Holy motors, Batman! “Dynamic Duets” is the most fun I’ve had watching Glee since Sam took his shirt off last. How did the writers never think of this before? Every year they tear the glee club apart so that they can come together as a team before they take on the bad guys. It’s a stock superhero-team origin story. Only this year it’s like The Avengers without all the lead-up films. There’s no Ryder Lynn movie to introduce everyone’s favorite most recent cast member. There’s no independent Unique franchise to establish her as more than her gender identity. But never fear, ordinary citizen. “Dynamic Duets” is here to save Glee and then some.
Glee episodes always seem to start from a track list and work backwards, but this one, written and directed by Ian Brennan, seems to derive from (strive toward) that final-act shot of the New New Directions: everyone in a huddle, their hands in the middle, the music swelling as our heroes unite to take on sectionals. If we’re not rooting for them by then, then who cares if they lose to Dalton? But like a skipping student cramming for a test, Glee spends this last hour wisely. Kitty helps the team reach the magic membership number, and Murphy-brand mixed messaging or not, she seems to enjoy glee club for more than just the chance to sabotage Marley. Marley is still experimenting with bulimia, which if you ask me says a lot about the persuasive force of Ryder’s lips. Also how dumb everyone involved is, considering this ripe body-image storyline rests on the rotten evidence of a couple costumes—but not her other clothes!—feeling too tight. Again, maybe it’s just fuzzy plotting, but I find the Kitty-Marley relationship genuinely complicated. It’s probably just a long con, but Kitty spends more time cheering Marley up than tearing her down this week. She succeeds in making Marley feel bad about an innocuous blow-off from Ryder, but her insult backfires when it pushes Marley to ask out Jake. Kitty isn’t just a bitch, Marley isn’t just a doormat, and suddenly I’m interested in them making good decisions and getting into good colleges and finding good work/life balances.
The new Finn and Puck are also in a gender-stereotypical fight, but the old Finn gives them an assignment: to tell each other about their deepest fears. “Dynamic Duets” doesn’t offer much reason to expect either kid would actually complete his homework, but they’re invested enough in winning that they do. Biracial (and half-Jewish) Jake doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere, and Ryder can’t read. A quick round of dissolve-heavy superhero-movie testing reveals that he’s dyslexic. Needless to say, they’re best friends now. Less out of shared victimhood—these are two guys who think they’re alphas, after all—than team bonding. Meanwhile Sam persuades Blaine not to return to Dalton and to stop beating himself up about his poke-buddy. Throw on some feisty Tina, some classic peanut gallery, and a bonding montage, and the New Directions are a full-fledged team ready to be tested.
It’s not that I feel sorry for the new mutants and all their pamphlet-ready issues. It’s that I have a sense of who they are now, and they’re all winning me over to some degree or another. Marley and Ryder are taking steps to improve their lives. Kitty’s getting nothing out of revenge, and is really good at pretending to enjoy singing with Marley. Sam and Blaine’s bro-hood ascends to some level of continuity, and so does Sam’s nerdy side: “Dalton was like Death Star meets Mordor meets Temple of Doom. I might be exaggerating but probably not.” Most of all, they’re funny. Even Finn! Sporting a Clark Kent/Will Schuester sweater-vest, he complains to Beiste, “The glee club doesn’t see me as an adult. Uh, God, is that what coffee tastes like? How do people drink that?” For a normal Glee episode (one with a class assignment and no major life changes), “Dynamic Duets” is the perfect tonal template: heavy on the funny, even when it’s serious.
The playfulness of the superhero story takes the episode to an even higher level when it bleeds into the style. “Dynamic Duets” has a unity of form and content like nothing this side of the heartiest shipper fan-vids. The adventure serial transitions, the Fleischer cartoon music, the Bat-Signal title card, the action shots of the superhero club running through the halls of McKinley. The episode is full of comic panels, not only the Photoshop newsprint transitions but the canted power portraits. Tarantula Head (Joe)’s dreds crack like a bullwhip, and Femme Fatale (Kitty)’s whip spins fast enough to blow Woman Fierce (Marley)’s hair and cape. Marley soaring through the air on the piano is quite the symbol. The camera rumbles for Sam’s Bane impression, and he isn’t phased when someone makes fun of the jock-strap on his face. “Let the games begin!” There’s even a villain with his very own X-Mansion, and he spins around in a chair stroking a cat. “I’m Hunter Clarington. I’m the new captain of the Warblers. And I’m not even remotely bi-curious.” At the end, we see Sam and Blaine rescuing the trophy in a classic superhero sequence: the broken-into case, the curtains blowing in the open window, and the Warblers looking out the window. It resolves a short-term superhero plot, a long-term teen-drama plot (Blaine forgives himself), and codes a shout-out to some vocal shippers by way of Batman knockouts: “Blam!” and “Slaine!”
In short, “Dynamic Duets” makes a virtue of Glee’s malleability. Just as I could see this show entering a two-act Red Shoes interlude or stumbling into a haunted-house story, this is a show where the fireplace can magically roar when Blaine takes a step toward the dark side and it doesn’t mean there is literal magic. It means Glee isn’t strict with realism. What musicals, teen melodramas, and superhero stories have in common is an initial embarrassment. It’s lightly embarrassing to see well-behaved members of society dressing up in tights or breaking out into song or flipping out about not-very-big deals, because it violates our expectations, like talking to someone on an elevator. In that respect, superheroes fit right into Glee, a show that couldn’t be normal if it tried. Right now, I couldn’t be more thankful for that.
- For those counting, Blaine is in a club for superheroes and a club for superhero sidekicks. That is going to look pretty sweet on a college application.
- Puck, or should I say The PuckerMan, is spending his time soliciting on the Walk of Fame. Good to see him again, and he reinforces his advice to Jake: “Don’t be a dick, and don’t give up.”
- Not showing Blaine’s poke-buddy is a great choice. This ain’t about him.
- So is not trivializing Unique. She isn’t in this episode at all, which is a shame considering the whole “team coming together” angle, but it’s a relief that Unique was never compared to any of the kids’ superhero personae.
- Sam and Blaine’s cover of “Heroes” is the musical showcase, taking place on a dark stage backlit with golden superhero spotlights and spanning a do-gooder montage. Confessionalism isn’t the only thing bringing the glee club together. An anti-graffiti task force and a Thanksgiving charity help, too.
- Artie, upon being told he can’t be Professor X due to copyright violations, says, “Uh, I’m Dr. Y, and my superpower is wheelies?”
- Discussing the glee club membership situation, Brittany asks her phone what it thinks: “I think I am alive, and you are the machine.”
- Classic superhero plot: Hunter preys on Blaine’s good-guy-ness. The deal is for Blaine to sacrifice himself for McKinley’s trophy.
- “Dynamic Duets” has made Finn more likeable than ever. On top of the coffee bit, he has this great scene opposite a bunch of wooden models of the cast posed in fluid dance positions. I love the way he rolls with the punches from Ryder and Jake: “Ignoring you.” One says he sounds like Yoda, and he shoots back, “Deal do we have?”
- Finn admits his idea to sing Foreigner songs in foreign languages wearing foreign flags is pretty bad. Tina says, “Worse than ‘Funk?’” Artie says, “Worse than ‘Night Of Neglect?’”
- Finn wants Blaine to stay with the slowly gelling New Directions. “We need a team with a lot of gel and you’re like the biggest part of that.”