Despite Glee airing an episode on the holiday itself, it’s Thanksgiving in Limaland a week late. I would complain until the cows come home about this newfangled tradition of time-shifted holiday episodes, but I ate leftover turkey for lunch and my family celebrated on Friday like absolute sloths, so I’m still in the holiday spirit. The more pressing concern is that “Thanksgiving” is so front-loaded. Everything about the sectionals veterans returning home played me like Auto-Tune, right from the moment I saw Quinn’s face. She may be a ridiculous chameleon, but most of that sticks to the writers. Maybe I’m too fond of her sudden break—let me finish—into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” way back in the first 13, but I still have affection for Quinn, the season-four straggler.
Then again, maybe it’s just distance. Time apart is what makes the returning champions’ reunion so magical. They haven’t had to put up with Santana’s insults and Finn’s face and Mike’s fierce commitment to being seen and not heard all semester. Naturally they’re all excited to see one another, and so am I, and so is the director, Bradley Buecker. The opening number, a minimally produced (at the start, anyway) mash-up of “Homeward Bound” and “Home,” is shot in slow, worshipful pans spinning around the McKinley legends like an awestruck underclassman.
But if this season has anything new to say, it’s that you can’t go home again. The more time everyone spends together, the clearer their existing internal tensions become. Mostly that just means Quinn slides right back into her role as queen bee, mentoring acolyte Kitty, intervening in Jake and Marley’s budding romance, and laying some pretty rancid baggage at Puck’s feet. Or maybe Mr. Puckerman’s feet, now that I think about it. The point is Quinn calls Jake a liar and a womanizer after knowing him for negative five seconds on account of rumors and Puck’s priors, and then she preys on Jake’s fears about losing sectionals. The kids are stressed enough as it is. Marley’s so out of it that her entire introduction is a parade of blurry shots that gradually drift back to reality, and Ryder is having trouble nailing “Gangnam Style” even after, in true Glee fashion, he effortlessly dominates the dance floor to get the part in the first place. And Quinn is too full of herself and her straight As and her “secret Nazi sorority” to notice that Kitty is pulling her strings. (For her part, Kitty again suggests that her relationship to her glee-mates isn’t just about sabotage or revenge, but maybe that’s the plausible deniability talking.)
This all builds to a slap showdown between Quinn and Santana, who is the only person to enter the Marley subplot with her brain working, but that’s it. Whatever weight this episode has comes from the ways the graduates respond to returning home (or not), and the biggest conflict is in this scene. Quinn thinks everyone is jealous of her, Santana accuses her of being a dress-up doll, Q says Santana isn’t following her dreams in Kentucky. They slap, Santana quips, and it’s over. The slap is a pointy bookend to that opening-number wave they share, but the punchline dulls it. All the graduates do afterward is skip their family Thanksgivings and show up to support the New Directions at sectionals. Five expatriates return to mentor the current glee club, but the story comes down to Quinn and Santana, and it’s over right when it starts.
I’m probably judging based on half the evidence, considering “Thanksgiving” ends with a cliffhanger. But that seems like the bigger problem, that, thanks to history and performance and direction, I’m infinitely more invested in how the old Directions are getting along than I am in an eating disorder that was introduced stupidly and is now meant to be taken seriously. And two whole numbers for Hunter Clarington And The Wonderful Warblers? Even if they were entertaining, there’d still be no dramatic purpose to six minutes of ciphers performing a Microsoft-Surface-ad version of Jersey Boys. Maybe it’s that sectionals has become such a freebie that I don’t feel threatened by the competition (although my favorite was easily the Mennonite mash-up), and it’s certainly true that singing for trophies is less compelling than singing for expression, but Sectionals 2012 is a bit of a snoozer.
