The band arrives and, surprise, Lou suddenly becomes an expert music conductor.
Credit: Eric Liebowitz/NBC
S1 E5
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Imagine a production of Into the Woods, but instead of a fairy tale forest, it’s set in a Pennsylvania steel town where the weather is somehow always “light breeze.” Cinderella is a waitress. Jack just got transferred to another forest. The Baker is an alcoholic teen and his Wife is going through her parents’ divorce. And the Witch, whose cloak is mainly tweed and corduroy, wants everybody to go to the wood to “be inspired” but really, deliver him to glory.

Does this comparison work? No, it does not. But this week’s Rise is so scattered and filled with micro-trajectories that everyone may as well be off on their own little first-act adventure of self-realization in Stanton, Pennsylvania. Here’s the cast list in week five.

Following the non-victory victory party, Robbie’s dad feels it’s necessary to drive home the point that his son simply cannot be distracted by Lilette, lest he lose another football game. Mr. Thorne specifically brings up the loaded point that Lilette isn’t from a good family and thus stands to be even more of a distraction, I guess, than an otherwise generally-distracting love interest from the mid-upper class. Over at Lilette’s house, Ms. Suarez almost preaches the inverse, building Robbie up in her daughter’s mind. Despite pointing out that the two budding lovers are from different worlds, Vanessa encourages Lilette to feel all those happy emotions that the girl has been wisely trying to temper.

Combined, both parents do almost-irreparable damage. Robbie can’t help but ask Lilette pointed questions about all the circumstances that raise red flags for him (She’s a waitress, she’s never seen Waitress, etc.), while Lilette finds herself feeling increasingly inferior to the glamorous Thorne lifestyle. She decides to make an executive choice for both of them and end their offstage relationship, resulting in an onstage chemistry that has about as much sexual tension as a church production of Our Town.

Nothing necessarily changes by the time Lilette and Robbie meet up again, and yet, their little tiff has evaporated. Lilette has once again blamed her mother for the woman she is, and when she goes to meet Robbie on the roof of some nondescript Chipotle, he professes his “into you”-ness and Lilette just decides to forgive him. Evidently, they’re now officially together, surviving these parental trials if only to emerge on the other side with that carnal rehearsal appetite Mr. Mazzu so problematically craves.

And then Mrs. Suarez beats up her sexual-assault-happy boss in full August: Osage County “I’m running things now” mode, and we are all happy for her.

Gordy did finally come home, albeit not to the Mazzuchelli house. Gwen spotted him drunkenly wandering the neighborhood and brought him to her house, where Lou and Gail are unsurprisingly furious when they pick him up the next morning. Their tiny sparring match inside the Stricklands’ home almost makes the latter family feel relatively sane for a moment… until we cut to a family therapy session during which Coach and Denise drop the big bomb on Gwen that they’re divorcing.

Gwen…does not take this well. We’ve already known that she favors her father, so it’s not particularly shocking that she blames her mother, but she still directs some vitriol towards dad as well, pleading with him to stay for her sake. The sad truth is, Coach says he had been staying for her, but their marriage, like Love Never Dies’ final preview, is beyond repair.

In the aftermath, Gwen finds certain silent comfort in Gordy, whom Mr. Mazzu has entrusted with the valuable intel that his drinking problem may be hereditary. I suppose it had an effect on Gordy, as we next see him eating ice cream with his sisters and sitting with Gwen on a street bench, arguably more optimistic in demeanor than usual in both cases. You can argue that, on that park bench, both Gwen and Gordy are happy to sit in silence because they’re both experiencing this prolonged moment that’s pregnant with meaning and shared pain. The other interpretation is that they’re about to do that one So You Think You Can Dance bench routine. I like to imagine it’s the latter.

Simon has started at St. Francis, and he is arguably the least happy fella. His friends and drama club are back at his old school, and the only things his new school has are good SAT courses and a spring production of Oklahoma! that may or may not already be cast.

