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Glee: "Prom Queen"

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Glee

"Prom Queen"

Season 2, Episode 20

The last act of “Prom Queen” did most of the things Glee does when I like it best. The road there was filled with bumps (and a “Friday” cover that went on way, way, way too long, though it was more fun than I expected it to be), but the last 10 minutes offered up some genuine emotion, a sense of brief triumph through music, and a sense of all of the characters—even the extras—being united via a sense of community. Glee has always been at its best for me when it’s suggested that the club is the ultimate escape for the characters, the best possible way for them to forget about their problems or the shitty circumstances of their lives. In season two, the show has really only paid lip service to those ideas. (Even if it says the characters are all unpopular, a good number of them are leading the pack in the race for prom king and queen, so that unpopularity has to be overstated.) That’s made it a centerless show, defined entirely by whatever the fuck the writers want it to be about from week to week.

But in the last handful of episodes, the show has haltingly returned to the core of what made it not just entertaining but weirdly moving in the first place. Season two increasingly seems to be about self-definition, about the idea that you should be free to be whomever you want, so long as that doesn’t infringe on others. That’s not a bad idea for a teen show, but the series has only sporadically applied that idea to the characters. Too often, the show has made self-definition almost entirely about sexuality, and when the writers try to talk about how, say, Quinn remade herself into the image of the popular, pretty girl she always wanted to be, it doesn’t feel as deeply felt as the tales of Kurt, Karofsky, Santana, and the increasingly robust GLBT contingent at McKinley High.

Let’s get the primary criticism of all of this out of the way: Kurt has been almost entirely made into a saint this season, with any rough edges he had back in season one sanded off, all the better for the show to heap shit on him and have us see how he remains smiling and powerful. Honestly, of all the characters to MAKE a saint, Kurt’s probably the only one you can make a vague defense for in this regard. He’s apparently a hero to gay teenagers, who can look to his struggles and see that they can be more like him and get through their trials with their heads held high. As someone who was bullied back in the day, any work of art that can make that experience less stressful for someone going through it is worthwhile in at least one regard.

But at the same time, I’m not sure this is as dramatically satisfying as it could be. Kurt exists now almost entirely for the show to present object lessons about how gay kids should hold their heads high and those who might bully them shouldn’t. Again, this is a message that needs to be out there in pop culture, so I find it hard to hold this against the show, but at times, it feels like one of those embarrassingly clunky ’60s social message movies, where everything existed solely to show people just how noble African-American people could be and the characters had to be either perfect saints or people who could be disabused of their harmful and terrible notions. Again, there’s a use to these sorts of things. (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? was a formative movie for my mother and her contemporaries back in the day, and it changed the way they thought about the civil rights movement.) But it’s also hard to see it as satisfying drama. It’s a bunch of paper dolls designed to score political points.

Which is why the characters I’m most interested in at this point are Karofsky and Santana. They’re both people trying to do the right thing, but they’re also both people who are defeated by their own weakest impulses. Both lack the courage necessary to come out. Santana is a bitch. Karofsky is trying to make amends for the things he did that drove Kurt from the halls of McKinley. They’re both hemmed in by the decisions they’ve made and their inability to be true to themselves, but at the same time, you don’t get the sense that if Santana came out and was happily in love with Brittany, she’d just stop being a bitch. She’s a lesbian, AND she’s a bitch, and that makes her a more interesting character to me than Kurt, who’s almost exclusively defined by his long list of trials nowadays, rather than what his character does. 

Before we return to the stuff I liked at the end, though, let’s quickly dispense with a bunch of stuff that just didn’t work. Jesse St. James has apparently been roaming Lima, Ohio, just waiting for someone to break into “Rolling In The Deep” so he could join them, and his abrupt return to the show (something I honestly had no idea was coming, and I’m pretty spoiled on this show). His return to romance Rachel, as well as Finn’s strange attempts to break it off between Rachel and Jesse at the dance, was very awkwardly constructed. Glee has a genuinely massive universe of characters, but it often seems to have no clue how to use all of them or reintroduce any of them, and Jesse’s a particularly blatant example of him, particularly since he returns, disappears for half the episode, then comes back to talk about how he’s going to become some sort of ultra-mega-dance coach for glee clubs (what?) since he flunked out of college. Though I’m pretty much alone in enjoying this arrangement of “Rolling In The Deep,” the Jesse storyline was a miss.

Similarly, the last 10 minutes—the stuff I liked—was marred by the fact that Quinn continues to have a magical, disappearing character arc. Where the show did a fairly good job of building her into a character with nuance last season (despite also turning HER into a saint for a while), it’s mostly gone back on that development this season entirely. Dianna Agron’s one of my favorite performers on the show, so it always saddens me to have the show continue to send her back to the generic bitchy cheerleader well, and her conversation with Rachel after she was rejected as prom queen (which she blamed on Rachel for some reason, instead of her asshole classmates) felt like a diminishing returns version of the scene from “Original Song” where the two talked about their futures.

