“The Rise And Fall Of Sue Sylvester” is an “expect the worst” kind of title, so it’s a pleasant surprise that it flies by with a go-for-broke late-season sense of adventure. Unfortunately that carelessness goes beyond the story to the storytelling. The main plot has to do with Sue finally getting canned, not for being a violent tyrant but for having once posed for Penthouse. (And for having a hurt locker, but as superintendent Ted Beneke notes, the Penthouse pic is the nail in the coffin.) So, is this Sue’s last hurrah like it seems? No, but it does give over an entire act (and part of the next) to a Geraldo interview with Sue. The main function is jokes, but it’s also there to put any doubts about the show’s treatment of Sue to rest. As Geraldo makes abundantly clear, she’s a pathological liar who had no part in the extrication of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, nor did she fight in the Falklands war. Michael Bolton shows up to say he never met her, and now’s a good time to say I never understood the deal with Sue’s baby daddy. The New Directions testify to her abuse, such as slashing Artie’s wheelchair tires 17 times. The Geraldo interview is just one good joke after another, all designed to combat her every excuse, so we leave with the impression that Sue is finally good and done.
Not so fast. Not only does the firing plot end with tantalizing pleas from Beiste and Will to reinstate her, but Sue winds up coaching Vocal Adrenaline. The second makes sense. Sue’s the big villain. Of course she’ll align with the other villains for the final stretch, like when Gul Dukat teamed up with the pah-wraiths. But you have got to be shitting me about Will Schuester going to bat for Sue Sylvester. She’s an outstanding teacher, he says, and McKinley is worse without her. No, she isn’t, and no, it’s not. She’s a tyrant who has physically and emotionally abused just about every cast member in Glee history. Will uses the Cassandra July argument, that Sue’s behavior pushes people to do their best. That’s a funny way to describe assault. What’s really galling is having Will say it. The best thing I can say for the character is Will’s a softie who wants to believe the best in people. But really it reads as the writers trying to get us pumped up for Sue’s downfall all through the interview and then swerving into a scold, coming directly from Our Conscience, on the grounds that Sue doesn’t deserve this. Yes, she does, and if this is Glee trying to convince us otherwise, it could at least offer some evidence that she’s a good teacher. Instead she just shouts at Vocal Adrenaline through a performance of “Far From Over” from Stayin’ Alive that they seem to have mastered already. I’d say Sue can stay with Vocal Adrenaline if that didn’t buy into Glee’s show choir essentialism.
Speaking of which, Sue had Dalton burned to the ground. Just like that. We don’t really get a sense of the decision to do it or the event itself, only the cramming-for-finals feeling that it happened. It’s what finally causes Becky to renounce Sue and tip off Geraldo. Presumably there’s a heartwarming Sue-Becky reconciliation in our future, so the eye-roll-inclined should stock up on Visine. It’s hilarious the way the episode tells us about the fire. We open in the auditorium with Will telling the kids to show him what they cooked up. So they perform a rendition of “Rather Be” that’s disarmingly modest. It really feels like something the kids planned on their own, and it’s a refreshing way to start the episode. Just after they begin, Blaine and Kurt walk in. So first of all, why wasn’t Kurt, who is actually the one running this glee club, already there? He takes a seat and puts his arm around Blaine. After it ends, Will turns around and asks them for advice on the performance. They’re not talking. It’s one of the funniest cases of shock in television history. Eventually Blaine says, “There was a fire at Dalton. It burned to the ground. There’s nothing left.” That’s how the writers think such a scene would play out? An apparently zero-fatality fire would shake Blaine into catatonia? They’d amble into rehearsal and just take a seat instead of saying something?
So all of a sudden there’s no Dalton Academy and a bunch of displaced Warblers. Naturally the two good teams unite, and suddenly New Directions has a full ensemble. Not that we know any of the Warblers. That’s another reason our reaction to the fire is so dissonant with Blaine’s. The Warblers are a spiffy Peter Jackson orc army to us. Which also means that when they join the New Directions, we don’t really get a sense of that either. Myron is a character. The New Warblers are back-up singers. And “The Rise And Fall Of Sue Sylvester” doesn’t do anything to change that.
