AV Club by Todd Van Der Werff (F)
Stop me if I’ve used this metaphor before—and I think I have—but the problem with Glee is a problem of big and small, especially when it comes to stakes. The show is fond of juxtaposition, of smashing stories up next to each other and seeing what parallels seep out. Sometimes, that works. Other times, it doesn’t. But every once in a great while, we get an episode like this, an episode so wrong-headed that it becomes amazing just how thoroughly the show’s producers don’t understand basic tenets of TV drama. You can have a straightforward, dramatic story with huge emotional stakes. You can have a comedic story with small stakes. You just can’t equate them. Indiana Jones can outrun the boulder. The Millennium Falcon can outrun the explosion of the Death Star. Indiana Jones can’t outrun the explosion of the Death Star. (I really like this metaphor; sue me.)
There is good stuff in tonight’s episode, more good stuff than my grade would suggest. Indeed, if you could somehow surgically remove the Coach Beiste plotline and stick it into an episode where it had been properly built to and properly dealt with, this would be one of the stronger episodes of the season. Rachel’s devastating choke at her NYADA audition was a moment the show’s been building toward all season, and it absolutely nailed her hopelessness when she realized that her lifelong dream of moving to New York and becoming an actress was gone, just like that. (It’s inevitable that Rachel will still move to New York and will struggle along without attending school, but it’s easy to see why she’s devastated for now.) Puck’s realization that he won’t graduate if he doesn’t pass a test wasn’t bad—though it didn’t have nearly the stakes of Rachel’s storyline—and I liked the various male cast members gathering to try to help him pass, at least until they started teaching him classics of the musical theater. Remove the Beiste stuff, and this is a B episode, maybe even a B+.
But the Beiste stuff is just abysmal, roughly the equivalent of the incredibly awful Santana storyline in “I Kissed A Girl” from earlier this season. “But, Todd!” you might say. “Even if it was F-quality stuff—and I could see why you’d argue that—it took up so little of the episode!” And, honestly, that’s my point. Back when Karofsky tried to commit suicide in “On My Way,” I argued that the show brought it up too abruptly (by only bringing Karofsky back in the episode immediately prior to “On My Way”) and that it too quickly abandoned the suicide storyline in favor of the latest bit about the kids going to regionals and triumphing (while singing Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” which… ugh) and something about teenage marriage and texting while driving.
Compared to “Choke’s” handling of domestic abuse, however, “On My Way” is Marcel Proust quality stuff.
Coach Beiste has been gone for several episodes now, and since she’s one of my favorite characters, I always enjoy when she pops up. I’d just figured that she had to sit much of the back half of the season out because of budgetary concerns or what-have-you, but then there she is, popping up in the early going of this episode with a big black eye. Some of the girls make a snide joke about if Cooter could ever possibly abuse her, Sue overhears it, and we’re dropped into the middle of an uncomfortable after-school special that perches halfway between an actual attempt to teach teenagers that domestic abuse is not cool and if you’re in a relationship with someone who abuses you, you should run and, well, the show’s usual attempts to satirize an after-school special. Here, those satirical attempts are best exemplified by the way that the girls break into two verses of “Cell-block Tango” from Chicago and Sue and Roz telling them that they totally missed the point of the week’s arbitrary glee club assignment, which was to sing a song that might give women the strength to leave abusive husbands or boyfriends.
The number is also intercut with the night when Cooter hit Beiste in a drunken rage.
We don’t actually see him hit her. All we see is her cutting up a chicken—the better to lace in the “ran into my knife 10 times!” lyric from the number because this show is awful—and then we see him yelling at her for no good reason. (It turns out he’s mad she didn’t do the dishes like she said she would.) It’s a powerful moment because there’s no way it can’t be powerful. Here’s a strong woman—in every sense of the word—being laid low by a man she loves and trusts, a guy we previously thought was just sort of a well-meaning dork who loved bigger women. It feels devastating, and it’s meant to feel devastating. Sue and Roz go to find Beiste and ask why she walked out of the performance, and Beiste admits the truth about where she got her black eye. The two tell her she needs to leave Cooter.
Then Beiste disappears for well over half the episode, and we spend more time watching Puck learn about European geography by singing a punk-ish cover of “The Rain In Spain Falls Mainly On The Plain.”
This wants to be an episode about failure. Rachel chokes in her audition. Puck fails the test and will have to repeat his senior year, instead of getting his pool cleaning business off the ground. Beiste leaves her abusive husband, then takes him back at the end after he asks her for a second chance. One of these things is so the fuck not like the other. I can sort of see a version of the episode that figures out a way to tie the Rachel and Beiste storylines together, with Rachel’s story serving as the lower-stakes high school drama to Beiste’s high-stakes emotional trauma. Rachel, after all, has been working toward this audition all season long, and when she seizes up, the show portrays it with all the right dramatic beats. There’s just no way to include the Puck storyline in there, however, and the abrupt shifts into “wacky” comedy are all the more jarring because of the other two stories. The Rachel story occupies a weird middle ground between the two, where it could conceivably share an episode with either of them but not with both. The episode ends up addressing domestic abuse with less emotional depth than an NBC “The More You Know” 15-second spot.
