Watching Glee Until It Gets Bad S1E9: Wheels
This is a Kevin McHale stan account.
It always has been, really, but this episode, Wheels, really brings it home for me this week.
Kevin McHale as Artie is one of those characters who the show just can’t quite ignore; he’s a little too charismatic, a little too charming, a little too funny to just keep at the sidelines. And yes, even though this episode is very much an After School Special about disability and accepting people’s differences, he still shines in the middle of it.
It’s a simple kick-off to this Artie-centric plot; the Glee club needs to pay extra for a bus that will be able to transport Artie, and they initially refuse, before Mr Schue makes them spend a week in wheelchairs to understand his plight better. Now, is this a bit of a cack-handed Teachable Moment delivery mechanism? Yes, but with someone as charismatic as Kevin McHale in the middle of it, it really doesn’t feel that off-putting. As someone who doesn’t have a disability, I don’t really feel like I have any business commenting on whether this is good representation or not (which is why I’m not going to do anything but link this wonderful podcast from Lauren Potter on the topic of Becky, who is introduced in this episode, and who will become one of the great secondary villains in later seasons), but what I do have a business doing is stanning Kevin McHale like my life depends on it.
Ryan Murphy writes this episode, and he makes full use of his long-form cutaway fantasy sequences to illustrate Artie’s distance from the people around him, even the people who care about him – his Dancing by Myself is one of my favourite performances in this whole season, melancholy, stripped-back, totally reliant on McHale’s ability to emote both as a singer and an on-screen performer (even if the cutaways to McHale’s stunt double doing tricks in the wheelchair are a little hilarious), serving to underline how far removed he feels even from the other outsiders of the Glee club. McHale brings such a warmth to this role, and is a delightful performer with a unique enough voice that lets him stand out from the oft-autotuned mulch going on in the bigger group numbers, it’s hard not to fall a little in love with Artie this week. He can deliver drama without making it feel overwrought, a valuable skill in a show that can struggle with holding things somewhere vaguely close to grounded sometimes.
the fact I still had the hugest crush on Kevin McHale in this role is irrelevant I promise
And the show’s Kurt-Burt drama this week might be my favourite part of it. Chris Colfer got a Golden Globe for his performance this season for a reason, and this just might be it. After the optimistic coming out episode between the two in Preggers, this is the episode that begins to deal with the complex reality of having an openly gay son in a community like Lima, Ohio, and it’s heart-breaking and lovely and sad and warm all at once. Burt fights for Kurt to be able to try out to sing Defying Gravity, and, soon after, receives an anonymous message calling Kurt a slur. Kurt is unfazed, having dealt with that kind of abuse his whole life, but his father is deeply hurt – leading Kurt to throw the audition to save his father from dealing with further homophobia aimed at his kid. I love the way Ryan Murphy works the song performance into this plot, with Kurt’s slowly rising practice notes scoring the homophobic call Burt receives.
It’s a tragic plot, in a lot of ways, but one built entirely on how much these two characters care about one another; Kurt sacrifices his chance at a lead because he knows Burt can’t handle the abuse that’s become normal to him. Both the fact that he’s become inured to it and that he wants to protect his dad from suffering the way he has – it just gets to me, alright? The way it’s played, so much unspoken but so much hinted at, is powerful; Mike O’Malley does so much with Burt as a character, given how difficult he finds it to talk about his emotions, and his passion in defending his son while also navigating what it means to have a queer child in a homophobic community always gets to me. The writing is genuinely excellent (which is not a compliment I will often give to Ryan Murphy, so savour it while you can), and it’s heartfelt and feels grounded in a way the series sometimes lacks. Not to mention, the comedy from seeing these two interact (“This is really getting to you, isn’t it?” “I am…full of ennui” took me the fuck out) is a genuine delight.
There’s much more going on this week – from the Quinn and Finn parenthood drama to Sue’s new tryouts for the Glee club and relationship with her sister – but, for me, this is a banner episode for Kevin McHale and Chris Colfer in terms of developing, humanizing, and fleshing out their respective characters. Skilled, sad, and sharp, Wheels is another high point for the first season so far.
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(header image via Doux Reviews)