Will is a Good Guy. That’s the problem.
There’s a lot of criticism in some segments of fandom whenever the writers have characters criticize Will for favoring certain voices and students. The criticism suggests this is intellectually dishonest, or lazy, or bullshit–that it makes Will into a scapegoat for the decisions and favoritisms of his creators. It’s not Will who gives every solo to Rachel, they argue—it’s Ryan Murphy.
Time for some Writing 101:
1: Ryan Murphy is not, in fact, a character in the world of the show. He has characters to do things for him and make things happen.
2: Therefore, Ryan Murphy may need to give Lea Michele a lot of solos for real-world reasons, but that does not mean that Will Schuester can’t have his own, textual reasons for giving Rachel lots of solos, reasons which may or may not be good ones. In fact, that’s generally how storytelling works–characters have motivations which cause actions which execute the author’s schemes.
3: Similarly, character actions do not imply author approval. ESPECIALLY if said character is routinely ridiculed by all three author-avatars (Kurt (Murphy), Sue (Brennan), and Burt (Falchuck) all hold Will in absolute disdain.)
4: Is there any particular reason why “Rachel and Finn get half the leads and this causes drama that never properly resolves and thus keeps recurring” isn’t less lazy writing and more…continuity? Any logical reason at all?
5: Is there any reason, any reason at all, why Will plays favorites and is not actually a good teacher can’t be an explicit, long-term plot this season?
And this is where it gets interesting. What if, just imagine, what if the fact that Will’s students keep abandoning him was its own storyline?
It’s certainly been building long enough, and now it keeps turning into actual lines and plot points. These signs all typically point towards something being, like, an actual, developing story. This could serve a purpose, be part of a larger, or its own, storyline, and pull several disparate elements of the show from the very beginning together really nicely.
Of course, it means that Will isn’t going to come out of things looking very good. One-third of his show choir already defecting to another teacher and none of his remaining students taking him seriously can take the shine off anyone’s reputation as it is, but the season has only just begun, and, if we’re being honest….he hasn’t looked good for a while.
There is an argument, of course, that “the show clearly intends for Will to be a good guy/sympathetic character/competent teacher, but keeps failing in the execution.” I’d say the failure has been overwhelmingly consistent for two seasons and counting now. Complaints about Will’s character becoming “unlikable” rest upon the assumption that a man who abandons his new students for a boy band of his own (1×03, Acafellas), has an old crush and current alcoholic headline his glee club at his students’ expense (1×05, The Rhodes Not Taken), and never, ever tries to remove the slushy machines, could ever have been intended to be likable. This is the same character who planted pot in a student’s locker to get him to join a show choir in the pilot, yes? The same man who consistently handles his own guilt by tearing into Figgins/Sue/his students for similar offenses moments later? (See: Will vs the glee club in “Wheels” and Will vs Sue in “Funeral,” for example.) When does this stop being failed executionand start being consistent characterization or continuity or really interesting deconstruction?
Because let’s face it. The character of Will, in canon, based on what has come across and leaving aside impossible questions of intent, is incredibly interesting. He’s privilege personified. He’s our default straight white enabled cis adult male. He never grew up, and he never had to. He’s a teacher–a teacher for this ragtag group of misfit underdogs. He’s supposed to be the Good Guy. He’s supposed to be our Hero.
Except it turns out that our Hero is Kurt in every way imaginable, and always has been, and in a story where this tiny cannot-pass-for-shit gay-diddy-gay-gay-gay countertenor is our Hero, what does that make Will?
Will becomes a fascinating character. He’s a character who doesn’t realize what everyone around him learns or already knows–he’s toxic. He doesn’t, can’t understand what his students experience, nor does he try. His attempts to help often make things worse, and when rebuffed, or when his students are inconveniently in need or hurt or just not easy and simple enough, he lashes out at them, at the children in his care. He’s supposed to be Good, and that’s what enables him to do so much damage.
And, crucially, he has absolutely no idea.
It means several things for his character and his storyline, and for Glee in general.
1: Will can never, never learn this about himself without all of the rules changing.
2: For many reasons, this is not an element the students can explicitly voice, even to each other.
3: Will thus becomes not a character to be explored in how own right, but a character for other people to deal with and process and work around.
4: Glee gets moral ambiguity and moral complexity embedded into its basic structure.
Beyond that list though, this allows Glee to play with several different ideas.
1: What is a good teacher?
2: What does it mean that Will is constantly referred to as a good teacher? When does this happen?
3: What does it mean when Sue is better at protecting Kurt, Brittany, or Becky than any other teacher–and yet assaults other students?
4: Can a genuinely good teacher even exist at WMHS? Is this why Coach Bieste is running everything now?
5: What does it mean that Will is Finn’s role model–and yet Finn threatens to get Coach Bieste, and explicitly not Will, if the hockey players don’t leave Rory alone?
6: How do the different students discover Will’s true colors, and how do they process this and negotiate around them? Are they all as obvious as Quinn, dying her hair and putting on a dress and smiling just enough to be someone he’ll take? Or are they more of a Rachel, or a Kurt?
7: Why, exactly, does Figgins ignite so much righteous anger in Will? Or, more precisely–when? In what circumstances?
8: When Will is a caring or responsible adult–the end of BIOTA, for example–what changes, and what motivates that change?
The lists are unfinished, of course, as is canon. A central idea emerges though. Will’s self-concept does not match the reality of his actions or how others perceive him. If his self-concept doesn’t map to the show’s reality…what about his concept of the other characters? Do Will’s perceptions of the other characters–Kurt causing trouble, Quinn as ungrateful and selfish, Mercedes as lazy, Finn as a leader–reflect reality? Do his moral judgements carry weight, or at least the weight he thinks they do?
Will is a basic, foundational character for Glee. So, too…if his self-concept doesn’t reflect reality, what about the self-concepts of others? How does Kurt think of himself? Is he right? Is Artie the social misfit he sees himself as? What about Rachel? How does Brittany view herself, and how do others view Brittany? How can this be negotiated?
It’s a complex set of elements. Will is a complex, and fascinating, character.
He’s just not a good guy. And this season, one facet of that has evolved into an explicit storyline:
His students are jumping ship.