'Glee' Recap: What a Feeling

The New Directions head to Nationals in a double episode rife with nostalgia, predictability and foreshadowing - plus a Lindsay Lohan cameo

rachel glee
Adam Rose/FOX
Rachel (Lea Michele) performs at Nationals on 'Glee.'
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"Props" and "Nationals" were as predictable in their two-hour glory as I expected them to be, yet the penultimate episodes of Glee's third season had a spirit about them that made for entertaining moments, both heartfelt and whimsical. But, of course, a double dose of Glee meant twice as many stand-out performances and twice as many songs I'd like to forget ever happened:

"I Won't Give Up"
Rachel kicks things off by accepting that she hasn't gotten past her NYADA audition failure, emphatically penning "NYADA IS MY DESTINY" in her journal. As a part of her coping, she makes Jason Mraz's sappy ballad mildly more tolerable, but there's not much you can do to make the sleepy song more dynamic. It's a quintessential Rachel ballad performance, though, splicing in shots of her belting on the auditorium stage with intense facial expressions as she sings through the hallway.

She calls Carmen Tibideaux after the song is over to invite Carmen to see the New Directions perform at Nationals and Rachel claim the MVP trophy. Despite the fact that the message is her 14th, she manages to show restraint and not sound too much like she's begging. Which she most obviously is.

"Because You Loved Me"
Schue writes "NATIONALS" on the board. The time has come... to pick songs for the most important competition of the year right before the competition. Who needs rehearsal? This is nothing new in the school of Glee competition prep, yet I can't stop commenting on it (also, am weirdly glad that at least something is consistent around here). When the solos are assigned, Tina is fed up with Rachel always getting to shine while she's relegated to the background, and storms out. Mike tells Tina she's being selfish; this is the seniors' moment to shine. Rachel tries to get Tina to back down, rattling off a list of accomplishments that it takes to be Rachel Berry, including memorizing both the Sondheim songbook and every Katy Perry hit, being captain of 16 clubs and keeping her boyfriend both interested and physically satisfied.

After Rachel's not-so-peppy pep talk, Tina resigns herself to her costume coordinator position and goes to shop at the mall, but slips and falls into the fountain while text fighting for Mike. One head thwack later, and she's seeing things – more specifically, Puck as Blaine and Finn as Kurt . . . and herself as Rachel, thus getting the one thing she has (most recently) always wanted. "Oh my god, I'm Rachel Berry!," she exclaims as she looks down and sees herself in what appears to be a Minnie Mouse-inspired ensemble. And so we see the rest of the New Directions body swap: Artie and Santana, Brittany and Mercedes, Sue and Schue, Joe and Mike, Rory and Sam, and Sugar and Quinn.

After a pep talk from Kurt-as-Finn (who promises to make out with her after she sings since her boobs look slightly bigger), Tina launches into the most Rachel-like ballad she can pick, Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me." Now, I am admittedly biased from singing this (along with a hundred or so other 12-year-olds) at my sixth grade graduation, but this is my favorite Tina solo since season one's "True Colors." The richness of her voice removes some of the Lite FM softness embedded in the tune, and it really is great to see Tina get a song that suits her vocal abilities (Florence and the Machine's "Shake It Out"? Not so much.). She gets her first standing ovation and, as Rachel, takes the opportunity to be the friend to Rachel-as-Tina that the real Rachel wouldn't. Tina's brief hallucination is over too soon, however – by the end of the next commercial break, everyone is back to their right selves. It's too bad; dare I say it, but I would have been totally OK with a full episode of body swapping.

"Mean"
Sue informs Mercedes and Kurt that they helped Vocal Adrenaline's Wade "Unique" Adams become a superstar, meaning he's now viable competition at nationals. And she won't stand for it. "It's time to fight fire with additional flaming flames of flaming gay fire," she says as Kurt rolls his eyes. Sue tells him she wants him to wear a flapper dress and perform as Porcelaina at nationals (rewind to Halloween where he and Blaine were Snooki and the Situation). "I Hate to say it, but if we want to beat Vocal Adrenaline at nationals, it's tuck-in time," she declares. Kurt adamantly refuses, but Puck takes one for the team and shows up to rehearsal in a dress and blonde wig as "Lola."

He's rejected, as Schue finally convinces Sue they need to figure out an alternate means of securing a win, but Rick "The Stick" Nelson still takes the opportunity to taunt Puck for dressing in drag and not getting into a college. They brawl by the dumpsters after school, a fight which Puck appears to lose spectacularly before pulling out a West Side Story prop knife right as Bieste walks up. He finally breaks down in the locker room, and his words about being nothing and feeling like garbage hit home: Bieste still hasn't left Cooter, but it's Puck's words that get her to do so.

