"On My Way," written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, directed by Brad Buecker
You have to wonder what Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's reactions were when he was doled out his Glee episodes this season. His first charge was "The First Time," which dealt with the delicate issue of teen sex. For his second go-round, he got "On My Way," which focuses heavily on a discussion of teen suicide. Goodness gracious. I hope they got this guy a couple sessions of sensitivity training before he put pen to paper, but he has easily had the most difficult topics to maneuver through gracefully this season.
On a larger level, "On My Way" handled Karofsky's situation delicately and compassionately - and ultimately, realistically. There are not words to describe how heartbreaking it was to witness Max Adler's face fall when he realized his entire world was shifting and breaking apart. There are not words to describe how stomach-twisting it was to see him dress up in a suit, check his belt for weight-resistance, and then look up at the beam in his closet with tears in his eyes. But in that vein, I felt it was too much. Subtlety threaded through the earlier decision: the directorial restraint through showing Dave's face, and holding there, knowing that the audience could read the emotional all over it gave us everything we needed to know. We didn't need to see "fag" spray-painted across his locker. We didn't need to see people's Facebook comments. We didn't need to see the beam in the closet. It felt like the episode was trying too hard to legitimize to the audience why Karofsky would want to kill himself, in a logical tally, when in reality: all we really needed to see was his face, when he realizes that his world has shattered. Max Adler is a shockingly talented actor for having such limited exposure on this show, and I wish that more faith had been put in his ability to carry this storyline using simply his acting talent.
In that sense, "Cough Syrup" didn't really work for me. I wish that we had just had a cut to black, scene end, after seeing Dave's heartbreak. Less is more, and I don't think the audience would have a diminished emotional reaction hearing about Karofsky's actions without seeing his process. Especially when the process is set to a backdrop of a Blaine solo that has no narrative connection to provide any authentic meaning to the real storyline going on.
It'd be one thing if we started with Dave and then stuck with Dave for the episode. But we barely started with Dave, then we lost him completely for the middle of the episode, as all the other characters had profound thoughts about his condition, then forgot about him so we could be overloaded with five songs in a row that meant absolutely nothing except for the fact that they're at a competition, and then finally, we got to see Dave again when Kurt visited him in the hospital. It reminded me too much of Santana's role in "I Kissed a Girl" - Glee touts themselves an episode that will handle directly the sensitive issues of these characters, but in reality turns them into a project for the show and its ensemble to interact with. It feels exploitative, and false.
For example, in "On My Way," we just don't see Karofsky at all for the middle of the episode, and instead we get really strange declarations of empathy. Quinn says she's had dark days but never considered hurting herself. Sebastian's villainy evaporates faster than a teardrop in the desert, and Finn feels compelled to inform Rachel that he'll never be so insecure about his reputation that he'd try to kill himself. Even Mr. Schuester sits down with everybody to tell them about the time he thought about stepping off the roof to avoid disappointing his parents. I see what the writers are trying to do: they're trying to open a discussion on suicide, treating it as something that a lot of people struggle with, and saying that while it's not something to hide away and be ashamed of, it's also not the answer. But by having Karofsky's singular experience reverberate through the other characters in this way, it automatically opens up a can of "is that really the same thing?" worms. Kurt himself chastised Quinn for comparing her teenage pregnancy and "bad dye job" to being bullied as a gay teenager. It's such a difficult topic to broach, because the reality is that people's problems are exactly as real and harrowing as they feel them to be. And frankly, good storytelling allows the audience to understand every character's struggles as deeply personal and impacting, regardless of "how bad they are" objectively. It's why I frowned when Kurt trivialized Quinn's previous experiences. We saw Quinn get thrown out of her house and how much pain it caused to have everything in her life ripped away from her. Marginalizing her experience when we actually bore witness to it felt condescending, from a storytelling perspective. It would have been stronger to keep the over-identifying and "who has it worse" comparisons to a minimum.
I wager to say this wouldn't have been as much of an issue if Karofsky was present and had a voice throughout the bogged-down middle where everyone was awkwardly trying to put themselves in his shoes. And of course, the one person in the narrative who could legitimately put himself in Karofsky's shoes based on actual experience was Kurt, who was scripted to feel responsible for Karofsky's actions. So much so that he went to the God Squad to pray for him, even though he doesn't believe in God. This is another iffy thing for me. Kurt wouldn't pray for his dad when his life hung in the balance. And the idea that we found out, retroactively, that Kurt was ignoring Karofsky's calls and now feels guilty is upsetting to me. Kurt and Karofsky's relationship is a very thin wire for the writers to walk, and it has historically been handled with a surprising amount of sophistication. I appreciate that we don't go unreminded that Karofsky made Kurt's life miserable, and I love that Kurt is compassionate and decent, and forgives him, through empathy. The elements that "Heart" and now "On My Way" have presented add another dimension to the Kurt/Karofsky dynamic that frustrates me. They saddled Kurt with guilt over turning down Karofsky's romantic pursuit and didn't point out that, forgive the religious allusion, that's not his cross to bear.
