Character consistency is an important concept to any television series, particularly dramas. We want the people on-screen to be themselves each week, even if that includes slight variations and ultimately development, along the way. But for most of its run, Glee hasn’t been concerned with such concepts. The series has traded in character consistency and development for big, grandiose moments and statements that are supposed to serve the same purpose.
What’s interesting about “Duets” is that in many ways, also strays from character consistency and what we’ve seen from New Directions’ members this season. However, instead of trying to fit the characters into whatever framework the episode provides like so many Glee efforts do, “Duets” feels like Ian Brennan finally putting his foot down and calling for true development and complicated shading of these people we like to watch, but don’t always like.
And while the framework of the episode does help matters since the duet structure allows for nearly everyone to get a song and those who don’t to still have a story that explains why they aren’t singing, what’s important here is not the framework, not the lesson and not the gimmick. It’s…the characters?
“Duets” gives every member — well except Puck, who joins Jesse and Matt in the land of “moved aside in a few lines of dialogue,” by going to juvi — their own little stories and moments without seeming too overstuffed or simplistic. Not every development in the episode is a monumental change like so many episode’s focus on, but instead, Rachel, Kurt, Brittany and company actually grow as individuals. This sounds like such a foreign concept for Glee and for hte most part it is.
Most importantly, “Duets” sees Brennan more or less re-write and reboot some of the series’ most annoying and frustrating characters and sub-plots in a way that seems natural and not artificial or set-up. The story organically (in the ways Glee can be organic) circled around to re-evaluate Rachel’s general awfulness as a person, added a wonderful and surprisingly poignant layer to Brittany, remembered Quinn existed and most importantly, discussed the series’ most problematic moment to-date: the F-word confrontation between FInn, Kurt and Burt. These are things I never thought the series was willing to do across the whole season, let alone address in one episode.
Thus, this big portion of the write-up serves as an introduction for me to say this: This is the best episode of Glee thus far. Not just the season, but ever. Period.
Like I noted above, the structure of the duet competition serves the characters of New Directions well. Of course, it puts a few characters together in pairings we haven’t seen like Mercedes and Santana, Quinn and Sam and Artie and Brittany but shockingly, none of those pairings feel short-changed or gimmicky. Each pairing — including Finn and Rachel and Tina and Mike — told us something about these characters as people, even if in the least transformative of them all (Mercedes and Santana) it is that these two characters have great musical chemistry.
But it’s the New Direction’er who goes solo that brought the most development of the episode. With Sam new to the club, Kurt sets his sights on him for both musical and romantic duet-making. And just like with Finn, he’s persistent in his desires, more or less forcing the duet onto a confused and naive Sam. When Finn interjects and asks Kurt (very politely, I might add) to take a step back if only to save Sam’s reputation for a little while, the episode drudges up that awful, context-free conversation in “Theatricality” where after literal months of come ons and innuendos from Kurt, Finn just couldn’t take it anymore and (still wrongly, though) called Kurt a faggot. Of course, Burt heard the whole thing, tore Finn a new one, kicked him out and the whole sequence served as this great, “important” Glee moment — but it was a false one.
Thankfully, Brennan lets this episode serve as a referendum on Kurt’s actions by exploring the issue with subtly and finesse that “Theatricality” lacked. Finn emphasizes to Kurt and Sam that he is not homophobic (with the knowledge that he was wrong by using that word), but it’s the rest of the school that will have the problem. And even though Kurt doesn’t want to hear that or learn that he might be just a little too aggressive, both Finn and his recovering father make certain to let him know that he’s not fully innocent anymore. Burt’s heard from Finn’s mother about the events leading up to the basement conversation and now he’s more impartial in the argument.
It is important to note that Brennan does not totally assassinate Kurt’s character and his feelings in some sort of eye-for-an-eye play since he was also in the wrong back in “Theatricality.” Instead, the episode is smart to make sure to note that there are actually two, very complex sides to this story. Finn was wrong back then, but so was Kurt.
And here, while Kurt is taken down a few pegs in a sense, Burt, Finn and even Rachel are supportive of his lifestyle and his inability to really be the person he wants to be. Burt and Finn are both sensitive to the fact that Kurt should be able to act a certain way, but he just can’t in Lima, Ohio, while at episode’s end, Rachel emphasizes to him that while he might be lonely, he is not, in fact alone. He has all of New Directions behind him and his lifestyle and he shouldn’t get lost in that. It gets better.
