“Feud” is such a perfect little miniature Glee ornament that I would suspect personal pandering if there were any shirtless Sam scenes. Start with this week’s assignment, born like a smoke-demon from Finn and Will making the beast with two solos: another mash-up competition, this one based on “epic musical rivalries” like the one in which Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj glare at each other over the last little water bottle at craft services in between takes on that other Fox show. Will and Finn actually have the limpest dance-off of the episode, which is a shame both because once again the marketing hyped the wrong scene and because the Backstreet Boys have somewhat better rhythm than you’d glean from Finn and company moping around the stage hankering for Burger King. Will and the new kids show off their ’N Sync puppet strings with as much athleticism and energy as possible, but the confines of the gimmick keep Will dangling in place the whole time, which puts the burden of distance on Finn’s young shoulders, and as we’ve established, Finn is not the show’s clutch dancer. A meandering walk-song later, and voila: The boys are over it, right? Nope. Musical expression might not be the good-time smiley-face panacea Glee believes. “Feud” is getting downright autocritical.
Ryder and Unique are also feuding, in the sense that Ryder is an entitled straight white male teenager who hasn’t been rejected enough (thanks a lot, Marley) and can’t bring himself to dignify Unique with a single feminine pronoun. Later Unique reveals, in a washed-out flashback, that she’s been harassed by “the popular girls,” too, which puts Ryder’s bullshit in perspective. Unique goes through this kind of stuff all the time, and now her would-be friend is contributing, and Ryder’s just bent out of shape because he’s being asked to use the right word for something he doesn’t understand? I hesitate to conflate, but this whole thing wraps up with an LGBT PSA anyway: This recalls so many stupid, stubborn issues where someone complains that it’s too taxing to be asked to use the right, inoffensive word, like not using “gay” for a catchall pejorative. It’s not just about being polite. It’s about turning that inescapable, society-wide noise into something that doesn’t tell kids there’s anything wrong with them. Now, I wouldn’t mind a plot where minorityhood is more than victimization, but Unique is Glee’s first close-up on transgendered living, and that “What bathroom do you use” smirk should be called out for the juvenile self-absorption it is with all the sincerity this do-gooder can muster.
For the first time in 17 whole seasons of Glee, the mash-ups are true mash-ups, not “You go, then I’ll go” but two original songs intertwining, overlapping, and joining to create something new. Okay, I’m getting highfalutin about “The Bitch Is Back” making out with “Dress You Up,” but it’s so nice to see Glee stick by its own thinking. By the end of the song, Unique and Ryder are both singing the lyric, “Gonna dress you up in my love,” from performing two songs at opposite ends of a rivalry to harmonizing on a single lyric. Will and Finn swap lyrics, too, which is less hot than it sounds. “Feud” has an honest-to-goodness thematic spine about turning conflict into creation instead of destruction, which is exactly the kind of hippy-dippy stuff the show usually promotes, only here that idealism is challenged. The feuders keep feuding even after the mash-ups. The sing-offs just sap the aggression.
The feuds ultimately resolve in a number of ways. Will just can’t get over that Finn kissed his fiancée, so Finn quits. He even gets a dramatic goodbye scene that asks the question, “Finn had an office?” and gives a taste of what could have been a special relationship in the post-Sectionals period if Finn had spent all that time kissing Emma and insulting Sue mentoring Marley instead. She directs his life in another way, though, telling him to get a teaching degree because he’s a natural leader, every episode of Glee to the contrary. Meanwhile, Ryder does get over himself, and apologizes to the new kids. Kitty joins the fun (“Look, I don’t know if it’s ’cause I’ve been dating Puckerman, which makes it really hard to judge anyone, and I will deny it outside in the real world, but yes, we’re friends”), which finally puts her on solid ground again in the sense that I finally understand where she’s coming from. Even the love triangle reaches this interesting place where Jake forgives Ryder and Marley but wants Marley to stop talking to Ryder and she refuses. They celebrate with a playful, not-quite-episode-ending stage number, which is the new normal, only this time they have something to celebrate: The new kids haven’t been this promising as characters since season three!
There are other feuds, none of which are quite so violent as Sam and his raggedy haircut, but the only other mash-up goes to Blaine and Sue, who locked him into a Cheerios contract from that one day he was a Cheerio and distracted him with a ticker-tape parade of Nicki Minaj theatrics into losing their sing-off and honoring his contract. Another mash-up that doesn’t exactly hash out differences, but Blaine and Sam are secretly working to take Sue down and I have literally never been happier.
