For the most predictable episode since New Directions won Nationals, “The Break-Up” is still a whopper. It’s an episode about a coming train told from the perspective of the people tied to the tracks. Blaine cheated on Kurt, Rachel cheated on Finn, paternalism abounds, and even Emma gets trampled on. This season hasn’t been about singing competitions or diversity or even yearning so much as it’s been about the difficulties of long-distance relationships. Glee may not be a narrative trailblazer, unless you count its whimsical approach to long-term continuity, but it does have a knack for telling the usual stories with raw, teenage emotion. The proof is in the “The Break-Up.”
There’s just enough fun in the early going to distract, but even those highs have dark clouds. Blaine only visits New York after he poked some guy on Facebook, and the welcome sight of Santana and Brittany in the same room is quickly shadowed by some vague foreboding courtesy of Brittany’s yawn and Santana’s suspicious glance. A yawn, people!
Still, for a moment, “The Break-Up” feels like the old Glee, and that’s not an accident. The episode is about the romances reaching a crossroads, but it’s also about the show breaking ties with what it was. Hence the flashbacks. Seeing all the old regulars together and reminding the audience they’ve all been in the same relationships for two years now is a comfortable sight, a familiar one, and one the audience has seen through some of Glee’s best moments. But life isn’t so static. Glee is changing. As Santana says, it’s the mature thing to do. “This is not an official break-up.” That hardly cushions the finale-like tone, and it doesn’t help that Glee doesn’t come back for five weeks. “This sounds a lot like a break-up to me,” Brittany says. Me, too.
“The Break-Up” wouldn’t be half so intense without director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose camera is almost invasive. He gets so close to Blaine’s face during his exposed-nerve reprise of “Teenage Dream” that I had to look away. Just before, when Finn contemptuously convinces Rachel and Brody to sing “Give Your Heart A Break,” the camera turns this social gathering at a New York City bar into the most isolating event in history. The camera is fine with Rachel and Brody being together (although at one point, from Finn’s perspective, the camera positions a column in Brody’s way), but even the shots of the boys in the audience can only focus on one at a time, the camera skipping its way across this anxious panorama. Split-screen looks heinous when it forms the beast with four heads (in bed, no less), but when it transitions into individual vertical portraits of characters who are right next to each other, the effect is powerful. That’s to say nothing of the distracted energy of Kurt and Blaine’s phone call. For his final trick, Gomez-Rejon does everything he can do to emphasize distance short of playing Dave Matthews. When Finn watches Rachel in acting class, the rack-zoom pushes him further away without anyone moving. Get it? More often, characters are on extreme sides of the frame, whether Santana and Brittany have a single chair between them or Finn and Rachel have a whole stage. When Brittany comes to see Santana in the choir room, there's an enormous pan from a close-up of Brittany to a close-up of Santana. The effect is simple but powerful. Everyone’s alone.
Which brings us to the finale. After Rachel confesses she kissed Brody, Finn leaves without saying goodbye, and she eventually flies back to Lima and finds him on the stage where he proposed, where they first kissed, where they first met. Finn says, “I just needed time to think,” and Rachel immediately responds, “You had four months! I hated you for what you did to me at that train station.” Their last fight is breathless, because Ryan Murphy’s script takes both characters seriously. Rachel argues that she’s a grown woman who can make decisions for herself. Finn, well, Finn doesn’t have an argument so much as credible self-pity. "I barely even graduated high school!" He feels like a loser, the high school quarterback and glee club captain who can’t even make it through Army training. Rachel eventually says, “We’re done.” Taking the long view, they're all going to be fine. But “The Break-Up” is perpetually stuck in the moment. It’s an episode of duets, practically every scene pared down to just two characters, but nobody seems to be on the same page until the final number.
Cue Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” Glee may have a way with emotional shortcuts, but this showstopper is an earned climax five hours (and several years) in the making. The build adds characters one-by-one, everyone dressed in black and singing solo in accordance with the big theme. The effect isn’t supportive. It doesn’t feel like Santana and Brittany are backing each other up so much as facing the inevitable truth: They can’t go back. None of them can, except Emma and Will who are either there for moral support or to show the kids what marrying your high school sweetheart looks like. Flashbacks show the moments the characters profess to have fallen in love: Blaine pulling Kurt through Dalton, Santana and Brittany in the back row of glee, Rachel and Finn’s first kiss. Snapshots of electric moments. Kurt and Blaine are the big question marks. I hoped we would get a sense through this musical number of their relationships status. I’m afraid we may have.
Part of what hurts about the break-up number is the banality. This is just another example of how real life isn’t the dream the kids thought it would be. They’re not the first couples to discover that it’s hard to be in a relationship from different cities. But there’s another layer of that banality: Brody’s Hollister smile, and some unseen Facebook friend, and Sam Evans. And I love Sam. It’s just so… obvious. But that’s Glee for you. Obvious and overwhelming and off the air for five weeks. At least it goes out big.
- “The Break-Up” is almost a rejoinder to every last one of my little quibbles. I wanted more business; here are five relationships at once. I poked fun at Glee’s long-term memory (while, again, not really caring about continuity “problems”); here’s an episode with a very long memory. I should probably start complaining about the lack of shirtlessness.
- In other news, Marley’s good influence gets Jake to break up with Kitty, incurring her wrath. Now Jake and Marley are free to play Danny and Sandy. Maybe Tina should reopen the Troubletones.
- Speaking of whom, glam Tina is The New New Rachel, saying things like, “Tina wants to do Pacific Overtures, Miss Saigon, or Flower Drum Song.”
- The only break from the intensity of the episode is, unfortunately, the Left Behind Club. Not only is it a long way to walk for the very simple, very effective pain Brittany feels for being left behind, but it makes no sense. Everyone with a speaking part except for Kitty agrees that the fake rapture is a mean prank (debatable, but still), yet they all play along anyway?
- Naya Rivera doesn’t quite have the way with Glee’s insult-paragraphs that Jane Lynch does, but I love when the show acknowledges its special approach to narrative: “I mean, I’m not jealous, I just think that it’s insane that all Porcelain had to do to get an internship with Vogue.com was take photos of every ridiculous outfit he’s ever paired with a Cossack hat and a see-through raincoat and then show up at an interview where he is lauded as a visionary because his jodhpurs happened to match his riding crop.” Even better, he's actually worn those things.
- Vogue.com is a hectic workplace. They have to get The Column on The Website by midnight!
- Blaine has really good sad-face, as seen in “Barely Breathing.” Relatedly, one area in which Brody trumps Finn is that he can sing without looking pained.
- “Don’t Speak” has a great lead-in. The couples are walking through the park alone, and the camera hops from duet to duet whenever it can’t take it anymore. But then the song starts, spiraling into awkward blocking, the aforementioned cheesy split-screen, and the year’s auto-tune budget.
- Finn visiting McKinley gets so much right. The seniors are excited; the underclassmen don't care. But I wouldn't have minded him going to Burt instead of Will.
- Rachel’s such a showboat. She tries to take over every song, and in the middle of her big fight, she talks about how successful she’s going to be. It’s good to see the old Rachel again. But also really annoying.
- I should also say that I've been describing Rachel's fling with Brody as cheating on Finn, when it's not so clear-cut. That train-station scene followed by four months of radio silence feels pretty permanent to her.
- Do y’all think “The Scientist” is too sappy? Next to something like “Fix You,” I feel like it strikes a nice balance between facing tough truths without wallowing.
- One last thing I loved about “The Scientist”: So nice to hear Brittany’s voice. Emma’s too. The rest of them have had solos out the wazoo. All the more powerful to hear Brittany singing alone.