Glee: Power, union, and alchemy

To be really honest, I was dreading last night’s episode of Glee, not just because it looked terrible, but because I thought there wouldn’t be much in it that I felt qualified to talk about. But, instead of getting an episode that I anticipated would be both poorly structured and really offensive, we got some fairly high-quality knitting.

The knitting is all that stuff that happens that isn’t an event (prom, someone coming out, a proposal, a fight), that makes sure we get from point A in the past to point Z in the future without being totally confused. Yup, it’s that magic stuff called continuity that so many people argue Glee doesn’t have. Me? I think Glee has tons of continuity, but plays such a long-game that it doesn’t always execute on that continuity or prioritize the right bits of that aforementioned knitting.

But in the case of “The Spanish Teacher” I’m almost sure that even if we don’t have a lot to say about this episode now, it will be the episode we go back and revisit both at the end of 3.14 and at the end of the season, when we try to figure out just what it is that Glee‘s been trying to tell us. And what Glee is trying to tell us is a whole lot of stuff about life, death, growing up, and what you can and can’t leave behind.

In “The Spanish Teacher,” the key moments on this theme came from Emma, Sue, and Kurt, all three of whom have consistently been the only people able to act as guides in the underworld that is both WMHS and Lima, Ohio. But in this episode they also each point, not just to the now well-known to us signposts of this hell, but to the paths, long obscured, out. In each case those paths are explicitly about alchemy and about union with the self. This isn’t a new theme for any of the trio, but it’s the first time it’s been highlighted for each of them in the same episode during which they function, oddly, as Maiden, Mother, and Crone.

Let’s start with the Maiden. That’s Emma. She’s a virgin, and no one takes her seriously. The kids are generally boggled by her pamphlets (Mercedes is not a two-timing ho), and Will consistently condescends to her. Yet, not only is she the teacher to receive tenure at the end of the episode (and whose teaching is shown to be effective thanks to that hilariously uncomfortable scene in the locker room), she makes a critical pronouncement to Will mid-episode: “I don’t need you to take care of me.”

The things that make Emma arguably different — her OCD and its connection to her virginity — do not make her a child, and, in fact, give her power. There is power in what she says to Will, not just in the force of her voice, but in the transformative decision (Will’s surrendering of the Spanish teacher position) it sets into motion.

Emma, as Maiden, also has a critical talk with Sue, as would-be Mother. Motherhood and Sue aren’t new topics — she’s often talked about how she is like a mother to her Cheerios and her somewhat maternal interactions with Becky, Jean, Santana have been on display before. But after several scenes of comedy in which Sue ferociously goes after people she feels are putting her not-yet-existent family at risk, Emma confronts her about her desire to use Will as a sperm donor.

This leads us to perhaps one of the most affecting speeches ever performed on Glee, and one I am still unsettled by — Sue Sylvester is not someone I ever want to have cause to identify with. But when she talks, seemingly with enthusiasm at first, about how she walks around day-in and day-out, every hour of every day vibrating with rage, and then explains she never wants her child to experience that feeling, I shattered.

Sue knows exactly who she is, and what of her nature she cannot leave behind; she can, it seems, only seek to contain it, by moving into a new future, in which, as mother, she must protect the imagined child from the truth of herself.

All of which brings us to Kurt, that boy without a mother, who Sue calls out early in the episode when she doesn’t want his sperm saying, “Let the weird end with you.” It’s hardly a reference to Kurt’s homosexuality.

Rather it’s a reference to Kurt’s voice, face, clothes and affect. He is a witch, one of the three weird sisters — not just in the triumverate formed with Emma and Sue, but in his later interaction with Rachel and Mercedes, wherein the three of them pass bowls (cauldrons) back and forth. Kurt mentions that their behavior is “weird” (witchy) before deadpanning about all three of their periods not being due until the end of the month.

Sue, for all her cruelty, has always identified Kurt for exactly what he is. And, like Emma’s awkward but real connection to Sue, Sue has an awkward but real connection to Kurt.

Declared a witch early on, it is Kurt who goes to Finn in the wake of finding out about the engagement to Rachel and says at the end of a long speech, “Your time isn’t up, Finn. It’s just beginning.” Only Kurt, who has always been a master of death, as Crone, could make this declaration to Finn about the nature and duration of his life, at least conceptually. Although, if I’m right, Kurt is far from done mediating others’ relationship with death this season; keep an eye on 3.14.