His mother and sister sense his quiet devastation over not being able to sing anymore, but Simon is putting on a brave face for his father. To his credit, he doesn’t waver on his familial loyalty, even as Lilette encourages him to stand up to his dad’s wishes. But eventually, Simon decides to take advantage of the elevated mood that only comes from a card game with your parents and brings up his wish to go back to Stanton. He doesn’t mention the show, and in fact, he could have ceded that he wouldn’t do it if it meant he could still be back with his friends, but Mr. Saunders brings up Spring Awakening for him.

Suddenly it’s Mrs. Saunders who challenges her husband to specifically cite his issue with Spring Awakening, lest she no longer support his rash, quasi-religious decision. “Is this about protecting Simon, or is this about you?” she asks. “Why are you so afraid of this play? What about it upsets you so much? If you can explain that to me, then I will support you.” Rather than reveal what we are all thinking (it rhymes with “clay love scene,” Mr. Saunders gruffly allows Simon to go back to Stanton, leaving plenty of room for an inevitable clash later.

But now: a happy reunion! Simon returns to Stanton, where he promptly sings “Shoot up some you.” Welcome back to the brink, baby!

Ms. Wolfe avoids Andy after their first date. Ms. Wolfe realizes she might like Andy. Ms. Wolfe does some light fact-checking to make sure there’s nothing overly womanizing about Andy. Ms. Wolfe kisses Andy.

Last and least, the band has finally visited, and while I can’t bring myself to call this nightmare a sitzprobe, it is the first time that anyone in the Spring Awakening cast — Mr. Mazzu included — has heard the very hard work of the Stanton High orchestra. And HEY. They’re not that bad!

Led by band director Harold, the ensemble begins playing “My Junk,” and it’s about as half-baked and off-tempo as you should reasonably expect from any high school band that spends essentially 364 days of the year planning for a two-hour winter concert. There’s too much drum, too few on-key notes (a very important thing in music), and is in general just a little less “76 Trombones,” a little more Stomp. But again: not that bad! Yet rather than being met with jubilant applause for their efforts, the band instead receives a series of very rude facial expressions from the entire drama department. Like they’re doing so much better?! Most of these sassy stage pictures belong to good old dream-crushing Mr. Mazzu, who loves to support the artistic expression of hard-working teenagers, as long as they’re his hard-working teenagers. (Viewer, you would not be wrong to have audibly asked yourself, “Oh God, what is he going to do to them?” when the band started playing.)

Of course, Mazzu has a solution to fix this, employing the same answer he applies to every other artistic situation that he feels could be better: Take it over! (Because this has worked on all other departments.) Mazzu crashes Harold’s next rehearsal and briefly wields the conducting baton just long enough to announce his big epiphany — play the music at tempo — and suddenly, everything is fixed. The kids now know all the music! The violins know when to come in! The music is slightly more tolerable and magically on key! Who could have guessed that saying “Play the music at the speed it’s written” would suddenly bypass the arduous process of actually learning the notes and allow us to add “musical visionary” to Mr. Mazzu’s ever-increasing list of qualities on the resume he’ll need when he gets fired during May sweeps?

Thank goodness for the new guy, Harold, who stands up to Mr. Mazzu in a way we all wish we could, even if it’s short-lived. Harold effectively resigns after watching in horror as his rehearsal, work, and career in general are undermined, but promptly un-resigns after Mr. Mazzu delivers another one of his signature #TheMoreYouKnow inspiring monologues. Harold, you are too good for this world!

Finally, the last ingredient in this potion is another new character named Sandeep, whom Maashous suggests as a rockin’ addition to the band. (Who asked you, Maashous!) Sandeep has nothing to do with the band, specifically stays away from the band, and yet is convinced to join the band despite spending years avoiding the band because of expected racial ostracization from his peers. Mr. Mazzu hears that, and completely ignores it. And suddenly, Spring Awakening has a new lead guitarist!

The episode ends with everyone still very internally unhappy but externally gregarious as they sing “My Junk” and cling on tightly to what is left of their fleeting youth. They’ve all got their junk and their junk is them!

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