Watching Glee Until It Gets Bad S1E19: Dream On

by thethreepennyguignol

There have been some wonderful episodes this season – Sectionals, The Power of Madonna, Home – but I think Dream On might be my favourite.

I could, quite reasonably I think, slap all the performances here one after another as reason enough to explain why I love it so much. In one of my earlier articles about why people actually liked the show, two of the songs from this episode make up 20% of that list. But it’s more than that, though the performances are fucking great – it’s that Dream On taps into one of the central tenants that makes this show so strong in it’s first season, and that is the impossibility of some of our dreams.

Neil Patrick Harris rolls up as Bryan Ryan, ex-Glee club contemporary to Will, to kick off this episode, by telling the Glee club their dreams will never come true and that he’s cutting the programme. There are three major threads here: Will trying to convince Bryan to chase his Glee club dreams, Artie’s fantasies of becoming a dancer, and Rachel’s search for her bio mother. It’s a blunt opening, but it’s one that allows this episode to deep-dive into the attainability of the dreams, a running theme throughout the season and an underpinning for some of the best and most interesting episodes to date.

My favourite of these plots, in a shock twist that will surprise nobody, is the Artie one. Kevin McHale kills this first season, and a huge part of why I love him so much as a character comes in the form of this little storyline in Dream On. Artie’s dream is to become a dancer, which Tina discovers and decides to try and help him achieve. Kevin McHale has this skill, I’ve found on this rewatch, of turning plots that could have been utterly after-school-special into something affecting and meaningful; a big part of that down to his performance style. There’s an understated emotiveness to the way he performs that really brings out the sadness in this storyline, without condemning Artie to being nothing more than inspiration porn for the non-disabled characters (unlike some people I could mention). Take this scene, for example:

Safety Dance is probably one of the most effective storytelling performances in this season, as well as just being a banger in and of itself. It’s a fantasy sequence, though that’s not really explained until the very end. We see Artie get out of his chair, dancing, performing, the centre of attention, his boyband best – only for it to end, suddenly, abruptly, with him dropped back down into the wheelchair. Cut to a long shot of him sitting alone, silent, with nothing but the chatter of the mall around him. This is all in his head – it could all only be in his head. Glee isn’t known for it’s restraint, but this moment, this quiet, this realization that what we’ve seen is basically impossible for him, is best underlined with a few seconds of quiet to let it sink in. It’s a masterful sequence, and a credit to both McHale’s skills as a dancer and an actor.

Elsewhere in the episode, Rachel and Jesse begin a quest to find out who Rachel’s birth mother is (spoiler: it’s Indina Menzel). I love when Lea Michele really gets some big emotion to get her teeth into, and this episode is exactly that – the question she’s always wanted to answer, finally given shape. I think the most iconic performance from Dream On is the duet of I Dreamed A Dream between Menzel and Michele, another dream sequence of astronomically brilliant proportions.

I mean, in some ways, this is a cheat code for me, because I burst into tears every time I hear this song – it’s so emotive, so powerful, so hopeless and gorgeous all at once, and the reason that I can never get past the first act of the Les Mis adaptation because I know it’s peaked as soon as Anne Hathaway finishes this one up. But everything about this version polishes that emotion to perfection; those long, unbroken shots going between Menzel and Michele, turning the song into a duet between these two exceptionally talented singers, and the sheer, aching sadness burned into it. I can still remember watching this for the first time, being utterly hypnotized by the way this was executed and how powerful the show manages to make it. Again, with the stripped-back costumes, performance style, and backdrop, this is another masterclass in restraint, and there’s a starkness to this number that sticks out. The show puts utter confidence in these two to pull this off, and they do, and then some.

(some of you might be wondering when I’m going to give credit to director Joss Whedon for all the excellent staging and performances in this episode, and the answer to that is: I’m not, because I don’t like him. Hope this helps.)

Neil Patrick Harris’ plot in this episode is probably my least favourite part, but it’s still pretty damn great, which says a lot. He’s sort of the anti-April, the ex-Glee club member who has turned to corporate brutality to get by, and that makes for some fun scenes – his face-off with Sue is ridiculously entertaining, and I could watch that lesbian and that gay man proposition each other all day. Mostly, though, what I enjoy about this part of Dream On is the side it brings out in Will. I love Matthew Morrison in this role the most when he’s at odds with someone, and his rivalry-cum-friendship-cum-rivalry again with Bryan Ryan draws out an interesting part of his character. Will is a man, after all, dedicated to his dreams, even though a lot of them have slipped through his fingers, and seeing him interact with someone who has basically entirely let them go – and having to acknowledge he’s doing a lot better than him in the process, professionally if not personally – is another great string to the bow of his arc this season.

Plus, this Dream On number? Truly excellent. Even though neither of these men is remotely actually appropriate for the role their trying out for (Jean Valjean? Matthew Morrison? Neil Patrick Harris? I have to laugh), it’s a killer number. The staging on a set still being constructed for a future performance is inspired, and their voices go together beautifully. I always enjoy seeing Matthew Morrison letting out a bit of his inner rock star and maybe I have a little bit of a crush on him in this number, what business is that of your’s?

Nah, but genuinely, Dream On is an amazing episode of the show, one of the all-time greats, I think because it underlines the show’s most fruitful throughline – the bittersweetness of letting go of dreams that will never come true, and facing the real world you’ve been using them to hide from. The performances are just the cherry on top. As is hearing Jane Lynch describe anger sex as “the only kind I know”.

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(header image via YouTube)