Even worse is that this just comes out of nowhere. Granted, that’s one of the messages the story is trying to impart, I guess: Just because you think you know someone doesn’t mean that he can’t flip with rage at the wrong moment. And once he does, you’re better safe than sorry, because people who flip out once are likely to flip out again. The problem is that Glee has bought into the myth of its own importance so thoroughly that it thinks raising an issue, then explaining what you should do in that situation, then going off to have Puck draw awesome rocker demons on his history final, is an adequate way to discuss serious topics. The show’s been doing this since the second season, but it’s grown even more pronounced this season. The series sees itself as a force for good in the world—and, yeah, if this episode helps one woman get out of an abusive relationship, that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t make the show good art or even good crappy television. It makes it painfully, woefully obvious art and crappy television.
Last week, I mentioned that Glee increasingly uses the emotions raised by songs to “coast” off of those emotions, by making us associate the show itself with our positive memories of the songs. That’s not the best way to construct television, but it can work. Increasingly, though, the show doesn’t know how to do anything but coast off of unearned emotional reactions. We like Beiste. We don’t want to see pain come to her. The show wants to say something about domestic abuse. Enter a really strained, deeply flawed depiction of a serious issue. There’s a version of this episode that was just about the three adult women or just about those women and the teenage girls they want to make sure are prepared for a life where not every boyfriend will be Prince Charming. There’s a version of this episode that figures out a way to intercut Beiste’s disappointment and shame in herself with Rachel’s disappointment and shame and doesn’t make the whole thing feel like goofy farce. And there’s a version that creates honest dramatic moments, instead of forcing them on the characters and doesn’t have Sue immediately make fun of Beiste for moving in with her sister, just because that sister’s name is Denise. The show thinks it’s a sweet, satirical comedy, but it also thinks it’s the most important TV series to ever have aired. There’s not a lot of room to move between those two poles, and the more the show attempts to, the more its tone problems arise.
So, no. I can’t run a straight average based on how much of the other material was solid (and the Rachel stuff was really strong). When you have material that attempts to do as much as the Beiste stuff does, you can’t just abandon it for over half your running time. And when you’re going to do something as daring as have one of the show’s strongest characters take back her abuser, it has to play as more than a sick twist at the episode’s end. There was the potential for a powerful episode of television here—or at least an episode with an after-school special vibe that earnestly attempted to address the issue it raised. Instead, we got the ultimate in small being overwhelmed by big. You can’t just unlock Pandora’s Box and pretend it’s all good. You have to be prepared to deal with what you unleash.
- Just tell us how the songs were, VanDerWerff, God!: I always like when the show does an episode with more show tunes, and I liked both of Kurt’s numbers quite a bit, particularly how Chris Colfer played the ridiculousness of “Music Of The Night.” (Bonus points to Jenna Ushkowitz for playing the most listless Christine Daaé ever.) And for as much as I’ve shit all over the Beiste storyline, “Shake It Out” was probably the best number of the night (since it borrowed the song’s much stronger acoustic arrangement). That said, “Cell-block” was just the worst. Not a one of those women sounded appropriately sultry; they all sounded like cartoon characters.
- Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: I was going to pick Rachel for not getting wrapped up in that whole mess of a storyline, but I think I’ll pick Quinn instead for missing the episode entirely.
- If you’re just going to watch one thing from this episode, go check out “Shake It Out” (it leads off the last act) and watch the totally distracting weird guitar player in the background. See how he draws focus with his terrifying smiles as the girls serenade a domestic abuse victim!
- I would have given this episode an A if Kurt had just turned to the band when he switched up his number and said, “Just follow me on the changes.”
- After all of the hype about her appearing, Whoopi Goldberg was a total non-entity. I have to assume she’ll appear again when Rachel magically gets another audition or something.
- I think I watched the entire “Rain In Spain” number with an expression of slack-jawed horror. And My Fair Lady is one of my favorite musicals!
- Also: Was that the most nonthreatening rendition of “School’s Out” ever? I think it was, and that’s not for lack of serious competition.
Hit Fix by Ryan McGee
How much reality can “Glee” actually handle?