Meanwhile Brody is indeed a gigolo, which is a comfort to those of us who were concerned about what exactly our assumed misreading of that payday scene means about us, and by diving headfirst into Brody’s crotch adventures, Glee transforms the stunt into something serious. Brody is so depressed about his sudden night job that he asks a client if she knows he only accepts cash like he’s at the end of Requiem For A Dream, which, whatever else it is, is no way to get a good tip. In other sweeps-related news, Rachel’s pregnancy test was a false alarm, and even the interim period wasn’t given much spotlight. Why the cold feet? The Glee I know would have thrown an abortion musical by now. So that’s the state of mind the lovers are in when they sing “How To Be A Heartbreaker” across town with each other, starting with a passionate, physical escortravaganza in a fancy hotel and winding up a plaintive worry with Rachel staring out her cracked, condensation-covered window.
I can’t say enough about director Bradley Buecker, who brings this script to life with intensity even without the budget for a Moulin Rouge! skyline. It’s an episode full of face-offs, from Will and Finn turning toward each other to Ryder sharing the screen with a pedophile. Buecker even finds new life in the locker shot, darting to see out new lockers as owners play whack-a-mole with the doors. And think of Ryder at the library, all shadowy secrets and graphic communication and dopey staring-at-a-screen smiles. (He had me until he spelled it “perfekt” and now I’m growling in public at the kids walking by.) The gendered color coding is a bit much, but it is so Glee to be all, “Go gay or go home” in one breath and “Teehee, Blaine’s a total bottom” the next. Even a quick glimpse of Rachel defending Brody as another struggling artist trying to make it in the big city flanks her with vanity lights and light-up star.
Buecker’s ending is the creepiest thing since Will became best friends with a high-school student. First we stare down this infinite hotel hallway, with the camera off-center as an inexplicable rushing sound pours out. A figure starts approaching and suddenly jumps forward and back like a skipping tape. It’s Brody, which takes some of the Twin Peaks terror out of it, but holy BOB, was that unsettling. Santana’s inside, but she’s just there so Finn can surprise Brody instead. Finn has never looked sleazier than he does in his black jacket and revenge smile, looming over the sequence. He tells Brody to leave Rachel without even a goodbye, and they physically fight. Finn kind of Batman-yells, “Stay away from my future wife!” which is some kind of deranged even if he does have history with Rachel. If the rest of the episode is any indicator, this is no way to resolve a feud, but you never know with Glee.
Meanwhile, in Lima, Ryder chats with “Katie,” some girl that he’s been talking and sending shirtless pics to. Almost nothing happens, but Buecker milks the scene for all its creepy tension. Ryder types, “So,” the text floating behind his head, “Can we meet?” There’s a webcam-eye-view (not webcam footage but something more surveillance-ish from that same angle, watching Ryder with disarming dispassion). Ryder waits. “. . .” indicates that “Katie” is typing. Forever. A wider shot opens up the space, but only to emphasize paranoia. Ryder looks over his shoulder on one side and sees the librarian through the stacks. He cranes his neck the other way and sees a student in the back corner, the camera scanning horizontally across this relatively enclosed space. We see Ryder’s face reflected on the screen with still no reply. Suddenly: “Katie is now offline” pops up, and a rushing sound ensues. Ryder presses some key repeatedly, like this is his first time chatting, but the credits put him out of his misery. Based on previous cliffhangers, I’m sure Katie is just a nice girl who has one too many freckles or something, but for an episode that promotes facing up to conflict and working out differences, “Feud” absolutely nails the fear on the other side.
- Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, “Feud” is also exceptionally funny. I was chuckling pretty regularly from the moment Will tastes three pumps of mocha in his latte instead of two. Great timing, too, with the quick zooms on Will and Finn punctuated by the title card and a “Carmina Burana” blast.
- Sue also called Tina into her office, presumably because she joined Cheerios when Blaine did (who can remember?), but she doesn’t need her back. “Go find a new boyfriend. Maybe Lance Bass is available.”
- Sue put cement in Blaine’s gel: Funny. Sue flying a sign that reads “Blaine is on the bottom”: Jury’s out on the grounds of “what’s the perceived insult here and why is that insulting?”
- Brody tells Santana, “You think that attitude equals talent,” and she responds that she’s a hardcore friend. It’s such a clear look at her, presenting both sides. “Don’t apply logic to Lopez” only goes so far. I love watching her because she can sing and she’s funny, and music and comedy are pretty big pieces of the Glee pie, but for the unconvinced, Santana hasn’t earned her constantly emanating attitude.
- I love Glee because of lines like this: “We just got off the phone with Brody. Did you confront him at NYADA with a Paula Abdul song?” Note also the depth-exaggerating shot that puts maximum distance between Santana and her roommates.
- I also love Glee because nestled inside the architecture of labyrinthine sentences are spectacular minotaurs like Santana telling her roommates they make her breasts ache with rage.
- Also, Plastic Man is a lot more fitting than Donkey Face, isn’t it?
- Finn tells Marley she can speak freely, and she immediately tells him to grow a pair. “Maybe you should go back to not speaking so freely.”