Glee returned from its holiday break last night with a bang — the bang of a human cannon, that is. Yes, folks, we picked back up with Sue Sylvester/Syvlester fixing to turn Brittany into a reluctant sacrificial lamb, Finn getting in touch with his inner zombie stud, and the show’s writers somehow managing to make your humble gay recapper feel sympathy for homophobic bully Dave Karofsky. (What’s that? It wasn’t just me?) Say what you want about Fox’s musical smash, but don’t accuse it of playing things safe. (Oh, and on that subject, don’t miss my colleague Matt Webb Mitovich’s jaunty preview of Tuesday’s Valentine’s Day extravaganza!)
Before we deep dive into what worked –and what didn’t — let’s do a quick plot synopsis. You know things are rotten in McKinley when the sight of Brittany slapping herself in the face with a chicken cutlet can’t make our villainess happy. Sue was, quite literally, on the warpath, hilariously trashing the office of Principal Figgins’ secretary, bandying about students like they were holiday piñatas, and even roughing up Coach Beiste’s natural habitat after being told she couldn’t shoot Brittany from a rocket without written permission. But don’t blame Sue; after all, she’s taking raccoon hormones for medical purposes, and had to deal with her squad sucking the thrill out of a bicycle-stunts-and-flaming-batons routine to “California Gurls” by donning painfully obvious Katy Perry-esque blue wigs. (Is it just me, or did those things seem played-out even when Perry first started wearing ’em herself?)
There were huge laughs to be mined in Sue trying to get Brittany to risk life and limb to revive the enthusiasm of a “31-year-old legend” of cheerleading coaching, and not just from watching charred bits of mannequin come flying out of that cannon during a trial run. “You don’t climb in that cannon, and that routine will be all ‘boom boom’ and no ‘pow.’ And that, Brittany, is so two-thousand-and-late,” Sue chided her student, who just didn’t want to die, “at least not till One Tree Hill gets canceled.” The line of the night, though, came after Quinn caught Sue hiding in a bathroom stall and asked what she was up to. Sue’s response? “Enjoying the eavesdropping afforded me by the Swiss timepiece regularity and utter silence of my 2 p.m. ninja poops.”
(Side note: I cracked up at the absurd Katie Couric cameo at episode’s end — naming Sue as “Loser of the Year,” in February no less! — beating out “the economy,” Dina Lohan, Brett Favre’s cellphone, and the housing market, among others.)
Meanwhile, tensions boiled over between the members of McKinley’s Glee Club and its Titans football team, especially between the slushie-hurling jocks and the Titans members who did double duty singing for Schue. Watching Artie get completely drenched in ice and red dye No. 7 was a heartbreaker, but lo and behold, the character who really broke my heart this week was Karofsky. I can’t be the only one who got a little choked up in those moments where the big, vicious lout transformed into a joyous teenage boy as he discovered the pleasures of singing, dancing, and applying a little bit of zombie stage makeup. Yeah, Ryan Murphy & Co. are risking treading into clichéd territory by painting the homophobe as nothing more than a frightened gay boy, but that doesn’t negate the all-too-important point being made about the toxicity and self-loathing that result from suppressing your true self, whatever that self may be. (Bonus points for Rachel’s early-in-the-episode insistence that she wouldn’t work with a “known homophobe,” a stance that makes sense for a gal with two dads.)
Of course, Karofsky’s story arc would be a non-starter if it weren’t for the terrific performance of Max Adler; here’s a guy who spent a season and a half doing nothing more than hurling Kurt into lockers and tossing icy beverages into Rachel’s face, and now, with just the slightest glance, is able to bring to life the terror, the joy, and the pain of self-discovery. I loved that moment where we saw Karofsky, keeping to the sidelines for New Directions’ halftime show out of bravado and shame, practically burst at the seams from the surge of excitement he felt once the show had begun. Watching him throw on his jersey not to win the championship game, but to unleash his inner dancing zombie, was the highlight of the episode. Glee is also letting us see just how damaging casual lockerroom insults can be to a kid in Karofsky’s position; he reacted to the hockey team’s casual barb (“Holy crap, they turned Karofsky gay.”) as if it hit him with the force of 1,000 slushies. Yep, there’s exactly why Karofsky’s self-expression is getting stuffed back in the closet.
And then, of course, we’ve got the ongoing Finn-Quinn-Puck-Rachel love rhombus (wait, where does that leave Sam?), or, as it played out in this episode, Everybody Loves Finn. Rachel wants Finn back, but he’s still mad she kissed Puck. Quinn suddenly wants Finn back, even though he surely hasn’t forgotten she had Puck’s baby while they were still together. And Puck wants Finn back as his best bud, even though he can’t seem to help getting romantic with Finn’s girlfriends. (Heck, even Kurt can’t resist plying Finn with warm milk in the hopes of getting a “lady chat.”) I don’t mind the flirty vibe between Finn and Quinn — they share history from a simpler time where they ruled the fickle high-school masses — but I felt like Quinn’s end-of-episode smooch came out of nowhere. Wouldn’t it have made more sense — and felt less like a plot contrivance — if it had built for weeks, or months even? Then again, maybe the writers are simply trying to unpaint Rachel out of the unlikeable corner she’s been trapped in by clearing the way for a dalliance with the always entertaining Mr. Puckerman. Their duet on “Need You Now” certainly had its share of sexual tension, even if Rachel claimed it was merely staged to make Finn jealous.
And now, before I turn things over to you, let’s grade this week’s musical numbers:
“Need You Now,” Puck and Rachel: Nothing revelatory about the duet’s staging or arrangement, but it was an undeniably lovely cover. And if the goal was to get Finn jealous, mission accomplished. Ms. Michele looked a-mah-zzz. Musical grade: B Relevance to plot: A-
“She’s Not There,” The McKinley Titans Football Squad: I’m going to admit I found Finn totally unrecognizable in his zombie makeup, but this was a fun little romp to warm us up for the big game. I kinda wish we’d gotten to see the guys practicing out of costume — the better to save the thrills for “Thriller” — but I’m not gonna nitpick either. Musical grade: B- Relevance to plot: B+
“Bill Bills Bills,” Blaine and the Dalton Academy Wablers: Golly those boys love to spin enthusiastically in their oak-paneled dreamscape. I have no idea why we took this detour to Dalton this week — kinda felt like a leftover from another episode — but the vocals were tighter than Sue’s jaw during her Katie Couric interview. Musical grade: B+ Relevance to plot: D+
“Thriller”/”Heads Will Roll,” New Directions (feat. the Titans): I loved that Artie and Santana played pivotal roles on this perfectly pitched mashup, I loved seeing Karofsky join the fun, and frankly, I think any high-school football audience would go bonkers for a performance this committed and entertaining. Musical grade: A- Relevance to plot: A
What did you think of the post-Super Bowl Glee? How would you grade last night’s performances? Sound off below!