Glee finally, finally, finally returns to our lives, and in this episode President Will keeps turning everything into life-ruining “teaching moments.” (spoilers ahead in FlyBy’s final Gleecap)
Quinn (We still haven’t gotten used to seeing her out of her uniform) is stuck relying on her fake baby daddy Finn, but he’s broke, so she’s stuck looking like she could use her some public health insurance. Puck, though, is still asserting himself as the father, and shows Quinn he’s resourceful enough to make money even after his “dip and nunchaku” expenses. When the club behaves insensitively toward Artie, Will challenges the team to hold a fundraising bake sale for a handicapable bus and places all the singers in wheelchairs for the week. With the sale underway, it becomes increasingly clear that Puck can provide for Quinn better than Finn, and things turn violent between the best friends. Only with Rachel’s help does Finn con his way into a job and manage to keep up. Meanwhile, Artie admits to a crush on Tina – “I want to be very clear. I still have the use of my penis,” he informs her – and scores a kiss. But when Tina confides her stutter is fake, Artie, who is always left out, feels betrayed that anyone would sabotage her own chances at fitting in, and he resentfully ends their date. Finally, Kurt (who is apparently trying to bring karate headbands back) feels slighted when Mr. Schue doesn’t give him a chance at a female solo, so his Mellencamp-loving, flamethrower-toting dad steps in to fight the school. After a mysterious and harassing phone call, though, Burt Hummel has to face his own discomfort with his son, and Kurt decides to sabotage himself, allowing Rachel to score the solo in order to spare his father more grief. “I love you more than I love being the star,” says the divo.
“Dancing with Myself” by Gen X
Artie’s first big number shuns the original recording of Billy Idol’s punk classic and instead emulates Nouvelle Vague’s acoustic cover, turning a bouncy, carefree tune into a ballad about loneliness and invisibility. FlyBy has been reserving its A’s for showstoppers – “Rehab,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Somebody to Love” – but this is one of the best numbers we’ve seen on the show. The sequence is a film unto itself: the use of diagetic and non-diegetic music, the use of the stage and its wings, the amount of information imparted without a single line of dialogue. It’s a heartbreaking, wordless little story with great choreography.
“Defying Gravity” by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth (metaaaa.)
When the soundtrack version of this number leaked to YouTube, FlyBy lamented. It’s chintzy. “Vanilla,” as Mercedes charges. Turns out they saved the good stuff for the episode. This arrangement is more balanced between the characters, lacks the droning endlessness of the CD version, and suffers less from the (still-underwhelming) ending. Rachel makes a perfect little Idina, and we’d be first in line for Wicked starring Kurt. But what’s best about this number is the struggle Kurt brings to it. “I’m through accepting limits ‘cause someone says they’re so,” go the empowering lyrics, but his performance turns the song into a tragedy about accepting limits, and he’s near tears from the first note to the final, self-sabotaged moment.
“Proud Mary” by CCR
FlyBy had never noticed, but apparently “Proud Mary” is about living without regrets and about community and about charity. Who knew? Cheesy, yes. But thematically appropriate. We loved seeing Artie, Tina, and Mercedes all featured, and we enjoyed the wheelchair choreography and the ramps. Unfortunately, though, the number is a little boring and not quite the production the episode deserved as a closer.
- FlyBy can’t stand the character of Sandy Ryerson, but we enjoyed his return as the pot cupcake-enabling Chronic Lady. Can it be long before he schemes his way into the school again, or will his role going forward be like this rare appearance as the go-to drug dealer?
- Where is our Emma? Is she seriously off marrying Ken? Will she realize her mistake before or after the wedding? Ugh. We almost don’t care anymore. Either get with Will already or spare us the melodrama – this episode was much nicer without that tiresome love rectangle.
- Ok, so now we’ve got the intro claiming that Kurt has come out to “everybody”? Look, we honestly can’t keep with your fast-paced life, Mr. Hummel. Are you out? Semi-closeted? Are you on the football team this week or not? When can we start stalk-- er, following you on twitter?
- Umm… Isn’t Terri like 6-months fake pregnant at this point?
Well, we are now to believe that Sue fought in the 1982 Falklands War where she learned how to radio in the coordinates of conspicuous snipers. So there’s that. Also she really doesn’t understand how interviews work. Or auditions for that matter: Figgins orders her to hold open auditions for Quinn’s former position, and Sue is merciless to the awkward prospects. New character Becky Jackson – a Cheerio-idolizing girl with Down Syndrome and zero coordination – wins out, arousing Will’s suspicions, to which Sue responds, “You don’t know the first thing about me.” Turns out Sue has a heart – and an adoring older sister Jean, who also has Down Syndrome. In the end, the coach decides to one-up Will’s diversity efforts from off-screen by buying the school a suite of handicapable ramps. Nice.
