There are some weeks in which “Glee” is the gift that keeps on giving. Not from a viewing perspective, but a writing perspective. It’s never much of a struggle to write about the show, even if it’s often a struggle to figure out what the heck is supposed to be going on in a particular hour as an audience member. “Funeral” contains a little bit of what’s great about the show, and a little bit of what’s horrible about it, but mostly this episode will be remembered spending its second-to-last episode of the year aping another FOX hit.

[Full recap of Tuesday’s (May 17) “Glee” after the break…]

Before getting to that, let’s get to the storyline that gave the episode its title. When hearing that someone would die this week on Twitter, I honestly pegged it for Burt Hummel. Not that I wanted him to die, but in terms of cast members that weren’t actually in New Directions, he seemed like the most likely person. Instead, the show revealed that Sue’s sister Jean had passed away. Out of left field? A little, although it did give Jane Lynch an opportunity to be human again, and possibly finally mend her relationship with New Directions. So, good. Right?

Well, inside of the episode itself, yes. But “Glee” often works plenty fine on a micro level and then forgets to apply it to the larger picture. For Sue and Will to finally make peace on the eve of Nationals makes narrative sense: not only does it take the spotlight off her for what should rightfully be the kids’ big hour, it also sets up a third season that’s not dominated by Sue’s increasingly vicious (and increasingly reality-pushing) attacks on the glee club. The show has struggled all season long to keep Sue relevant, and it’s not a coincidence that episodes that have kept her off-screen have produced some of the show’s finest hours this season. Being a sarcastic faculty member at McKinley High is fine: keeping up the Cruella de Vil act for another season would have pushed things from “utterly grating” to “downright insulting.”

But we can’t completely discount this possibility, can we? “Glee” is to “continuity” what “Lucy Van Pelt” is to “Charlie Brown’s football”: it keeps yanking it away, no matter how much we as Audience Charlie Brown want to believe this time will be different. We’ve already had an episode this year (“Anthem”) that had the nerve to put Sue in a children’s cancer ward and STILL have her revert to her old self immediately afterwards. After all, this is the same woman that all too recently dressed up as David Bowie and mixed placenta into her margaritas. That we’ve seen Sue’s other side before doesn’t constitute three dimensionality for her character: it just means the show has an ace in the hole should it ever need us to feel sympathy for the devil for a short span of time.

Honestly, I’d all but forgotten Jean existed in this universe, further making this storyline come out of left field. I doubt the writers remembered either, until they looked in their own version of The Three Boxes to see storylines discarded from the show’s cannon. There, right next to Coach Bieste and Artie’s Magical Legs lay Jean, waiting to be offed for the sake of pre-Nationals pathos. That the show STILL got me slightly choked up as New Directions performed Jean’s favorite song for their long-time nemesis is a testament to how powerfully committed these actors were to executing the cheesiness thrust upon them. But this doesn’t change the fact that it was manipulation for manipulation sake, not a carefully deployed plot point long in the making.

The show spent a lot of time having Sue explain to Will how much she and Jean talked about him over the years. Know what would have been nice? Actually seeing those conversations! Using Jean as a touchstone for the “true” Sue over the years would have not only given greater context and balance to Sue’s increasingly desperate moves against New Directions. It also would have made tonight’s surprise death an incredibly powerful punch instead of an immensely cheap trick. To wit: we learned about Jean’s favorite film and song tonight. Imagine if we’d heard Jean humming “Pure Imagination” back in Season 1, and then watched New Directions perform it tonight. We wouldn’t have had to hear Kurt explaining the context at the funeral: we would have intuitively grasped it, making the moment far more powerful than it actually was. Laying this kind of groundwork is difficult, to be sure. But it’s absolutely necessary, and to constantly forsake one of the singular strengths of serialized television constantly keeps “Glee” from being what it truly could be.

