I suppose it's a bit stupidly obvious to say that your experience with Glee as a whole affects how much you may or may not like an individual episode. But, as we're beginning to tie up loose ends and wrap up the stories that have carried this show's original design, I'm finding this statement to be extraordinarily true, at least with my own viewing experience. "Nationals" was defined largely by emotional moments intended to pay off previously-set-up stories and dynamics - and whether or not the resolution worked for you is really dependent on what you've felt about the relationship, development, or storyline they're intending to pay off.
"Nationals," written by Ali Adler, directed by Eric Stoltz
I actually enjoyed the first half of "Nationals" more than the second half. It was great to see the whole of New Directions all crammed in a room trying to practice, even if they were fighting. I actually would have liked more of these moments with the kids, from the kids' points of view, before the competition. Instead, the scenes were used simply to remind everyone of the stakes, establish Will as the vehicle for the New Directions' collective emotions, and introduce pointless obstacles. For example, in order: we got brief bits of dialogue to jog our memories about Quinn's struggle to fulfill her promise to dance at competition, as well about Rachel's expectation that Carmen Thibodeaux might come to the performance and consider reversing her NYADA decision. Stakes? Check! Will's scene with Emma also served to remind the audience about the glee club's collective struggles and placed Will as the bearer of that burden and anticipation - even though he's not the one performing. (I smell a Teacher of the Year Award coming soon!) And, obstacles: Mercedes ate a bad burrito and may not be able to perform. Cue Quinn and Tina's induction into the Troubletones, and an actually kind-of-amazing opportunity for Sue to nurse Mercedes back to life with hopefully legal elixirs.
Together, these pre-show additions seemed formulaic and didn't really have lasting impact. I would have preferred to witness these concepts embedded into more meaningful moments, so the resolution would have better payoff. Why not give Mercedes a more personalized moment of determination to overcome her illness and perform her last glee competition? The Troubletones taking care of her was sweet, but mostly a throwaway action, completely background to the scene. I'm not saying Mercedes needed a Rocky-esque getting-better montage with Sue coaching her (although come to think of it, that could have been hilarious) but something a bit more substantial than what was given would have strengthened the scenario.
Even previously established storylines didn't pay off all that meaningfully: both Rachel's and Quinn's recent struggles deadlined at Nationals, and while they both found success in the episode, neither had a significant moment of payoff. Sure, there were some single shots of Quinn during "Edge of Glory," and I get that it's hard to communicate the triumph of successful dancing any further than filming... successful dancing. But how about a moment of relief after the triumphant performance? Literally, an exchange between Tina and Quinn amounting to "you did it!" and "oh thank god" would have sufficed. This is a character who got in a car accident, lost the use of her legs, made a promise to dance at Nationals, went to physical therapy, learned to walk again, and successfully fulfilled her promise. Why no specific moment of celebration for that?
The same goes for Rachel: here we have a character who had her dreams ripped away from her the minute she stumbled just the slightest bit. Everything was riding on this Nationals performance, and while it's certainly rewarding to see Rachel deliver a pitch-perfect rendition of "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" complete with Carmen's subsequent approval, I do wish there was a moment where Rachel learned her fate. Are we to assume that Carmen has changed her mind, and will give Rachel another chance? Really, I would have liked to seen a moment, post-performance, pre-judging, where Carmen somehow communicates to Rachel that she has another shot. Why wouldn't you show us Rachel's face when she hears that news? I wanna celebrate her success, dammit! I'd also like to believe that Rachel's performance itself was what changed Carmen's mind. As much as I love Jesse St. James - and am appropriately gutted by the fact that he appears to be hopelessly in love with Rachel, enough so to approach Carmen and recommend her personally - I'd have rather had a scene between Rachel and Carmen than Jesse and Carmen. In the end, I want to know that Rachel earned this, and even though she got a little help from her friends, it was ultimately her own talent that won her another chance. I'm at least still hoping that perhaps we'll see Rachel receive the good news next episode, and the writers won't have let the moment of payoff pass them by completely.
It's hard not to be frustrated by the lack of payoff for Rachel's and Quinn's run-up-to-Nationals storylines when other stakes were haphazardly thrown in and paid off equally as poorly. In addition to Mercedes' illness, we also got Finn placing an unnecessary bet on the New Directions winning, as well as an unnecessary scene with Unique before the Vocal Adrenaline performance. I'm not entirely sure what the point was of this latter inclusion, other than to give Kurt and Mercedes another chance to be supportive godparents to Wade/Unique. It doesn't help that the scene basically aligned transsexualism to "conjuring up" an alter-ego; Wade claimed to be unable to call upon Unique, but Kurt and Mercedes encouraged him to fight the nerves with Unique's help. Between this deliberate bifurcation of Wade and Unique, and the repeated "he/she" "him/her" references, "Nationals" waffled a bit on Glee's positive representation of transgender issues. On a completely shallow note, I was bummed that Unique's vocals were a bit overshadowed by the backing music and voices, and that she also had the same basic costume that she wore in "Boogie Shoes." But, it was great to see her win the MVP trophy, and I chuckled at the blatantly-mentioned possibility for Wade to transfer to McKinley next year.
