Last week's unity gave way to this week's discontent as a very nervous New Directions prepped for sectionals without Kurt. There was a lot of reflection on how far the group came, resulting in in-fighting and romantic tensions — exactly like last year's sectionals. Surprisingly, none of the drama was caused by Sue, who didn't appear in "Special Education" at all (perhaps she was off celebrating her honeymoon with herself?). We did get Darren Criss, whose Blaine guided Kurt through his first days at Dalton Academy, as well as three seconds of John Stamos, whose Karl wed Ms. Pillsbury in an whirlwind (off-camera) Vegas weekend. And longtime McKinley student Lauren Zizes stepped into the spotlight as Kurt's replacement, after saving Puck from the football team's bullying. Overall, the episode felt scattered, like the writers were trying to cram in too much plot — somewhat understandable, given that Glee's two month hiatus is just one week away. But how did the music turn out?
"Don't Cry for Me Argentina"
After being startled by the Warblers' strict proceedings (rather than a teacher, three senior classmen oversee group practice — and everyone knows their rank), Kurt is allowed to audition for a solo. He consults his old rival diva, Rachel, for words of wisdom. Rachel is coping with her own emotions after Mr. Schuester takes Ms. Pillsbury's advice and switches things up for sectionals by, among other things, not giving Rachel any solos. "Have you ever thought about your own funeral?" she asks Kurt. He hasn't, but she has. She paints an image of Finn throwing himself in after her casket and everyone remembering her fondly, conveniently inspired by Eva Peron's marquee Evita ballad. Like their diva-off to "Defying Gravity," we are treated to a mash-up of Rachel and Kurt each singing the show tune. As seems to be the case with all of her power ballads, Rachel uses the time to grapple with the latest obstacle to her future stardom, while we see Kurt deliver a clear, restrained take. But it wasn't restrained enough: he lost the solo, and Blaine advised him not to try too hard. It was a little too rinse-wash-repeat for Glee.
"The Living Years"
The third group at sectionals, the Hipsters (older men and women getting their G.E.D.s), sing the 1980s tune to open up the competition, offering a glimpse into the future for the New Directions. We see future Rachel start the number with a cane and future Mercedes break through to finish the song off with a riff, and it's hard not to be endeared to them.
"Hey, Soul Sister"
Following their hit take on "Teenage Dream," the Warblers tackle Train's huge summertime hit with some more aid from the Tufts Beelzebubs. As they did with their take on Katy Perry, the Warblers blend polish with charm, falling midway between the robotic perfection of Vocal Adrenaline and the earnest spirit of the New Directions. Despite not getting a solo, Kurt still scored a prime stage spot in the performance, and the New Directions couldn't be more happy for him — and neither could we. But we have to wonder: where was the Warbler doing the very prominent vocal percussion? We failed to see him on stage.
"(I've Had) The Time of My Life"
More from Mr. Schuester's plan to switch things up: Rachel/Finn duets are replaced by a joint number from the team that won the duets competition, Quinn and Sam ("Barbie and Ken?!," Rachel squawks in disbelief). In a hybrid riff on Rachel's stupendous "Don't Rain on My Parade" from last year's sectionals and Rachel and Finn's start to "Faithfully" during regionals, Quinn and Sam make their way down the aisle as they start the song, which, of course, makes everyone think of Baby and Johnny Castle in the Dirty Dancing finale. But unlike in Dirty Dancing, there are no lifts or telling Jerry Orbach that nobody puts baby in a corner. While Sam's voice resembles Finn's, and Quinn's sultry-sweet tone is a change from Rachel's power vocals, the number falls a bit flat.
The final piece of Mr. Schuester's plan: foregrounding the dancing skills of Mike and Brittany, and giving a much-deserved solo to Santana, who nails the Zutons song made famous by Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse's cover. Santana's sassy vocals are a perfect echo of Winehouse's, but the rest of the songs feels a bit like a circus. Mike and Brittany's normally show-stopping moves feel out of place, and the rest of the New Directions have to scurry around to follow the spotlights. Still, the track cinches a tie for first place for the New Directions, who are headed to regionals along with the Warblers.
"Dog Days Are Over"
Amid all of the romantic tension — Tina and Artie suspect Mike and Brittany of cheating with each other, while Santana reveals to Rachel she slept with Finn last year ("That's right, Yentl, your boyfriend's been lying to you") — everyone is happy by the episode's end except for our two star-crossed leaders, Finn and Rachel. Rachel tells Finn she cheated on him with Puck while trying to cope with Santana's news, and he breaks up with her. Cut to a celebratory glee club class, save for Rachel, who passes her solo to Mercedes and Tina. The girls launch into Florence and the Machine's aptly titled breakthrough track (which was featured in the trailer to Glee creator Ryan Murphy's Eat Pray Love) as the rest of the New Directions act it out in the auditorium. The mood is triumphant, even though neither Mercedes and Tina can match the unique vocals of Florence Welch. We get some impromptu dance moves, general silliness and lots of love as the New Directions celebrate their win and (mostly) the end to a tense time.
For as much as Mr. Schuester tried to instill change, the whole episode felt like a lesser version of last year's excellent "Sectionals" episode (even though we did get to hear nearly every major character sing). We enjoyed the winking acknowledgment that Rachel and Finn always get the solos and Mercedes always brings home the song with a big note at the end. But, as tends to be the case with monumental Glee episodes, we got a spazzy, unfocused hour at the expense of emotional investment. Next week: It's Christmas! Sue is the grinch and the New Directions go caroling.