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Glee: “On My Way”

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Glee

“On My Way”

Season 3, Episode 14

When I was a freshman in college, one of my best friends tried to kill herself. I was the one who found her, found the note, found the empty pill bottles. I was the one who called the ambulance and made enough noise that various people from her hall came to see what was happening. And I was the one who stayed halfway through the night, until I was sure nothing more had happened than she’d had to have one of her favorite shirts cut off of her so the paramedics could administer the stomach pump. She wasn’t successful, thank God, and she was back home a couple of days later. But neither of us really left that night, the way that you plant yourself down in particularly big emotional moments in your memory, so that they represent before and after. I remember sitting outside in the waiting area of the hospital, thumbing endlessly through a National Geographic article about Madagascar. I remember how I gasped for breath when I called my parents to tell them what had happened and the way I rode with one of her other friends to the hospital, trailing the ambulance, whose lights were flashing, soundless, cutting through mist like ghosts. And I remember the way she looked up at me when we got the all clear to go see her, pale and drawn and a little bit pissed off. She wanted to be there, but she didn’t. And here we were, leaving behind before and sliding downhill toward after.

There’s texture to real life. The best art—whether it’s a painting of a bowl of fruit or a TV show about space cowboys—captures that texture and brings it up off the screen and into your life. It takes something that the artist holds deeply true and gives it to you, so you can examine it and see if you agree. I wouldn’t call what I do here art, but maybe in that top paragraph, you recognized something that happened to you or you remembered something you hadn’t thought about in a long time. That’s the way these things work, the way that half-formed shadows in our heads coalesce into something else, until we’re sitting there, watching Glee, seeing Karofsky put on his best suit to hang himself, listening to Blaine sing a song about cough syrup, and remembering a night we keep trying to pin down, even as it seems harder and harder to comprehend.

The sequence in which Karofsky prepared himself for death was, unquestionably, one of the best things Glee has ever done. That it was sandwiched in the middle of an episode that didn’t have any fucking clue how to do something with the impact of that moment is all the more a shame. I hate to keep harping on the alternate universe version of Glee that nails down the scattered tone that bedevils this show, but there’s a version of this episode where the “friend attempting suicide” storyline dovetails with the “seniors perform for the last time at regionals” theme that’s run throughout the season, and that version is just stellar, the culmination of a whole bunch of things the show had been doing up until that point. Instead, we have to be content with something that coasts off emotional resonance it had to buy secondhand, as Karofsky’s problems have been not just an afterthought but never even a thought to begin with. They re-entered the series last week, presumably so the show could have a “powerful” moment in this episode, and that makes the fact that that powerful moment was powerful all the more galling.

And yet I can’t write off what the show accomplished in, roughly, the first 15 minutes of screentime and that scene where Kurt visits his old tormentor in the hospital. Glee has always gone for broke when it comes to teen sexuality, and it’s those plotlines where the show feels the most real, the most like it’s made by people who’ve actually been teenagers and had to deal with stuff like this. (Compare how deeply felt Karofsky’s story arc felt to the accidental outing of Santana earlier in the season, which was treated as a teachable moment for Finn.) Texture can make all the difference in something like this, and as the show got the little details of Karofsky’s desperate act just right, the whole thing took on a weight that the rest of the episode was going to have to work hard to sustain. In particular, that scene where the teachers talked about what had happened and the smash cut to Karofsky’s father screaming at him to get up was heart-wrenching, combining every teacher and every parent’s worst fear for a troubled teenager. This was the Glee I had first loved, the Glee that could blend music and romance and comedy and highly volatile drama into one cocktail. The show just needed to pay off those emotions, to show that it understood you can’t just drop in on something like that and hope it will carry the rest of the episode off without a hitch.

Of course, since this is Glee, the show failed, but at least it failed in an interesting way.