It’s a legitimate question, and one the show has never really gotten a handle on. Remember way back when Terri was faking her pregnancy, and it was really freaking terrible and stupid and soapy, but then Will found out, and then sh$t got REALLY REAL for about thirty seconds? Those were thirty seconds of menace, with violence dripping in the air, and Matthew Morrison and Jessalyn Gilsig sold the living hell out of that half-minute. But it was a half-minute rolled up inside the greater context of “Glee,” which made that scene more problematic as a part of a whole. Ryan Murphy seems to not care about the whole so long as things work in the moment, but television isn’t a series of independent moments strung together sequentially. It works as the sum of its parts, and for three seasons, the various parts of “Glee” have been at war with each other.
Such a conflict is problematic but normally nothing to get actually truly mad about. The frustration that comes from a show which pinballs between characters, motives, motifs, and moods is fuel for Twitter snark and animated GIFs. We can laugh off Will desperately wanting his students to be at his wedding while Quinn simultaneously wonders if she can ever walk again as Teen Jesus sports an erection while helping her with physical therapy. Those things don’t really have a place in the same episode, season, or even universe, but the uneasily coexist all the same on a weekly basis on “Glee”. Still, the show creates pockets of unexpectedly powerful or funny moments on a semi-regular basis, with only the weakest episodes devoid of either. Honestly, the worst crime an episode of “Glee” can commit is being boring.
Or so I thought.
Look, who wants to be the a-hole coming down on a storyline about domestic abuse? Not me, that’s for sure. I had this whole thing planned out earlier today where I would forgo a normal review of tonight’s episode “Choke” in lieu of one written from the perspective of one of the techies at McKinley High that set up the fifteen performances a week that New Directions performs so effortlessly. I mean, wouldn’t you want to look at the events of “Glee” from the perspective of the student that had to light the 400 candles onstage for Kurt’s rehearsal of “Music of the Night”? I was even going to suggest that when “Glee” forgets about its characters, they actually assign them to the tech crew, invisibly setting the scene for the types of flawless performances that elude the Marilyn Monroe musical over on “Smash.” Heck, I thought by this point Beiste had been gone so long that she was leader of that crew, given how long she’s had to practice. She hasn’t been forgotten by the show, I thought: She’s been IN TECH.
Instead, we learn that during her absence, Cooter hit her after she forgot to do the dishes.
Yea, not so funny anymore.
The question isn’t about the validity of this storyline. The old adage of “if this helps one woman, it was worth it” more than holds up here. That’s not what we’re talking about here. The question is whether or not “Glee” can sustain such a storyline in a way that doesn’t sell that message short, or fundamentally alter the program’s “we can do anything we want because we’re ‘Glee’” mentality. This all comes down to the way that the show systematically takes the path of easiest resistance possible at all points, and how such a course actually becomes an enormous problem when it wants to move into the realm of something actually important. “Glee” wants to have its cake, eat it, and then sell slices on iTunes. It wants to be a sing-a-long party, a satire, and a heartfelt, meaningful, occasionally important show at the same time. But holy moly, it’s rarely the first, hardly ever the second, and sure as hell not the third in any way, shape or form.
By pairing up Beiste’s domestic problems with Puck’s potential failing grade and the NYADA auditions for Kurt/Rachel, the show actually conflated the three together in a way that suggested these were all three equally troubling times in the lives of these characters. COME ON. Just as the show went tone-deaf when Karofsky’s attempted suicide barely put a dent into Regionals, the show went on for the rest of McKinley High even though Beiste’s problems demanded that the show stop in its tracks and spend some time dealing with such an important issue. This isn’t about the students being terrible people. (If it were, that would be horrific, but potentially interesting.) it’s about the writers of “Glee” not understanding that when it comes to topics like suicide and domestic abuse, they owe the actors and audience the respect those topics deserve.
Honestly, I could have watched an hour of Dot Jones, Jane Lynch, and NeNe Leakes dealing with the aftermath of Beiste’s revelation. It wouldn’t have made the decision to give an underserved character this horrible storyline any better, but at least it might have given the out-of-left-field narrative some necessary weight once introduced. (Even if the Karofsky suicide attempt was botched in-show, at least there was some narrative grounding for it to occur in the first place.) Instead, the show brings up this narrative versus a bad joke by Santana, a self-serving performance of “Cell Block Tango” (which the teachers let conveniently unfold IN ITS ENTIRETY before noting how incorrectly the students interpreted the assignment), and a quick (albeit powerful) scene between the three teachers. After that? Nearly thirty minutes went by before we saw any of these women again! What an insult. It’s insulting to those performing it, those watching it, and those who are actually going through the type of scenario depicted in this storyline. Would a bottle episode involved three secondary/tertiary characters been a break from the norm? Absolutely. Was that break needed to address this topic in a remotely adequate manner? Absolutely.