After the situation with Kurt, Burt and Finn, Rachel is the next important issue to be somewhat resolved or at least stepping towards resolution. For the longest time, Rachel has been a generally awful person that it’s hard to root for her or find any sort of enjoyment in her scheming or so-called “charms.” It’s hard to keep your series consistent when your lead character is unlikable and able to completely change on a whim.
But here, Rachel finally acts more like a human being in her decision to get together with Finn and throw the duet competition so that Sam can feel better about joining the club. As someone who always and I mean always, wants to win, Rachel’s decision to sacrifice a little bit for the greater good is an overwhelming welcome moment.
Again, like with Kurt, Ian Brennan doesn’t go the complete opposite way with Rachel’s development here, making sure to have both she and Finn comment on the fact that while she might say she’s doing this just for Finn, she is still doing it for herself so that the team can get to Nationals and she can be pointed out as the star. And that’s great, and really the way Rachel should be written in every episode. We know she’s competitive and self-involved, she’s a diva. But there’s no reason why she can’t be all those things and someone who does a few nice things along the way.
Plus, it’s nice just to have Rachel and Finn work together in a way that doesn’t really create any problems for them as romantic partners. Instead, this episode suggests they do have solid chemistry and clearly do get along — or at least can get along — on their own.
Those are the two main and best parts of this episode, but everyone else gets their time to shine as well. Tina and Mike Chang are having issues with his overbearing mother and his inability to sing, but their performance is both funny and heartfelt.
After Santana breaks Brittany’s heart by not wanting to sing with her so she can get those glorious Breadstix gift certificates she takes that pain and transfers it in the way that she probably always does: having sex with football players. Thankfully, New Directions offers her a new football player who can also sing (and thus get her those coups) in Artie and she takes advantage of his similarly broken heart by having sex with him. Once he finds out, he breaks off the partnership and Brittany is left pushing a meatball with her nose alone.
What’s great about this story is that it could have been played totally broadly and with a wink like most Brittany scenes are, but instead, somehow, the character is given real human emotions that while goofy, still could exist in real life. Though she has sex with all the football players, it’s apparent that Brittany’s heart lies with Santana and that’s an interesting development. Their lesbian relationship could have been played for some uncomfortable laughs, but it wasn’t. Let’s hope it’s not in the future.
Finally, Brennan gets props for remembering that Quinn exists at all and even more props for putting her into a compelling and fairly realistic relationship with the new guy Sam. The scene where he almost kisses her and she goes on the rant about how she can’t let herself fall into these same patterns is a great bit of self-awareness and still allows for their later scenes — where the chemistry is undeniable — to work within the context of the episode. It is often difficult to introduce new characters into a big ensemble like this and make them feel interesting or additive, but here, Sam fully fits into New Directions and Glee as a whole (and part of that stems from the fact that Puck is gone).
Moving forward, there’s a lot to learn from “Duets.” This episode proves that the series can stories through story and not through music-powered moments. In fact, much of the musical interludes and performances here were not actually that pertinent to the story aside from Tina and Mike’s “Sing!” This episode also proves that the writers, or at least Ian Brennan, are willing to go back and re-visit past stories and beats with a more critical eye, a type of self-awareness that the series lacked in the second half of season one. And finally, it also proves that Glee works so much better without Will forcing the issue on the students and Sue threatening something asinine. Those two characters and actors are great with one another, but they tend to derail the rest of the characters’ momentum and here, they’re barely active and fully absent respectively and it’s a beautiful thing.
As a few people pointed out to me on Twitter, the concern with an episode like this is that even if Ian Brennan is willing to write a specific kind of episode, Ryan Murphy is bound to come in and muck that all up. This is a valid concern, because as good as this episode is in its own right, there’s no guarantee that this kind of Glee will continue. In fact, with the following episode being the Rocky Horror episode, it’s more of a guarantee that this kind of Glee will absolutely not continue. That’s unfortunate, but I can’t worry about that now. This is the first step in making Glee a much better series and let’s hope Ryan Murphy and to a lesser extent Brad Falchuk are paying attention.*
*In case you haven’t heard, the “3 Glees theory,” in which each of the series’ writers have very different views of how it should exist, is out there and Myles McNutt has a nice page where you can see which episodes fit where.