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Glee: “Choke”

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Stop me if I’ve used this metaphor before—and I think I have—but the problem with Glee is a problem of big and small, especially when it comes to stakes. The show is fond of juxtaposition, of smashing stories up next to each other and seeing what parallels seep out. Sometimes, that works. Other times, it doesn’t. But every once in a great while, we get an episode like this, an episode so wrong-headed that it becomes amazing just how thoroughly the show’s producers don’t understand basic tenets of TV drama. You can have a straightforward, dramatic story with huge emotional stakes. You can have a comedic story with small stakes. You just can’t equate them. Indiana Jones can outrun the boulder. The Millennium Falcon can outrun the explosion of the Death Star. Indiana Jones can’t outrun the explosion of the Death Star. (I really like this metaphor; sue me.)


There is good stuff in tonight’s episode, more good stuff than my grade would suggest. Indeed, if you could somehow surgically remove the Coach Beiste plotline and stick it into an episode where it had been properly built to and properly dealt with, this would be one of the stronger episodes of the season. Rachel’s devastating choke at her NYADA audition was a moment the show’s been building toward all season, and it absolutely nailed her hopelessness when she realized that her lifelong dream of moving to New York and becoming an actress was gone, just like that. (It’s inevitable that Rachel will still move to New York and will struggle along without attending school, but it’s easy to see why she’s devastated for now.) Puck’s realization that he won’t graduate if he doesn’t pass a test wasn’t bad—though it didn’t have nearly the stakes of Rachel’s storyline—and I liked the various male cast members gathering to try to help him pass, at least until they started teaching him classics of the musical theater. Remove the Beiste stuff, and this is a B episode, maybe even a B+.

But the Beiste stuff is just abysmal, roughly the equivalent of the incredibly awful Santana storyline in “I Kissed A Girl” from earlier this season. “But, Todd!” you might say. “Even if it was F-quality stuff—and I could see why you’d argue that—it took up so little of the episode!” And, honestly, that’s my point. Back when Karofsky tried to commit suicide in “On My Way,” I argued that the show brought it up too abruptly (by only bringing Karofsky back in the episode immediately prior to “On My Way”) and that it too quickly abandoned the suicide storyline in favor of the latest bit about the kids going to regionals and triumphing (while singing Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” which… ugh) and something about teenage marriage and texting while driving.


Compared to “Choke’s” handling of domestic abuse, however, “On My Way” is Marcel Proust quality stuff.

Coach Beiste has been gone for several episodes now, and since she’s one of my favorite characters, I always enjoy when she pops up. I’d just figured that she had to sit much of the back half of the season out because of budgetary concerns or what-have-you, but then there she is, popping up in the early going of this episode with a big black eye. Some of the girls make a snide joke about if Cooter could ever possibly abuse her, Sue overhears it, and we’re dropped into the middle of an uncomfortable after-school special that perches halfway between an actual attempt to teach teenagers that domestic abuse is not cool and if you’re in a relationship with someone who abuses you, you should run and, well, the show’s usual attempts to satirize an after-school special. Here, those satirical attempts are best exemplified by the way that the girls break into two verses of “Cell-block Tango” from Chicago and Sue and Roz telling them that they totally missed the point of the week’s arbitrary glee club assignment, which was to sing a song that might give women the strength to leave abusive husbands or boyfriends.

The number is also intercut with the night when Cooter hit Beiste in a drunken rage.

We don’t actually see him hit her. All we see is her cutting up a chicken—the better to lace in the “ran into my knife 10 times!” lyric from the number because this show is awful—and then we see him yelling at her for no good reason. (It turns out he’s mad she didn’t do the dishes like she said she would.) It’s a powerful moment because there’s no way it can’t be powerful. Here’s a strong woman—in every sense of the word—being laid low by a man she loves and trusts, a guy we previously thought was just sort of a well-meaning dork who loved bigger women. It feels devastating, and it’s meant to feel devastating. Sue and Roz go to find Beiste and ask why she walked out of the performance, and Beiste admits the truth about where she got her black eye. The two tell her she needs to leave Cooter.


Then Beiste disappears for well over half the episode, and we spend more time watching Puck learn about European geography by singing a punk-ish cover of “The Rain In Spain Falls Mainly On The Plain.”

