ZOË RICE: First-off, there’s the mis-billing. Tuesday’s 90-minute Glee episode wasn’t really “Glee Does Gaga!” as much as it was “Glee Does A Lesson About Self-Love In Its Glee Way With Maybe A Bit Too Much Schmaltz But Also Some Funny Moments And With A Touch Of Refreshing Characterization. Oh And Here’s A Gaga Song At The End.” So there’s that.

As the episode began, I felt disappointed. Mr. Schuster’s character has faltered since his divorce robbed him of love-triangle tension, and for me this episode was perhaps his character’s weakest. “The thing you’d most like to change about yourself is the most interesting part of you,” Mr. Schu preached: The uber-lesson of the Glee series, presented not in the subtle way that makes you scratch your head and exclaim, “Yes, my differences are worthy too!” But in the over-sold way that kind of makes you roll your eyes. I’m sorry, Will Schuster. I rolled my eyes at you.

But then Glee won me back with the touching, beautifully harmonized Unpretty/I Feel Pretty duet mashup between Quinn and Rachel (and oh, the vocal range of Lea Michelle!). In those moments, we understood these characters’ insecurities without having them blatantly proclaimed via big black t-shirt labels. And then Kurt sings us the kind of wistful ballad that reminds us he’s always been more New Directions showtunes than Warblers’ pop, and now he’s back where he belongs. Those Glee numbers are why fans have come to love this series. (However, the mall-scene “Barbaravention” was a misstep for me, mostly because it could never live up to Artie’s epic Safety Dance fantasy number from last year.)

But where this episode really shined was in fleshing out some of the ensemble’s supporting characters. Santana has become a revelation, and I can’t tell how much of that should be credited to the writers and how much to actress Naya Rivera. But our bitchy “Lebanese” (heh-heh) former cheerleader has taken on the kind of interesting layers that make me hope she fronts more musical numbers soon. Quinn, too, finally has some added depth. She was ugly and teased! Well that explains some stuff. But perhaps the episode’s most poignant moment goes to Jayma Mays’s Emma. Those swimming pool eyes couldn’t help but tug at the heartstrings as she finally accepts her mental illness.

Oh wait, there was a Gaga song too, wasn’t there? Fun stuff, snappy dancing. Just not the top-billing.

JESSICA BADER: To be totally honest, when I first saw the promo for this week’s episode, with Kurt announcing his return to McKinley, I was a little bit nervous. I was afraid that Glee was going for the sugar rush of reuniting Kurt with his New Directions family and would be so eager to make it happen that it would shove aside the storyline of why he left for Dalton in the first place and what issues he might have with coming back. My fears could not have been more misguided.

The scene in which the Hummels and Karofskys met to hammer out those issues was intense, necessary, and utterly believable. The bond between Kurt and his father is one of the most touching aspects of the entire series, and Burt’s concern for his son’s safety and anger towards his tormentor tugged at the heartstrings. The private conversation between Kurt and Karofsky was the stuff of every bullied kid’s fantasy, a turning of tables that sets up an uneasy peace.

The events that enabled that meeting were the highlight of the show, moreso than any of the musical numbers. It’s been great to see the development of Brittany and Santana as characters this season, and Auntie ‘Tana’s scheme to get her girl by bringing Kurt home and riding the goodwill to winning prom queen (when she could probably win Brittany over by just breaking up Tina and Mike, freeing the former to reconnect with Artie) shows that there’s more to her than the bitchy side she hilariously plays up. (Just try to get through her “late-in-life gay” speech to Karofsky without laughing.) Santana’s self-imposed isolation from the rest of the glee club in their closing number of self-acceptance was especially poignant after Brittany called her out for not being able to embrace who she is.

Speaking of characters getting called out for an inability to come to grips with themselves, Will persuading Emma to finally seek treatment for her OCD was a big moment for both of them. Emma’s dialogue with her therapist came off a bit too much like a PSA against stigmatization of mental illness, but there was enough genuine emotion to pack a serious punch.

Where the episode faltered, in my view, was its handling of Rachel and Quinn’s storylines. As much as I loved the “Unpretty/I Feel Pretty” mashup, which was like musical crack for a theatre enthusiast who has a weakness for late-’90s pop/R&B, Quinn’s participation didn’t make sense until her past as “Lucy Caboosey” was revealed about an hour later. Not only was that revelation completely out of left field, but it was hard to believe that Lauren would do something as heinously mean-spirited as digging up the dirt on Quinn and plastering it all over the school. Rachel’s Jewish girl angst was more realistic, but the flash mob at the mall that somehow convinced her not to get a nose job felt unnecessary. I was hoping that there would be more exploration of the fallout from Finn trying to talk Rachel out of it by telling her she was beautiful.

But those are relatively small quibbles in the scheme of things, as this episode featured some excellent musical numbers and major plot developments to be reckoned with during May sweeps. (Also, the brilliance that was Sam rocking a “Trouty Mouth” shirt for the Gaga finale.) Who knew that Glee could go Sue Sylvester-free in a supersized episode and not suffer from her absence?

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