Of course, if you have an overly sensitive bullshit detector with Glee, as I am cursed with, you'll notice that Karofsky's suicide attempt comes on the heels of one single scene where he's reintroduced to the audience. He's had one other scene previously this season, in "The First Time" - but other than that, he's long been absent from our radars. If you compare and contrast the two characters in danger in "On My Way," you'll notice that Quinn's peril comes on the heels of a complete 180 in character treatment. Since "Hold On To Sixteen," we've had six episodes where Quinn is present in the narrative, with a reason for the audience to care about her again. This was done to progress her arc with Rachel leading up to the car crash, where we can properly freak out about what's going on. With Karofsky, we're not given that same opportunity. This only fuels the argument that Karofsky was treated less like a real character and more like a plot device from the showrunners, to have their Very Special Episode where they attempt to deal with very real social issues.
And it's here where I will reiterate my disclaimer: this series of nitpicks is really addressing the show's handling of the topic, and by no means do I claim this to be beyond argument or discussion. Ultimately, I think the right message was delivered, with the right questions asked along the way - particularly the exchange between Figgins and Emma. "It wasn't our job to know." / "Then whose job was it?" Heartbreaking. I also appreciated Schue's advice to find things to look forward to, and how we got to hear what those things are for the glee kids. And it paid off wonderfully with Kurt's scene with Karofsky at the hospital, where he asks him to imagine a happy future - and Karofsky does. That sequence was fantastically done, with Kurt's relief that Karofsky feels enough investment to correct "lawyer" to "sports agent," capped by mutual understanding, and a commitment of support and frienship. This was the true gem in a storyline that felt a bit overworked in all the wrong places, and I wish that the other parts of the hour fell more into alignment with this. (Could we have gotten a little something with Karofsky and Santana? After all, she's the only other one who knew his secret at McKinley. And my heart panged painfully when Santana said she was looking forward to her grandmother loving her again. If we're not going to resolve that loose thread right away, it'd be nice to remember that it existed, and this episode was a good setting for some exploration.)
Now, to everything else. Regionals was this episode, and frankly I couldn't bring myself to care that much about it. The writers tried to inject some conflict into the storyline through their trusty standby - blackmail! - but it deflated quickly. Sebastian photoshopped some n00dz (is it unprofessional to call them that?) of Finn and threatened to spill them onto the internet unless the New Directions threw the competition. Finn and Rachel argued about what to do, because Rachel was like, "Hey, people used to tell me to get sterilized on my MySpace page, so I don't see what the big deal is," and Finn fell back on his multi-purpose, "How could you do this to me?!" argument. (Note to writers: can we have a scenario where Finn is not the victim? Or the hero? Something in between, maybe, like for normal human characters who have strengths and weaknesses and agency in their own storylines without spilling it over into others'? Just something to consider.)
But the conflict fizzled out completely because Sebastian had a change of heart upon hearing about Karofsky's attempted suicide. Turns out Mr. Slimeball also wreaked havoc on Karofsky's self-esteem, and felt guilty. So, n00dz begone, which was a good thing, because if nobody could get Sebastian in trouble for causing physical harm to a student in "Michael," then they sure as hell couldn't do anything about a silly 'shop job. Even though Artie had the rulebook recited down to the letter. (Sigh.)
The Regionals storyline continued with five songs about nothing in particular, that I think were supposed to be a little break from the episode's dark subject matter, but that really felt so tonally dissonant that I wanted them to wrap up as quickly as possible. The Regionals numbers were treated like they were paying off some big setup, but there was nothing connected to them that would make me feel any sense of triumph at the kids' performances. Although, I will admit that I have an involuntary contempt for the song "I Believe I Can Fly" because my sixth grade music teacher made our class learn all the words and sing it together multiple times a class period for weeks on end, and I am forever scarred by so many repetitions of a song I don't even think I cared for in the first place. On a serious note, I do actually question the decision to include Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger" in this episode, not because I don't like the song or the Troubletones (extremely false on both counts) but because it has the repeated lyrics "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," which seemed in poor taste given Karofsky's storyline. But maybe that's just me.