Ultimately, “The Spanish Teacher” is an episode that tells us Emma is not too innocent to take care of herself; that Sue is not to cruel to mother; and that Kurt is not too removed from the world to fight the passing of things out of it. Each character displays self-knowledge, duality and personal acceptance, while many of those they interact with have not yet made that journey into the magic of union.

The real power of this episode, and these characters, won’t, I think, be clear until we’ve reached the end of both this block (through 3.14) and of this season. However, when we look back to define the themes of this year and the arcs of these characters, “The Spanish Teacher” will be the pivot point from which we should have guessed everything Glee‘s trying to say about power, surrender and the way forward.

8 thoughts on “Glee: Power, union, and alchemy”

  1. This really felt like a long-game episode and I enjoyed it. Only an hour ago I was saying I’d like three more episodes before I comment on this one because I don’t think anything was tied up at the end of it (except plot-wise, some of it was, but the big stuff, not at all).

    It felt like there was a lot tied up in time in this episode.

  2. I also didn’t think I would care for this episode, but I did find it quite interesting too. In addition to the archetypes you present here, I like thinking about Sue as not Mother but Old Maid. So often in the episode, Sue was reminded (by everyone from students to fellow faculty) that she was too old, past her prime, and so on. They’re incredulous, and the jokes that came from that feeling were quite harsh—one of the most offensive being about her baby coming out of her womb a full adult with a briefcase and cell phone, or something to that effect.

    What I was thankful for is that she’s taken aback, but ultimately (because she knows and accepts herself) seems committed to and optimistic about her decision. She’s going to do what she wants.

    Happy to see Emma, too, be empowered. I don’t generally care for her character; she always seems like porcelain, ready to shatter. But I like knowing that she’s behind those brochures, that she really does understand the kids on some level and how to reach them, as opposed to Will, who often seems so wrapped up in his own issues that he doesn’t recognize or respond to things that his kids are going through . . . But I’ve got to think on that last point a bit to see how that holds up to any evidence . . . Thanks for a great read, as always.

    1. I’m really delighted someone else picked up on everyone laughing at Sue wanting a child. I’m sorry — and I didn’t say anything because I was sure it was my own personal issues at play here — but when I hear anyone who isn’t a fucking doctor tell a woman what she can and can’t do as a (potential) mother, I get really annoyed.

  3. Sandy & I had almost the same response. We described this episode as filler* and loved the three critical speeches. We are also enamored of Becky, and love the way she has helped steer Sue numerous times.

    Filler is not used here in a derogatory mode either. It’s almost like a layer of mortar that binds the bricks of the major plot points together.

    1. Yes, I like that very much: the mortar episode! But such episodes allow us to see the characters simply living their lives and dealing with things–and actually relating to each other. The big event or “theme” episodes (I’m wary about next week: it’s VALENTINE’S DAY, everyone!) push all the characters through their plots so quickly. I like that there was at least some decent pacing here, and some time to see real moments unfold between these people.

  4. I must say that it was not until this season that I liked Emma. But she has shown some SRS feist in these last few episodes. Will, however? Still a jackhole.

    Didya catch that subtle bit when Rachel asks Kurt what he would do if he had to choose between marrying Blaine and NYADA? Because subtleKurt says so much…

    1. What’s interesting is that people who previewed the ep said that Kurt makes it clear he’s not ready to marry Blaine. Which is not what I saw. What I saw was Kurt going, “Of course I’d say yes, and I’d still be an idiot.”

      It was actually interesting, because there were a lot of moments of this sort of very real, minor, hypocrisy in the episode, that I thought really underscored that Glee isn’t necessarily about people’s better natures, but just the messy complicated way they are.

      And yes, Will is still the person I have the least sympathy for. When Finn screws up or makes it all about him? He’s seventeen. I expect him to fail, and it can frustrate me, but it doesn’t really damn him. Will, of course, is human and allowed mistakes, but come on. I mean, he’s great as a cautionary tale for what getting stuck in Lima means, but still…. ugh.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: