In an episode that tackles hate crimes, it's actually interracial dating and dropping out of college that get most of the screen time. Yep, the gang's all here
Credit: Giovanni Rufino/FOX
The fourth season of Glee was full of ups and downs, but one consistent bright spot was Lea Michele's Rachel Berry, who stretched her wings…
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Glee is such a different show now than it was just two weeks ago that by the time the Gleek of the Week is rolling onscreen, it’s difficult to know what you think about what you just saw. Particularly when the episode takes on interracial dating and hate crimes — and those are more or less just the B and C plots. While those storylines ended up being presented somewhat clumsily, and with probably one too many in play, the episode’s theme rings out clearly: everyone is growing up, which means making tough decisions. We really aren’t in Lima anymore. It doesn’t matter what Mr. Schue said or how he said it, whenever he said it; everyone either learned their lessons while at McKinley, or they’ll learn them the hard way now, away from the safety of high school.

Knowing that the end is coming after one and a half more seasons, I guess the show has to make some big moves to keep things rolling forward — hence a few logical leaps we’re asked to accept in favor of character development. The show’s full-time focus is coming back to the original gang at a particularly uneasy, unbalanced time in their lives — but it’s a freeing and romantic time too. Getting to know this Glee is like getting to know myself when I was 19 or 20 all over again (but with more show tunes, thank goodness): It’s confusing and frequently funny, and I’m banking on it all being worth it.

I almost always love with an episode begins in song, because it tends to set the tone for the whole story. “Sad and beautiful, with a flair for the dramatic” came through loud and clear on “No One Is Alone,” performed over the opening candlelight vigil walk. It’s the first of an almost full bill of songs (Mercedes numbers excluded) written by living legend Stephen Sondheim. And in an episode that was a little shaky on logical foundation, the additional support of Sondheim’s masterful lyrics is appreciated. Rachel opens up the flawless number beautifully, and just as I’m assuming the walk is probably for Kurt (per the preview for this episode), he joins in by her side. Chris Colfer’s lower register is an unexpected treat, and the song ends up walking them to the site of a hate crime committed against a friend of their neighbor’s. A

The episode was at its best in the random bits of weird humor sprinkled amongst the serious issues, like Sam’s newfound love for The Facts of Life. From a childhood spent with TV Land, I could identify the sounds of Ms. Garrett and the gang from the second Mercedes first walked down the stairs to find Sam eating Lucky Charms out of a mixing bowl. Facts always makes me think of two things: 1. Handyman George Clooney, and 2. Being quite young and hearing an interview where Lisa Whelchel (oh, you weren’t watching Lisa Whelchel interviews as a child?) said that everyone started calling the show “FATS of Life” in its later years, which made her feel very angry. Sam sees it a little differently: “It’s about this old redheaded lady who runs this boarding school for lesbians. And then I think the lesbians’ school burns down, so now the old redheaded lady opened up this pot dispensary called Edna’s Edibles. They all work there.” Sign me UP.

Anyhow, Mercedes joins in, because who wouldn’t after that tantalizing description? Of course, Sam can’t sit still for two seconds before asking her why she broke up with him. She tells him she had her reasons and then helpfully rattles off every single other girl he dated in the Glee Club. (Wow, did he really cruise through the main credits.) But then that “obvious sexual chemistry” Sam keeps talking about seems to finally overwhelm her and — boom — they’re making out.

NEXT: Fur kills, but fake fur keeps you warm…because it’s winter outside, you knuckleheads.

The lovebirds move from the comfort of their own couch to playing Restless Leg Syndrome footsie under the table at the group’s weekly potluck — then to walking along the very public East River. Things have escalated quickly, and I’m having a hard time believing Mercedes and Sam as a couple so suddenly. I have no idea how Sam goes from throwing coins into the river, to giving a fur lecture, to Mercedes throwing her coat in the river, to Sam reacting, “See, we’re perfect for each other!” What, WHAT, what is happening? I think it’s a tribute to Amber Riley and Chord Overstreet’s commitment that I look back on this scene and think it was kind of cute — but it might just be sheer confusion.

Sam gives Mercedes his jacket, so naturally she tells him to take his thin shirt and leave so she can be on her own and sing “Natural Woman” in front of a carousel. Oh, yes ma’am, I will take Mercedes singing Aretha Franklin anyway you give it to me. I loved the Cheerio-esque backup dancers and the alternate universe that took over once the carousel started spinning. I will, however, need more than some cute jokey-jokes to be convinced that Sam makes Mercedes feel like a natural woman. A-

It turns out those backups dancers are, in fact, characters — they’re Mercedes’ backup singers, there to serve up an unwanted dose of reality. Her worlds come crashing together when she meets them for dinner and Sam shows up unannounced asking why hip-hop artists are always named after cars (Tesla is named after the inventor Nikola Tesla, thank you very much, and Sharice is named…Sharice). He also asks if the ladies’ hair is real hair or a weave. Oh boy. Things do not seem to be going well — but when the girls recap the dinner later on their stoop (New York!), they say Sam was perfectly nice. He found a toe hold for his Tempestt Bledsoe impression to round out the Cosby kids, and we can all agree that’s very impressive.

It’s just that…he’s white. And that’s not a good look for a black female recording artist, or so they tell me. Tesla and Sharice say that Mercedes publicly dating Sam will alienate black women and anger black men who would buy her record. And that’s about all they say. It’s a prejudice that would certainly be worth exploring, especially if Mercedes is really about to put out a popular album (and/or really date Sam), but it’s moved past in favor of Mercedes accepting this as fact. She breaks up with Sam and tells him that dating him would make a statement she’s not sure she’s willing to make right now.

NEXT: Interracial dating down, hate crimes and following your dreams to go…

Rachel is finally having just a touch of trouble balancing full time rehearsals of her Broadway production with a full course load at NYADA. Funny Girl is about to go into two very important weeks of tech rehearsals, but she needs to ask for just a few hours off for her Midwinter Critique at school. Her producer relents with the instruction that he will need her full focus after this. So naturally, it makes sense for her to disregard that this is a solo critique of her personal journey as an artist by singing alongside Blaine. They perform “Broadway Baby” from Follies, which sounds great (and looks dynamite with Blaine in tails and Rachel in tea-length formal). Still, the song makes Rachel look sort of like a jerk; she’s singing about how swell it would be to get a gig on Broadway when she is currently the lead in a huge Broadway revival. B+

The actual offense, of course, is that Rachel and Blaine completely disregarded the parameters of this assignment, and Madame Tibideaux is having about 0% of it. She gives them mercy, though, and says they can reschedule a make-up performance for next week.

Coat throwing in the East River aside, this is where the logic of this episode really takes a left turn. You see, Rachel can’t reschedule her performance because she already had to beg her producer for this time off. Madame Tibideaux won’t be swayed: She tells Rachel that all of her professors have said she’s barely scraping by. Tibideaux isn’t going to give special treatment to someone who hasn’t earned it within the confines of NYADA’s walls. Does Rachel care about the work, or does she just want the prestige of the degree? Being Rachel, she wants it all — but also being Rachel, she decides that if this is how things are going to be, she doesn’t need NYADA. She’s well on her way to fulfilling all her dreams without an expensive degree, dammit!

Now, I get where Madame Tibideaux is coming from; Rachel is disrespecting the school by not giving it her full attention. But I don’t know exactly what she’s suggesting. She wants Rachel to quit Funny Girl? Don’t be ridiculous. No performing arts teacher would ever suggest a student give up on a Broadway play because they don’t have enough “foundation.” Why does nobody seem to get that a “leave of absence” is a very real thing? This would be the perfect time for Rachel to take one from NYADA, then return back for a little more foundation after she sees if this thing sinks or floats.

Rachel should have figured that out on her own — but if she had just taken the logical way out, she couldn’t have the big blowup that leads us to what we’ve all known is coming in this episode. When Rachel meets Kurt out for dinner, he’s already heard her news through NYADA’s supremely efficient gossip train. He encourages her not to quit because a degree from NYADA will give her options. Again, I don’t know what exactly he’s suggesting, because clearly it’s not that she should QUIT a Broadway production (one that doesn’t have an understudy, mind you). Rachel says Kurt is just afraid of taking risks, and he needs a place like NYADA because he’s scared to “grow up and be an adult.” (So she screams at her 19-year-old pal in the middle of a restaurant.) All right, settle down, Fanny.

NEXT: A tough scene to watch…

Kurt leaves, the idea that he always plays it safe ringing in his head, and sees someone being beat up in an alley. He goes to break it up, and when the original victim runs away, both assailants turn on him: “Look, another one.” What follows is a surprisingly restrained scene that very straightforwardly shows punches being landed, but doesn’t play up the violence and hate of the act, making the muted sights and sounds of Kurt being beat up all the more real. The haunting scene of each New York friend getting a call in the middle of their various daily activities is really one of Glee’s best. The parts are all there, which makes me wish all the more that this storyline had been given a little more time, a little more weight or circumstance. It very closely skirts the edge of the randomness that comes along with such an act of violence vs. feeling like it was used just as a plot device.

It does lead to two touching scenes, first as Kurt’s friends gather around him while he’s still unconscious; Blaine holds his hand and gives a brief little performance (the vocals sounded live) of “Not While I’m Around.” He curls up beside him until Burt arrives, who is slightly less saccharine about his support. He’s angry at Kurt for being so rash and putting himself in harm’s way. But they’ve both been fighting this kind of hate in one way or another for a long time, and he’s proud of his son. He just tells him not to do it again unless he’s got his dad by his side. Oh, Burt!

Inspired to rethink her prejudices after Kurt’s ordeal, Mercedes tells Sam that saying she can’t date him because he’s white is like her saying she can’t be friends with someone because they’re gay. She wants to sing her feelings out, so she goes into the studio and sings him a song filled with lyrics like, “You’ve taken all the best things from me and thrown them away.” Lyrically, it makes no sense to sing this to her semi-boyfriend. But Amber Riley’s original song, “Colorblind,” is really lovely and, outside of this situation, I thought the lyrics were very good. It’s continually amazing how expressive she can be simply standing in front of a microphone, performing to one person. The whole thing hearkens back to that iconic performance of “I Will Always Love You” (which we’re reminded was originally performed for — you guessed it — Sam). A

The episode ends on Kurt getting out of the hospital with some serious cuts and bruises, an apology from Rachel, and a Midwinter Critique performance at NYADA. He sings the final Sondheim tribute, “I’m Still Here,” and it’s thankfully a lyrically fitting song choice for the moment. Kurt is still standing after his terrifying ordeal. He’s also still a strong character whom we know and understand, not just a plot device to be rolled out when needed. He’s sure of the person that he is and the person that he wants to become; he’s a student at NYADA and he’s willing to take risks when he believes them; and the guy knows how to work a room. Burnt orange shirt and all, he’s a damn good performer. B+

Episode Recaps

The fourth season of Glee was full of ups and downs, but one consistent bright spot was Lea Michele's Rachel Berry, who stretched her wings…

Jane Lynch, Lea Michele, and high school anxiety star in Fox’s campy musical.

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