One of the things I’ve been meaning to write about here for a while is how intensely creepy the Warblers have become in Glee‘s third season, but I haven’t really had an excuse to go back to that somewhat boggling performance of “Uptown Girl” and talk about the predatoriness of these particular denizens of faerieland. (If you haven’t caught it here before, Glee actually, explicitly, frames Dalton this way, from Puck’s sending Kurt there to spy to Kurt’s amazed little query as to whether all the boys at Dalton are gay. The answer is no, but that doesn’t stop the school from being, at least, temporarily, a magical haven for him).
But today’s release of the full clip of Santana and Sebastian singing “Smooth Criminal” has made me want to revisit that earlier performance, which foreshadows this new release quite nicely.
But to get there, I have to work backwards, so first I should note that “Smooth Criminal” is one of the most menacing and interesting things I’ve seen Glee do, and it manages to evoke the consent-related themes that simmer constantly under show’s surface but are rarely explicitly addressed. Additionally, the performance is a truly masterful representation of a duel, and serves to finally clarify for us why Sebastian is anything but a trivial villain.
As a fight scene, the number is remarkably well done. Yes, both Santana and Sebastian do things that would make no sense to do in an actual fight, but that’s how fights in fiction work: some big, showy stuff that would get you killed in non-fiction life is necessary to make the duel read on-screen for the viewer. If we brush those choices aside (mainly, how often they turn their backs on each other), there’s a lot of good strategy on display.
Santana begins by conserving her energy. She lets her bigger opponent, who will tire more easily, wear himself down by showing off and providing her with data. Then, once she has the data from afar, without touch, she allows him to come in close so she can see what that is like; she let’s him touch her, and it is awful.
And then, because she’s smaller and faster, Santana gets inside his reach, and goes on the offensive; this is where she’s grabbing and shoving at him, something some people in fandom have been saying was uncalled for on her part. I think it was necessary; without it, in the duel metaphor of the performance, she wouldn’t have even lasted the whole song.
Then, after she makes contact, Santana obeys the most important rule of a duel: “When in doubt, get the hell out.” She spends most of the rest of the song keeping Sebastian as far away from her as possible, so as not to lose what ground she’s gained. The scene between these two works, because if you were to replace the song with swords, you’d barely have to change any of the physicality.
But despite this relatively good strategy from Santana (Sebastian has the advantage, but he’s cocky, and one day that’s going to bite him, hard), what I can’t stop being fascinated by in the scene is how frightened she looks.
Yes, she stands her ground, and laughs Sebastian off before the song starts when it seems like he’s challenging her to a duel (note: he challenges; she chooses the weapons, that is, the song), but she knows things with this guy aren’t necessarily going to be just some allegorical vocal duel, especially after he dismisses the Warblers from the room because he doesn’t want witnesses.
This tells us several things about Sebastian. The first is that he is concerned with modes of honor. That’s why he wants this duel, and that’s why he doesn’t want witnesses when he does something dishonorable (making a girl cry). But in a duel without actual weapons or violence, not having an audience makes no sense; if there are no witnesses to the event, without blood, how do you know who has won?
Which is exactly why Santana is nervous. Despite scoffing at the ridiculousness of the initial duel challenge, she gets the implied threat of the Warblers’ dismissal immediately. After all, this is the girl who at least fantasizes about knowing how to fight even if she doesn’t actually (never forget those supposed razor blades in her hair).
When Sebastian dismisses the Warblers, Santana realizes that whatever they are framing this battle as now, there’s a very real possibility that he’s interested in doing some sort of lingering, visible, tangible damage to her. Otherwise, a victory on his part would be intangible, and not serve his oft-highlighted status-related desires.
And it’s the role desire plays in this confrontation that is critical to understanding the intensity of the scene’s menace. Because while the chemistry between Santana and Sebastian is off-the-charts, they are also both gay. Which means that the sexuality overtly present in the scene isn’t about desire, but arguably about power, control, and violence. The fact that the song being sung is about a woman being assaulted in her bedroom, and that Santana is singing response to Sebastian’s lead until she gets to do some gloriously powerful notes at the end, further underscores that Sebastian is one more Glee character with an unhealthy perspective on sex, power, and consent.
Frankly, I find Sebastian far creepier than Dave Karofsky, because while Karofsky systematically harassed and eventually assaulted Kurt with that kiss, a lot of that at least had to do with what Karofsky wanted for himself and his anger around that. Sebastian just wants to take for the sake of having and hurt for the sake of his own amusement. For me, that feels a lot more dangerous, because it’s harder for me to understand. At a distance, Dave Karofsky has my empathy; Sebastian can’t.
Which brings us back, finally, to the Warblers in their creepy, corrupted “Uptown Girl” state from the beginning of the season. Not only does that number feature echoes back to the slow-motion of Blaine’s introduction of Kurt to Dalton in season two, but this time with Sebastian dragging Blaine into the number (the risks of faerie rings, anyone?), it also foreshadows the circling choreography that is central to the Sebastian and Santana “duel.”
In “Uptown Girl,” however, it is a female Dalton teacher circled first by one boy, then by two, then by the whole group of them as she tries to exert her authority. Eventually, she succeeds, but it seems like a near thing and one where the boys have retreated only because they’ve become bored.
By the time we get to “Smooth Criminal,” we know from other spoiler clips that the Warbler’s Council seems to be no more, replaced instead by Sebastian as captain, and if he tells those boys to leave him alone with a girl so he can fight (brutalize) her, in private, they go without question. Sebastian has rewritten their notions of honor and eliminated whatever code would have forced them to stand up to him and to say no to him, had he been present in the season two Dalton landscape.
While Sebastian’s clumsily aggressive and showy attempts to hook up with Blaine have been largely laughable, I think “Smooth Criminal” and its growth out of “Uptown Girl” shows us we may now be looking at the realest, darkest villain Glee has ever had. Watching his corruption of the Warblers is like watching fruit rot, and the sexual aggression that at first seemed interesting and seductive to both Blaine and the viewer now just seems like an explicit, ongoing threat of sexualized violence.
I’ll be surprised if Glee ever actually addresses, as opposed to just demonstrates, the consent issues many of its plot lines raise. But I’m not even sure the show actually has to do anything more than point to the existence of these situations to be effective, not when I see Santana, despite standing her ground, actually looking afraid of this boy Sebastian.
Suddenly, I feel very clear on why Blaine — nearly always presented in canon as taking a traditionally feminine role, at least in his thoughts about himself — has such a hard time saying no to Sebastian. Like everything else surrounding this situation, it’s not about desire. It’s about feeling like he’s even less safe in the face of this boy than he already is if he were to say no.