There’s a moment early in tonight’s episode of “Glee” in which Will wrote “Prom” on the board, prompting Sam to say, “Please don’t tell me we’re doing songs about prom.” From your mouth to God’s ears, Trouty Mouth. There’s a tendency in many episodes of the show to shoehorn in songs that don’t really make a lick of dramatic sense, but have a tenuous (at best) connection with the Will’s Word of the Week. Luckily, “Prom Queen” took the time to examine the seminal high school rite through character interactions, not iTunes selections. The results were still a mixed bag, though overall produced one of the second season’s strongest episodes.

[Full recap of Tuesday’s (May 10) “Glee” after the break…]

You can usually tell when the three writers of “Glee” are putting stuff onscreen because it amused them at one point during the scripting process, and when they are actually invested in the material. While it’s occasionally turned Kurt into an untouchable (and sometimes unbearable) saint, the Kurt/Karofsky plot has been one of the few ongoing threads this season that 1) had stakes, 2) had continuity, and 3) has evolved more or less the way a story like thing might actually proceed in the real world. Last week’s episode outlined how often things in the world of “Glee” change simply for change’s sake. But this particular story has bite 

It’s also managed to draw out some interesting stories for other characters as well. For a time, it seemed like Santana was simply turning into a younger, saucier version of Sue Sylvester. That’s all well and good, but layering that exterior over an increasingly fragile core has done wonders for that character. Much in the way the Anna Torv rose to the material over the past season and a half over on “Fringe,” Naya Rivera has taken everything that the show has thrown at her and elevated it.

It’s not so much that Santana has been co-opted into Kurt’s struggle so much as been influenced by it. That subtle difference means that Kurt’s own arc stays rather uncluttered, while simultaneously demonstrating how one person’s actions have a domino effect on those around him/her. The dominoes started to fall, of course, with Karofsky himself. Threatened by seeing his inner self reflected in a fellow student, he lashed out in the earlier part of the season, which in turn led to Kurt’s temporary transfer, which in turn gave space for Santana’s self-reflection, and lo and behold, before you knew it, there they all stood at year’s end under the same crystal ball. The characters reflected back upon each other as many times as the tiny mirrors reflected the light around the gymnasium.

That “Glee” didn’t use the prom as a coming out party for Karofsky and Santana marks something akin to maturity in its storytelling. Again, it must be stressed: when these writers care about a story, they can actually tell it in a way fitting to the medium of serialized television. They absolutely can. That they rarely do is a matter I’ve harped on plenty of times in this space, but when they organically reach a crescendo like Kurt becoming Prom Queen, then I must note that as well. Karofsky never coming out is probably best, and most honest, choice. Tonight saw his most sincere apology to Kurt, and that may be as far as that character ever gets and likely the apex of Karofsky’s arc. For her part, Santana looks to be making strides towards self-acceptance, courtesy of Brittany*. Since she’s a major character on the show, I’d prefer to see her find some sort of happiness down the road, and tonight seemed to be an important step down that path. But this was Kurt’s night. Hers can come later.

* All hail Heather Morris. Brittany is another character affected by Kurt’s storyline, and while she’s happy to talk to her cat on a web-based talk show, her simple but effective message to Santana showed a cogent, human side. Plus? Her “Oh my God!” reaction to Artie’s impromptu performance in home economics class might have been the most honest reaction by anyone in the history of the show. Just perfect.

As for the big twist surrounding the identity of the episode’s title: one on hand, I get why Brad Falchuk was angry about Kurt’s victory leaking on Twitter a few weeks back. On the other hand, hearing that piece of information out of context really isn’t much of a spoiler. It told the “what” of the story, but not the “why.” Tonight’s show never did truly explain if Kurt’s victory was a prank (a likely, though not definitive, answer), or if the response to Kurt’s jab at Kate Middleton reflected another, more positive, unspoken sentiment at the school. Reading “Kurt wins Prom Queen” on Twitter didn’t offer any more concrete explanation as to the reasons behind the victory than tonight’s episode did.

In any case, Kurt’s acceptance of the award, irrespective of the student body’s intentions by bestowing it, won over a large portion of his classmates. This perhaps makes the reasons for the victory slightly moot, instead favoring one of this episode’s most prevalent themes: people respect authenticity, no matter what form said authenticity takes. The thing about authenticity? It cannot be unveiled by a third party: it has to be revealed by the primary participant. Kurt achieved authenticity in the eyes of his peers by accepting the award. According to Brittany, Santana lost the same prize due to her lack of it. And Karofsky may have fooled the student body for now, but will always be a shell of himself, knowing who he really is but unable to ever show it.

So far, so good. What I just described is one of the strongest episodes in the show’s history. Unfortunately, it was only about two-thirds of the episode, with the other third largely dedicated to reintroducing an older, yet somehow dumber, Jesse St. James back into the mix to reestablish the love quadrangle from Season One. I understand why “Glee” would want the Rachel/Finn/Quinn stuff to explode at prom, the Night of Overly Excitable Hormones. But Jesse’s arrival on-scene made little to no sense, overly complicating an already operatic triangle. He’s like a deus ex moronica, and if what he said at Breadstix is right, it looks like we’re going to have him around for the final few episodes. Faaaantastic. Can’t wait to hear why Will is going to allow this guy to mentor New Directions. That should make tons of sense.

There were also plotlines involving Sam/Mercedes and Puck/Lauren, but the show didn’t seem to want to do anything other than remind us they still exist in this universe. I minded Sam’s stuff much less than last week’s material, which was overly drippy and came out of nowhere. At least his economic situation factored into the “Budget on a Prom” plan, and him asking Mercedes to dance was sweet and sincere. Plus? I appreciate that the show didn’t let Mercedes take a box of tater tots as her date. Win! The Puck stuff made absolutely no sense, mostly because his idea of regaining street cred was singing Rebecca Black’s “Friday”. I searched in vain for signs of irony in this number, and it’s entirely possibly that both band and audience were enjoying it in the “it’s so bad it’s awesome” way. But that’s not the way it came across on screen at all. It looked like everyone involved thought they were grooving to the greatest dance song EVAR.

While Will was relegated to basically two short, early scenes Sue got a bit of screen time as prom enforcer, which turned her briefly into Laurence Oliver from “Marathon Man” in order to extract (see what I did there?) information from Artie that would undo the New Directions’ chances at Nationals. This was truly ridiculous Sue, this was placenta-drinking Sue, but it really wasn’t a lot of Sue. In small doses, even this silly, she’s OK. When she’s 50% of the plot, then the show runs into issues. Overall, “Prom Queen” had just the right amount of adults/teenagers ratio, even if in a perfect world I’d like them to be about as involved as the parents of the Peanuts gang. The adult world is a scary place in this show (ask Quinn, still terrified of what lays for her beyond graduation), and while the occasional adult perspective might come in handy, I’d rather watch these kids fumble their way towards that uncertain future as much on their own as possible. While singing, if you please.

But that uncertain future will have to wait in favor of something more certain: Nationals. The trip to NYC could be either spectacular or a spectacular failure. In other words, it’ll be like every other episode of “Glee.” Luckily, tonight had much more in the “spectacular” column that in most weeks. Too bad it couldn’t clear enough narrative room to truly let the spotlight shine as brightly as it should have on a pivotal point in the show’s most successful storyline.

 

What did you think of “Prom Queen”? Did the Kurt/Karofsky storyline work for you? Was Kurt’s coronation intended as a joke or an honor? And did Jesse’s return remind you of Season 1’s better days, or just feel like a desperate plot to make the push to Nationals more dramatic? Sound off below!