The “tell, don’t show” attitude continued through to Will’s storyline, in which we learned that he indeed is going to be performing on Broadway this summer with April. When last this plot was spoken of, Will was merely contemplating the idea to himself. But that didn’t stop the show from having us watch a scene of Emma/Will packing while saying, “What? When? What?” to ourselves while we scrambled in vain to remember the scene in which this decision was originally made. Giving both Will and Sue scenes in which they had three boxes for keeping, storing, and throwing away items was the show’s attempt to link the two storylines. But while Sue’s existed in one reality, Will’s existed in one that thinks April’s idea for a Big Apple show is actually viable.

Moreover, should we really be rooting for Will to succeed, after watching him defer to Jesse St. James for an entire hour? Jesse’s return felt like a misfire last week, but his presence this week was even more intolerable. Juxtaposing Sue’s all-too human grief with Jesse’s push to be the next Simon Cowell was “Glee” at its most…well, “Glee.” There’s no one adjective to describe it. It’s like how some people view art in general: they know it when they see it. Seeing the show look at the rules of how a episode of television is supposed to be produce, then laughing and flipping it the bird, is part of the package with “Glee.” Sometimes, it produces magic. Tonight, it produced nausea-inducing dissonance. But it’s always “Glee,” and you know it when you see it. Even if you want to look away.

That Jesse is even there at all is an indictment of both Will and the show as a whole. Over and over again tonight, we were reminded that Nationals are the culmination of two years of hard work. And those two years yielded…no set list and no clear sense of the strongest performers in the group. Awesome. Solution? The show spending half of its penultimate episode reenacting an “American Idol” audition episode. Unreal. It stopped all narrative momentum dead for a nearly continuous string of performances almost entirely devoid of context. Other than Rachel singing “My Man” to an absent Finn, there was no real impetus for any of these kids to sing what they did. It was the show simply marking time, not developing character or story. Even for “Glee,” such laziness was striking, and almost bordered on offensive.

Will not only let Jesse spend the hour psychologically destroying the children he claims to love, but then “solved the problem” by deciding the group would write their Nationals songs ON THE PLANE TO NYC. (I use caps when I am angry. Apologies.) I hate to be a backseat writer here, but wouldn’t have Jean’s funeral been the perfect time to actually show the Nationals for what they are: a shiny and ultimately unimportant stop along the road? While the show paid lip service to Regionals last year, it’s rarely seemed to actually care about the bigger stage this season. In addition, there have been several occasions in which characters on the show note that the competition won’t fundamentally alter their lives in a meaningful way.

I don’t think the show’s apathy towards Nationals is inherently a bad thing. Their disinterest in that compared to the lives of the characters in McKinley High is actually a plus in my books. That they do a haphazard job with those characters is unfortunate, but their emphasis is in the right place all the same. “Glee” is absolutely NOT a show about a group of kids trying to win a national singing competition. Nationals gives the show a structure, but it doesn’t give it either a backbone or heart. Every time the show mentions Nationals, it’s almost always an afterthought. It’s not unlike that Post-It note on your fridge, constantly reminding you to take that shirt to the dry cleaners. Yet, you never do. Maybe Nationals was the initial glue that kept this ragtag together, but in rallying behind Sam and Sue in recent weeks, the show has demonstrated there’s a much stronger glue holding them together than the promise of New York City.

Yet, the show’s going to NYC next week anyways, not war-torn Libya. (Too bad: I’d like to see Trouty Mouth help spread democracy or watch Puck flame anti-American sentiment to even higher levels than ever before.) But its heart is back in Ohio, making next week’s finale feel BIG but somehow simultaneously perfunctory. Remember in “Swingers,” where early cries of “VEGAS, BABY!” turn into meek, “Vegas,” mumblings after a few hours? That’s how the season-long approach to Nationals has felt for the show. Jean’s death could not have only been a catalyst for Sue to finally change her attitude, but for New Directions to reevaluate what’s meaningful in their own lives. And while I get that Nationals is nothing to sneeze at, it’s nothing to hug, either.

 

What did you think of “Funeral”? Will Sue’s attitude stay changed, or revert back at the show’s earliest convenience? Does Jesse provide drama or just annoyance? How well do you expect New Directions to do at Nationals? And how much do you actually care at this point? Sound off below!