Since about a week after the last episode of Glee‘s third season, I’ve been getting people asking me what I thought would be the main themes and events of this season, despite the fact that if you read back through my predictive posts about season 3, other than nailing the events of “On My Way,” I made the wrong calls on some pretty big narrative elements, even if I did manage to see most of the clues. In short, I understood that the Ferryman always takes a toll, but completely missed who would have to pay, with what, and when.
But that, obviously, hasn’t stopped me from wanting to engage in conjecture about this season. I was just hesitant to do it in the data-free zone of the recently ended hiatus. And, while I hadn’t thought that I’d put out a thematic theory of the season (or at least its front half) until after episode 4.03 or 4.04, I think this episode — which largely focused on the parts of the narrative I don’t spend a lot of time with — actually made Glee’s upcoming themes astoundingly clear.
Because what this episode was about, not just in Brittany’s fall, but also in the reactions to that fall, as well as in the narratives taking place in New York was life in public, and whether you self-injure in the name of making yourself more or making yourself less. It’s why this episode, which I think most of us expected to be bubblegum, was so hard to watch.
The scrutiny and control narrative is everywhere. Brittany, in the episode’s most unsettling moment, is under both general scrutiny and is accosted by WMHS’s one-man media machine, Jacob ben Israel. Her violent freak out in response, felt, at least to me, like watching a panic attack. Despite the way it was meant to refer to and send up actual events (remember the “leave Britney alone” video?), it didn’t, actually, feel like satire.
But scrutiny, control, and consequence in this episode isn’t just about Brittany. Jake is also under scrutiny — from the popular kids, from Marley, and from Will Schuester. And it’s arguably that scrutiny that drives him, in part, into the fight he gets into in the cafeteria in the defense of Marley’s mom. That narrative, about whether Marley should keep her mother a secret (Marley can’t manage to, but her mother thinks she should try) is also central to this theme.
Additionally, scrutiny, control, and consequence are also on display in Cassandra July’s back-story, in Rachel’s yelling at her, and in their eventual detente. The world of second chances is one Rachel won’t be in much longer, Cassandra points out, and, like Brittany says at the opening of the episode, “Sometimes tough love just feels mean.” Brittany’s not wrong, but then again, neither is Cassandra July.
Scrutiny, control, and consequence are also littered throughout the episode in smaller, yet critical ways as well. Blaine, whose very tight self-control displayed some pretty impressive (and inevitable) cracks in Season 3, is the person who closes the curtain on Brittany’s lip-synced performance and the one who takes verbal responsibility during Schuester’s scolding even if it really wasn’t his fault (After all, Artie gave him the role of the new Rachel, not any sort of actual captaincy like the one pretended to by Finn; the situation isn’t Blaine’s responsibility, but his own sense of being scrutinized, needing control and duty-bound response to the spectre of consequence makes it so).
Meanwhile, Unique and Tina also scold Marley for not being able to control (and suppress) her interest in Jake, and let’s not forget that Unique was a subject of the scrutiny, control, and consequence theme about her gender presentation in 4.01. I think we can now be 100% certain that topic will definitely be back.
Puck also shows up in this episode to remind us all of what a disaster he was. It’s a strange scene (what’s he doing out in California that he had enough money to fly out to Lima just to deal with this?) that I think is supposed to be funny, but contains one of those throwaway data points that returns us to Glee’s many narratives around sexuality and consent when he says he had his first threesome at seven, highlighting just how much Tina, Sam and Joe’s performance of “3” was very much clever children playing at what they don’t understand; they’re not in the real world of consequences yet, no one’s looking too hard. But they will be soon.
Also in the department of scrutiny, control and consequence was a throwaway line from Kurt that likely contains some significant foreshadowing that may well underscore just how this theme will continue as the season moves forward. Kurt’s remark to Rachel to appreciate the gift of freedom Finn has given her can only bode poorly for episode 4.04, which anyone who follows Glee spoilers now knows is called “The Breakup” and features not only surprise visits from Blaine and Finn, but some ugly couples moments and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.”
That Kurt later turns over his shoulder to watch as Rachel — after she musters her self-control and strength — paints over Finn’s name in a heart is made even more jarring by the deconstructed sweater Kurt is wearing; his world is unraveling, and he doesn’t even know it yet. It makes me strongly suspect that whatever transpires between Kurt and Blaine in 4.04 is at least some of will be driven by the idea of a breakup as, like the situation between Rachel and Finn, an act of generosity.
Each of show’s characters currently face situations in which they have the option to hurt themselves. Sometimes, those acts of self-injury may be to the good — if Rachel practices for Cassandra July’s class until her toes bleed, that’s a very different choice of self-injury than the one where Cassandra July downs a drink everyone time one of her students shows up to tell her they’re going to be on Broadway when she’ll never be so again.
Even characters who haven’t shown up yet seem to fit this narrative bill: Isabelle, Kurt’s soon to be boss at Vogue.com has been described as “kind of a mess” and as someone Kurt mentors as much as she mentors him. That sounds like high profile and not in control and dealing with the consequences all over to me.
One of Glee‘s many functions, on- and off-screen has been to make a certain type of ambition to performance, fame, and success seem cool — and possible — to people who might have previously thought otherwise. The Glee Project, one of the whole property’s weirdest interactions with the fourth wall, only underscores this particularly in its use of Chris Colfer’s real life journey to fame story as something of a template.
But if you’re going to make people dream, and if you want to tell the whole story, you also have to warn: your toes will bleed; your heart will hurt; you will be criticized body and soul; and, if you make it, you may feel like you are in a cage.
Glee asks if, knowing that, you still want to dance.
Cassandra July says yes. Everyone else is still figuring it out.