When Artie tries to cheer Tina up about her lack of prospects for the future, on a show that hates her, by announcing his plans to add insult to injury by singing to her every week, she responds by pointing out the silliness of the premise. “That’s a really flimsy segue, Artie.” Welcome back to Glee, a series composed entirely of really flimsy segues and characters who know it. If it sounded like the move to New York would be a sign of progress, well, maybe it will be. But for now we have an episode packed with songs that people sing for no reason.
Blaine and Starchild walk into a guitar shop because Kurt wants Starchild to teach him guitar because he’s secretly trying to keep tabs on his potential band rival or something, so Starchild tells an employee Kurt wants a new guitar. “Don’t touch the axes” is the guy’s response. Two lines later—Kurt asking if the guitars are the axes and Starchild asking some other shopper if he knows how to play a song—Starchild and Kurt are climbing all over the store singing “I Believe In A Thing Called Love.” The concept of this guitar store requiring some sort of initiation is glorious, quintessential Glee. Unfortunately so is the flimsy segue. In fact, until the ending, it’s not even clear Starchild is trying to prove his cred. I thought he was just flipping a musical bird.
There’s still something special in a musical making it five years on network TV, but it’s rare for a musical number to pack much punch these days. The finale of “Frenemies” is set to Blaine, Tina, and Artie singing “Breakaway.” They’re ostensibly celebrating their decision to sing together at graduation, and the song itself is a fist pump. But it’s actually supposed to be bittersweet, because Rachel’s moving out of her apartment throughout. Only the effect is awfully dampened by the scene before. Kurt practically sighs his plea for Rachel to stay. That’s how bored he is by this plot development. And that’s before a back-and-forth that repeats rather than builds. Sample dialogue I made up: “I can’t stay here anymore!” “Fine, move out.” “I can’t stay here anymore!” Yes, we got that.
But when Santana bursts into the auditions to be Rachel’s understudy with “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” nothing else matters. Her version is rather industrial, actually, like a robot mimicking human emotion. It doesn’t help that Rachel’s original rendition is inspired by her first love and feels like the weight of the world is riding on it while Santana’s is so sudden there’s nothing going into it except what we can see. Add to that their relative temperaments, Rachel with her manic desperation and Santana with her cool confidence. It’s far more dramatic to see Rachel pull it together. Accordingly this re-mix doesn’t touch the original (and I use that term…interestingly), but it doesn’t have to. All it really takes is that song. That song means something on this show. And “Get ready for me, love, ‘cause I’m a comer” takes on a whole new dimension in Santana’s hands.
One of the pleasures of Glee somehow making it five seasons on network TV is its self-conscious approach to history. It’s an opulently bitchy move to throw the song that Rachel most recently choked on in her face, which brings us to the episode’s title. I can’t believe it’s taken Glee this long to get to the subject of frenemies. Glee is precisely the TV version of complicated two-way emotions we usually rely on Germans to describe. Having its cake and eating it too is the show’s entire M.O. So here we have several such self-destructive pairs in strategically red costuming. Rachel and Santana are the centerpiece. We open with Rachel magnanimously forgiving Santana her high school trespasses. They’re besties now! Bygones! Rachel even offers to get Santana a job as one of the background models on her New York Magazine cover, this being an episode about dissatisfied yet incredibly lucky whiners. And then Santana blitz-auditions for understudy and knocks Peter Facinelli’s socks off. Now Rachel sees only malice in her new friend, and she says they were never friends. Well, were they or weren’t they? It’s impossible to tell because they’re always in flux, slotting into whatever power dynamic supports each week’s set list. Glee isn’t trying to pretend its erratic characterization is a strength after all these years. It’s just addressing the impact of that erratic characterization on the characters. If Santana were really Rachel’s friend, you’d think Rachel would appreciate getting to share such an incredible experience with her. But Santana’s been so mercurial toward Rachel over the years that I feel for Rachel getting blind-sided yet again. Apparently such an arbitrary relationship is enough to drive someone mad.
Back in Lima, Tina and Artie tie for valedictorian, and then they tie in all the tie-breaking events Sue concocts. Along the way, their renewed friendship—remember, Artie promises to sing the pain away—quickly gives way to some serious animosity. Tina even accidentally pushes Artie out of his wheelchair, and like the moment Rachel slaps Santana, it’s admirably restrained, for Glee at least. No sad pianos. No overblown trauma. Just a momentary break. The final competition is to give a valedictorian speech for Sue’s hand-selected panel of idiots (picking Will, Beiste, and Figgins is yet another example of the show embracing its non-logic). In a tremendous montage, Artie and Tina each devote their speeches to praising the other. Artie says Tina took his broken body into her arms and taught him how to love. “Is it a bridge too far to call Artie Abrams an American hero? I think not.” (Sue: “God, this can’t be happening.”) But there’s tension here. Are they sincerely endorsing each other? Or are they trying to look good in front of their judges? Are they genuinely making up, or are they really the petty people they accuse each other of being? It’d be like Glee to go in either direction, over-the-top sappy or mastermind bitchy. And it depends on the characters having their weekly feuds.
It turns out Artie and Tina were dead serious. Which is to say, this particular history of erratic characterization is swept under the rug. But not before the characters exhume Tina’s goth phase and Artie’s robot legs. Now Glee really is trying to squeeze some deliberate pleasures out of its accidental missteps. Blaine gets to give the valedictorian speech instead, even though he’s third in the class. “I know this sounds like a humblebrag, but honestly I feel like sometimes things just get handed to me.” Ditto prom queen Tina and Broadway star Rachel. But with Blaine, we’re watching Glee go out of its way to uphold the status quo. To mock and mistreat Tina. To give Blaine the solo even when he hasn’t earned it. The show even announces its plans to give Blaine a solo at nationals. Whatever happens can be undone, as long as the show acknowledges it. When Sue asks if her decision sounds fair, Artie says it doesn’t. “Life isn’t fair, Abrams!” shouts Becky. Which is its own silver lining. No matter what happens on Glee, everything can be rewritten.
- Oh, and it turns out there’s nothing wrong with Starchild. Like, at all. He managed an interview in the Village Voice. He doesn’t want to take over Kurt’s band. And he’s the latest gay saint on Glee, which at least means Kurt and Blaine can be interesting.
- One of the models on Rachel’s shoot just got case in “AMC’s new show about Victorian prostitutes.”
- Kurt plies Starchild with cucumber sandwiches, the official snack of gay bitchery as evidenced by Oscar Wilde.
- Santana argues that Rachel owes her because bullying made her who she is, the Cassandra July approach to emotional support.
- “No one’s favorite New Direction.” Almost true. I still love Tina.