The question going into the final season of Glee, after the main cast graduated and split up, after the new cast came up and were roundly dismissed, after a mini-reboot relocated most of the main characters to New York and then sent them all on their merry way, is what is Glee? Is it Will Schuester’s comeback story? Is it the McKinley High New Directions? Is it mixed-message empowerment?

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The answer “Loser Like Me” gives, at first, is Rachel Berry. For six seasons, this has been centrally the story of Rachel Berry pursuing her dreams, growing into adulthood, getting knocked down, getting up again, they’re never gonna keep her down. No other story has more prominence, and almost nothing comes close. The season opens with Rachel alone. Her pilot sucked bad enough that it got the network president fired. As she gets driven off the lot in a golf cart, she sings a raw, lightly produced rendition of “Uninvited” as she gets driven off the lot. And then she sequesters herself for a couple months. The whole opening walks this line between bold and bland, and you’re waiting for it to fall to see which side it lands on.

The Rachel opening is par for the course these days (last year we got “Yesterday”), but usually we know exactly where everyone is, give or take an expendable (remember Rory?). In season six, after a bit of time has passed, who knows what’s happened? Well, the more we find out, the worse it sounds. Rachel’s parents are getting divorced. Blaine is back in Lima, too. The subtext, which soon becomes text: He and Kurt split up. Even the details there are depressing. Blaine washed out of NYADA. Will’s making five times the salary at his new school, and as good as his glee club is, it’s more mechanical than the homespun New Directions he’s used to. Sam’s assistant coaching the McKinley football team. Sue’s apparently successfully whipping McKinley into shape as principal, but without the humanities and the arts. Figgins is supplementing his janitorial salary with barista dough. And that’s it. No word on Mercedes, Artie, Brittany, or most damningly Santana. Around the time we see Rachel, Kurt, Blaine, Sam, and Will together, it’s clear “Loser Like Me” has bitten off way less than it can chew.

The sparse, downbeat quality is effective at setting the starting point for the season at rock bottom. “It’s supposed to feel disappointing” is a ballsy excuse, but a hilariously Glee one. “Loser Like Me” is setting up a season of redemption. With that in mind, it’s easy to see where it cheats: Kurt, for instance, has lost his high school sweetheart, but he’s still doing quite well. The writers didn’t have the heart to, say, take Burt from him. (Yet?) Not that a systematic Pottersville-ification of the cast would be an improvement, but let’s not pretend like that’d be a violation of Glee’s storytelling standards.

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Where is all this going? I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming. With some leftover money from her show, Rachel offers it to the school board to fund arts at McKinley. The board accepts with a string attached: Rachel runs the New Directions. Suddenly you remember Kurt has a work-study year ahead and Blaine’s coaching Dalton (due to an ebola-related line of succession thing) and everything, well, what few pieces of Glee there are in “Loser Like Me” snap into place. Season six is going to be Rachel and Kurt coaching the New Directions with Sue plotting against them and Blaine and Mr. Schu as the competition. Also Sam will be in the mix in some unofficial capacity.

It’s a stripped down version of Glee, and budget reasons aside, that’s a betrayal of the show’s deep faith in a pluralistic society of thin, malleable types, but “Loser Like Me” successfully reorients the show without sacrificing too much of what makes it Glee. There’s Rachel at the center, not for fame or strategy but for the good work itself. The choir room has never looked bigger or emptier than it does from that super-wide angle shot when she walks in to redecorate, and she sings her biomom’s latest hit “Let It Go” with such grounding (“Here I’ll stand!”) that I expected it to be transformed by sheer force of will when we saw it again. Then there’s Will Schuester, down and out in Ohio, living a sort of dream but perhaps not the most fulfilling one. There’s Kurt carrying the torch for Glee’s romance, desperate to win back the love of his life. There’s the communal support of these rival choir directors getting together for a weekly dinner and passing on their values to the next class of kids. And above all there are dreams. When you’ve hit your Glee season five, all it takes is a sad, quiet, collected moment like “Loser Like Me” to pause, gather, and get back in the game.

“Loser Like Me” is a smooth transition from season five back to, say, season three or four, but “Homecoming” is classic Glee. It’s a recruitment episode, it features a lot of the old cast including a couple surprises, and by the end of the hour it commits to its four new characters so strongly I was as moved by the gesture as I was by the dawning realization that I actually like these new kids. What a fantastic choice to air these two episodes together. All the doubts from the premiere fade away (except the one that’s going, “Why the Puck isn’t Santana a regular?”). “Homecoming” launches season six like a cheerleader cannon, but, you know, a good, safe, successful one.

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So what’s everyone else been up to? Nobody asks and nobody cares, but the reunion scene does something interesting. It presents Mercedes, Santana, Brittany, Artie, Puck, and Quinn, and after everyone laughs and hugs and whatnot, Tina walks out disappointed that they didn’t wait for her. It’s auto-critique! “Homecoming” hangs a lantern on both her near-absence, which nobody would take as unusual, and her position as low woman on the totem pole. And it does so by giving her the big reunion laugh and then moving on with the story. This is Glee acknowledging its treatment of one of the original five New Directions, and the only one who’s not a regular this season, and doing what it can to make up for it.