That said, the cliffhanger sure is evocative. At the end of a “Gangnam Style” rendition that can’t even be bothered to highlight the showcase dance that’s been fueling the episode, suddenly Buecker cuts to Marley’s perspective. There’s a wall of confetti, Brittany’s dancing in fast-forward, the sound is muted, Marley’s head is swimming like she’s storming Normandy for Spielberg. And then Marley passes out to the applause of the audience like a lower-stakes Cedric Diggory. The discord gives me goosebumps; the narrative is less effective, though its layering is surprisingly graceful. Hopefully she’ll finally get the help she needs. But if that subplot is basically over, it’s more of a wasted opportunity than casting Amber Riley all these weeks.
So let’s go out on a high note: Sarah Jessica Parker bursts into Rachel and Kurt’s apartment to lead a holiday performance of “Let’s Have A Kiki,” and Rachel cutely (but mostly jealously) turns it into a clumsy mash-up with “Turkey Lurkey Time.” While the returning graduates eat up the positive attention of their replacements, Rachel and Kurt try and pretty much fail to make the best of a Thanksgiving alone in the city. Brody comes over to cook, and he’s finally on the board after asking Rachel if he could bring Cassandra. Took eight episodes, but dude might have a personality after all. Still, the mood is more contemplative than celebratory until Shangela and the rest of Isabelle’s Thanksgiving orphans show up. Then we finally get a hold of Isabelle. One second she’s exiting the subway in the pouring rain and the next she’s showing Kurt how you make an entrance, namely by teleportation. It makes no sense and is lots of fun. Naturally, singing energizes Kurt and Rachel, who finally feel the way they keep telling themselves they do. Everyone else is reliving the old traditions, and Kurt and Rachel are making new ones.
This season contains a strong undercurrent about the graduates following their hearts. Quinn isn’t the first person to question Santana’s Kentuckyhood. Rachel wants Quinn to visit her in New York. Kurt is still planning on NYADA, and he has a tearful conversation with Blaine that almost includes “I wish I knew how to quit you.” It’s as if the writers are already planning on getting the old graduates (and possibly the 2013 graduates) together more permanently next year, possibly for a spin-off. Needless to say, my curiosity is piqued. The split focus this season is fascinating, but it’s hard to get worked up about sectionals when there are bigger turkeys to butter.
- Finn tells his class to show some respect to their predecessors. “Any single one of these guys could be president of the United States someday.” Artie: “I don’t know about that.”
- Quinn gets to perform a Supremes number with Brittany and Santana in the hunky-dory section of the episode, but she definitely oversold their synchronicity. Best part: She nods to the band to start the music. She came prepared.
- Glee is typically good at showing how different people react to performances. Kitty is in the presence of goddesses, Unique is just enjoying the show, and Marley is feeling the pressure to live up to them. Or, as Santana puts it, “You look like you’re gonna hurl.” Wink.
- Puck advises Jake: “‘Bros before hoes’ was always my mantra in high school. Well, it was after I knocked up my best friend’s girlfriend. Speak of the devil I knocked up.”
- Isabelle’s free because she used to attend Gore Vidal’s Thanksgiving dinners and play Pictionary. Obviously a flashback would entail some questions of taste, but this is Glee, after all. I want to see a Gore Vidal Thanksgiving!
- Well, Les Mis or The Hobbit? It’s a toughie, alright, but not for the reasons Isabelle thinks.
- I am so over Kurt moping about Blaine and saying things like, “Sorry, cheater.” This is like when Kelly Kapowski kissed her douche manager who somehow went un-sued and Zack Morris retaliated like crazy. There is only so much sympathy righteousness can afford. Thankfully Kurt finally calls Blaine and sets up a Christmas chat, and Isabelle hugs him like a good fairy godmother.
- Take it from Sarah Jessica Parker: “Nothing is better than being single in New York City.”
- Rachel and Brody are super-cool now that he gave her the “Don’t be that girl” speech. No two people in the history of Thanksgiving have ever buttered a turkey so nauseatingly. Or as Kurt says, “When you two are done using the turkey as a courtship device, would you put it in the oven?”