Look, “Glee” can be as preachy as it wants, especially since there will be some people watching this show who are contemplating suicide, love to text while driving, or are in a relationship from which they need to escape. But preachy is only fine when the show actually commits to the topic at hand. The way this show addresses important issue is the small screen version of one of Emma’s pamphlets. They give the topic some cursory time, but then move on for things like Puck licking a teacher or Finn showing how bad he would be at “Draw Something.” It’s all surface, so why bother introducing it at all? Why should only five members of New Directions realize what is going on with Beiste? Is this actually privileged information or not? Should the men of the group not partake in this discussion? Isn’t this the perfect teaching moment for someone like Will to show that adult men are allies in the fight against domestic violence as well? (Well, maybe not, considering the Will/Terri scene I mentioned at the outset of this review. Jesus, “Glee,” you are just the worst sometimes.)
Moreover, the student-centric plots in and of themselves were fairly important in terms of normal, everyday “Glee”, and depicted vital moments in their lives. And yet none of those stories really landed because Beiste’s storyline sucked all the oxygen out of the episode. It should matter that Rachel flubbed her audition, since we’ve followed her dream to go to New York since the pilot. The idea that this might not happen should be a big freakin’ deal. And yet little of it landed because the show couldn’t step on the narrative breaks long enough to give this audition the space it needed. If “Glee” wants to do A Very Special Episode every once in a while, fine. But it shouldn’t pretend like it can ram it into an already crowded hour and congratulate itself.
Puck’s failures are less important to us, but certainly vital to him. And yet, they are only important because the show trotted out his deadbeat dad just in time to wake him up from his academic stupor. This is the more forgivable form of a “Glee” shortcut, since we don’t expect any parents besides Burt Hummel to impact the show in a meaningful way. Rachel’s gay dads? Mike Chang’s disapproving father? Santana’s abuela? Eh, whatever. The show doesn’t always know how seriously to treat Puck, which means he’s exactly like every other character on this show. And that’s fine, even if it’s disappointing. But this is the type of disappointment we can handle, and the show can sustain, at this point in the show’s run.
What’s not fine is attempting to link the failures of Puck, Rachel, and Beiste and claim that you’ve written a thematically cohesive episode of television. You could write three medical stories that end with a hangnail, a sprained ankle, and a decapitation and be as thematically linked as those three stories tonight. It’s one thing to depict people for whom certain decisions SEEM like life and death in the moment. It’s another to juxtapose those with a story where the life and death stakes are actually REAL. The whole thing falls apart, and the failure of “Glee” to recognize that makes me unspeakably sad and angry. I’ll just say it: “Choke” is a morally reprehensible hour of television, one from which the show may never fully recover. “Glee” can’t have it every which way when the subject matter is this serious. It just can’t. The show did a serious disservice to an important cause, and absolutely no one stopped this from actually airing on television. Instead of patting itself on the back for daring to bring up the issue at all, “Glee” needed to think long and hard about what it wanted to accomplish long before it ever made it onscreen.
But when has “Glee” ever thought long and hard about what it wants to accomplish? It doesn’t think about the future. It exists in the moment. And while those moments can be powerful, they can also undo the entire endeavor. The show will move on from this. Whether or not those watching can is another story.
RBI Report by Dr She Bloggo
This episode of Glee was upsetting, on so many levels. It's bad enough that the main characters of "Choke" were subject to struggle, disappointment, and failure. But on top of that, the episode was constructed on a disturbing foundation of misogyny that seeped into any sensitivity about domestic abuse and sent a disconcerting message about women, men, and the relationships they have amongst one another.
"Choke," written by Marti Noxon, and directed by Michael Uppendahl
Truthfully, we haven't had such an overtly misogynistic episode of Glee since the back-to-back crapfests of "Mash-Off" and "I Kissed a Girl." And where "Choke" becomes even more distasteful is with the notion that it was designed to be an episode dealing with the hugely triggering topic of domestic abuse - against women specifically. What are we supposed to think about an episode highlighting violence against women when the women in the episode were in turns mean, offensive, preached to, scolded, unempowered, victimized, and devastated by failure? Meanwhile, over in Boyville, nary a word was whispered about domestic abuse - despite the fact that the episode specifically addressed all perpetrators of violence as men - as they banded together in their Noble Masculine Qualities of Courage and Camaraderie in an effort to help their fellow Man achieve his manly potential even despite his absent father.
