For the sole reason of having razed to the ground three of his show's most popular couples in one single episode, I can now confirm that Ryan Murphy is either a brave man, a reckless man, or a sadist. (Or maybe all three.) Regardless, he might need bodyguards for a bit, and maybe a raft to keep himself afloat in the wash of fan's tears. But for my money, "The Break-Up" was inevitable, and healthy. It was a necessary episode, to transition this show into its new format, and realistic, to usher these characters out of their youth and into adulthood. Sure, it teetered dangerously on the edge of over-indulging in its own sadness Kool-Aid, but most of the hour rang sincere in conflict, character, and emotion.
"The Break Up," written by Ryan Murphy, directed by Alfonso Gómez-Rejón
Okay, fine. I was a little excited for this episode. I can get behind bold storytelling choices if something interesting might come out of it! And this was the boldest: four couples taking serious heat and trying to struggle through it. It's finally confronting the inherent conflict in these relationships, and laying it out to actually make conflict onscreen. Conflict also means that both partners in the relationship are present in their dynamic - neither is backing down; neither is refusing to give up their own sense of self in the situation. Speaking as a long-time fan of Rachel and Emma in particular gaining relationship backbones, this was like heaven. No, I don't like sadness, but it's hard to say no to this sadness when it comes on the heels of truth. "The Break-Up" finally called every bluff, and brought each relationship to a place of shoe-drop realism that has been brewing innocently (and circuitously) for seasons now. Characterization was strong, and even though a bit wonk in a few places, it was hard not to empathize with all these growing pains. Let's commence the glorious gloom...
Finn and Rachel:
So, Glee made the smart decision of skipping right over Rachel having to awkwardly explain to Finn what she and Brody were doing on a blanket in the middle of her apartment when he knocked on her door. Brody is really just a superficial issue in Rachel and Finn's relationship, and luckily, "The Break Up" centered more on the actual character conflicts at work. Turns out Finn was only in the army a few weeks before he accidentally shot himself in the leg and got an semi-honorary discharge. Too embarrassed to call Rachel, he backpacked through Georgia for awhile, then finally decided to plant himself on Rachel's doorstep just as she started making out with another dude. (Awkward. But again, not the point.)
Here's the thing. I really love Finn's storyline right now. This is the storyline that lingered over that boy all during Season 3, but he had a wedding and a relationship he could distract himself with and the writers chose to leave it all undeveloped, much to my frustration. But now? Now, it's on, and I couldn't be more excited. With no army, no high school, and no Rachel, Finn is adrift in a sea of people who know exactly what they want out of life. High school made that kid a promise. High school told Finn Hudson he was a star quarterback, and a hero to geeks, and a guy people look up to, and a guy at least one girl will always fall over herself for, no matter what. High school, and glee club, promised Finn Hudson he was important, and real life is breaking that promise. Without even the identity of his dad to cling to, Finn doesn't know where he belongs. Watching him wander through every scene with the vacant expression of a puppy trying to find his way home was actually heartbreaking. (And this is coming from someone who usually doesn't find Finn all that heartbreaking.)
I will admit, right now, that this is the sort of storyline that I've always wanted to see for Quinn. Promises from a carefree youth being swiftly broken resulting in major identity crisis? It's been on Miss Fabray's dance card since Season 1. But Finn started in a similar character paradigm to Quinn, and the question of his identity (or dreams, as the show prefers to put it) has been in place since the beginning of Season 3. I'm dearly excited to see Glee make good on this promise and actually do something with this kid that's self-directed. I'm tired of seeing Finn feel alienated from sports and singing, only to try and latch onto auto repair, like Burt, or the army, like his dad, or New York, like Rachel. Get this boy his own dreams, and stat! Let's do this!