In a moment of what I'm going to chalk up to therapy through song, Puck kicks off Taylor Swift's hit sounding vaguely like the lead singer of Wheatus ("Teenage Dirtbag," anyone?) which was disorienting, especially when he found a whole other accent midway through the song. Bieste chimes in with something that attempts to be a country drawl, but doesn't quite get there. I feel slightly guilty criticizing a song that's called "Mean," and is clearly therapeutic for these characters. . . but let's be real: it was quite unfortunate. There's an uptick, though: Bieste tells puck his European Geography teacher is going to let him have another go at his test. Turns out Puck's attempt to dress in drag for the glee club proved to Ms. Doonsbury that he was able to care about something.

"Flashdance . . . What a Feeling"
Inspired by her body-swapping dream, Tina suggests Rachel go see Carmen in person – she's conveniently teaching a master class at Oberlin! Tina volunteers to drive, telling a shocked Rachel, "Everyone has their part to play, right? Maybe this is mine." Rachel tells Tina, "You do know that next year you're going to be the lead vocalist," setting the stage for shattered dreams or Tina Cohen-Chang turning into a major player in season four. As they drive, Rachel talks herself up from the depths of a dreamless future, reinforcing Tina's proclamation that Rachel was born under a blessed star. It's miraculously not as grating as I just made it sound.

"What makes you think you're entitled to more attention than the other hundreds of people I see with the same hopes and dreams?," Carmen demands to know of Rachel when she and Tina arrive. But Tina comes to the rescue with a backwards compliment: "Rachel Berry is a pain in the ass. What she wants, she gets. And I've spent a lot of time resenting her for it. But the fact is, she gets it because she's exceptional." Carmen dismisses her, but Rachel leaves with a pledge to audition until she gets in. It's a real deal speech Rachel gives, pushing for her dream to come true because she's not as good as anything else, nor does she get as much joy from anything else. And while I'd normally be the first to call out Glee for the heavy-handedness, I feel for you, Rachel! I do. Now let's pretend that never happened.

Back at McKinley, Finn and Rachel watch their friends. "In a sea full of kids who are just desperately clinging to their own kind, we're different," Rachel says with a shrug. "We took the time to get to know each other, and reach out and accept one another. That's our unique factor. And that's what I love about us." To celebrate that feeling, Rachel delivers on her promise to sing with Tina before graduation, and the two take the auditorium stage in similar get-ups, triumphantly singing through the halls and onto the bus, because it's finally time to head to Chicago. Nationals or bust! Though I actually would have loved to see the bonkers crazy legwarmers and sparks choreography Sue was trying to implement, there was a glimmer of old-school Glee in the performance, carefree underdog status that made me smile.

"Edge of Glory":
Nationals kicks off with Mercedes contracting food poisoning from a sketchy taco joint, and Sue puts it in perspective: "We are entering the Hunger Games of show choir competition without one of our most powerful voices. We need to have a plan." Maternal Sue acknowledges that she wants the win a little bit to having to co-lead the Cheerios with Roz Washington, but mostly for the kids. For the kids, you guys! In an episode where everything old feels refreshing, this sentiment is not old-school Glee, but I don't mind affectionate Sue Sylvester as long as she still has a bit of bite. To that point, while Schue's plan means pulling Quinn and Tina into the Troubletones for the Nationals performance, Sue's plan means pulling from Jacob's Ladder to heal Mercedes.

One massive glee club fight and Schue intervention later, the New Directions have channeled their anger into productivity and are ready! for! Nationals! Schue tries to give a pep talk, but Finn stops him: "You always told us a teacher knows his job is done when his students don't need him anymore," so Schue lets Finn have the floor. Despite his having done a total sum of nothing to really teach them, Finn says they're doing this for Schue. FOR SCHUE! Then Mercedes shows up, healed by Sue's crazy concoctions.

This year's Nationals judges are "America's sweetheart, Lindsay Lohan; Hollywood gossip legend, Perez Hilton; and Alderman Martin Fong" (Entourage's Rex Lee), and they settle in as the New Directions take the stage. Or, more specifically, Rachel, Santana and Tina rise from under the stage while the rest of the Troubletones sing back-up to "Edge of Glory." Though aptly titled for where the New Directions are relative to winning, there's something seriously lacking in the performance, which doesn't do much to deter fears of the first slot being the death slot. Given what Glee has already done with Gaga, I was hopeful, but the girls seemed emotionless and rushed as they performed – and Mercedes' extra riffing on the chorus wound up taking away from the performance.

"It's All Coming Back to Me Now"
And now it's time for one more Quintessential Rachel Berry Performance, complete with chandeliers like the mansion the video takes place in! She's slow, measured and just the right amount of emotional as the song starts and – oh my God, you guys! Carmen walked in. No one saw that coming, right? The only thing I didn't like about the song was how it ended. No, seriously. It had an abrupt cliffhanger.

