Warning: The following review contains spoilers for all aired episodes of “Glee,” including the most recent, “Ballad”.
After last week’s truly stunning episode, “Wheels,” it is difficult, on a first viewing, to not compare “Ballad” unfavorably to the previous installment. After all, “Wheels” is an almost perfectly composed gamechanger that caused us to question what we knew about a number of the characters and reemphasized, reestablished, and furthered the key themes of Glee in the strongest manner the series has accomplished since the pilot episode. ”Ballad,” by comparison, is merely fantastic. Paired with any other episode, it most likely would have come across more strongly than it did, and indeed, on a second viewing, I noticed far more brilliant aspects than the first time.
The major accomplishment of “Ballad” is in how it explores the concept of how music functions in a musical. In the early days of musical theatre, a flimsy plot would be built around a number of songs. The script and character were a barely disguised excuse to cut to the real reason people were there–the musical numbers–much as the plot of the average porn film is nothing more than connective tissue for the sex scenes. As musicals evolved, however, the songs no longer stopped the so-called “action” of the plot but were rather fully integrated within it. For a musical to be deemed worthy today, it cannot exist without its songs. Eliminate them and attempt to perform the script without them and one would be left with an incomplete piece. Sometimes this is because the songs themselves relay important plot information, and other times it is because the songs convey emotional information about the characters without which one can never fully know them or comprehend their motivations. More often than not, the songs on Glee function in the latter capacity, i.e they don’t necessarily advance the plot but they do color in nuances without which the characters would be incomplete. For example, we first came to know Rachel through her singing “On My Own” in the pilot. She expressed her pain through this showtune, appealing to our emotions and allowing us to understand her as a person in a manner that we wouldn’t have without it. The song, however, didn’t further the plot. In “Ballad,” however, the songs function on both levels.
In the opening scene, Rachel and Mr. Schuester sing the Lionel Richie-Diana Ross ballad, “Endless Love” together, and by the end of the song, Rachel has become hopelessly smitten with Will, though she hadn’t ever seen him in that light before that moment. In no universe but the heightened reality of a musical could someone actually fall in love with someone whom they had not cared about over the course of singing a duet with them, but in the context of a musical, it makes absolute sense. Both characters seem to have stripped their hearts bare. Of course, Will is only performing, whereas Rachel, who practically lives her life in a musical, believes she has finally peered into his soul. This scene is a perfect meta commentary on musical theatre. Would Tony and Maria, from Rachel’s favorite musical, have fallen in love with one another if they hadn’t sung to one another on their first meeting? Rachel’s brain is so overwhelmed with what she has learned from the musicals constantly playing inside her head that falling in love with Mr. Schuester, upon hearing his voice raised in song to her, makes perfect sense, just as she first fell for Finn after singing “You’re the One That I Want” with him in the pilot. In other words, the song here functions as emotion-conveyer and plot-advancer.
Throughout the episodes, people continue to use songs to convey and illustrate their emotions. Will sings an inspired mashup of The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s “Young Girl” to Rachel, in order to dissuade her from pursuing her obsessive crush on him. Finn sings an impassioned version of The Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand by You” to his unborn child and later, a fully sincere rendition of Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby” to Quinn, and in front of her parents, no less. Each of these cases leads to an unexpected result–a mark of good writing, as well as the main theme of the episode, the fact that no matter what emotions one might be attempting to convey or illustrate through song, it is up to the listener to determine the true meaning. Though this episode is ostensibly about how people express difficult emotions through song, it actually proves itself to be about how listeners react to the songs of others, regardless of the singer’s intention.
Returning to the songs I just mentioned, Will believes his expertly crafted musical mix will inform Rachel to back away from him, that she’s “much too young” for him. When she hears it, what she believes instead is that the passion he sings of describes his for her, not vice versa, and that he has to keep away from her for fear of losing control of his desires. Hearing him sing, she only falls deeper in love. This sets off an hilarious, stalker-lite plotline that Lea Michele plays to the hilt and which culminates in an extremely amusing scene in which the last girl to have a fatal attraction crush on Mr. Schue, Suzy Pepper (a Rachel Berry parallel with a similarly food-inspired last name), talks Rachel out of her infatuation. It is a testament to the economy of the writing and acting that Rachel goes from full-on-Rachel-Berry-determination/obstinance-mode to seeing the truth in Suzy’s words in a very short amount of time, and yet it works, as does her reconciliation scene with Mr. Schue, which is one of the series’ sweetest scenes to date.
Meanwhile, when Finn sings to “his” baby’s sonogram, he wants to express all his love for her but ends up inadvertently revealing the secret to his mother, who unexpectedly reacts with complete compassion, love, and understanding. Romy Rosemont, as Carole Hudson, is wonderful here, stifling a cry as she holds her son, but remaining consoling, maternal, and non-judgmental. He probably hopes, when he sings before Quinn’s family, that they will have the same reaction. He knows how much of a relief talking to his mother had been and most likely hopes it will provide the same burden-lifting effect for Quinn as it did for him. This is not, of course, the case. It leads to Quinn’s conservative parents throwing her out, but what is most impressive is the effect his song has on Quinn.
