A lesson learned: "Glee" shouldn't put two distinct episodes on in a single night, because it runs the risk of one being strong while the other is weak, and if it plays out in that order -- as it did Tuesday night -- fans are left with a very uneven and bitter taste in their mouths going into a much-hyped finale.
"Props" is fun "Glee" with a dose of reality, one of the better mark-hitting examples of the season, while "Nationals" goes to the 'embrace our club and our outsiderness' sappy place. Smushed together, they both lose their individual potent high points and come out blander than they deserve. The "Glee" we love was alive and kicking somewhere in those two hours on Tuesday, it's just hard to find.
We start with "Props," which centers around the preparation for Nationals. It felt organically Glee, zany but with heart. Our main plot is Tina, who finally speaks out about being ignored and playing backup to Rachel's ambitions and stardom. Rachel assures her that she'll have her time next year, and that to get what Rachel has Tina is going to have to really push herself. While throwing herself into her role as costume mistress for National's with reckless abandon, Tina falls into a mall fountain while texting (texting is actually Glee's biggest villain this season) and comes out to a world where everyone's characters have switched. Finn and Puck are now Kurt and Blaine! Tina is Rachel!
Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me"
The viewers are treated to several scenes where the actors inhabit each other's traits and Tina-as-Rachel gets to sing Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me" and give solid support to Rachel-as-Tina. When she comes to, Tina is inspired by dream Rachel-as-Tina's advice to Tina-as-Rachel to hunt down her NYADA judge and not take no for an answer. So far Rachel has stuck to endless phone messages begging for another chance (after singing Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up," naturally), but Tina decides that they'll head to Oberlin to catch Whoopi after a master class and beg for her presence at the Nationals competition for a second chance (background music note -- as Rachel and Tina talk, Michael Sembello's "Maniac" plays). Whoopi, of course, isn't having it, until Tina steps in and endorses that despite Rachel's annoying demeanor, she's destined to be a star. We don't get resolution until the next episode, but we do get to see Rachel and Tina join forces on a duet of "Flashdance... What a Feeling" by Irene Cara, which narratively delivers them to their bus to the Nationals competition.
Meanwhile, the episode's namesake stems from Sue's insistence on props or a gimmick to win Nationals. When metalwork-themed Flashdance doesn't work out, she keeps insisting that Kurt wear a dress to compete with Unique's who's briskly risen to Show Choir fame. Kurt insists he would never -- minus one hilarious turn as Snooki to Blaine's The Situation for Halloween -- and in the end Puck tries to take one for the team in horrible drag. Sue's great hope is abandoned, but that also brings us back to the Beiste domestic abuse storyline and Puck's school situation. The hockey jocks get wind of Puck's cross-dressing and decide to taunt him, but when they call him a Lima Loser he breaks, and they meet in by the dumpsters for a fight.
It's the first full-on schoolyard fight in Glee's history, and Puck ups the ante when he pulls out a switchblade. Beiste intervenes before things can escalate (and Puck later admits it was only a prop knife), bringing him to the locker room where he breaks down, explaining that he's got nothing to lose, that he's worthless and nobody cares about him. They embrace, and while she doesn't tell Puck about her situation she empathizes about people thinking the tough guys like the two of them can't get hurt. Cooter keeps promising to get better, but he's still angry and she's sleeping with a knife under her pillow for protection. In a powerful scene that helps to alleviate some of the bad feelings about the plotline to begin with, although it might be too little, too late. After she finally leaves Cooter for good, she joins puck on a duet of Taylor Swift's "Mean" in the auditorium, then reveals that she'll help Puck retake his test to graduate.
It's a shame we haven't seen more of this pair together throughout the season, and it's delightful and deserves a road trip adventure spin-off. This tone, where the adult's life situation is a parallel to something a child is going through emotionally works much better than the after-school-special attempt they made with the domestic violence plot the first time around. It's also good that it's been wrapped up and sent packing. Now we just wait to find out if Puck can pass.
"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!
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