Individually, the storylines for Rachel and Puck are not terribly problematic in terms of storytelling decisions. Sure, they're sad. But they both provided obstacles for the characters to overcome, which is a valid storytelling construct - and even though I saw Rachel's failure from six Tuesdays ago, Puck's failure was a great storytelling misdirect. Beyond that, it makes a considerable amount of sense that Rachel could put too much pressure on herself and blow her audition. It also makes sense that Puck wouldn't put any stock in his education until he sees his own deadbeat father as a cautionary tale. (Although, in the first case, it'd be perhaps easier to swallow if the audition screw-up weren't "Don't Rain on My Parade," which Rachel performed on a minute's notice to complete perfection two years ago. And in the second case, I kind of thought Puck already had ambitions with the specific construct that it was in direct and purposeful contrast to his abandoning father. But whatever.)
Where the episode goes catastrophically wrong is in the execution of the stories individually, and in their marriage with the third: Shannon Beiste's inclusion as a women who is in the first romantic relationship of her entire life, and being physically abused. With this incredibly grave story as the emotional weight of the episode, the choices for the rest of "Choke" become hugely important, and not unlike Rachel Berry and Noah Puckerman: the writers blew it.
In order to get their Very Special Episode about domestic violence, which for some reason was 100% necessary four episodes before graduation, it became equally as necessary, apparently, to drag five female characters through the mud. Upon seeing Coach Beiste sporting a black eye, Santana mouthed off about her husband hitting her, and Sugar, Tina, Mercedes, and Brittany all snickered at the remark. Sue and Roz overheard the joke, and immediately scolded the girls for their insensitivity. And while I certainly don't disagree with the idea that domestic violence is nothing to be joked about, I question why this became a teaching moment for the young girls only, and why it was necessary to show them to be so callous and flippant about abuse. While it's great that Sue and Roz put aside their differences to stand up for a common cause, and had all the right reactions to Shannon's scenario, the thrust of the storyline was built on the idea that the teenage girls just Didn't Get It. They had to be sat down and Taught a Lesson. And when the assignment was to sing a song of empowerment, they went straight to "Cell Block Tango" without any discussion, and got scolded for their continued poor choices. Not only that, but Santana got saddled with another instance of Unfortunate Plot Device, wherein the writers use her however they please in others' storylines, regardless of established characterization, to make sure they get their point across.
Why was it that only these five girls were subjected to this week's lesson? Why were the boys excluded from this when "Choke" communicated very singularly that women are subjected to abuse by their male significant others? Y'know, it's fine for the girls to be naive about Shannon's situation, especially since they're supposed to be 18 and they probably don't pay that close attention to their teachers' home lives. But it's not fine for them to be rude and then scolded, in conjunction with the boys being excused from the message completely because the writers chose not to give them any nasty dialogue. And I'm not saying that the teenage boys needed to be held accountable for another man's actions - but they needed to be a part of the conversation. How many young men are aware of the fear that most women carry with them every day - the fear of being physically or sexually harmed by a man? Usually this applies more to violence from strangers than loved ones, but the point still stands.
But instead of a gender-inclusive discussion of domestic abuse, the education was doled out to the girls only, as if this is solely a "girl problem." Sorry ladies, but this is something you might have to deal with! It could happen to you! And while that is sadly true, it's still not okay to leave the boys uneducated about the power dynamics between men and women, especially when the episode communicates that it's the boys who can become violent. Wouldn't it have been better to use the scenario to highlight the internalized misogyny that snakes through both the infliction of domestic violence as well as how society chooses to educate about it? Instead of assuming that all transgressors of abuse are men, why not acknowledge that domestic violence is not unilaterally defined by a male harming his female significant other? For instance, where do Brittany and Santana, and Kurt and Blaine fit into this lesson, as same-sex couples? And, in communicating the important information that yes, women are more likely to be physically harmed by a significant other than a man, why not ask the question of both sexes: why? The answer paints a disturbing portrait of power, aggression, and misogyny that is crucial to understanding how society imparts its own damaging lessons about gender norms and equality. But instead of exploring these areas, "Choke" just offered up another nasty example of its own internalized misogyny, and focused only on the insensitivity of the potential victims of it. And if the response here is that the preferred explorations are "too serious" for Glee, then frankly that means that the topic of domestic violence is likewise too serious for this show.
It's bad enough that the men of the hour weren't involved in any discourse on domestic violence. What makes it even worse is that the supplanting storyline was built entirely around a "bro-vention," wherein Finn and the guys rallied around Puck to help him pass a test. This storyline, while sound for Puck conceptually, was riddled with example after example of expressions of masculinity that become offensive when paired with tonight's other fare. For instance, it's communicated (twice!) that the guys have to help Puck because "no man gets left behind," an adoption of the noble attitude of male soldiers at war. When they stand by him and help him study, he's grateful for their assistance, and tells them that each and every one of them have taught him how to be a man. And of course, this discourse on masculinity happens, as it does on Glee, against the backdrop of an absent father figure. Puck changes his mind when he's approached by his deadbeat dad begging him for money - it's enough to light the fire under his ass and get him focused on graduating and not being a loser. And the writers even had the audacity to give Mr. Puckerman this line: "The hardest thing for a man to do is to ask for help." Really? Really? Tell that to fucking Shannon Beiste two storylines over, who, as a woman, is not asking for help and remains, as a result, in a physically harmful relationship.