“Having My Baby” is a perfect song choice for Finn, because it fits his character to a tee. The song itself is horribly dated, goofy, and cloying, and yet he sings it with such sincerity that it is hard to not love the performance. Finn himself is, of course, not much in the brains department, so it seems fitting for him to sing such a thoroughly inappropriate song but with such earnestness and openness of heart that one feels for him. It is a beautiful example of the Glee writers’ ability to choose a song that might seem oddball at first mention but which suits the character at that given moment in time better than any other song ever written. Cory Monteith nails it, as well, capturing Finn’s complete lack of self-awareness as well as his kind heart, which, as with “I’ll Stand by You,” makes the moment all the more painful and heartbreaking, on a dramatic irony level, as we as viewers know how much discovering the truth about the baby will wreck him.
The rest of the scene also plays out almost entirely differently than one might have expected. At first, Quinn seems like she wants to kill Finn for singing this song to her in front of her parents, which is exactly what would be expected. As he proceeds, however, a subtle change crosses her features. Her face softens, and she melts. She finds herself reacting to Finn’s genuine, sincere words (Who else could make this, of all songs, seem genuine and sincere? The very fact that this song is so terrible ironically makes him seem all the more innocent and sweet-natured), and falling even deeper in love with him than she was before he began. He “outed” her in front of her parents and yet despite how they may treat her in the ensuing scene, she never blames Finn for what happened. Like Monteith, Dianna Agron gives a truly lovely performance. Quinn directs the blame at her father, for wanting her to remain a little girl forever and to bottle up her true emotions, and her mother for not defending her against her father. Finn had hoped to provide Quinn with some relief by singing his song. In a way, he has made her life much more difficult, and yet at the same time, she has grown. She realizes in that moment, more than any other, just how devoted he is to her and the idea of having a baby with her (much as Teri was with Will at the sonogram), and so returns home with him, with gratitude, love, and most likely a great deal of unspoken guilt for what she has done to him and his life with her lie. And again, Finn’s mother comes through in an enormous way.
Incidentally, “Ballad,” which is all about subverting expectations, subverts them in yet another way. All season, one would have expected Quinn’s parents to learn about her pregnancy by accident. In this episode, an event occurs that could have led to word getting back to them: Finn’s mom finding out. As it turns out, however, she tells no one, and Quinn’s parents learn the definitive truth only because they are directly told. When one rewatches the episode with the knowledge that Quinn knows her mother knows earlier than she lets on, one can notice little acting touches that indicate she does, indeed, suspect something but isn’t saying. She, after all, is the one who asks Quinn whether her boyfriend is pressuring her to do anything for which she isn’t ready.
Paralleling Finn’s mother, one might have expected that Mercedes, of all people, upon finding out from Puck that he is the father of the child, would have blabbed the news to everybody. Instead, she protects her friends and their secret, and even gives Puck some good advice: leave Quinn alone. If she had wanted him in her life, she wouldn’t have chosen Finn as the father. This moment offers some interesting insight into Mercedes. One might not have expected her to be so perceptive or so trustworthy. In the previews, it seemed Puck’s blow-up would lead to the unraveling of Quinn’s lie, and yet its major effect is in further Mercedes’ resolve to support her friends.
Glee also continues to develop Kurt’s crush on Finn in this episode–a plot element which has been hinted at in the past but hasn’t come to the forefront until now. Watching Kurt pine for Finn is almost as painful as seeing Finn’s love for Quinn and she-who-won’t-be-named-Drizzle, yet at it’s also just as sweet. In the best moment, Kurt and Finn bond over both having deceased parents, a wonderful moment of continuity that further strengthens the characters and their interactions. In an interesting parallel to other plots brewing on the series, Kurt’s feelings for Finn are pure, and he is being genuinely helpful to him. At the same time, as when Finn asked Rachel out to convince her to stay in Glee Club so as not to jeopardize his chance at a music scholarship, Kurt has an ulterior motive, as well as a long-term plan to get Finn to leave Quinn for him–a plan which anyone could see through, except, of course, Finn.
Fittingly, Kurt is the master puppeteer in this episode, the one who convinces Finn to change his life by singing out his feelings, something which Kurt knows a great deal about, particularly after “Defying Gravity” last week. Kurt is, after all, the other character, along with Rachel, who knows how songs function in a musical, yet he is probably even more self-aware, particularly in this episode, when his crush leaves him a bit more lucid than hers does. It also seems that he and Mercedes are the two masterminds behind the ballad that closes the episode, “Lean on Me.” At the end of “Throwdown,” the club sang, “Keep Holding On” to provide Quinn with support. At the end of this episode, they sing to Quinn and Finn, letting them both know that they have friends and a support system, before pulling them into the song as well, the next step in the episode’s metaphor.
Throughout most of the episode, we see various characters’ reactions to music. In its last moments, people listening to a song finally join in themselves, thus closing the circuit. As in all classic musicals, the song, ultimately, is the thing…