"Paradise by the Dashboard Light"
They weren't going so far as to reprise Journey, so the next best vintage tune was Meatloaf's opus. It's a Quintessential New Directions Competition Performance: Finn does a surprisingly decent Meatloaf, and everyone gets their moment to shine. The already theatrical song is somehow made better by the show choir arrangement and, surprise – the crowd goes wild. Even Carmen whistles her approval.

"Starships"
Mercedes and Kurt go wish Unique good luck, but he confesses can't handle the pressure: "All I ever wanted to do was wear a dress and sing," he cries to them. "And now I'm the poster child for any kid who's different. I can't handle it." They talk him through it, advising him on lipstick color. "I'll tell you what," he says as they leave the dressing room. "Unique might need to transfer schools next year."

For as much as Unique's first performance impressed me, "Starships" has the opposite effect. This version feels more subdued than the warp-speed of Minaj's hit. Though, as expected, Vocal Adrenaline's stage acrobatics trump everything anyone else does.

"Pinball Wizard" In a transition that I still can't quite wrap my head around, Vocal Adrenaline shifted from Minaj's current Top 40 hit to a disco-fueled version of the Who's Tommy classic, complete with light-up pinball machines on stage. Unique riffs the hell out the song and the crowd is immediately on its feet, but the robot dancers of Vocal Adrenaline make it hard to glean any personality from the performance.

"Tongue Tied"
It's time to deliberate. "If you have to ask why a 12-time Kids Choice Award nominee is a celeb judge, then you don't know what celebrity means," Martin says to Perez of Lindsay. She declares she's there to support the wannabe stars "unconditionally" – but then gets upset upon realizing the show isn't televised and she doesn't have a red button and a chair that spins around and the ability to point at some kid on stage and say "I want to work with you!" So, basically, wrong network. "I'm in full image branding mode, here!" she says, except, like most of her lines, there's not really any emotion.

In fact, like most of the competition judges, it doesn't really matter who really weighs in. What matters is RESULTS. Speaking of which, somehow last year's dozen-plus Nationals competitors were whittled down to a top three for the 2012 edition so the suspense is much less as we find out that the Scale Blazers come in third. . . and, in a moment that should have shocked no one, the New Directions finally win Nationals! Cue the happy tears montage. The New Directions return to McKinley as celebrities: it's cups of confetti instead of slushies in the hallway, hugs instead of shoves, kisses from random girls, celebratory cakes in the teacher's lounge and the front page of the local paper. Finn doubles his and Rachel's honeymoon fund by winning a bet against Rick Nelson and Emma decides it's finally time to have sex with Schue, what appears to be bubbly is poured and splashed, Rachel makes the day of an underclassman by signing the girl's yearbook as spirited take on Grouplove plays over the scene.

"We Are the Champions"
Figgins summons Finn and Rachel to his office to present them with congratulatory bumpers, mini pom-poms and $5 for their wedding. He also asks them to have the New Directions perform at a top secret McKinley event: the annual awards ceremony. Sue escorts Emma and Schue to the auditorium, convinced she'll get teacher of the year for all of the good she's accomplished "despite the fact I've been pregnant now for an indeterminate number of months." (WHERE IS HER BABY BUMP?) But, if you've been watching the episode so far and couldn't predict Schue getting the Teacher of the Year award, then I can't really help you out. Finn and Rachel present him with it, thanking him for all he's done for them. Then the New Directions chime in with Queen, each senior getting a moment in the spotlight in a performance rife with emotion. It's moments like this that are pure and straight to the show's original appeal that make it easy to forget all of the chaos Glee unnecessarily burdens itself with.

Why Didn't They Sing About This?
I know, it's nearly impossible to want more music, but I would have gladly swapped one of the lesser songs for Jesse St. James getting a moment in the spotlight as overeager choir boy-turned-nervous leader doing good by championing Rachel to Carmen. We don't find out whether Rachel does, in fact, get into NYADA – but I'm willing to bet that'll be her graduation present next week.

Performance Ranking:
Loved 'Em: "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," "It's All Coming Back to Me Now," "Because You Loved Me," "Flashdance . . . What a Feeling"
Just Fine: "We Are the Champions," "Pinball Wizard," "Tongue Tied,"
Wipe From Memory: "Edge of Glory," "Starships", "I Won't Give Up," "Mean"

Bottom Line: Everything worked out, as I expected it would, but it would have been more disappointing if the opposite were true in a show about the underdogs. Despite veering dangerously close to heavy-handed territory, "Props" and "Nationals" managed to serve their saccharine moments with something of a bite.

Previously: You're Insecure, Don't Know What For