Dot Jones as ”Coach Beast”

For much of its third season, it seems to have been coasting along towards graduation and a much anticipated farewell to a handful of its charter characters; but occasionally, Glee busts out something special to remind us just how a great a TV show Glee can be, and why we ever cared about it in the first place. Last week’s episode was like that.

And it wasn’t just because we got to see Rachel (Lea Michele) fail (in spectacularly humiliating fashion) the audition she’d been preparing for her whole life; although watching her flub the words to “Don’t Rain On My Parade” – twice – especially after she’d (very condescendingly) counseled dear Kurt (Chris Colfer) not to do anything risky in his audition, certainly was a lot of mean-spirited fun (or maybe it was just sweet justice). When you heard Rachel say that she wasn’t nervous about her audition, you knew she was doomed.

Her character’s flameout even delivered some satisfying meta-schadenfreude for those of us who love love love to hate actress Lea Michele. In my head, when I saw Rachel Berry sobbing, screaming, begging, pleading for another chance, I imagined Lea Michele in Ryan Murphy’s offices sobbing, screaming, begging, pleading to let her character flunk out and have to return in Season 4 as a fifth-year senior.

Regrets collect like old friends
Here to relive your darkest moments
I can see no way, I can see no way
And all of the ghouls come out to play
– “Shake It Out” by Florence + the Machine

Kurt, meanwhile, shook off Rachel’s advice, and nervously made an eleventh hour (fifty-ninth-minute) switch to a less-rehearsed audition piece. He performed the number (the very very gay song “Not the Boy Next Door” from the Peter Allen bio-musical The Boy from Oz) with exuberant confidence; he had a blast doing it, and the audition’s jury of one – Whoopi Goldberg, impersonating Mount Rushmore – was duly impressed.

Hugh Jackman “Not the Boy Next Door” (2003)

Still, the episode’s other major plotline managed to upstage even Rachel Berry’s epic Streisand-fail. When Coach Beiste (“Beast”, the always amazing Dot Jones) shows up to school with a black eye, some of the meaner Glee girls make a joke about Coach’s boyfriend Cooter “going all Chris Brown” on her. It’s a joke – a mean one – but clearly a joke: it’s absolutely unfathomable (to the girls on the TV show, and to us watching) that any man in his right mind would even physically threaten Coach Beiste, much less do something so foolish as commit actual violence against her. She’d kick his ass, right? Not that Coach is invulnerable. We’ve seen her break down when, as a new teacher to the school, she was ridiculed and excluded by her fellow teachers. Still, the girls are comfortable making the “Chris Brown” joke because it’s self-evident to them (and us) that Coach is no victim.

But the joke was made within earshot of a teacher played by this Real Housewife of Atlanta, and she, having grown up around domestic violence, is determined to impress upon the girls just how unfunny their joke was. She notes that the American pop songbook is full of songs that commit some sort of violence against women, and (you know this is coming) gives the girls a Glee-signment for the week: take one of those songs and perform it in a way that takes back the woman’s power. Suddenly, visions of the Glee-girls singing this infamous Phil Spector “classic” danced in my head:

The Crystals “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” (1962)

It’s probably a good thing Glee didn’t go there.**

To this point, the plot is a little bit ABC After School Special-ish. We’ve seen these “special” sitcom episodes before, and we’re expecting a tidy, meaningful, lesson-learned moment. But what may have been a self-evidently preposterous proposition – Coach Beiste as the Tina to Cooter’s Ike – turns out to be exactly what’s going on. While this conveniently proves NeNe Leakes’s point – domestic jokes aren’t funny, no matter the context – that’s the last concession this episode makes to “special episode” tidiness. We learn that self-esteem issues aren’t so easily healed with just a stirring pep talk, a touching musical number, and a hug just before the credits roll.

As far as touching musical numbers go, though, the Glee girls’ nearly a cappella cover of “Shake It Out”, last year’s near-hit by Florence + the Machine, was unexpected, beautiful and incredibly powerful. Florence Welch’s lyrics about confronting the “demons” and “ghouls” that haunt a relationship and play havoc with a woman’s sense of self and worth feel as if they were written specifically for this episode of this show – and they get added sting from the scenes interspersed throughout the song.

Glee Cast “Shake It Out” (2012)

Where Florence + the Machine’s performance of the song is loud, anthemic, cathartic – it fills a room even at a soft volume – the Glee girls’ performance is intimate and quiet, as if giving voice to Coach Beiste’s seemingly unlikely but nevertheless very credible, very real vulnerabilities. The girls think they are singing an apology to Coach for their insensitive jokes, and giving her the support she needs to move on with her life. But instead of moving on, we see Coach moving back in. The girls are finally fulfulling the assignment they were given; sadly, no matter how empowering the song might feel, no amount of pretty harmonies can make Coach Beiste empower herself.

Florence + the Machine “Shake It Out” (2011)

**This song is 50 years old, and it feels – appropriately – shocking that it was ever released as a single marketed to a teenagers. But let’s not shit ourselves: teenagers made Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake” featuring Chris Brown a major hit this year. “He Hit Me” didn’t chart.