Thus, to that end, I'm not terribly upset about the break-up with Rachel, simply because Finn Hudson needs independence in order to actually find himself. And what was actually great about the break-up with Rachel was that Rachel not only encouraged that for Finn, she asserted it on her own behalf as well. This was the even-sided, two-person, mature argument that I always wished Finchel had! There were no low blows, no guilt-throwing, no Rachel or Finn giving in to the other's wishes. I loved Rachel's "I don't need you to give me my freedom," and the simple reassurance "you have you." Not only that, but the writing did a good job of reminding us of the more innocent times in the Rachel-and-Finn history. (Finn suggesting Grease as a musical idea, in honor of his first glee rehearsal, was a nice touch. My heart also twinged when Rachel reminded Finn that he was the first boy who made her feel visible.) Overall, the break-up may have been sad, but it was fitting, character-appropriate, and poignant. I'm excited to see these two on their individual journeys.
Kurt and Blaine:
I'm just gonna confess right away: I felt the least amount of empathy for Kurt and Blaine, mostly because their break-up felt so contrived. I don't mean to say that I don't think that Kurt and Blaine had no reason to break up. Honestly, I was on board with all long-distance break-ups simply in favor of realism and character arc. Certainly for Brittany/Santana and Kurt/Blaine in particular, long distance is difficult to sustain. I don't expect it to be problem-free, and I'm glad that it's not. However, the introduction of Blaine's cheating made for a cheap and easy break. It came out of nowhere, introduced solely by a close-up of a Facebook app, and was referenced in dialogue only. We have no face for this sudden conflict, and hanging it on Kurt and Blaine's long-distance issues was a shallow redirect from the point. It would be like the writers making Finn and Rachel break up solely because of Brody.
So, I'm a little disappointed that Glee didn't bother exploring the issues at hand with Kurt and Blaine, and just dropped a bomb on them instead - especially when they had a big opportunity with the stripped-down version of "Teenage Dream." When I first heard that this was on the docket for "The Break-Up," I felt a flicker of excitement. This could be highly effective: using the same song under different circumstances, with new information, completely changes the meaning of the song while still painfully calling on its original connotation. It could be heartbreakingly bittersweet, if used properly. But "Teenage Dream," instead of serving as a wistful bookend to a relationship that meant a lot to these boys in their sometimes-bleak adolescence, was used as an awkward bomb of sadness in a karaoke bar before Kurt even know what was wrong. I spent most of the song wondering what Blaine's motivations were for singing so desperately in public and why no one at the bar seemed to think it was super awkward. But since the book never closed on Kurt-and-Blaine, there was nowhere to place "Teenage Dream" as a capper.
As a result: minimal empathy. Oh, I wanted to lament the sad inevitable break-up of two teenagers on the verge of adulthood, who couldn't continue to provide the same levity and support for one another that they did in their youth. (Is that cheesy? Okay, it's a little cheesy. But hey, it's the best way to sum up the good parts of Kurt and Blaine's relationship.) But alas, I did little lamenting, wondering how exactly we went from moping to cheating, and feeling like there should be something more to Blaine's POV than "I miss you." Kurt perhaps said it best: everything was "weirdly sad." Or maybe just "weird and sad." Mostly I just wish the writers had chosen another way to break these two up more amicably, and with more attention to character nuance.
Brittany and Santana:
In the end, it was the once-villainous cheerleaders that got the most mature break-up of the bunch. Their first part in "The Break-Up" made little sense, though. In order to introduce the fact that Brittany felt left behind by Santana, the episode went out of its way to create a clunky "Left Behind" club for Brittany to participate in. This was really, really unnecessary, and mostly resulted in showing that Kitty's character is scrapped together with the leftover dialogue of Sue Sylvester and the ghost of Quinn and Santana's original character purposes. It was way too "out there" for such an emotionally grounded episode, and while it was maybe used to lighten everything up, the contrast just felt too stark. Also, what's with all the sudden screentime for Tina's assistant? The whole endeavor was pointless. Surely there were more simple ways for Brittany to communicate feeling left behind to Santana.