Finally, let's talk about Quinn. Ms. Fabray goes to Sue early in the episode to ask if she can have her spot back on the Cheerios. Not really sure why the writers did this, from a character perspective. Sure, Quinn wants to make the most of what's left of her high school career, but honestly it seemed like Cheerio Quinn was laid to rest. But apparently Quinn wants to help the team get a Nationals Trophy, and I appreciate the idea that Glee might devote some time to putting Sue and Co. back on top without making them the nefarious villains that came with that success in the first season. Although I confess that I'm bewildered by Sue's conversations with Quinn and Schue about her pregnancy. Apparently the Glee writers think that pregnancy hormones really do declaw erstwhile meanies like Quinn and Sue, because Sue let Quinn back on the squad and then offered to help the glee club win Nationals. I'm excited by this prospect, I guess? De-villainizing the Cheerios and creating a neutral alliance between them and the glee club could be really great - especially if it means that Kurt and Mercedes rejoin the squad.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. This all kind of depends on whether or not Quinn Fabray makes it out of this episode alive. Oh, yes. You heard me. CLIFFHANGER ALERT. I'm not sure why Glee felt the need to go all hour-long drama on our asses by suspending a character's life in the balance over a seven-week hiatus, but in any case, it was of course Quinn Fabray who drew the short straw. And if that weren't enough for a satisfying TV cliffhanger, toss in a wedding! Yes, Rachel and Finn's wedding pushed itself up the calendar so quickly that I'm half-surprised we didn't hear that it already happened yesterday and Finn and Rachel flashbacked to it for us. Most everybody still seems to oppose, but the lovebirds are bulldozing ahead, with a ceremony at City Hall right after Regionals. Hiram Berry couldn't fake an epileptic seizure fast enough!
But the lynchpin turns out to be Quinn, who goes to Rachel after the competition and tells her she wants her to be happy, and that she wants to come to the wedding in support. But she checks one thing first: she asks Rachel if she sang her solo "Here's To Us" to Finn Hudson, and to Finn Hudson only. Hold the phone, shut everything down. What is happening here? What is that look on Dianna Agron's face as she hugs a Rachel who just said "yes" to her question? What do you mean Finn and Rachel's wedding all boils down to Quinn Fabray? Because in the end, Quinn ran home to get her bridesmaid's dress, and was holding up the entire wedding. And the choice for Rachel literally boiled down to a) marry Finn now, or b) wait for Quinn, and potentially not marry Finn. It looks like she's leaning towards waiting, as she furiously texts Quinn that she needs to hurry. Quinn texts back "on my way," the episode's title, and immediately gets T-boned, on the driver's side, by a speeding truck.
Look, I know that there's Quinn/Rachel subtext. And I know that historically, it's been just that: subtext. But homies, this kind of construction is wandering out of subtext territory. We're bubbling up into text now. Even if Rachel and Quinn's proud smiles at hearing what each other is looking forward to in the future weren't enough, we have the maddeningly unexpected double-check that Rachel was singing to Finn and Finn alone. What else are we supposed to think with that question, other than that Quinn might be hoping that Rachel was singing to her? But at the same time, while this relationship has developed deliberately and meaningfully, especially recently, the writers have not ever suggested directly that Quinn Fabray would even want Rachel Berry to sing something to her. So I'm left completely bewildered. If the show is going to go there, it needs to commit. Maybe they're hedging their bets because of the claim that this show already has "too many gay characters," and are working to slip it in under the radar of the broader public.
But frankly, they already committed themselves with the way the wedding arc was constructed. Every step of the way, Quinn has firmly opposed the union, and told Rachel she had a bright future before her. This of course is pay-off to the idea that Rachel supported Quinn when she was doubtful about her future prospects, and helped get her out of her self-destructive streak. (Y'know, that "bad dye job.") Then, Quinn finally commits to supporting her friend, only to get held up in actually attending the wedding. This could all be potentially negligible, if it stopped there. But the drama in the cliffhanger came from the construction that Rachel has to choose. She rather harriedly refuses to get married without Quinn there, but is being pressured to go through with it - and only now is she starting to bend to the pressure. She is literally told, "It's now or never." Rachel Berry got ultimatum-ed with a choice between Finn and Quinn, on her wedding day, and she hesitates.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is text. And I don't mean the "on my way" message Quinn sent to Rachel as she was hit by an oncoming truck. This love triangle has shifted and re-positioned itself, and we are suddenly at a place where Quinn double-checks who Rachel's singing to, and Rachel is forced to make a choice between Quinn and Finn. So there's two choices. There's Rachel's not going through with the wedding, and then feeling even more miserable knowing that Quinn got into a car wreck trying to come and support her when she was right all along. Then there's Rachel going through with the wedding without Quinn, and feeling guilty when she realizes that the reason Quinn couldn't be there was because she got into a car wreck. Either way, subtext is rising to the surface, and I think I need to start stocking up on tissues.
But, I have seven weeks to wait. "On My Way" did its damnedest to cram in a lot of sensationalized material, and while there was certainly a multitude of emotion mined from the events, I still take issue with how some of it was handled, and how the episode was structured around its characters. In terms of Karofsky's storyline, the best takeaway is this: if you feel like there's no hope in your existence, to the point where you'd consider taking your own life, please, step back and ask for help. Contact The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You're not alone, and there will always be someone to help you through your difficult times, no matter how dark your days seem.
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B
Dance Numbers: B
Episode MVP: Dave Karofsky and Quinn Fabray