Best line of the week: “You think this is hard? Try auditioning for Baywatch and being told that they’re going in another direction. That was hard.”
Our Final Gleecap
Character development, character development, character development. Goodness. We were pleased that Artie and Tina finally got major storylines. We especially enjoyed seeing the way his crush developed, not just because it gave him depth, but also because Glee tends to introduce and rush storylines so often, yet this one was mercifully left unfinished for another episode. The justification for Tina’s lie was surprising yet believable, as was Artie’s reaction to her admission. That kind of impressive plotting gives us hope that some of the show’s looming crises (Emma/Will, the fake baby, Puck vs. Finn) won’t be handled with cop outs but with clever, satisfying writing.
Artie and Tina weren’t the only characters to receive more shading this episode. There’s Puck, for example, who proves resourceful and willing to do whatever it takes to get Quinn and his unborn daughter back, including feigning shark-induced paralysis and stealing from a good cause’s fundraiser. We learn he cares, but he’s still the unscrupulous Puck we first met. The idea of Brittany-is-the-stupidest-one gets run into the ground: She has trouble with recipes, she loses her wheelchair, and, yes, she can’t tell her right from left. (Although this joke is handled with subtle invention, with Kurt and Santana having to correct the poor girl.) But we also start learning that she’s opinionated – “Bake sales are kind of bougie,” and actually caring, choosing to be friends with Becky rather than just taking advantage by copying her answers. We also loved the subtle ways the episode sets things up so that, near the end, we believably end up with Sue as the voice of reason:
Sue: “Oh, I bully everybody, Will. It’s the way I roll.”
Will: “Yeah, but this is different. She’s not like everybody else.”
Sue: “I want you to listen to what you just said, William. You’re asking me to treat this girl differently because she has a disability, when actually it seems to me she just wants to be treated like everybody else.”
With Sue’s recent failed romance and all her kindnesses in this episode, we’re learning she’s human, but we like that she only goes soft when she’s not around the main characters.
We were also impressed by the episode’s treatment of minorities and outcasts, which, while central to the show, isn’t always handled well. We definitely cringed when Becky was introduced but were glad when the episode ended without a joke at her expense. Meanwhile, we liked the way the creators expanded Artie’s character and showcased his abilities without damaging the character in the process. Kevin McHale is rumored to be one of the cast’s most talented dancers, and given his vocal aptitude and how funny he is the behind-the-scenes vids, it would’ve been tempting to give him a bigger chance to use his talents. FlyBy was worried this episode would include a dream sequence where Artie danced, as if the wheelchair-bound spent all day dreaming of walking. Instead, McHale gets to show his ability to emote, which works in the service of deepening the character rather than at the character’s expense. Meanwhile, Kurt’s touching scenes with his father were almost too real for a show this cartoony, and we were jarred by the tension in the sequence that cuts between Burt’s phone call and Kurt’s attempts at a high F. Glee’s definitely moving in a good direction, and this episode improves its attempts at fleshing out the characters while attempting a tightrope act of caricaturing without stereotyping. Sometimes it falters, and unfortunately Mercedes still gets the worst of it. (You’ll find her something to “dip in chocolate,” Will? Really? But even in this scene, Finn’s reaction shot shows the creators are aware they may need a net.) Ultimately, it’s an act that is wobbling less after this week.
Our only criticism of this episode is how Becky is introduced, and as usual, we feel a need to gripe about how fast some plots occur on this show. We meet her; then two scenes later she’s a plot point.
Ultimately, though, this is easily the best episode since the pilot. While musically very different from that episode’s inaugural pyrotechnics, “Wheels” succeeds in recreating the same world, a school where everyone’s a loser, or has his or her own secret difficulties, and where characters achieve temporary escape by building communities (the Cheerios, the football team, New Directions), or permanent escape through anti-social derangement (desperate Terri, lonely Sue) or at the least false personalities (Tina retreats behind a stutter, Sue adopts an aggressive mask as a bully). It’s a world where everyone is coping, and where performances are an escape. Yet with all the underlying sadness and frustration, the show achieves hilarity. The slapstick montage of the students getting used to their wheelchairs comes to mind, and this angsty episode saves room for some quiet, simple moments of joy, like Quinn and Puck’s adorable food fight.
Overall: A. Spectacular character development all around, and a great job at recapturing the sad-yet-hopeful world of the pilot. After watching this awesomeness, your babies are totally coming out with Mohawks.