I'm not saying Puck's dad isn't allowed hardships, or pride. But to attribute his difficulty asking for help as a strictly masculine problem and ignoring the fact that a woman on the show is struggling with a parallel difficulty in the exact same episode? Party foul. This incites the same kind of rage in me as the carousel of "what it means to be a man" storylines that Glee has had us on with four different male characters, while the only repeated message about its female characters seems to be that their relationships are one-dimensional or absent entirely. It's also the same rage I have when Finn & Bro-Co. are portrayed as noble and well-intentioned, but Santana & Girl-Co. act like bitches in the first five minutes. It's the same rage I have when every male character with an absent father also has, as a result, a working single mother who assumedly experienced no lack of struggle in raising their kids, and yet Glee shines no light on the role she had on her childrens' lives. We don't see Puck's mom. Carole hasn't been an active force in Finn's life since she started dating Burt. And even Will's mom, in the one episode we saw her, is not taken seriously. The message is that women can't teach boys about being "men" - only other men can do that, even if they're 17-year-olds.
Even with the episode's disconcerting structure, a few problems could be eradicated if there were simply no offensive joke from Santana right off the bat. Surely there's another way to introduce the episode's "theme" without dragging a character through the mud so they can be yelled at? The problem would be assuaged further with a redirection of "Cell Block Tango." That musical number is legendary, and the fact that Glee repurposed it to be taken seriously, without any of its original context and tone, completely ruined it. What should have been done instead is the idea that the glee ladies performed "Cell Block Tango" as a form of misguided encouragement for Shannon. Roz even expressed the question: why not just fight back? But it's easier said than done, and it makes sense that teenagers would give well-intentioned but ultimately off-the-mark advice that amounts to "if you hit him back, he had it coming." This way, "Cell Block Tango" could still be used in the same basic construct, but with considerable less offense concerning the intent of the girls performing it. With their naiveté played as the result of well-intentioned youth, the result would feel less like shaming young women about their ignorance of domestic violence and more like young women trying to be supportive in whatever way they know how. It would also feel less like Sue Sylvester getting preachy about the topic when she's shoved a lady down a flight of stairs, onscreen, and has habitually pushed around students in the hallway. (I prefer to count those moments as times when the writers did wrong by Sue Sylvester's characterization, though.)
I could go on and on about gender issues. I could talk about how the boys rallied around Puck, but the girls didn't rally around Rachel. I could talk about how the only people at Rachel's audition were Will, Kurt, Finn, and Blaine. I could talk about how Puck's attempts to seduce a female teacher nearly worked (again!) because said teacher is "excruciatingly lonely" and so of course an older woman would shelve all logic and morals to have a chance with a student who got a girl pregnant his sophomore year. I could talk about this moment in contrast with Shannon's, where she admits that she thinks no one else could love her except the man who's abusing her. I could talk about how the writers gave Puck a song from My Fair Lady and reappropriated him to be a growl-rock version of Eliza Doolittle.
But I'm tired of talking about all of Glee's gender issues. It's upsetting that a show with such widespread popularity and self-purported "good messages" offers up such a flattened, insulting, and imbalanced portrayal of men and women. Because I am a masochist, I have a post-it on my desk listing the show's most sexist episodes. There are twelve titles written on it.
It's unfortunate, because there were several decisions in "Choke" that, when divorced from gender politics, were compelling under the basic lens of narrative interest. When Puck received his "F," despite his attitude change and studying regime, it was enough to make me sit up and pay attention. Really? No reward for his hard work? The choice felt almost like older Glee fare: an unexpected tragic outcome that resonates emotionally despite its simplicity. This show was built on the idea that little things, to teenagers in Middle America, can feel like they carry the weight of the world. With the right emotional circumstances and larger consequences, Glee was originally able to make theatrics and exaggerations incredibly significant - when they were scaled down to have meaning in the small, specific reality of a character's worldview. Since then, theatrics have been rendered two-dimensional, and Glee has devolved into an orgy of melodrama, self-indulgence, and over-hype with fewer reflections below the surface. But Puck's failure resonated with some of the show's original tone, made even more poignant with the idea that none of us were expecting it.
