Usually, the writer of a particular episode of “Glee” doesn’t shape the understanding of it. Sure, Ian Brennan writes more of the Sue-centric episodes, and Ryan Murphy will often write the grand, world-building ones. There are others whose particular style marks the series, but often the writers are just an amorphous collective to the viewers — the evil borg that messes with our favorite characters, and who are often not lauded when an episode achieves beyond expectations. “Old Dog, New Tricks” marks Chris Colfer’s first stab at writing for the series, and the first time an actor on “Glee” has written an episode. Understandably, there’s suddenly more weight to how Colfer explores at least the story of Kurt, from the perspective of someone who’s been inhabiting this character for six years.
Most recently, while everyone else has been benefiting from the creative magic of NYC in extraordinary ways, Kurt has been ordinary — in “Glee” terms, at least. His triumphs are not performance-based wins, but everyday life ones. He saved someone from a life-threatening beating, he’s asserted himself in his relationship, but he’s still just a second-year NYADA student by day. He’s not on Broadway, or making his own record, or championed by a NYC socialite, or winning film awards or starting a modeling career. He’s feeling under-appreciated and adrift, and his achievements are not the sort that gain the type of attention that Kurt has been craving.
Rachel, always looking for attention, has found the unwanted kind. Broadway blogs are starting rumors about her bad attitude and fake sickness that caused a missed performance “Funny Girl,” and so she needs to rehab her image with a PR campaign. Santana, using her powers for good, becomes her PR manager and orchestrates a doggie fundraiser called “Broadway Bitches” with a local shelter. The gang sings Modern English’s “I Melt With You,” an apocalyptic love song, to the caged pups, and it’s sweet if you don’t remember how weird it actually is. It also results in Sam adopting his own pup, without Mercedes’ approval.
After the adorably named McConaughey destroys Mercedes’ hair extensions and shoes, Artie and Sam try to train him up while duetting on Warron Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” It’s to no avail — Mercedes says they just can’t have a dog right now with their busy lives, and despite Sam’s protests that he’s good at taking care of things and not some man-child who can’t handle responsibility. McConaughey will have to find a new home during Rachel’s fundraiser.
With practically everyone else involved in the dog charity, Kurt is boxed out of participating. He’s not enough of a name to be a draw for the big performance at the charity event. He’s moping around the diner when Maggie appears with an open ear. She’s a former Broadway star who’s now living in an assisted living facility for other aged performers. It’s like if Sue Sylvester truly mellowed with age, and exactly what Kurt needs. He goes to visit during a rehearsal of their Peter Pan production, only to discover that the lady playing Peter has passed away mid-entrance. Kurt volunteers his services, and the old folks demand an audition to prove his worth. Kurt Hummel always carries sheet music. He breaks into “Memory” from Cats, as the residents stare dreamily and eventually join him, most prominently Maggie. He’s got the part — but when he rushes home to invite his roommates to the show they brush it off as it’s the same day as Rachel’s big charity event. Kurt blows up, sick of being the cheerleader best friend that no one supports in turn.
Rachel’s charity attempts aren’t going so well, in fact. Her paparazzi PR stunt left her dragged through the streets by a pack of dogs, and when she gets to her dog adoption event she’s more interested in the perfect photo op than giving a puppy a loving home. We parallel this to Kurt, who’s gone to find Maggie’s estranged daughter Clara who hasn’t shown up to see her mom in years. Maggie’s been sending herself flowers and lying to anyone who will listen about her relationship with her daughter, but when Kurt finds Clara she scoffs at him, explaining that Maggie’s ambition made her a horrible mother who didn’t care about anything but herself. Kurt shoots back that she should be thankful her mother is still there, and work to make amends in the time they have left. Assuming he hasn’t succeeded, Kurt asks Maggie to be each other’s family in the meantime.
When the big performance rolls around, Blaine is there helping Kurt pin leaves on his costume, seemingly the only one of the gang to attend. Kurt makes a call to Rachel to make his own amends, and she tells him she has to go because her best friend’s show is about to start. Surprise! The whole crew made it, and oohs and aahs as Kurt takes to the sky as Peter while singing Madonna’s “Lucky Star.”
After the show Rachel has a surprise for Kurt and the cast — they’re off to the diner to be the stars of the charity benefit. Cue Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight,” during which everyone’s cradling puppies and depositing them in the arms of willing families. Even Sam’s pup finds a home. Just before the credits roll, Rachel shares the glory of the moment with both Kurt and Santana when interviewed by the Broadway bloggers.
This week still held to this season’s central idea of ambition, but shed light on the darker side. All these former performers Kurt’s befriended were ambitious young starlings like our heroes once, and are now circled right back to the proverbial choir room, putting on a grand show that no one else but them will see. Rachel is curtailing herself from starting down the same journey as Maggie, estranged from those she loves because she’s obsessed with her ambition. Kurt is finally finding meaning in performance, even if his stage is not as big and bright as Broadway yet. Even so, it feels more like Season 1 “Glee” than Season 5, with the underdogs who just need to rally around a big musical number to make everything okay again. And that’s fine, it’s a much needed breather that ties threads from the past, but wraps itself up to leave room for the finale coming next week. Lest we forget — Rachel might walk away from her big break for a chance at TV, Blaine has lied to Kurt about the line up of his upcoming showcase, and Sam and Mercedes must deal with the realities of their professional lives as it meets their budding relationship. It’s hard to imagine a year that shook the foundation of “Glee” having a no-strings-attached happy ending, but a triumphant one is hopefully just a week away.