That’s not an isolated incident. One of the new kids is a girl named Jane whose parents sued Dalton to let her in. But whether she can join the Warblers is another question. As we’ve seen, Warbler government is just this side of white smoke and doves. She knocks everyone’s socks off, especially mine, with her rendition of “Tightrope,” but it’s not enough to overcome tradition. On Glee, no matter how great your performance is intended to be for the real-world audience and no matter how much it sweeps up everyone in the on-screen audience, it’s still universally terrible. Blaine tells her he’s going to fight for her, and look at how she responds. “So you’re going to threaten to resign so I can join a club where nobody wants me?” She’s saying she will not be in need of her white knight’s services today, thanks. And she means it. She takes it on herself to call Rachel and transfer schools. Even the way her parents are described supports the characterization of Jane as independent. For the first time in Glee’s 17-year history, a minority is fighting for her own place in the world. Season six has read your feedback and is taking it to heart.

The recruitment drive is a bust, despite two infectious performances by the Old New Directions, a “Take On Me” number that somehow takes after the video (I’ve only seen unfinished effects) and a Cheerio rendition of “Problem” that reaches back to one of the best numbers in Glee history, Quinn’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” As usual, it takes interested parties a while to come around to the New Directions, to admit to themselves that they’re singing nerds, and by the end there are three members in addition to Jane and a fourth whose probably on his way. That last one is a self-described “postmodern gay” football jock, the postmodern part meaning he’s out and it’s not a big deal. Really he’s just a chip off Jane’s block in that he doesn’t like being told what to do, whether it’s by authority figures, well-meaning liberal do-gooders, or the gay establishment. In other words he’s a teenager. Then there are some oddball twins on the Cheerios named Mason and Madison. Finally, there’s a shy heavyset guy named Roderick so intent on keeping to himself that he wears headphones and blocks out the world. It’s hilarious watching him sing a boisterous “Mustang Sally” and then climbing back into his shell as soon as it’s over.

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“Homecoming” is packed with good stuff, from the first meeting of the New Direction, Roderick, devolving into a quarrel among all the Old Directions to everyone constantly popping holes in the front that New Directions is competitive. Tina: “Sugar Motta was literally tone-deaf.” That right there shows the episode’s sense of Glee history. Even a benchwarmer like Sugar gets a callback. And not that it needs explaining—things on Glee just happen and you get onboard or you don’t—but more than once the Old Directions explain why they’re all there: They’re friends who would do anything for each other, which is a testament to the McKinley glee club process, but mostly it’s Homecoming. Subtext: They’re not just there because the script calls for them to ditch their real lives for a week.

But the best part is the finale, set to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home.” Like the first song of the night, it starts with Rachel on a golf cart, only this time she’s on her way up. So Rachel takes the first part, Kurt the next, Sam strumming the tune next to them, and when they round the corner, we cut to outside where Santana and Brittany take over, skipping from the parking lot past the marching band to the football field where Artie, Tina, and Mercedes welcome us to Sue’s Homecoming book-burning. It feels unreal in a way, not just archetypal but absolutely so, which is Glee in a nutshell. The football players pour out, led by Postmodern Gay, and then Sue gets to take her position in the season, standing there defiantly opposed to the glee club. At some point we cut to Mason and Madison using the song to audition in the auditorium. The number is many things, most of all a relaunch. It took, what, half a season for the season four cast to even begin to gel? It takes these kids an episode. Before the song is up, we cut to the hallway, and suddenly there’s no Rachel or Kurt to lean on. It’s just Roderick, Jane, Mason, and Madison, all in Glee red, whistling the tune and reveling in excitement. With Blaine and Schu there watching from the sidelines, it even feels like a callback to the pilot’s final performance of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” And the way it makes time for a moment of concern—Kurt for his lost love, Rachel for her best friend—amid all the revelry gives it dimension, like these aren’t just puppets hitting marks but characters with agendas and personalities.

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By that point “Homecoming” is almost overpromising. It’s so clear about accepting Glee’s mistakes and trying to correct them that it’s setting some high expectations for this final season. But it wouldn’t be Glee without dreaming big. Or it would, but it would be season five. So far, I prefer season six.

Stray observations:

  • Karofsky is back and dating Blaine and it’s phenomenally weird. I love any moment a character like Karofsky pops his head out of the crowd and reveals himself—fingers crossed for a Zizes redemption reappearance!—but he doesn’t feel like a person. He feels like he has no goals other than to push the audience’s buttons by canoodling with Blaine.
  • Rachel: “Now, we know that in the past the glee club and the A/V club have had friendly relations, and we plan to keep that intact.”

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