And, look, I could probably nitpick a bunch of other stuff in this episode if I wanted to. The Puck and Artie storyline (outside of the scene where Artie tried to make it up to Brittany) was fairly painful, and Sue Sylvester is a character who’s badly in need of an overhaul or her own show that airs on a cable channel I don’t watch or something like a character arc. And what’s more, the fact that Figgins went ahead with naming Kurt as the prom queen when it was CLEARLY an act of people who, at best, wanted to prank him and, at worst, were homophobic bigots strikes me as incredibly bizarre. (Me? I would have just handed it to one of the extras and been done with it.) Figgins is kind of a dolt, but we haven’t really seen him to be actively malicious before. I get that the characters on this show are just action figures the writers can smash together and call it conflict, but this was one of those things I just didn’t buy at all, the show forcing a character to behave out of character to get to a scene it really wanted to get to. (It might have been better to have Figgins say it was someone else, then have some random character behind the prank swipe the piece of paper from him and shout it to the school. Just spitballing here.)

But as a friend just mentioned on Twitter, we don’t watch Glee anymore for what it was or what it could have been. We watch it for the glimmers, for the moments when it seems to tap into those sorts of high school insecurities or heightened emotions that the best high school dramas and the best musicals are able to get to. And those last 10 minutes—outside of that Rachel and Quinn scene—are as good as the show’s been this season, setting up what’s hopefully the ultimate pinnacle of people being shitty to Kurt (how are they going to top this without the bullies developing supernatural powers?), then resolving it in a way that both allowed Kurt to have a moment of triumph, no matter how muted, AND allowed the other characters to support him. The show works best when it’s about how these people are able to make each other better, able to provide a safe space to work through issues and trauma in. (It’s one of the reasons I first started comparing it to Community, which does all of this much, much, much, much, much, much better.) 

And though “Dancing Queen” might not have been the… deftest of musical choices for the end (though I assume it was what Mercedes and Santana had prepared in the event of whomever won—though how would Santana have performed if she had… fuck it, just fuck it), the scene where Kurt dances with Blaine is very sweet, and it gradually grows to encompass all of the other characters, even some of the recurring players and even some of the recurring EXTRAS. That sense of community, of high school as a place where people can either tear you down or give you the best prom night of your life, ran rampant through season one but has mostly been absent in season two. But as the dialogue cut out and the music took over and the characters just had a good time, captured in a series of snapshots, Glee somehow found a way to show off the best AND worst of high school and worked past its own storytelling issues to capture raw emotion. If the entirety of this show were like the last 10 minutes of this episode, it just might be the best show on TV. And even if the rest of it is a mess, it’s still the only show that can do something that simultaneously silly and transcendent. It was the highlight of the season.

Stray observations:

  • Karofsky needs to come out. I get that everybody should do it in their own time in real life, but lord almighty, there are no more dramatic beats to wring out of that storyline UNTIL he comes out. (This is less true for Santana, who at least gets to hatch a bitchy scheme every other episode or so.)
  • Though there was too much Sue in this episode, Will was all but absent. Honestly, if you just made a show about these two tormenting each other and sent it off to one of the many, many NewsCorp subsidiaries, everybody that enjoys that version of the show could watch it, and I’d bet the parent show would get 10 times better.
  • Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: It feels weird to talk about girls—no matter how close to me in age they ACTUALLY are—in prom dresses being attractive, but let’s award most attractive in show to Dianna Agron for being very good looking in aquamarine-ish. (Naya Rivera was pretty great, too, but I think we’ve praised her enough in this segment.)
  • Songs I didn’t talk about above: “Isn’t She Lovely” was a lot of fun. Whatever Blaine sang at prom was weird. More on Rachel singing “Jar Of Hearts” in a bit (and apparently trying to make Finn feel guilty for HER cheating on HIM? My inner 14-year-old girl is ANGRY!).
  • When Will says Nationals are in three weeks, I’m sort of half-convinced he’s the only one who knows about this or even believes that nationals exist. Actually, I think it would be kind of amazing if this show turned out to be Will’s fever dreams, designed to get him through being married to a shrewish harpy and hating his job (as he was in the pilot). When he rants about going to nationals and everybody seems surprised that they’re SO SOON, I like to think they’re just indulging their favorite man who’s just had a schizophrenic break.
  • Also, let’s talk about “Friday.” I’m sure most of the complaints will center on this, but I found it kind of fun (even if it very much continues to signify that this show is primarily interested in doing what’s “hip” and “now” and is constantly defeated by the lengths of TV production time). Sure, it went on too long, but we got to see Heather Morris dancing crazy, and that’s always a good thing.
  • OK, “Jar Of Hearts” time: This seemed like a really strange song to have at a prom, but at my senior prom, my friend, Craig, and I were adamant that the DJ play “Brick” by Ben Folds Five for everyone to walk down the aisle to because we liked that song so much. (I’m also dating myself here, obviously.) And on a scale of “horrifying prom songs,” “Jar Of Hearts” is quite a few steps below “Brick,” even if a bunch of STUPID GIRLS in our class stopped “Brick” from happening. (SAVAGE GARDEN WAS NOT BETTER, ANGELA. Sorry. Had to get that off my chest.)
  • "So there's $400 right there for you!"
  • "She'll be mesmerized... hypnotized by my love dance!"
  • "I don't know why or even what a recession is, but it's my understanding that we're in one."
  • "Just because I hate everybody doesn't mean they have to hate me, too."
  • "Do I smell like a golf course?"