Have I told you lately how much I love Mercedes? The character gets saddled with a lot of nonsense, but this is Glee. The only way past is to find the comedy and barrel through, in a word, to Sam. But Glee has never been shy about acknowledging the healing powers of Amber Riley’s voice. Mercedes and Sam were a thing for a minute, but all anyone remembers is that show-stopping performance of “I Will Always Love You” that I even mentally wrote Sam out of and remembered as a tribute to Whitney, which it was, but only as an accident of timing. Now that Mercedes is back, it’s clear the show’s been missing her.
“Bash” gets started on New York for real. Monday pot-luck dinner is a tradition in full swing. We’re past getting jobs and coordinating living arrangements (well, except for Artie, who shows up in “Bash” strictly to round out group scenes, and not even all of those given the final inspirational huddle). What’s more, we’re out of the high school cushion. There isn’t always next year anymore, and there are consequences to actions. Mercedes gets the story with the emptiest gravitas, but when she’s singing, who cares how clunky the machinery is?
And it is clunky, every little plot point grinding and sputtering. First of all, Sam’s in love with Mercedes again. I’d be sympathetic to him not being able to help his crush if it were convincing. Instead it’s sitcom plotting. Pair up all the characters, and then pair them up again, and then once more until Glee collapses in on itself in the final season. Producer logic. On the bright side, Mercedes does seem to relax Sam to a certain degree. Chord Overstreet’s performance tends toward energy and emphasis. When he’s walking with Mercedes along the East River in sight of the Brooklyn Bridge—and what a difference that grand location shooting makes—he’s a lot smoother. From there Sam embarrasses himself in front of Mercedes’ backup singers/black friends, Shanice and Tesla, by being awkward in a way that is itself very awkward, except for that magical reenactment of Matthew McConaughey’s Wolf Of Wall Street chant. That is, Chord Overstreet is trying his damnedest to make Sam be awkward, and Mercedes’ friends and trying their hardest to show that they think he’s a doofus, but mostly it’s the scene itself that isn’t working. That’s what’s making me awkward.
Really this is all a way into the issue of interracial dating, which still gets dirty looks and judgments from small minds of every race. There’s an interesting kernel here about record sales, how Mercedes might be limiting her audience by openly dating a white boy. I don’t know if that’s true, and frankly I’m skeptical, but everyone plays it straight, so I go with it. It’s more support than many Glee stories have. After all this ridiculous turmoil (Mercedes needs to figure out who she is, she has to take it slow, she can’t be distracted by boys when she could find herself in a diva-off at any moment), Mercedes takes Sam back. The episode is all about facing the music, so to speak, with characters bravely taking responsibility for their actions and enduring whatever real-world consequences get thrown at them. Mercedes is on both sides of that, as she’s the one delivering the real-world consequences of Sam’s rejection, but at the end, she’s the one who decides to stand up for what she wants. It’s awkward—so mission accomplished, I guess—but whatever it takes to get her singing.
“Bash” doesn’t make me swoon for Mercedes and Sam the way past Glee episodes have for past Glee couples, but writer Ian Brennan and director Bradley Buecker hit the high notes. I wish I had a vine of my bored expression immediately snapping into a grin when Sam and Mercedes, sharing a couch and watching The Facts Of Life, go from ostensibly setting up later scenes of Sam winning Mercedes back to making out all of a sudden, set to the Lima marching band drums. Then that silly—bad-silly, in this case, unbelievable and simultaneously over- (Sam) and underacted (Mercedes)—bit about throwing stuff in the river is followed by a knockout number in an episode full of knockout numbers. In this one, Mercedes takes on Aretha with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in front of a carousel. When she turns around on the title lyrics, suddenly it’s night and the carousel’s all lit up, an unbroken shot pushing in as she belts the chorus, and at the end, it’s back to overcast day, and Mercedes walks off into the neutral block, the horses slowing to a halt as they pass. Mercedes even gets an original song, inexplicably spelled, “Colour Blind,” and it holds its own with the rest. The reason: Amber Riley is such an expressive performer. The looks on her face say everything. Why do they ever give her lines? Just let Mercedes sing her way through Glee.