Rachel's failure, however, was far more predictable. She spent the episode gearing herself up for her NYADA audition, armed with her heretofore flaw-free rendition of "Don't Rain on my Parade," and the confidence that it's now her time to shine. This was Rachel Berry in classic form, as her dreams finally resurfaced in the narrative in their original incarnation, and not as mere plans she might give up should her high school romance demand it. We even got original Rachel Berry monologues, and the classic construct of Rachel staring herself down in the mirror - negotiating her identity with her future at stake. What could go wrong? She's been preparing for this moment her whole life. But "Choke" presented a conflict of ideology in Rachel and Kurt. Is it better to take a risk, or play it safe? Rachel insisted that this was not the time for risk-taking, while Kurt wants to break out of the box. But with Rachel's pressure, he sticks with his more typical rendition of "Music of the Night," instead of his apparently wild idea to perform "Not the Boy Next Door." That is, of course, until he's on stage and sees Carmen Thibedeaux's tight-lipped reaction to his song selection. So, naturally, it's breakaway Phantom clothes, standby gold pants, and back-up back-up in Brittany, Tina, and Mercedes. (It's nice to see they're recycling their Regionals outfits from two years ago!)
Kurt, of course, is rewarded for his risk, and receives high praise for his somewhat impromptu performance. But Rachel sticks to her guns, and royally screws up. She somehow flubs "Don't Rain on my Parade" not once but twice, and is shut down completely by Carmen. Cue the most heartbreaking thing to witness: Rachel Berry begging, with tears in her eyes, for another chance. Of course, she doesn't get it, and for the first time in her life, it seems like her future hopes are completely dashed. Now, I don't mind in theory the idea that Rachel would experience some sort of failure on her journey to Broadway. It's realistic, and provides her with something to triumph over. However, I find the message here interesting. She goes with her gut, and fails. This, of course, plays in contrast to Kurt, who goes with his gut, and succeeds. I almost wonder if it would have been better for Rachel to switch songs as Kurt did, before ultimately tripping up - thereby reinforcing the notion that Rachel's success is also contingent upon her instincts. Because how many times has Rachel Berry been rejected for being exactly who she is? I'm not fussed about Rachel failing; I'm fussed about Rachel receiving the message that she's not enough, or that her core traits are not valued, no matter how many times she recites mantras in the mirror. But if Rachel had switched songs, it would have been more indication of her character devolution through the seasons, and I can't decide which is a worse: a classic and unchanging Rachel Berry that is tragically stuck in the same conflict, or a new-and-improved Rachel Berry who gives up her identity for what she thinks others want from her.
In the end, it wasn't so much that Puck and Rachel failed, or that Shannon chose to give Cooter another chance despite having told everyone that she had moved in with her sister. These individual choices, while tragic and upsetting, can be made valid by storytelling construction - and to a certain degree, were. All three were tragic heroes at the helm of their own stories, and the cross-cutting in "Shake it Out" and "Cry" with the reveals about Puck and Shannon were incredibly powerful and emotionally resonant. However, when combining these storylines, the Glee writers somehow came up with "Choke": an episode intended to deal with domestic violence, but instead revealed the misogyny inherent in their own structure, all wrapped up with a title that's either a nauseating attempt to be clever, or a disturbing piece of insight as to how little these writers think about their choices.
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B+
Dance Numbers: B+
Episode MVP: Shannon Beiste
“School’s Out,” Puck
- TV Line: Even with the hellions-in-the-bathroom, Cheerios-writhing-on-the-playing-field, everyone-in-Alice-Cooper-mascara motif, this felt like something of an afterthought. Grade: C-
- Entertainment Weekly: Puck covers the Alice Cooper original. Fitting choice, although the vocals left a bit to be desired in the rocker angst category. B
- Washington Post: One of the subplots this week involved Puck, the possibility that he won’t gradiate and the fact that his dad is Michael Mancini from “Melrose Place.” This particular Alice Cooper ditty expressed Noah Puckerman’s eagerness to escape the confines of high school. It was a subtle, restarained number that involved loud guitars, motorcycles, Cooper-esque eye make-up for Puck and a bunch of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”-style cheerleaders, and those same cheerleaders spreading their legs. The only thing missing was Mitch Kramer attempting to avoid getting paddled by a high school senior. Grade: B.
- Rolling Stone: Well, if anyone was going to Glee-ify Alice Cooper, I guess Puck makes the most sense. But the whole Cheerios-sporting-Cooper-eye-make-up thing is just a little beyond. Is this real life? Or is this just fantasy?
“Cell Block Tango,” Tina, Santana, Mercedes, Brittany, and Sugar
- TVL: A faithful rendering of the Chicago classic (no, that’s not a Pizzeria Uno reference), although how come there were only five merry murderesses? Grade: B
- EW: Showing nearly an exact replica of the staging from the movie, this version lacked the heat and emotional punch from the stage show. To quote Sue, it kind of missed the point. C
- WP: It was nice to see Tina get a solo, especially one that allowed her to engage in some tangoing of sorts with Mike, even if she did dance-shoot him in the head. (He had it coming, apparently. At least that’s my understanding.) They Rob Marshall-ed it up convincingly enough even if the reason for performing it — to demonstrate female empowerment in the face of male abuse — was a bit misguided, as Sue and Roz pointed out. Grade: B.