Karofsky’s suicide attempt comes right before the glee club performs at regionals, which means that the episode already has one major structural problem: At least a full act is going to be given over to straight-up singing and dancing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The songs have been the one consistent element of the show this season, give or take a couple of botched numbers, and the show is still the one responsible for the jaw-droppingly good “Bohemian Rhapsody” bit from season one’s finale, a musical number that was both wonderfully performed and capable of moving the story forward. The show has something like the right intentions when it has Sebastian suggest everybody dedicate their performances to Karofsky, even if it beggars belief that his personality would have such a whiplash-y change (even for this show) and that he was personally tormenting Karofsky, despite there being no good reason for the two to have ever heard of each other. (Sebastian is like Lima’s malevolent version of Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) There’s something here, something worth exploring, and the intersection between the kids’ sadness, and the nostalgia they and we feel for their high school years already slipping away, and the basic idea of “inspirational” songs almost got me.

Still, the whole thing ends up feeling hollow. When New Directions hoists that trophy aloft at the end, it’s about the least compelling victory for the group yet. I keep coming back to that idea of texture, of detail, of nuance that makes something feel lived-in and real, and it’s amazing just how lacking the episode is in such a thing after those first 15 minutes. (I’d put the turning point at, roughly, the scene where Kurt walks in to talk with the God Squad.) There’s a wonderful sense here of the characters being at sea, not knowing what to do but having to find a way to move forward. There’s nothing wrong with a show taking a little time so its characters can absorb a shock, and I figured that’s what was going on here. Karofsky’s suicide attempt might have been a little cheap in its implementation, but the show could make the aftermath for our regular characters work.

There are attempts to do this throughout. Matthew Morrison has a nice moment when he underplays the scene where he talks about how Will once contemplated suicide after getting caught cheating on a test (which also feels a little cheap and probably didn’t need the full visual of him looking down from the school roof), as if he can sense that the intent of this scene is nice, even as the actual writing of it is pretty clunky. When the characters talk about the things they still hope to see and do, it’s a really nice moment, and it feels, for once, like they’re actual high school kids and not props in a TV writer playset. There’s a smallness, a realness to the scene that’s kind of beautiful, really. The sadness and grief that seems to overwhelm everyone in this section is palpable, and it really does feel like none of them knows what to do, except for Sebastian, who seems somehow evil, even as he’s abruptly making his turn to good. (Maybe that was his plan all along!)

Then Glee abruptly remembers what show it is and all of the plots it has dangling around out there. Suddenly, Rachel and Finn are talking about getting married immediately after regionals, and the competition is heating up, and Sebastian is dropping the threats he made earlier, and Sue is talking about how her pregnancy is changing her, and Quinn wants to be a Cheerio again (because everyone must graduate in the costume they wore in the season-one press promo photos), and we’re right back into a normal episode of Glee. Again, there’s nothing wrong with letting Karofsky’s actions inform the musical numbers or the characters’ storylines—and I can buy that Finn and Rachel would be that stupid as to think getting married would perk everybody right on up—but the episode’s tone suddenly careened away from somber with occasional levity to typical hacky-tacky Glee. Where the show had a real attempt to play on the history of its characters—how does Santana feel about outing, say?—it skewed, instead, toward picking up its storylines so it could force a cheesy cliffhanger that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Knots Landing onto everything.

The problem was that the first quarter of the episode wanted to take place in our reality—the place of hospital waiting rooms and desperate parents screaming for their children to live and awful epithets spray-painted across lockers—and then the episode slowly and steadily slid into Glee reality. It’s one thing when the show is permanently in its own reality, and bits and pieces of our own reality peek through. That’s what’s always given the show emotional power, and that’s what makes the show as good as it is when it’s not terrible. But when you start in our reality, you need to earn it, and the way you do that doesn’t come through the continuation of a plotline where four parents, among them, can’t bring themselves to have a sitdown with their kids and tell them why getting married at 18 isn’t such a good idea or through Will Schuester reaction shots or through an impromptu wedding apparently held together with duct tape and twine. The episode tried to drop in a really nice little scene where Kurt tells Karofsky that he will be better when he’s out of Lima, but it was too late. The episode had already divided so neatly into thirds—Karofsky tries to kill himself and aftermath, regionals and hullabaloo, the general insanity of everything after—that it got lost in the shuffle. We were already back to Glee reality, and Karofsky was swept away by the show’s relentless tides of weird story development.