This wants to be an episode about failure. Rachel chokes in her audition. Puck fails the test and will have to repeat his senior year, instead of getting his pool cleaning business off the ground. Beiste leaves her abusive husband, then takes him back at the end after he asks her for a second chance. One of these things is so the fuck not like the other. I can sort of see a version of the episode that figures out a way to tie the Rachel and Beiste storylines together, with Rachel’s story serving as the lower-stakes high school drama to Beiste’s high-stakes emotional trauma. Rachel, after all, has been working toward this audition all season long, and when she seizes up, the show portrays it with all the right dramatic beats. There’s just no way to include the Puck storyline in there, however, and the abrupt shifts into “wacky” comedy are all the more jarring because of the other two stories. The Rachel story occupies a weird middle ground between the two, where it could conceivably share an episode with either of them but not with both. The episode ends up addressing domestic abuse with less emotional depth than an NBC “The More You Know” 15-second spot.


Even worse is that this just comes out of nowhere. Granted, that’s one of the messages the story is trying to impart, I guess: Just because you think you know someone doesn’t mean that he can’t flip with rage at the wrong moment. And once he does, you’re better safe than sorry, because people who flip out once are likely to flip out again. The problem is that Glee has bought into the myth of its own importance so thoroughly that it thinks raising an issue, then explaining what you should do in that situation, then going off to have Puck draw awesome rocker demons on his history final, is an adequate way to discuss serious topics. The show’s been doing this since the second season, but it’s grown even more pronounced this season. The series sees itself as a force for good in the world—and, yeah, if this episode helps one woman get out of an abusive relationship, that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t make the show good art or even good crappy television. It makes it painfully, woefully obvious art and crappy television.

Last week, I mentioned that Glee increasingly uses the emotions raised by songs to “coast” off of those emotions, by making us associate the show itself with our positive memories of the songs. That’s not the best way to construct television, but it can work. Increasingly, though, the show doesn’t know how to do anything but coast off of unearned emotional reactions. We like Beiste. We don’t want to see pain come to her. The show wants to say something about domestic abuse. Enter a really strained, deeply flawed depiction of a serious issue. There’s a version of this episode that was just about the three adult women or just about those women and the teenage girls they want to make sure are prepared for a life where not every boyfriend will be Prince Charming. There’s a version of this episode that figures out a way to intercut Beiste’s disappointment and shame in herself with Rachel’s disappointment and shame and doesn’t make the whole thing feel like goofy farce. And there’s a version that creates honest dramatic moments, instead of forcing them on the characters and doesn’t have Sue immediately make fun of Beiste for moving in with her sister, just because that sister’s name is Denise. The show thinks it’s a sweet, satirical comedy, but it also thinks it’s the most important TV series to ever have aired. There’s not a lot of room to move between those two poles, and the more the show attempts to, the more its tone problems arise.


So, no. I can’t run a straight average based on how much of the other material was solid (and the Rachel stuff was really strong). When you have material that attempts to do as much as the Beiste stuff does, you can’t just abandon it for over half your running time. And when you’re going to do something as daring as have one of the show’s strongest characters take back her abuser, it has to play as more than a sick twist at the episode’s end. There was the potential for a powerful episode of television here—or at least an episode with an after-school special vibe that earnestly attempted to address the issue it raised. Instead, we got the ultimate in small being overwhelmed by big. You can’t just unlock Pandora’s Box and pretend it’s all good. You have to be prepared to deal with what you unleash.

Stray observations:

  • Just tell us how the songs were, VanDerWerff, God!: I always like when the show does an episode with more show tunes, and I liked both of Kurt’s numbers quite a bit, particularly how Chris Colfer played the ridiculousness of “Music Of The Night.” (Bonus points to Jenna Ushkowitz for playing the most listless Christine Daaé ever.) And for as much as I’ve shit all over the Beiste storyline, “Shake It Out” was probably the best number of the night (since it borrowed the song’s much stronger acoustic arrangement). That said, “Cell-block” was just the worst. Not a one of those women sounded appropriately sultry; they all sounded like cartoon characters.
  • Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: I was going to pick Rachel for not getting wrapped up in that whole mess of a storyline, but I think I’ll pick Quinn instead for missing the episode entirely.
  • If you’re just going to watch one thing from this episode, go check out “Shake It Out” (it leads off the last act) and watch the totally distracting weird guitar player in the background. See how he draws focus with his terrifying smiles as the girls serenade a domestic abuse victim!
  • I would have given this episode an A if Kurt had just turned to the band when he switched up his number and said, “Just follow me on the changes.”
  • After all of the hype about her appearing, Whoopi Goldberg was a total non-entity. I have to assume she’ll appear again when Rachel magically gets another audition or something.
  • I think I watched the entire “Rain In Spain” number with an expression of slack-jawed horror. And My Fair Lady is one of my favorite musicals!
  • Also: Was that the most nonthreatening rendition of “School’s Out” ever? I think it was, and that’s not for lack of serious competition.