- RS: And then we have to suffer through the most watered-down version of the Chicago song I have ever heard. I am only thankful it was cut down to a third of its length. Sue puts it best: "Well, you completely butchered one of my favorite Kander and Ebb tunes," she says, "And you completely missed the point."
- TVL: I loved Kurt’s whole “I had my swans on standby” shtick as he changed directions from “Music of the Night,” but the choreography here felt a little…stilted? I thought last week’s “I Have Nothing” was a more impressive musical moment. Was it just me? (OP: yes) Grade: B+
- EW: A
walkingdancing PSA for always having a backup plan (and a snug pair of pants) ready to go. The final note in the arrangement seemed a bit high, but I think it’s safe to say that one Kurt Hummel will be a NYADA first-year this time next year. A-
- WP: Forget “Phantom,” and throw on your gold lame pants, Kurt Hummel! That’s precisely what he did, making an 11th-hour audition switch — one that somehow still allowed him to wear the appropriate tear-away costume and bring on a trio of New Direction ladies as back-up singers — to sing this Hugh Jackman song from “The Boy From Oz.”He was fabulous, winning over Tibideaux and proving that Hummel knows how to shake those hips when he has to. Grade: A.
- RS: This is miles better than last week's Whitney Houston number, complete with shimmying and booty shaking and a fine vocal that almost regrettably ends in a predictable high note. Here's hoping for a Hugh Jackman/Chris Colfer duet on this at this year's Tonys telecast.
“The Rain in Spain,” The Guys of New Direction (except Kurt)
- TVL: Props to the show for trying a drastically different rock arrangement of the My Fair Lady ditty, but I have to be honest: It mostly made me wince. Grade: C (hey, it’s better than getting an F like Puck, yes?)
- EW: This number consisted of the guys talk-singing their way through My Fair Lady and European Geography. Inspired song choice. B-
- WP: At this point in this week’s episode of “Glee,” it became abundantly clear that the only reason Puck needed to pass a European geography test was so that he, eventually, would have to sing a rock version of this “My Fair Lady” classic, with Finn and the boys acting as his tutors. Show of hands: Who ever took a test in high school that required them to know that the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain? Or that in ”Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen”? No one, unless they were taking a class on the history of musical theater? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Grade: C-.
- RS: It's truly unclear whether this or "Cell Block Tango" was the bigger musical theater mishap on tonight's episode.
“Shake It Out,” Mercedes, Santana, and Tina
- TVL: I got chills — and they were multiplyin’ — as the trio of New Directions divas harmonized against images of Beiste returning home to her abusive hubby. Grade: A
- EW: This haunting arrangement really benefited from the a cappella sections that provided a different vibe than the Florence + The Machine original. B+
- WP: As Sue Sylvester noted, the “Glee” choir room is indeed Ameria’s No. 1 destination for cheap, sappy moralizing. And that’s what the “Cell Block” girls engaged in when they insisted on crooning this Florence + the Machines tune to Coach Beiste in order to lift her spirits.Why were Brittany and Sugar even present if they were just going to sit there and not sing? Why, as shown via cutaway shots, did Beiste get back with Cooter even though she swore she wouldn’t? Why was I getting teary-eyed even though I was fully aware that “Glee” was basically ordering me to be moved? I know the answer to that last one, at least: because Dot-Marie Jones was weeping again. And I can’t stand to see a grown Beiste cry. Grade: B+.
- RS: The song in question is a lovely acoustic version of Florence and the Machine's Ceremonials single, which is sung while Bieste breaks down in tears as she flashes back to Cooter begging for a second chance.
- TVL: Rachel may be a maddening ball of crazy, but my heart broke for her as she mourned the loss of her NYADA dreams — with jaw-dropping vocal athleticism — on this Kelly Clarkson ballad. Grade: A
- EW: The closer of the episode showed Rachel emotionally pouring all her disappointments and doubts into this Kelly Clarkson tune. Powerful and chilling. A
- WP: Look, I know Rachel’s intensity can be a bit over-the-top. But when she/Lea Michele really throws herself, full-bodied, into a wrenching song, it’s something to watch. And that’s what she did with this Kelly Clarkson track in which it became clear that our Miss Berry may not be destined for the white hot spotlight after all. (Well, let’s be real: she is. But she’s in a slump at the moment.) In any case, grade: A.
- RS: She does a pretty great Kelly Clarkson impersonation, and avoids oversinging the big notes while all the while doing an equally great ugly cry.
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