No, you haven't time-traveled back to 2009! It's Season 3 and these things are all still happening!
It's not that "I Am Unicorn" was truly terrible; it just dredged up a lot of old material in order to finally give closure on Season 1's dangled arcs, and between the promising conflict in the fresher story ideas and the unpolished execution on the unfinished business, Glee's second offering of the third season felt a bit all over the place.
"I Am Unicorn," written by Ryan Murphy, directed by Brad Falchuk.
The episode's frame was given to us by Kurt and Brittany, and their partnership on Kurt's campaign for senior class presidency. Brittany encouraged Kurt to embrace his uniqueness, calling him a unicorn, definition: someone who is magical and isn't afraid to show it. (Another characteristic is also apparently pooping cotton candy.) But her approach involved Kurt's face photoshopped onto unicorns with rainbows and glitter, and when Kurt realized that his feminine qualities could perhaps keep him from winning the rather butch role of Tony in "West Side Story," he freaked out and rejected Brittany's ideas.
It's not that this storyline wasn't well done, it's just... how many times is Kurt going to learn about the value of being true to himself? I understand that it's one of this show's central tenets, but it'd be nice to see another character come to the forefront to get that treatment through storyline. As it is, Kurt's development is being rewound and recycled so that his involvement in the show is almost entirely to bear that burden, and his reward for doing so comes in the sockless perfection of boyfriend Blaine, who's willing to audition for a lesser part so that Kurt can be the star.
Truly, the best part of the Kurt-Brittany storyline was not with Kurt (although I loved Burt's advice that if there aren't roles for Kurt to play, that he should write them!) but rather with Brittany, and the realization (through Santana!) that she, too, is a unicorn. (And not only that, but to Santana, Brittany is the unicorn. Well-played with the semantics, Mr. Murphy!) So, Brittany has set herself up to run against Kurt for class president, because she wants to believe in her own magic. How great is it that Brittany took her own advice, and wants to make a change? It's a great little step for her character, and I can't wait to see what her campaign involves.
Actually, "I Am Unicorn" did right by characters who don't always see the spotlight - Shannon Beiste and Emma Pillsbury are co-directing "West Side Story," with the help of student director Artie, whose dream (Tina remembers!) is to direct. Mike was given the chance to run "Booty Camp," wherein he got to help Finn, Puck, Mercedes, Kurt, and Blaine brush up on their dance skills. (Sorry, Mercedes. You can't just park and bark!) Sure, it would have been nice to get some more screentime to these storylines, but I appreciate that they were there and that the characters weren't simply forgotten entirely. And even Finn, who normally goes front and center, was sidelined but kept involved, having a mini-arc by triumphing over a tricky dance and confronting the fact that he may be content to stay in Lima.
I have a feeling I'll be able to talk more about Finn and Rachel's differences in terms of dreams after they get some more exposure with it, but I am curious to see what message RM & Co. are trying to send. As far as I'm concerned, it's completely valid for Finn to want to stay in Lima and work with Burt, and I worry the narrative will condemn him for it because of the big dreams of characters like Kurt and Rachel. Not everybody wants to live onstage, and while I think it's canonically accepted that Finn loves performing, it's not eat-breathe-live to him like it is to Kurt or Rachel or Mercedes or Blaine. Finn shouldn't be excluded from happiness simply because he's not theatrical, nor should he be forced into a future with Rachel simply because she thinks he's made for Bright Lights, Big City.
The big shake-up this episode came in the return of Shelby Corcoran, Rachel Berry's birth mother, and adopted mother to Baby Quinn-and-Puck. Turns out Shelby was hired by Sugar Motta's father, in a continuation of Sugar's delusion that she is a fantastic singer, and therefore paid to have a new glee club created just for her. Cue Shelby, best glee club director in the nation! Sure, it's a bit of a clunky way to get Shelby back in the picture, but it at least connected up with Sugar's character in a way that was both comedic and made enough sense, even if slightly unbelievable.
However, the true purpose of Shelby's return is in her interactions with Rachel, Puck, and Quinn - as the mother who denied a relationship with her daughter, and the mother who wants to see her adopted kid have an opportunity to bond with her birth parents. There is huge potential for rewarding character development on all four corners of the square, and it's lovely to see a four-sided construct that isn't romantic conflict! Bless it.
But at the same time, there's a great opportunity to screw up the execution of the storyline, and re-introducing Shelby is therefore a difficult minefield to manuever. In order to see how each of these characters fared in the storyline, it's important to look at their objectives and their resulting development through their interactions.
