“You are a star, Rachel Berry, and in just two day’s time from now you are going to shine so bright on that stage that the sun is gonna cry with envy.”
Last week’s “Choke” episode of Glee was just stunning. Between Puck’s emotions about his father and Coach Beiste’s struggle with domestic violence, the episode was already emotionally charged. (TVLine featured pointed commentary about the problems of the show’s approach to the latter.) On top of all that, you had Kurt’s amazing performance of “Not the Boy Next Door” and then Rachel. Oh my stars, Rachel. I knew what was coming but as she flubbed the lyrics to “Don’t Rain on My Parade” not once, but twice, I was breathless. I have listened to her rendition of the song from season one probably hundreds of times in the last two years, but this was just even more extraordinary.
Against my will, I was choking back tears of my own as she closed the episode belting “Cry.” What I think was more moving about this episode, however, is the way that it complicates the development of Rachel’s character. I’ve been tracking her growth all along as she’s evolved from a caricature reminiscent of Tracy Flick* to a more relatable if still somewhat obnoxious type-A star. Consistently, even as she’s matured and become less selfish, she’s been ostracized for the very things that make her successful-her ambition, drive, and somewhat blinding confidence. Her failure in the audition thus came as a total shock, to her, if not to the audience.
As she and Kurt prepared for the audition, she urged him to stick with “Music of the Night” because he had prepared for it, even though his gut was telling him to switch to something less shopworn and that reflected his personality more clearly. Rachel asserted that the audition was too important to take any risks. She was sticking with a song she had been singing perfectly since she was a toddler. Paradoxically, Kurt succeeded so wonderfully because he was confident enough to take a chance on himself while Rachel’s confidence and her preparation failed her. It was hard to watch. Painful even.
But failure is an important lesson. Not only could failure teach Rachel a little humility, it could also show her what she’s really made of. It sounds trite, but even if she has talent and drive, if she’s never had to prove that she is resilient enough for showbiz, where she will be rejected often despite her talent, can she really make it? The girl still gets pissy if someone else takes a solo from her in the high school glee club. Plus, failure is a hard thing for type-Aers to stomach. Coping with failure is a life skill that can only be learned through experience and Rachel hasn’t really tasted it yet. So, I was more than a little curious about what the next week would bring.
“Prom-asaurus”** opens on Rachel’s inner-monologue about her botched audition, thinking about how her dream has died (I mean, her dads did sit shiva). She thinks, “I feel different. In some ways it’s a relief. To be part of the crowd.” I cringed a little. One failure certainly can’t make someone so determined to be a super star believe that she is just going to fade into the masses. The moment was tempered by a realistic note: “So I’m not going to get everything I ever wanted. It doesn’t make me a loser.” True, but one bad audition doesn’t mean she won’t get her dreams. I found myself arguing with her in my head. Yes, she should have had a back up plan, but couldn’t she still go to New York? Then, as I hoped would not happen, the scene ended with Rachel being disparaged. Becky*** jabs at her, “I don’t want to catch your failure.” I would think that after Rachel’s been humiliated, Glee would show her being accepted and helped by her classmates (as she has done for others). No dice.
The rest of the episode got worse. I rolled my eyes so hard it hurt as Rachel discussed the importance of her prom dress because she would never walk a red carpet. I was increasingly wary as she got angry about the Quinn and Finn prom campaign* (haven’t we already done this), afraid that she’s again “just some sad little Jewish girl watching you get all the attention with the pretty blonde cheerleader.” I loved Santana’s tirade, mean as it was, because she called Rachel out on her pettiness and encouraged her to deal instead of “imploding” on what is supposed to be a fun night for the whole group. I enjoyed watching the tense relationship between Rachel and fellow-overachiever Quinn navigate some more bumps, and was glad to see Rachel apologize for her negativity and get some support, even in the cliched form of a prom queen crown. But the hard stuff is still ahead of her.
Despite how upsetting it was to watch her struggle, I think it’s good that the show portrayed her dealing with her failure as a hard process. I think that she’s down on herself over her dreams (rather than her nose, her unpopularity, a boy, etc–as in the past) is not entirely a bad thing. I think a lot of people (present company included) who have failed at something or suffered this kind of major setback could tell you that at first things do feel bleak and maybe you do feel like it’s all over. But if you are going to be a star, you can’t let things end there. It’s a process and a painful one. It’s something important for teens to see and to internalize, even in something as silly as Glee. I loved Finn’s mini-speech to her during their prom dance. She is amazing, but not because she’s the prom queen. I’m looking forward to seeing Rachel pick herself up and brush herself off. Rumors have circulated that Lea Michele was filming in New York (see photo above), so I’m willing to bet Rachel has a dramatic plan up her sleeve, and one that will fit the confidence and audacity I’ve come to love in the character.
Also, when I made my comments about Quinn Fabray going to Yale a couple months ago (Something to Say About Quinn Fabray), I obviously didn’t see this coming:
I’m interested to see where they take her between now and the finale in two weeks. She also had a kind of ugly moment in “Prom-asaurus,” telling a classmate who was “being beautiful at her” (Tina Fey) that her health and normal life inspired her. The student was clueless, but ouch. Bitter. Her struggle with adversity in the wheelchair is getting a more nuanced and thorough exploration than her pregnancy did, and for that I am glad. Even if it seemed way out of left-field.
Oh, and I was more surprised by Finn’s reaction to her walking than I was that she recovered just in time to get the coveted prom queen crown by questionable means. Her scenes with Rachel and Santana were really interesting, especially when thinking about all the ups and downs she’s gone through over the past two years.
*I can no longer find a great article I’m thinking of, but there has been great criticism done on Tracy Flick as a sexist embodiment of the gifted, high-achieving teen girl. That argument is even more powerful when you consider how often female politicians are called a “Tracy Flick” when their male opponents want viewers to think of them as shrill, too ambitious, or immature. When Rachel tears down the prom poster featuring Quinn and Finn, I couldn’t help but think of the famous scene in which Tracy moves furiously through the school hallways tearing down campaign posters. UPDATE: Found it: In Defense of Tracy Flick
**I really hope next year a bunch of schools have dinosaur themed proms. Hilarious. Brittany is one of a kind (thankfully?).
***The subplot about Becky’s “scortched earth reign of terror” when she’s not nominated for prom queen was a nice contrast to Rachel’s struggle. I loved Sue’s line, “Advertisers are manipulative alcoholics who use images to play on our emotions. Haven’t you seen Mad Men?”