In its first season, the overall quality of any Glee episode was almost invariably related to the music. If the songs were all winners, you were able to look past the shoddier writing and shallow characterization and just marvel in Lea Michele, Matthew Morrison, or Chris Colfer singing some legendary piece of music exceptionally well. However, Season 2 (and most certainly in Season 3 as well) introduced significantly stronger writing where our characters become more than just exaggerated caricatures of archetypal high school stock characters and the series began to develop story lines that took longer than just one episode to be resolved. Unfortunately, the music of these last two seasons has never been as good as the music from Season 1 (the Warblers the big exception there). So, now the quality of any given episode is less reliant on show-stopping musical numbers and instead a growing inspection of these students and their myriad flaws, ambitions, and triumphs. I’ve decided that in Season 3, the only real indicator of whether an episode will be great (like tonight’s) or mediocre (like “Pot O Gold”) is who it focuses on. Tonight’s episode focused on Kurt, Rachel, Blaine, and Finn and provided possibly the best episode of the entire series.

It’s no big secret that this was going to be the week where Rachel loses her virginity to Finn (who already lost his to Santana in “The Power of Madonnna”) and Blaine and Kurt lose their virginity to each other. However, the series spices this fairly simple formula up by also making this the week where the school finally puts on its performance of West Side Story. While directing Blaine and Rachel during one last rehearsal, Artie feels that there is no passion in their performance and questions how they will be able to play sexual awakening if neither of them have ever been awakened. Blaine and Rachel take this as advice to lose their virginity before opening night (which is obviously for the wrong reasons). Kurt is also wondering if he is boring sexually, but he and Blaine talk about how being young doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be sexually adventurous. Blaine returns to Dalton Academy to offer his old group tickets to West Side Story and meets new Dalton lothario, Sebastian, who takes an instant and nearly predatory interest in Blaine. After Sebastian does his best to seduce Blaine (but fails), he invites Kurt and Blaine to a gay bar. Also, early in the episode, Finn and Rachel nearly have sex but Rachel ruins the moment when Finn learns that she only wanted to have sex to be a better actress in West Side Story.

The gay bar, Scandals, is basically just your average small-town bar except there’s a couple of drag queens and the music is almost stereotypically gay. Kurt runs into Dave Karofsky (finally we know what happened to him) who transferred schools after the Prom fiasco but has found some quiet moments of happiness at this bear where he’s known as a “bear cub”. After getting jealous of Sebastian and Blaine dancing, Kurt steps in to assert himself with his man. They leave the bar and Blaine is very drunk and tries to have sex with Kurt in the back of the car and Kurt and Blaine finally have their first fight (though they make up very quickly later). After the group finally puts on their production of West Side Story, Rachel comes to Finn’s house to find him distraught over not being recruited by Ohio State (that whole subplot of the episode was ridiculous at first until we saw how depressed and scared Finn has become) and they finally realize how much they love each other and have sex. Blaine talks with Kurt after the musical and Kurt makes it very clear that he wants to return to Blaine’s house where they also have sex. Cue the Don Saas waterworks.

Let’s examine the musical numbers for the week which were almost all (only one exception) from West Side Story. The first number was Rachel and Blaine rehearsing “Tonight” which is actually the second time this song has been performed (Tina sang it in season 1). While I’m not sure I felt Artie was giving good advice for these two to have sex so they could perform the song better, there was something missing. It lacked the energy and poignancy of the rest of the numbers from the episode. My little sister thinks the Warbler’s cover of “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel was the best performance of the season and I’d have to disagree. While I certainly enjoyed it, I wasn’t a fan of the voice of either of the two Warbler’s singing lead on this one. Santana belted out “A Boy Like That” while Sebastian was trying to seduce Blaine and she sang it well and it worked in the context of the scene. Interspersed with the group conversation about sex the girl’s have, Rachel sings “I Have a Love” when she has the revelation that she’s ready to have sex with Finn for the right reasons. The actual performance from the show of “America” was one of the best performances of the season. Santana was fantastic as the character of Anita and there was just all of the great show tune energy that this show is capable of rocking out. The last song was “One Hand, One Heart”, sung by Blaine and Rachel, during the love scenes and it was a very emotional moment.

Time to critique the plotting. The concept of having gay teenagers have sex (though even heterosexual teenage sex can bring out the watchdog group crazies) was one bound to cause quite a stir, and Glee made the very wise decision to not have the episode play like something out of an after-school special or Degrassi. Instead, it all takes place within the established context of the show and while these are certainly major and game-changing moments in the lives of these characters, the show handles it with a quiet realism and heart-wrenching tenderness. There have been other high-profile gay characters who have had sex before (Willow and Tara crossed this bridge nearly a decade ago), but I can’t think of a single network television show that has dealt so bravely and courageously on what it’s like to be gay, in high school, and having your first sexual experience. This show is once again putting on national television on an incredibly popular show that not only is all right to be gay, it’s ok to act on your homosexuality as long as you are safe and responsible. This series remains a brightly burning beacon of tolerance and acceptance in a nation that is still depressingly homophobic.

This was just one of the most true portrayals of teenage sexuality that I have ever seen on broadcast television. Sometimes Glee can shoot off into outer space with its outrageous and surreal storytelling, and those moments only seem more outre because the series can never decide what kind of show it wants to be on a week to week basis. It has no sense of consistent mood or tone. However, there are nights like tonight where it is so painfully realistic and intimate that it reminds you of Glee‘s potential for powerhouse storytelling. At the show’s best, it can achieve that same sense of awkward and intense verisimilitude that only Freaks and Geeks was able to work in the past. Unfortunately, Glee can only do this a handful of episodes a season. Everyone has gone through this sort of sexual awakening and the confusion and the anxiety and the fear of growing up. Life is extra painful because it makes all of these neuroses arise at once. Tonight’s episode of Glee simply tapped into that psychological minefield better than anything I’ve seen in a long while.

All in all, this was easily one of the best episodes of the entire series, if not the very best. The only ones that I can put remotely in the same league as this one are “Never Been Kissed” from Season 2 as well as “Wheels” and “Laryingitis” from Season 1. The show bounced back from the weakness of last week in quite epic fashion, and I just wish that Glee could be this great on a more consistent basis. Episodes like this make weak aspects like the Shelby/Puck story (god I’m not looking forward to anymore of that; it makes me nauseous thinking about it) or Mercedes this season stand out in extremely unflattering relief. Next week is one of the mash-up episodes the series does so well, and looking at the song list, it looks like their could be some good music. All I hope is that next week is able to preserve even the smallest bit of the power and pleasure that I was able to take from this instant classic episode of the series.

Final Score: A