Truthfully, "Nationals" had a hard time negotiating the emotional resolution of the group as a unit versus its individual members. Will and Emma's early scene sought to adjust that problem by channeling the glee club's collective emotional experience through Will himself. On the one hand, that scene is nice to remind the audience that the glee kids are school misfits and celebrated within the halls of McKinley for absolutely nothing. And it sets up the "Tongue Tied" sequence where we did get to see the kids celebrate. But in that vein, I do wish this idea had been weaved into a scene with the kids themselves. How often do we get to see the whole gang together in one room, communicating, without adult supervision? I love the idea of having a moment to see the conflicts and personalities clashing before Will and Emma even show up. Even when they were there, we got to see a surprising peacekeeper in Santana, who maintained the peace by threatening to harm everyone. (Sorry, sorry. She just goes to her yelling place. She has a lot of rage!) It would have been great to see a bit more into the group's stakes manifesting through the kids actually in the group. Yes, this club represents all the misfits and outcasts. But the misfits and outcasts are the ones actually performing - what are they feeling about everything? "Nationals" only really scraped the surface here, and I think it could have been more strongly delineated. Hell, even if we got a brief shot of each kid before the curtain went up, just to see their faces - is it fear? Confidence? Are they in their element? The pre-show moment with Santana, Brittany, and Quinn was sweet, but a bit distracting from the stakes because they were so cute and chipper. An Unholy Trinity moment during "Tongue Tied" would have been just as sufficiently meaningful.
Of course, Will was established as an early emotional focal point for a reason, which was to set up his Teacher of the Year win at episode's end, complete with special messages from Finn and Rachel and a very special performance of "We Are the Champions." This was perhaps the only emotional resolution hammered in sufficiently, and yet it's also here where my personal experience with Glee got in the way of me enjoying it at all. Because as Finn and Rachel were talking about how great a teacher Will is, I had an actual kneejerk reaction. Suddenly, it was like an involuntary montage of Will's terrible teaching moments flickered on in my head, and I couldn't shut it off. While Finn talked about how Mr. Schuester taught them all to dream, I couldn't help but see flashes of him yelling at Mercedes for being lazy, yelling at Quinn for being selfish, and yelling at Rachel for being uncooperative. There was an unstoppable parade in my head: Will doubting Brittany's intelligence, Will kicking Santana out of the glee club, Will trying to seduce Sue to humiliate her, Will trying to play Rocky in the school musical to be closer to Emma, Will not being able to speak Spanish and refusing to admit it, Will criticizing Santana's and Mercedes' dreams without trying to help them, Will hardly interacting with any of his students individually except Finn. I'm sorry, but I beg to differ that Rachel Berry "couldn't have done it" without Will. At this point, the only character who can believably cite continual positive influence from Will Schuester, as a teacher and mentor, is Finn. With everyone else, it's been far too long since Will has been an actively effective educator.
Besides, since when does Will Schuester = the New Directions? These kids changed each others' lives through coming together, as a unit. Will just conducted the train. So honestly, I had trouble believing the magic Glee was trying to sell with "We Are the Champions" and the hug-receiving line between Will and the students. On paper, it's sweet. But there's far too much murky material from three seasons that lingers in my memory, and it was enough to drag down what was clearly meant to be a touching moment. (Down the line, I kept thinking, "What the hell did that kid learn from Mr. Schue?")
This urge was a bit easier to fight during "Tongue Tied," simply because the sequence was so damn endearing that I couldn't stay fussy for too long. It was a great payoff to see the New Directions showered with confetti instead of slushies, and celebrated in the halls of McKinley. Yes, it's probably unrealistic. Yes, they'll probably boomerang back to Loser status the next day. Yes, you could say that the Rachel yearbook moment is a bit cheesy, and that the Santana-Becky moment paid off absolutely nothing between the two characters, and that no one cares about two random girls cheek-kissing Rory. But somehow, it worked. (What didn't work? Slipping in a rushed resolution to Will and Emma's chastity. Gross, Glee! No one wants to know the teacher finally got laid after his kids won Nationals, and the fact that it somehow played as a reward for Will - with no word about the change from Emma's POV - made my stomach turn. Cut back to the happy faces and the confetti, for the love of humanity!)
Truthfully, it's messy and difficult to give emotional resolution to all the characters and situations, especially when they've been set up but never developed. Now is not the time to finish the business you started but never continued! In that vein, the parts of this episode that really worked for me were the ones where I could fill in with my own appreciations about what this show has haphazardly accomplished through the years. I'm bound to take a journey down Will Schuester's Bad Teaching Express when they try and convince me otherwise, and likewise going to grumble about individual character payoffs being dusted under the rug in favor of things that aren't really that important. But watching happy faces and competitive singing? I can sit back, remember what I choose to remember about these kids' journeys, and even get a bit teary-eyed at the progress. This is in fact how I enjoyed the New Directions' Nationals set so much - the distribution of songs was pretty great, and they were as polished, cohesive, and balanced as they've ever been. So I just imagined a world where learning to perform as a team and allocating solos and learning who worked well together specifically was a scripted part of the journey to this moment. Similarly, the ladies of the Troubletones were fantastic, so I just pretended that their previous treatment wasn't complete bullshit, and also tried not to focus too much on the fact that apparently the New Directions is lady-divisible by Rachel Berry and then "all the other girls."
So really, how much you enjoyed "Nationals" depended on how easily you could block out your bad memories, drum up the good ones, and ignore a lot of the bullshit Glee has supplied for the middle part of their story. When the bulk of an episode is emotional resolution, there are a lot of factors that need to be previously established and developed for the payoff to truly work, and while Glee can't go back and fix their lack of consistent development, I still don't think they truly capitalized on their situations to get maximum emotional payoff. But, that's just me. And I'm pretty grumpy.
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Mercedes Jones
Poll: Was Lindsay Lohan robbed for Freaky Friday? (I say yes.)