Shelby returns to the scene with guilt over having left Rachel, and wants to make amends with Rachel as well as give Quinn and Puck the opportunity to be a part of Beth's life and avoid her mistakes. Objective? Strong! The episode's best moments came when Shelby was interacting with Rachel, Puck, and Quinn - the characters she's emotionally tied to. With Rachel in particular, I loved that the writers acknowledged the fractured relationship on both sides, and let Rachel and Shelby start to mend it a little with a breathtakingly powerful performance of "Somewhere." Double points for heartbreaking use of the lyric "there's a place for us," with Rachel snapping against it, and triple points for Rachel sharply pointing out that she doesn't turn her back on her family - the glee club. So, development? We're in the early stages, but I sense its presence! There's at least a goal for Rachel and Shelby that indicates progress. And I hope there is a place for them - if Rachel wants a mother so badly, she shouldn't be denied it.
With Puck, he wants to be a part of Beth's life, just as Shelby wants him to. Objective? I hear it loud and clear! He proves to Shelby, through a passed drug test and a plea for a chance, that he's serious about committing to Beth, and by episode's end, he's holding Beth and taking pictures with her. Development? Indeed!
Where the episode goes wrong is in its treatment of Quinn. Are we surprised? Not really. It's no secret to anyone that I have very specific ideas about what Quinn Fabray is and isn't as a character, and that the writers rarely align their interpretation of her with mine. And unfortunately, "I Am Unicorn" didn't really deliver for Quinn. The first issue is that we had no idea what Quinn's objective was. This is something the show falters on, time and again: what does Quinn Fabray want? Either they neglect to enlighten us, or force feed us some bullshit manifestation of a Quinn who's backpedaling on her original barely-blossomed development.
The beginning of "I Am Unicorn" found Quinn still in cahoots with The Skanks, back to hardcore bullying (ouch!) and easily swayed by a scheme with Sue. It was here where we got a glimpse into what Quinn Fabray wants, and apparently all she wants is couches under the bleachers to rest her weary, smoke-addled lungs. Great. Quinn accepted Sue's offer to be a poster child of how arts education ruins lives, for Sue's campaign effort. She had a run-in with Will, where she blamed him for her problems, and he yelled at her to grow up. (While I'm rarely on board with Will yelling at his students, Quinn has honestly sunk so far into self-loathing delusion that she may need a good shouting match to break down her armor. But it's all moot anyways because Will yelling at her did absolutely nothing. Sigh.)
So, Quinn was objectiveless except in villainy. Her interactions with Shelby danced so closely to her character development that I almost thought the lack of intent for her point of view was excusable. Shelby said all the right things to relate back to Quinn: she confessed that her mistakes have defined her, and she only wants to make them right. She tells Quinn that the first step in growing up is to stop punishing yourself for the mistakes you made as a child. And she tells Quinn, in an indirect way, that no one's hopeless. This dynamic seemed to be so pitch perfect in getting Quinn on track for her character arc, and constructing an interesting parallel between the two characters. We even had Shelby call Quinn out on her identity issues - easily grasping that Quinn's true self is neither the bitch head cheerleader nor the bad girl rebel; they're both just masks to hide a scared little girl.
But Quinn's reactions to Shelby ran as little more than delusional lashing out, and slightly out-of-character. I confess, I've never been one to believe that Quinn's character development had to come hand-in-hand with being a mother to Beth, and honestly, it made me skeptical about tonight's episode. Quinn's arc is about her confronting her true identity and being herself (just like Kurt just like Brittany just like Santana just like Finn just like Puck just like Tina just like Mike just like Karofsky just like everyone) and I find it painfully two-dimensional that Quinn's unhappiness is directly related to the angst of missing her child. Quinn had identity issues because of the pregnancy and not the baby - it was the social implications of her pregnancy that made her re-evaluate her priorities... and then forget about them, in a bout of writerly ignorance.
So truly, I don't really believe Quinn when she says that she's Beth's mother and Shelby will never be. And I don't really believe Quinn when she says she's going to try and get full custody of the baby. This is a poorly conceived plot device that allows for conflict in the square, and completely denies Quinn any real character moments because she's still scheming and still rearranging her identity to meet the expectations of an outside force. Objective? A paper-thin reveal. Development? Nowhere in sight. Is Quinn still a villain? Oh yes she is.
All I really wanted from this episode was the notion that Quinn was going to confront the possibility of living genuinely, and we came so close to having it. But in the end, it was traded in for a misguided and two-dimensional idea that Quinn would want her baby back, with the construct that she'd simply don another lying suit of armor to make it happen. There better be a good payoff at the end of this storyline, with development for Quinn, because right now it's looking bleak.
In the end, "I Am Unicorn" had strong moments, with consideration given to oft-sidelined characters, and a solid-if-recycled message of genuine self-expression with Kurt and Brittany. My main beef is with the handling of Quinn Fabray. Because yet again, she has been denied access to Glee's main message, and the show seems to be telling us that, gay metaphor notwithstanding, Quinn Fabray will never be a unicorn.
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A+
Musical Numbers: A+
Dance Numbers: A+
Episode MVP: Brittany S. Pierce, Unicorn.