"Nationals" is a classic Glee competition episode. There's conflict -- Mercedes is ill and might not make it on stage (of course she makes a miraculous recovery at the very last second), the group is in-fighting during rehearsals because of stress, etc. There's romance -- Finn bet his and Rachel's honeymoon savings on them winning, and Jesse St. James returns and, while he doesn't romantically interfere this time, does prove he cares for Rachel still by putting in a good word with NYADA. At the crux there's performances -- the Troubletones make their final appearance with the addition of Tina and Quinn, to perform Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory." Rachel follows up with a powerhouse solo on Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now," during which Whoopi slips into the auditorium and catches her triumph. Finally the whole group convenes for Meat Loaf's "Paradise By The Dashboard Light." It's the most purely show choir-y performance they've done to date, with elaborate choreography and small spotlights on a few more members than just Finn and Rachel.
Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back to Me"
Meat Loaf's "Paradise By the Dashboard Light"
Nicki Minaj's "Starships"
The Who's "Pinball Wizard"
However, once Unique and Vocal Adrenaline take the stage, the competition is on. Unique, who is feeling the pressure at Carmel High and hints at a school switch next season, dominates vocally on both Nicki Minaj's "Starships" and The Who's "Pinball Wizard." The judges meet to debate, but they mostly waste an entire scene letting Lindsay Lohan and Perez Hilton self-promote constantly. Finchel could have broken up and made up five times in the precious Glee minutes they squandered.
Of course, finally, New Directions wins. We watch the celebration on stage, and then the kids return to a school that welcomes them with open arms, throwing confetti instead of slushies. It's so confusing, and you almost wonder if Tina's hit her head again, but this is actual reality. We montage their glorious return as a track of the crew singing Grouplove's "Tongue Tied" plays, complete with popped champagne, jocks randomly hugging Kurt Hummel, Rory getting some action, and a really regrettable sequence where Emma leaves a pamphlet about losing her virginity on Schue's desk and then they finally have sex. It should feel joyous, after three seasons of waiting for them to achieve this, but it just feels awkward and emotion-less. The crew stares at their trophy finally filling the case, but as a viewer it just feels empty. Were we really meant to care so much about this?
Perhaps the pacing is all wrong, as the episode doesn't end there. We must go award teacher of the year, clearly to Mr. Schue, and the group sings Queen's "We Are The Champions" to him. This feels slightly better, but it's no "To Sir With Love" from Season 1.
"Nationals" may get a worse rap by virtue of unorthodox scheduling. With a week of breathing space between the fun of "Props" (can next seasons revolutionary storyline be that each actor plays a different role each week, instead of a just a split season?) and the competition-centric "Nationals," the latter might have only felt mildly off instead of jarring and strange. The blend is off. At least next week's finale stands alone, and while it will probably err on the side of sappy, emotional special episode-esque "Glee," fans can be most forgiving of a finale that finally graduates main characters after three years. Handkerchiefs at the ready!