Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Retro RBI Report: "The Rhodes Not Taken"

Most Season 1 episodes of Glee usually involve soapy teen storylines that all play out under a broad theme of the week, usually decreed in the episode's title, often in the form of a pun.  Okay, okay, that could describe all of Glee, with varying quality of execution.  Upon rewatching "The Rhodes Not Taken," though, the theme isn't so clear-cut.  While we talk vaguely of dreams and talent and identity (it's Glee; we'll never not) -- the main theme of this episode is actually something a lot more nebulous: decisions.

"The Rhodes Not Taken," written by Ian Brennan, directed by John Scott

It's clear that "The Rhodes Not Taken" was designed as a vehicle to show off Kristin Chenoweth as Glee's first bonafide singing guest star.  But it doesn't feel hamfisted or inorganic, even though the plotline is ridiculous: without Rachel, Will realizes they need star power to propel the New Directions to Sectionals, and so resurrects the near-completed high school transcript of a talented dropout to resume her glee club tenure.  This is classic Glee - the stakes come from the pending competition, the obstacle is a lack of participation from one or more members.  Insert poorly-conceived-slightly-outlandish-but-well-intentioned plan by Mr. Schuester, let disasters happen, and bring everyone back together to realize that togetherness is better than winning.

While this all seems like old hat now, it's actually still new in Season 1, Episode 5.  "The Rhodes Not Taken" echoes the spirit of the Pilot,  as it uses "Somebody to Love" like "Don't Stop Believing" as an episode-ending group number signaling resolution and unity as everyone finally comes together despite their backgrounds.  Of course, that style of closer is fated for rinse-and-repeat, but there's definite magic in its early incarnations.  

And so I wondered: does it only work because it's new?  "The Rhodes Not Taken" features several hints of future frustrations to come: a Rachel so woefully in love it's painful, a Will who accidentally puts his own goals before the good of the students, a Finn who's confused about his feelings and doesn't exactly behave honestly, and an acute presentation of Bitches-Be-Crazy feat. Rachel, Emma, Terri, and April.  These aren't that unfamiliar, in the long run.  Do these paradigms only become tiresome when they're recycled so frequently in subsequent years?  Can we really give Bitches-Be-Crazy a free pass when it's only the fifth episode?  Or am I just looking at yesteryear with Rose's-Turn-colored glasses?

I suppose these questions can be answered a few ways.  For starters, I'm not so fussed with the early incarnations of oft-repeated storylines.  They did come first, after all, and there's merit in the original conflicts and constructs.  The issue is that the conflicts are reused multiple times, and therefore reduced.  The characters never grow if they keep making the same mistakes and claiming they've learned from them.  And then they just seem stupid, and Glee becomes a show where the slate is wiped clean after each episode so it can start over with the same issues for its once-developing characters to puppet (which it did).  The Bitches-Be-Crazy construct is still somewhat unfortunate, in that nearly every main lady in the narrative clings desperately and deludedly to a relationship with Will or Finn.  But really, what sets "The Rhodes Not Taken" apart from "Glee now" is execution of character and theme.  

When I realized this, it astounded me: the hour is devoted to exploring wrong and right decisions, and then creates a narrative wherein nearly every character makes a bad decision.  Everyone in this episode behaves pretty poorly.  But they're not exactly wrong, or unjustified.  They just choose the wrong path.  Will probably shouldn't have recruited April Rhodes instead of encouraging a current member to step up, but he wanted to believe in second chances and couldn't see past his idealized view of her.  It was good that Emma had objections to Will's plan, but she doesn't really have any leg to stand on in terms of trying to direct Will's attention away from her when he's, y'know, married.  Finn was wrong to lead Rachel on and manipulate her feelings to get what he wanted, but hey, he's gonna be a dad soon and the chips are down for getting a scholarship.  Rachel, like Emma, has very little moral high ground for chewing April out when she herself has no claim to Finn, or the glee club she's abandoned, for that matter.  But she's also not entirely wrong about April, who certainly isn't the model of best behavior.  And of course, there's April herself, who endears herself by teaching the students how to shoplift and drink, and somehow remains likeable.  