While Mercedes refuses to buckle to outside pressure including the Glee producers’ demands for a theme episode, everyone else is performing a Stephen Sondheim tribute as planned. Blaine and Rachel make such a magnetic pair singing “Broadway Baby” in fancy dress, shot with overheads, a close-up piano swipe, and wide shots all over the room, that you totally forget that they’re not in the same level at NYADA. (But seriously, why aren’t Blaine and Rachel paired up more often? Is it because of that time Blaine thought he was bi? Because I thought we all agreed that was a very moving look at the dangers of alcohol.) Unfortunately for Rachel, her Broadway schedule conflicts with her mid-winter critique. And even though Carmen is being very lenient by not smiling once during “Broadway Baby” even though she loved it and by threatening to flunk Rachel before grudgingly giving her a make-up (because the assignment was a solo, not a duet), Rachel can’t juggle both anymore, and she chooses Funny Girl in the moment. I’m not sure, because Carmen hasn’t led a late-night, robes-and-fire excommunication ceremony yet, but it looks like Rachel is set on quitting NYADA even though Kurt reminds her that Broadway is fickle. Carmen does, too. She thinks Rachel has no foundation and doesn’t take direction, which is first of all true and second of all spells doom for her Broadway career before it even begins. But Rachel’s in the real world now with real consequences, and I’m excited to see if that actually means anything or if this is still Glee.
The other three songs, the title, and the very special advertising revolve around the Kurt plot. After warning Rachel that maybe she should think about her decision before quitting, she gets all Rachel—which, I hasten to add, is hilarious—and tells him he’s afraid of risk and storms out of dinner. Dramatic Rachel is my opium. The way she faux meekly mentions her tech rehearsals after “Broadway Baby” and then smiles at her adoring audience is one of the highlights of “Bash.” So it’s her bitchy dare that’s swimming around in Kurt’s head when he leaves the restaurant alone, spots a gay man being beaten up in an alley, and runs to help him. When I saw the promos, I was terrified. I have this recurring panic attack every time I think that Glee might decide to address rape, and gay-bashing felt like a step in that direction. But outside of Chris Colfer’s saintly performance, itself a product of this vital, ambivalent exploration of what to do about the rise of hate crimes in New York City, I’m once again impressed by Glee’s restraint. “Bash” engages the topic, it feels sorry for victims, it roars back, it considers alternatives. And with Colfer’s maudlin quiet balanced by Burt’s worried-angry argument and that jarring montage of people getting bad news over the phone, the episode stays buoyant.
“Bash” is book-ended with Sondheim songs repurposed into gay anthems. It opens with the New York gang walking down the street holding candles for a victim of gay-bashing singing, “No One Is Alone,” the camera slow and respectful. It closes with a bruised and beaten Kurt commanding that mid-winter critique stage with “I’m Still Here.” And while Kurt’s in the hospital, Blaine holds his hand—another loaded Glee image—and sings “Not While I’m Around.” As with Mercedes’ heartfelt performances, as with Rachel’s careless perfection, the musical numbers encapsulate Kurt’s story: support, concern, and resilience. I got all worried for nothing.
- According to Sam, The Facts Of Life is a sitcom about a woman who runs a boarding school for lesbians, but it gets shut down, so she opens a marijuana dispensary called Edna’s Edibles.
- Turns out, Sam usually needs Blaine to read Star Wars fan fiction to him to fall asleep, introduced by way of an X-Wing transition. (“Bash” has some serious style.) Sam doesn’t like this story, though. “Whoever wrote this fan fiction really sucks.” “Actually, George Lucas wrote this one.”
- Mercedes blames her playing footsie with Sam on restless leg syndrome. I laughed.
- I’m amazed how much Rachel looks like the old Rachel now. In season four she was really going for a dramatic reinvention, but now she’s settling somewhere in between.
- Sam: “It’s really hard to be a straight white male these days.” Blaine: “We should probably change the subject.”
- Sam is really upset that the latest Ewok fan fiction is too canonical. “How is that fan fiction? Of course they’re polygamists.”
- I love the conversation between Burt and Kurt about intervention. Kurt says, “I’ve been fighting these guys for a really long time.”
- The others are curious about Sam and Mercedes. “Your relationship has always been kinda weird.” Sam: “Okay, that’s racist.”