Hey, remember the time Glee had an episode about domestic violence and called it “Choke”? We’ll get to that in a second.
First, let’s talk about what might have been. The episode opened with old-school a cappella backup music, a Rachel Berry voice-over, and a Rachel Berry elliptical workout (the first one we’ve seen since “Vitamin D” in season one, I think — a nice throwback). And had this been a season one episode of Glee, Kurt and Rachel’s audition dilemma would’ve been the week’s assignment: play it safe, or push yourself? They would have debated and rehearsed and auditioned and Kurt would have done well and Rachel would have done poorly and that would have been the entire episode and it would’ve been totally fine. But that’s not what Glee does anymore.
Kurt’s audition was the hour’s one sliver of joy. (I’m aware of how melodramatic that sounds, but I’ve just watched the episode twice in a row and my world has gone pretty dark). Watching him rip off those tearaway tux pants, take off the mask, and launch into “Not the Boy Next Door” felt like a culmination for his character, even if the gold lamé pants were a bit, uh, much. And while I’m as unfond of Rachel Berry as they come, the instant loss of everything she’d been working for just because she made the wrong call about whether to take a risk was incredibly compelling. As well as she played it, a major problem was that Rachel’s “rejection” (I put ten bucks on Lindsay Lohan talking Carmen Tibideaux into giving Rachel another chance during the nationals episode) as it played out to Kelly Clarkson’s “Cry” was presented as every bit as devastating as Coach Bieste’s abuse. If Ryan Murphy’s setting up some sort of complicated allegory about things that FEEL like life and death versus things that ARE life and death, he’s going to have to get a hell of a lot more explicit.
When Santana sees Coach Bieste’s black eye and (jokingly) asks Coach Bieste if Cooter put the smackdown on her, it took a second for it to even register as something she shouldn’t say. As ever, the policy on Glee is that it’s okay to make fun of something until the writers tell you that you shouldn’t anymore. Plus, roughly 40 seconds earlier, Puck propositioned his geography teacher by pointing out how wet rivers can be (later he tries again, but she’s impervious to his illegal fireworks from Tennessee, too), so the bar for what is or isn’t appropriate is already scraping the ground. But Coach Roz is immediately incensed and hatches a plan with Sue to teach Santana, Mercedes, Tina, Sugar, and Brittany a lesson. Musically. Of course. Having a direct conversation about feelings and issues is prohibited by Ohio state law.
The girls are tasked with choosing and performing a song about abused women becoming empowered (for the record, I’d love to see a list of songs that Roz and Sue would have approved of), and, because they are teenage girls and it’s fun to sing and dance in lingerie, they choose “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago. It’s intercut with flashbacks of Bieste and Cooter, him sitting angrily, her anxiously cutting a chicken, her crying, him throwing things and yelling. Coach Bieste leaves the auditorium in tears, and when Sue and Roz come after her, she explains: She hadn’t done the dishes like Cooter asked, he came home drunk and angry, she tried to calm him down, he hit her, and then he immediately started apologizing. Immediately after she finishes, Roz says, “You’re as big as a house. Why didn’t you just kick his ass?” Oh, good, straight into the victim blame, then. All in all, it’s a cavalcade of stereotypes, and it’s hard to watch.
Sue and Roz and Bieste do have an interesting chemistry together and that’s great, except the entire series has been building up Sue as an untrustworthy character (are we truly supposed to be buying into the idea that her gestating fetus is somehow absorbing all the negative aspects of her personality?) and Roz Washington is essentially NeNe Leakes playing herself, and NeNe’s primary career focus seems to be generating content for really, really great animated GIFs, so it’s hard to take much of what she says seriously, even in character. (Very depressing follow-up question: Was Coach Roz’s “Watch what happens next” a shout out to Andy Cohen?)
And just to make things darker? Puck’s deadbeat dad shows up and asks him for money. When Puck goes to the choir room to tell the guys about it, a strand of his Mohawk is stuck to his forehead and it looks like a cut and I’m momentarily afraid that Puck’s dad has hit him in a terrible doubling-down of the abuse story line. Turns out his father hasn’t, but he does need help to graduate (admittedly important), and so the boys help him study by singing “The Rain in Spain” (he fails anyway). The boys look like they’re having a great time, but juxtaposing a domestic violence story line with the kids playing instruments in the choir room trivializes the abuse. And while we’re at it: Should there be boxing in this episode? Because there’s boxing. And I am normally a Blaine boxing apologist, but no.
In the end, the girls sing “Shake It Out” to Coach Bieste, and she goes back to Cooter.
I don’t want to tell TV shows like Glee (hell, I don’t want to tell anyone) that they can’t or shouldn’t talk about domestic violence. It’s important to talk about stigmatized and silenced issues. But it’s equally important to talk about them in a way that’s nuanced, respectful, sensitive, and real. If you can’t figure out how to do that, then stick to being an hour of television about singing teenagers.
When you have the platform that Glee has — millions of viewers in prime time and millions more online, to say nothing of the hashtags and the sheer Tumblr re-blog potential — you have the opportunity to bring about change, to expose people to material that shifts the way they see the world. Glee’s managed to do this in the past, not just in the halcyon days of my beloved season one, but in recent episodes like “The First Time.” But that’s not what Glee chose to do last night. Instead, Glee reminded America that sometimes women on TV shows have husbands who hit them for not doing the dishes. What a damn waste.