In the “Back-Up Plan” it is pretty evident that no one really has one, and when push comes to shove the only plan they really have is to rely on each other when their grand ambitions intersect with the sacredness of their personal relationships. Our gang might be a more loosely knit group as the realities of post-high school hit them, but when push comes to shove they’re defined by their ability to bring their ambitions together instead of standing alone, even when the stakes are high.
We’ve got the clear-cut trope of friendship butting up against ambition as we follow Santana and Mercedes. Mercedes is on the cusp of her big musical break, but her label claims they just don’t hear a hit in her material. Under the gun, she asks Santana to come in to the studio and help her work, and with Santana's suggestion they break free of the nondescript studio structure to power walk and sing “Doo Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill through the bowels of the building, owning the place so fiercely they might as well name it after the duo.
It’s shades of “Ride Wit Me” from Season 1 with just enough polish to make it fresh. Mercedes' producer gets the inspiration he needs to lock in her album. Mercedes, however, wants to push for a true duet with Santana to make the final cut. Her producer knows better, and explains in no uncertain terms that in the real world just wanting to include your bestie isn’t a wise business decision -- either stand alone as yourself or use someone more popular than you to help your career along. Despite Santana uncharacteristically rejecting the possibility of Mercedes' idea, Mercedes doesn’t back down, offering Santana a contract so they can record together. Santana tries to demure, but Mercedes is insistent. The offer is left on the table as the more pressing issue of Rachel’s drama dovetails into their story.
Rachel is less than a month into her dream Broadway run, but her manager has her spooked for a life of eight shows a week with no hope for growth or a bigger career. She performs a beautiful staged “Wake Me Up” by Avicii and Aloe Blacc, her life as Fanny Brice on infinite repeat that only shifts by the color of the freshest flowers placed next to her make-up table. When the fictional head of Fox (the hilarious Jim Rash from "Community") shows up in her dressing room one night with an offer to audition for a TV series, Rachel leaps at the chance. The only problem is it requires her to fake a sick day from Broadway to fly to the west coast. Although Kurt warns her off, she does it, and ends up in an actor's nightmare of an audition. She walks into a Fox conference room decked out in posters of all of Fox’s actual current shows (with one suspiciously missing…) and proceeds to sing Bette Midler's “The Rose” as the executives awkwardly gesture and can’t seem to find the moment to interrupt her and explain that they don’t need her to sing. "Song of Solomon" is a sci-fi space opera that’s a mixture of "Game of Thrones," "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Grey’s Anatomy." It’s awful, and Rachel gives an awful reading and knows it. To make matters worse, her understudy fell off the stage and she needs to be there for curtain of face dire consequences of a canceled show. L.A. traffic thwarts her, and so she calls Kurt to help her and, in the end, Santana reprises her understudy role and pulls off the show.
Old "Glee" would have made this re-spark the Santana and Rachel rivalry, and contrive some moment for Santana to steal the Fanny Brice spotlight, but New "Glee" knows what its doing. Santana has other ambitions, and she doesn’t even want anything in return from Rachel for helping her out. Santana is just working on being a better friend, one who eats pasta and listens to Rachel worry about her potential firing. But in another twist of reality, despite her producer wishing he could can Rachel, everyone knows she’s still the star of the show and what’s selling the tickets. He’s not happy, but she stays, and lives under the threat that if she pulls anything again not only will he fire her, but he’ll sue and work against her ever doing Broadway again. A flustered Rachel’s only hope is Fox still wants to offer her a development deal despite her botched audition, and will be sending a writer her way to make a script just for her. Rachel’s ambition may seem solitary, but so many other people are dependent and instrumental in her chances that she’s on very thin ice as we move forward.
Kurt and Blaine is where we get murky. Kurt is invited to sing for June Dalloway, an influential socialite, and so in the spirit of partnership he requests Blaine to take part in it with him. They duo perform One Direction’s “Story Of My Life” for June, a weird choice that harkens back to their “Animal” performance in Season 2 -- Blaine is effortlessly scoring ladies' phone numbers and Kurt is pushing himself just too hard to fit into a mold that won’t hold him. Blaine takes a knee and kisses June’s hand with a wink and it feels right, while Kurt’s attempt at doe-eyes makes you cringe. It’s not much of a shock that all of June’s attention falls on Blaine; it’s he she invites to escort her to a fancy society dinner while Kurt gawks. Given a moment to cool off and Kurt’s not jealous. Instead he’s pretty understanding of the arrangement and importance of Blaine’s relationship with June who can make their joint dreams come true. He calls it taking one for the team as he fixes Blaine’s bowtie and sends him off to his first event with the socialite, who's cast perfectly as Shirley MacLaine.
Blaine, on the other hand, is more enchanted. June brings him to a large donor dinner and uses him as her duet partner, the pair performing Janis Joplin’s “Piece Of My Heart” while acquiring wads of cash from patrons. June explains that she must know Blaine if she’s going to champion him, and that her plan is a grand showcase that introduces him to society. She immediately nixes Blaine’s one request to include Kurt in the showcase, directly telling him that he should break off the engagement if he wants to live up to his full potential. To her, Kurt is just a first love, training wheels, and that Blaine has much more to do than hitch himself to Kurt. Blaine, conscious of his place, doesn’t aggressively rebuke her, but with Kurt starts to quiz him on what’s going on with June, he lies and tells Kurt that he’ll be part of the showcase too. Blaine looks so pleased at Kurt’s happiness, and so if he can’t charm his way into making this lie into a truth, the explosion is going to be pretty epic.
Who’s going to get what they really want for them and the people around them? Mercedes seems most clearly on the path, confident in her voice and her ambition to stand up for what she wants and get the tools to make it reality. Blaine, with all his charm, seems just a matter of time, and he’s got Kurt’s relentless drive on his side too. Rachel seems the most adrift, and with the most on the table to lose with a single misstep. Whereas Glee Club was ultimately about everyone’s ambition coming together to succeed as a collective, New York Glee shows us that often ambition is not only solitary, but directly detrimental to those closest to you. The balance is to bring your own ambition in line with supporting others without losing oneself. "Glee" has two more New York-centric episodes to prove our heroes can do just that.