While Glee often causes me to ask somewhat bizarre questions, I never really anticipated that one of them would be Why is Kurt Hummel dressed like a flying monkey? And yet, this is the first thing I thought when filming stills started to leak weeks ago from the season finale finally broadcast this past Tuesday night. Even more surprising to me than the question, however, is that the question actually has an answer.
While that answer is obviously embedded in Kurt and Rachel’s performance of “For Good” when they break into Wicked‘s theater; there’s a lot more going on with Kurt, the Wizard of Oz (and Judy Garland) and its place in gay culture, and magicianship than I noticed, or would have expected, at first glance. It’s why I keep writing about this show, even when the other questions it evokes are often inane things like “Wait, Quinn swore vengeance and executed that vengeance by… getting her hair cut?” Alas, I don’t have an answer for that one.
When Kurt and Rachel get to the Wicked theater, break in, and are not chased off by a security guard (who gives them fifteen minutes on the stage to confront their dreams), Kurt tells Rachel that the only way for her to solve her dilemma (a career vs. love conundrum that is both annoyingly conservative and relatively common) is to sing. As they stand in front of the Kansas set background and Rachel protests the lack of orchestra, Kurt tells her to imagine one, and then, with a wave of his hand, not only is there an orchestra, but the set has switched to the black and green of Oz, at which point Rachel launches into the song with the lyrics, “I’m limited,” which go on to say that Kurt (who is cast here in the Glinda role), can do all the things she can’t.
Which leads us to wonder, what are those things? After all, Rachel gets far more solos than Kurt. His voice may be beautiful, but no one knows what to do with him half the time, and as much as the glee club is happy to have him back, his song choices, performative styling and apparent gender variance are still a sticking point, albeit one that’s fonder than it’s been in the past.
The thing is, Kurt does have a skill, a magic, that Rachel doesn’t have. And it is an imagination that wills things in the world. It’s no accident that Kurt’s imagination transforming the stage comes a week after “Funeral,” an episode in which he leads the glee club in “Pure Imagination.” Nor is it an accident that this performance also follows closely on the heels of his return to McKinley with “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” re-purposed from its original meaning into another moment where Kurt makes what is unreal (sets, stage craft, performance) real.
Kurt, of course, has always been doing this, but until his adventures at Dalton (which is explicitly faerieland in Glee — even moreso than McKinley. At Dalton there are no classes, no teachers, no sense of home or context or place. One of the first things Kurt asks once he meets with Blaine and the Warblers council there is “is everyone here gay?” And let’s not forget, once having consumed food (okay, coffee) in faerieland he winds up staying so much longer than previously anticipated), Kurt’s imagination has been a site of toxicity for him. This toxicity, and failure, was highlighted particularly strongly in his pursuit of Finn, a situation in which Kurt tried to use the force of his imagination to will his desire into the world — and fails with significant consequences for multiple people. He later tries the same thing with similar results, to a lesser extent, with Sam.
Dalton changes all that. Not because it is a safe environment, but because it is part of the ordeal. There is initiation (“Teenage Dream”), apprenticeship (his failed audition with “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” where his giftedness is a flaw because it is untrained and unapproved; this is then followed by his misery during “Soul Sister” where he must accept a place of smallness that’s alien to him and feels cruel even in its necessity), acceptance of powerlessness (present not just in the events that drive Kurt to Dalton, but include that whole mess with Jeremiah and Blaine), evolution of perception through events related to altered states and sexuality (Rachel’s car crash of a party and the events of “Sexy”), and, ultimately a reclaiming of power (challenging Blaine about all his solos) before being elevated to various statuses long sought through group (the Warblers granting him the duet with Blaine) and personal acclaim (Blaine’s “You move me.”).
That Kurt is finally able to make himself seen, not just professionally, but personally, because of a performance regarding a dead bird (yes, it’s ludicrous and actively ignores the original context of the Beatles song “Blackbird,” but that’s nothing new for Glee) in which he is dressed in black and wearing an animal skull brooch (Kurt, in fact, has a collection of brooches in the theme of “dead animals,” even if most of them are little plastic replicas of the mounted heads of much larger beasts), clearly portrays Kurt as a magus, newly arrived and stating his desire to be recognized.
Death is transformation and alchemy, and as Kurt chooses to take control of his situation by moderating everyone else’s interaction with that death by being chief mourner and mortician for Pavoratti (okay, I know, I know… dead bird, just stay with me folks), Kurt is finally able to will what he’s been wanting for a while (a boyfriend, Blaine, and center stage) into being. It’s also the start of the path that gets him back to McKinley (because he makes people desire his presence — Santana may be self-serving, but she’s also serving Kurt and his gifts), New Directions and eventually New York. All of these are, as mentioned above, locations and situations in which we see repeated demonstrations of Kurt’s power to make what he imagines real, and, thanks to Rachel, in the season two finale we see that power recognized externally on an overt basis for the first time.
Which gets us back to Why is Kurt Hummel dressed like a flying monkey? (a phrase, which, I’ll admit, is just really fun to say over and over again). In the land of Oz, the flying monkeys were free creatures who did as they pleased until they were enslaved. In pop-culture (and political cartoons), they often appear as minions and irritants, powerful only in their ability to serve and to be disruptive — that is, they cause decay to what already exists, but do not transform or create newness, at least not in their abused state.
So, Kurt arrives in New York in that guise (Kurt’s clothes, while always outrageous, are rarely actively ugly, at least to my eye, but the furred epaulets on that jacket from Lip Service are truly ridiculous and both it, and the hat, are sort of out of the range of Kurt’s more typical fashion vocabulary, even if he wears a lot of stuff from Lip Service); sheds it when he gives Rachel her magic moment (in which she points out that he’s actually the magic — she sings to him, and he sings out to the audience); and then returns to Lima, Ohio, to declare victory, dressed in Oz’s colors — silver and green — having been liberated and having brought the magic home. This possession of magic is here confirmed to us both with Blaine’s “I love you” and with Kurt then declaring that, all in all, he really has had a pretty good year.
Giving Kurt a “hero’s journey” on Glee was always going to be a daring choice, because he’s a gay kid and because he performs gay in the particular way he does. But to take a gay kid who the world too easily wants to read as weak and make him a magician — that is, someone with the power to change others and bend reality to his will — is a truly risky and starling choice. It makes Kurt powerful, threatening, and seductive. It normalizes his gender presentation through function (because in a dichotomous system magicianship requires a union of the genders and an ability to step outside that union); and it confronts, side-steps and perhaps even embodies Glee‘s awkward preoccupation with the “predatory gay” stereotype, with a sort of enviable power.
Kurt, like most of Glee‘s main characters, has another year in Lima, but his season two arc shows us that he’s already gotten out.