What it does do is represent the teams’ friction and eventual unity in terms of costume. The Dalton blazer represents tradition and excellence, but the New Directions tend to wear individual outfits in the same color family to represent their free spirits, except at competitions they dress up fancy, because judges don’t care about their principles. The two halves of the team clash over the costumes with no resolution, but at the end, as the now four coaches reflect on how nothing has been resolved this week, Blaine says one subplot does have an ending. Cut to the auditorium, where the New Directions sing Darren Criss’ “Rise” and don their compromise uniforms: the Dalton blazer cut in McKinley red. It’s so cute I might actually root for them at sectionals.
Finally, Rachel is caught in the kind of plot I’m sick of criticizing and Glee had been rejecting. She gets the part she auditioned for in the off-Broadway show, but she also gets to come back to NYADA. The NYADA bit doesn’t have nearly the impact it would if Whoopi Goldberg were available, but just seeing Rachel walk the halls as a bunch of nameless first years wander around quickly gives the impression that NYADA was a lifetime ago for Rachel. See? A little showing goes a long way. The problem is back in Lima, where everyone’s excited for Rachel to get back to acting, everyone except Sam, who’s throwing all these PSA faces about her not going to school instead. Will even tells him, “Rachel’s a big girl.” Clearly Glee is trying to head off this exact criticism, but the rest of this story is begging for it: Sam does not get to decide what’s best for Rachel, and Glee coding his position as the right one is insulting. It’s perfectly reasonable for him to have a position and to want what’s best for her. But enough anvils already. What’s so wrong with Rachel pursuing work?
There’s also a moment in this subplot that jolts you out of the show for a second. Rachel tells Sam that Kurt and Blaine are happy for her, but, she says, “You’re the person who matters most.” Wait, what? I know that best friendship changes with the wind on Glee, but Kurt has been there for six years now. It needs to be okay for teen dramas to end with their heroines single, Julie Cooper-style, but I understand we’re talking about the show that just married off two of its OTP. And I get that Rachel and Sam have been dating for four hours, but does Glee have any plans to actually endow this relationship, to give it shape and weight and meaning, or do we just accept that it exists from the signifiers? That’s the main problem with “The Rise And Fall Of Sue Sylvester.” When it shows us, it’s great, but mostly it just tells.
- Sue tries to reject the Warbler alliance, but Will tells her he already cleared it with the superintendent. “I will just have to get it uncleared with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.” I guess her plan was to get the Warblers out of competition altogether? Never mind. I have no idea. Later Becky tells her the alliance is admirable. Sue says, “The president pro tem of the United States Senate, Orrin G. Hatch, begs to differ,” flashing a letter. She reads from it: “Both morally repugnant and convenient.”
- Among the things Becky has done for Sue: “I perjured myself before a grand jury!”
- Geraldo’s list of Sue’s suitors includes Dan Quayle, Johnny Cochran, and the drummer from Jimmy Eat World, all of whom deny any dalliance. Sue corrects him: “I dated all the members of Jimmy Eat World.”
- Joe returns for the Geraldo testimonials sporting a haircut: “She cut my dreads off.”
- Carol Burnett’s Doris Sylvester also returns, and as much as I loved the Geraldo bit, her performance of “The Trolley Song” with Sue is the highlight of the episode. Choice Doris line: “What kind of newborn has a full set of teeth?”
- “The Final Countdown” is a close second. From the intro, Sue playing the opening on an organ, to the ‘80s concert performance, complete with Sue and Will in long wigs and tight black pants, the number’s fantastic. It’s so good that it’s just as fun seeing it from the kids’ perspective, Sue and Will air-guitaring at each other. And the faces they make! If you’ve ever written off Matthew Morrison, his expressions as he shouts “The Final Countdown” in Sue’s face ought to make you reconsider. It’s almost Motherboy-worthy.
- “You’ve crossed me for the last time, William Schuester.” “Do you have any idea how many times you’ve said that?”