What's remarkable about this design is that no one's entirely right or wrong; each character is doing the best they can with their misguided feelings and good intentions - and no one is narratively shamed for it.  Sure, Finn gets slapped by Rachel, but he admits he that what he did was wrong.  Just like April admitted what she did was wrong, just like Will admitted what he did was wrong, just like Rachel basically admitted that leaving the glee club was wrong when she returned at episode's end.  Everyone made wrong choices with a best-laid plan, and the narrative let them all play out without judgment.  Each character was decidedly imperfect, and allowed to be that way.

This gray area allows for something larger to happen, thematically.  Take, for example, the episode's inclusion of "Maybe This Time."  The song is basically about being a loser, and wanting to come out on top for once - a Glee staple.  It's sung by April Rhodes, who is perhaps the most imperfect of everyone presented.  She's squatting in houses drinking box wine and deluding herself about her glory days.  But Glee presents these shabby imperfections, these rough-edged real people, and inserts them into high-gloss musical situations to impressive effect.  April was the queen of glee club, who still has dreams of Broadway... but can't seem to get sober.  She and Will sing a fantastic rendition of "Alone"... at the local bowling alley.  It can be both funny, and poignant, to constantly contrast fantasy to reality, and Glee does it so well in its early days.  It's the absurdity and tragedy of these characters and their circumstances that allowed for Glee to carve out its own kind of genre beyond "musical comedy."  

Eventually this wonderful tension went astray, and now everything is inexplicable fantasy, and the reality that peeks in is drastic and jarring, like school shootings, confessions of child molestation, and Rachel accidentally getting pregnant by her gigolo boyfriend.  This just contributes to the tonal confusion of the show; no longer is there an engaging mix of comedy and tragedy, there's just a really dark show where bad things happen and everyone's still talking about how their dreams are going to come true one day.  

(Another notable difference with "The Rhodes Not Taken," which was also apparent in "Preggers," is a deliberately methodic pace.  The episode does not move forward at breakneck speed, threatening to veer right off the tracks.  The plotting is therefore allowed to be a little bit less formulaic, as the scenes don't have a get-in-get-out-and-move-on quality to them.)  

But I suppose it's not really fair to review the early episodes solely against the later ones, and it's not really my modus operandi.  (She says after having written 10 paragraphs doing exactly that.  Oops.  Bear with me, gang.)  It's just impossible to watch Season 1 and not wonder how exactly it became the show it is now.  In some ways, it's completely different, and yet, the signs are there if you look for them.  Ah, hindsight.

Anyways.  I really didn't mean for this to be an exercise in then-vs-now, but "The Rhodes Not Taken" presented an interesting case in similarities and differences.  

I do want to talk about the episode in and of itself, though, namely in what the narrative does with Rachel and April Rhodes.  They both qualify as characters who make wrong choices under tough circumstances, but "The Rhodes Not Taken" goes further to specifically tie the two together.  They duet "Maybe This Time," through the magic of cross-cutting, and therefore the real comparing-and-contrasting of the episode is meant to be between these two enormous - and tragically isolated - talents.  April Rhodes speaks of her squandered past by saying, "I hitched my star to the wrong wagon," and it's hard not to see that as a foreboding statement for Rachel,  who has forsaken the glee club and struck out on her own in the school musical.  The narrative seems to be telling us that April Rhodes is a cautionary tale for Rachel, to a certain degree.  That's not to say there's overt evidence that Rachel Berry could end up a woman soaked in corn booze, as Emma might say, but rather the insinuation that talent doesn't always mean success, and that any rising star should mind her choices.  This is, of course, concluded with Rachel reversing her previous decision, and coming back to glee club at episode's end.  

I hate to say it, but I do wish the logistics of this decision played out a little differently.  I have two quibbles: it feels a little unearned, and it feels entirely related to Finn.  The show constructs Finn and Rachel's dynamic so that both parties represent the glee club to the other person: Rachel is the personification of what it means to be in glee, for Finn, and Finn is the personification of what it means to be in glee, for Rachel.  The former means that Rachel connects Finn to his true identity; the latter means that Finn connects Rachel to social acceptance.  When looking at it this way, it's fine that Rachel chooses to return to the glee club because Finn wants her to.  The issue is that Finn's motives are entirely selfish, and the link he provides to social acceptance turns out to be a lie.  Basically, I get enormously sad seeing Rachel cling so desperately to even the promise of Finn's romantic interest that she makes choices for the wrong reasons.  