It’s one thing to turn your popular show into an attempt to raise awareness for the hell gay teenagers live through when bullied. That’s an admirable goal, and if I quibble with the execution here and there, I’m fine with how it played out, mostly. But it’s another thing entirely to leave behind the gravity of that moment, only so you can shift by the end into a strained PSA about how you should never text and drive that triples as another way for Ryan Murphy to torment Dianna Agron (who deserves better) and a cliffhanger so lame it was lame when they broke it out on every single ’80s primetime soap (up to and including Dynasty II: The Colbys). The muted, sorrowful Glee of the beginning is miles away from the “let’s all put on a show and smile!” Glee of the end, and it’s not just two different episodes. It’s two different realities.

In the end, that just makes the way the episode brings up teen suicide and makes it piercing and real even more unearned and irritating. Look at this review, for instance. I brought up that extremely personal moment in the opening paragraph, and then I didn’t really do anything with it. I just dropped it in there in hopes of explaining my visceral reaction to the first 15 minutes of this episode and in hopes of giving this review some weight and gravitas. But I didn’t really earn it because, well, if I turned an entire television review into a disquisition on the time my friend tried to commit suicide, it would be unfair to you guys and to her. I used it for false weight, and I didn’t pay it off at any point throughout the rest of the review, just like this episode used Karofsky’s own suicide.

My friend turns 31 the week Glee comes back to finish out this season. I’m glad she’ll be around and still in my life, and I’m glad that it’s gotten better for her, as they say. But that doesn’t mean I get to camp out on her experience and use it to provoke an emotional response in you, especially when I’m not going to earn it. She deserves better, and at this point, Glee deserves better that inserting real emotional texture into the middle of facile idiocy, then trying to coast on it. Or, at least, the show’s audience does.

Stray observations:

  • This week’s weird Glee theory: At some point during sophomore year, Will Schuester and Rachel Berry saw a weird, shuffling, tuneless kid who couldn’t really dance named Finn. He was a sweet, simple child, and he had a gift for saying simple things that sounded profound until you thought about them and realized they were bland aphorisms. Will and Rachel decided to give this young man a chance at the stardom he always desired, but their project grew beyond their ability to control it, even as Will tried to shut down what he had dubbed Project Being There. Now, the two were stuck with him, and the resentment ran thick. (Credit goes to my wife, who came up with this one.)
  • God, VanDerWerff, just tell us how the songs were: They were fine.
  • Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: It feels a little silly to do this one this week, but, hey, those black dresses the girls wore in the regionals performance were quite nice.
  • Speaking of which, where on Earth did all of those extra dancers come from? Is this the New Directions “we’re the protagonists” bonus at work again?
  • I’m pretty certain that Jeff Goldblum and Brian Stokes Mitchell are auditioning for their very own USA reboot of Hart To Hart by being on this show. And I would watch that reboot.
  • So Kurt’s looking forward to his dad being in Congress, despite Burt winning what must have been a special election (right?), meaning he would be seated immediately. Does… no one in the Hummel clan know that? Or does Burt have to pack up lots of winter gear, for the long mule journey to the capital?
  • Sigh. The Sue Sylvester scenes tonight were really quite nice. I do like when she is ever-so-briefly a better person, and I’m sad the show is going to hit the reset button on her yet again. Also, I do not give even the slightest amount of a shit about who the father of her child is.
  • Blaine has exactly one singing mode, and that’s needlessly confrontational, though smiling.
  • Ugh. That cliffhanger. I’d wish for Quinn’s death, so Agron can go off and do better things (or at least star in the Lima Tattler spinoff), but I just know she’s going to pull through, so everybody in the club can Really Learn Something yet again. If this is just going to turn into an after-school special for real, I’m probably done.