set permanently deconstructed like this, and it's all very "This Used to Be My Playground." Awkward question, though: Is Sam still hypnotized? (Incidentally, one of the things I'll miss most about Glee is how frequently it gives me the opportunity to write sentences I never thought I'd write.) I love when Glee hits on these stories that are a balance of sweet and sad and that its core audience can connect to, especially when they're made even better by the inclusion of power ballads.
Next week, Brittany and Santana get married and, according to the promo, another couple does, too? So long as it's not Mr. Schue and Emma renewing their vows, I'm down for anything.