Again, this interpersonal conflict is temporarily neutralized by Rachel calling Finn out and Finn apologizing.  But in terms of Rachel's season 1 acceptance arc, I think rejoining the glee club at this juncture is a bit premature.  I think it would have worked better to delay it another episode, simply because Rachel still chose to return to glee after rebuking Finn's lie and after Sue offered her full creative control of Cabaret.  What's the point of that?  It doesn't quite make sense.  Alternatively, it might have been good to build another (or at least the promise of another) glee club dynamic for Rachel in addition to the one with Finn.  Rachel's return to the glee club hinges entirely on the lie that Finn tells her: the club misses her, and not just for her talent.  While it's obviously he likes her, he's also confused and still knowingly manipulating her feelings.  Rachel's returning because she didn't want to put the spotlight before friendships, but the truth is that she has no friendships in the glee club.  Everyone, including Finn, really wants Rachel back in the club so that they can succeed.  They value her spotlight, not her friendship - and it's awfully sad to see Rachel believe the opposite simply because Finn Hudson told her so, and sadder still to see her hanging on the hints of feigned interest from him.  In an episode exploring the consequences of choice, is this really the wagon Rachel Berry wants to hitch her star to?

Actually, this is what makes Rachel a tragic character.  The insecurity flitting compulsively behind her overconfidence is all-too-apparent, thanks to Lea Michele's acting choices, and it's another example of Glee mixing reality and fantasy, imperfection and glossy cover-up.  Rachel's perceptions of her relationship with Finn, her relationship to the glee club, and her relationship to the spotlight are all very different from the reality of the situation, and she's almost the narrative's fool for it.  She basks in being the best, but nobody likes her for it, and she's designed as someone who desperately longs for acceptance more than applause.  In effect, she can't win for losing - much like April Rhodes, and Cabaret's Sally Bowles.  I did take heart, though, with the line of foreshadowing: "If I let you down when you needed me most, I'd never forgive myself."  Don't worry, babygirl.  Sectionals is coming, and you'll save the day.

Finally, I feel like I can't finish this review without making note of the dialogue.  The joke count is high in this episode, likely because of Ian Brennan and his askew sense of humor.  "Oh, Bambi.  I cried so hard when the hunters shot your mommy," is still one of the greatest Kurt moments, and I will never not cackle when Emma warns of the dangers of reconnecting with old acquaintances through the internet.  "Two months later, Versace was dead."  Bits like that are tossed out so casually that processing them takes a few moments, to riddle out the absurdity behind the line.  Also: corn booze.  And nearly everything that comes out of April Rhodes' mouth, including that little dribble of box wine when she realizes she's found out by the realtor.

So, upon rewatch, "The Rhodes Not Taken" proves to be a solid episode, that explores an interesting theme for Glee, exists in a gray space, and allows each character to make their mistakes without alienating the audience.  It's got damn good numbers, a great guest turn from Kristin Chenoweth, and continues to establish the tone of the show and its episodes.  It's not perfect, in how it slots into the larger plot arc of the season, or in its obstacles and stakes, but it works well and is certainly enjoyable.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A+
Dance Numbers: A
Dialogue: A
Plot: B+
Characterization: B+
Episode MVP: April Rhodes


  1. YES! As usual, your review captures the best of every part of the episode. Applause!

  2. Very interesting, as always. I'm definitely doing a season 1 rewatch one of these days :)

    By the way, I've read all your articles about Glee and they taught me a lot about critical analysis and character studies, so, you know, thanks for sharing :) One of the reasons I like Glee is that because in many ways, it's a good example of what *not* to do in a narrative work. I'm a first year student of french and comparative literature and I like to think (somewhat ironically) that Glee helps me in my studies...


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