Anyways, Santana decided they should break up, sort of, so that they don't become one of those long-distance couples who try to stay together but eventually fall apart when things get weird or one of them cheats. (Read: when they turn into Finchel or Klaine. Once again, Santana's providing meta commentary.) Their whole break-up scene was particularly heartwrenching, although I confess to not quite understanding the reason to sing "Mine." It's very sweet, but if I were Brittany, I'd be like, "Couldn't you have picked a better song to communicate what you're trying to say? Because I still don't get it." But I'm being picky. Any weird Taylor Swift song choices were immediately forgotten with one line of dialogue: "I will always love you the most." Oh, geez. I was having a really hard time not sobbing into a tissue whilst creating a montage in my head of all of Santana's coming-out struggles and the genuine smiles she gave to Brittany and Brittany only. (Turns out I only had to wait a few minutes until the episode all but did that for me, but still.)
In all, Brittany and Santana's break-up gave me a better sense of what I wanted to see from Kurt and Blaine's: that these relationships were hugely important to the individual characters on their journeys, specifically to Santana and Kurt as gay teenagers. Both relationships served almost as refuges to these LGBTQ teenagers who were brave enough to endeavor adolescent love and dating in a society that tried to keep them from doing that and even from believing it was possible. Even typing that sentence gets me a little misty-eyed; I won't lie. What can I say? I must be going soft.
Will and Emma:
There's not much to report here. Will got that spot on the Blue Ribbon Panel for Giving Money to the Arts or Something, and wants Emma to come with him to Washington DC for a few months. Emma says no, she likes her job. Will says it doesn't seem that crazy. Emma turns to walk out, and Will says they still need to talk about this. Emma replies: "We already did; you just don't like what I have to say."
And then I cheered.
(Okay, on the serious, there's hardly enough content here to really get a feel for the Will/Emma conflict right now. I'm just glad Emma's not only presenting as a real character onscreen and in the relationship, but also sticking up for this newfound POV.)
Jake and Marley:
The choice to include little tidbits on this surely-blossoming relationship reaped both interest and indifference. It was smart to use them in contrast to Blaine and Brittany, watching a relationship begin with the knowledge that theirs might be ending soon. I just wish that contrast was more of a presence in the episode, creating a stronger tether to the more emotional fare of the evening. It was hard to care about Jake and Marley, characters we hardly know, when familiar relationships were undergoing serious drama. Aside from that, the dynamic is interesting in that it's set up with many of the same constructs of Glee's Season 1 conflicts and interactions, but seems to be side-stepping the same progression in favor of something a bit more unique. I'll take it.
Finally, I can't let this recap go by without gushing over the direction - in particular the cinematography and editing. Alfonso Gómez-Rejón delivered a seriously impressive number of shots that spoke to the story's character interactions and conflicts. The Kurt-Blaine phone call was cleverly executed, with the splitscreen swapping back and forth, and the final camera movements that resulted in the characters facing each other in their respective locations. There were several great mirror shots used for Finn and Kurt, and a smart shot of Finn being framed by - or constricted by? - the dark curtains in Rachel's bedroom. The choice to stay on Finn's face watching Brody and Rachel duet was a fantastic editing decision, and the editing during the NYC couples fights was smartly done as well. Actually, there was a genius shot in the "Don't Speak" number which showed Kurt and Blaine seemingly nose-to-nose, standing intimately in each other's space, until the camera starts to move and you realize they're actually standing next to each other looking to opposite horizons. The direction in all the musical numbers was mercifully simple, yet powerful. (Although - I wasn't as much of a fan of the splitscreens at the end of "Don't Speak" that made it look like Kurt and Blaine and Finn and Rachel all sleep in the same bed like Charlie Bucket's grandparents. But that is the teensiest of quibbles. Really, I'm just bringing it up to see if anyone else thought of Willy Wonka. No? Just me? Okay.)
In all, "The Break-Up" was emotionally sincere, character-authentic, and genuinely sad. Yes, Kurt and Blaine's portion of the hour was underwhelming and poorly developed, and the "Left Behind" and Jake/Marley parts were perhaps misplaced. But I actually enjoyed "The Break-Up" for its depth of content and attention to character, something not all Glee episodes endeavor to explore and handle so delicately. Combined with the excellent cinematography and shot direction, and it's hard not to appreciate the episode's efforts. As long as you have tissues.
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: N/A
Episode MVP: Finn Hudson and his heartbreak crisis