In Chicago for nationals, Will is distressed to find Sue and the glee girls tending to an ailing Mercedes, who has a nasty case of food poisoning. Sue overreacts with healthcare tough-love, but at least she shows a continued dedication to the show choir's nationals bid. Meanwhile, Will drafts Tina and a nervous, reluctant Quinn to sub for Mercedes in the Trouble Tones number.
Emma finds Will sitting outside their hotel room, fretting about the prospect of losing the competition. He worries that his New Directions kids never get to score their biggest victories, and he imagines what just one major win could do for their confidence and pride throughout their lives. Then Coach Beiste calls them down to manage a new crisis: Will and Emma discover the students in the midst of chaotic bickering, with Sam and Puck about to come to blows because Puck's studying for his crucial geography exam rather than focusing on mastering the choreography.
Everyone seems to be in the midst of a meltdown after relentless rehearsing, but Santana calls for an end to the "we can't win without Mercedes" whining, demanding that they embrace reality and give it everything they've got. She's afraid Will's going to scold her for yelling at her friends, but Will's actually impressed at the amount of passion he sees in all of them. He knows that they really want this, and though he offers them a break, they decide to keep practicing.
Rachel runs into Jessie St. James, who taunts her by somehow knowing that she's scanning the arriving crowd for NYADA's Carmen Tibideaux in hopes that she'll get a second shot at getting into the arts college. As he tries to get under her skin, she points out that they dated long enough to know that when Jessie gets nervous he gets mean. He relents and admits that Vocal Adrenaline's loss at last year's nationals broke their eight-year winning streak. Another loss would mean the end of the school's show choir dynasty and spark a reboot of the program. He's struggling with the new rules, but Rachel reminds him that his past performances set the gold standard for show choirs for years.
Rachel's words ease Jessie's nerves. Then Finn arrives as she walks away, and he and Jessie share a tense moment. Jessie ultimately congratulates Finn on his engagement to Rachel, and the two shake hands.
Backstage, Finn reveals to Rachel that he's bought a glass mug from Chicago for them to smash during the Jewish portion of their wedding ceremony - he wants it to symbolize the city where everything changed and New Directions went from losers to winners. Finn also made a $500 bet with hockey jock Rick the Stick that New Directions would win nationals - money they'd saved for their honeymoon. Rachel's worried they'll lose it all, but Finn is confident he'll double their money. And he says that Carmen Tibideaux will show up, then they'll get married, smash the glass, and live happily ever after.
When Will goes backstage to provide a final pep talk, he's taken aback when Finn speaks on behalf of all the students, telling Will they want to win the nationals for him. Finn says that while Principal Figgins awards a Teacher of the Year honor, they consider Will to be their Teacher of a Lifetime.
Mercedes makes a surprise arrival, healthy and ready to perform, thanks to Sue's intense regimen. Quinn's relieved that she won't have to dance; she's still feeling nervous since getting back on her feet. But Mercedes insists that because it's their last time sharing the stage together, she wants Quinn and Tina performing alongside her.
As he settles into the audience with Emma, Sue, and Coach Beiste, Will worries about the odds stacked against the glee club. They have the first slot in the competition - the "death slot" - Mercedes is still feverish, and Carmen Tibideaux remains nowhere to be seen.
The judging lineup is an eclectic assembly: actress Lindsay Lohan, gossip blogger Perez Hilton, and Chicago assemblyman Martin Fong. New Directions opens the competition with Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory," with Santana initially taking center stage. Then Mercedes, Quinn, and Tina each take a turn in the spotlight.
The audience's enthusiastic reception doesn't help Rachel from noticing that Tibideaux's seat remains empty. Finn tries to rally her spirits. No matter what, he says, this is her moment, three years in the making, and she should embrace it.
As the crowd noise fades out in her ears, Rachel takes center stage for her solo, belting out a powerful rendition of Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back to Me Now." The crowd is spellbound, and Rachel spots Tibideaux taking her seat in the audience.Next up, New Directions delivers Meat Loaf's "Paradise By the Dashboard Light." The performance is dazzling, and the audience explodes with applause - even Carmen Tibideaux can't resist rising to her feet and whistling in appreciation.
Kurt and Mercedes then head to the dressing room of Vocal Adrenaline's Wade Adams, hoping to deliver a white rose to his drag alter ego Unique. They find Wade in a frazzled state, unable to summon up his brash, confident identity. He's feeling too much pressure to perform as Unique. It's not the same as when he was just trying to be who he is inside - now, he tells them, he feels like "the poster child for anyone who's different, and I just can't handle it."
They give him the rose and remind him that a real star will be able to push through the nerves and insecurity. Wade wonders if they are supposed to be enemies, but Kurt tells him that's not really New Directions' style. Wade suggests that Unique may transfer schools next year.
Unique takes the stage at the center of Vocal Adrenaline, delivering Nicki Minaj's "Starships" with charm and attitude. Even the New Directions students are stunned by the performance, as Unique segues into the Who's "Pinball Wizard" from the rock opera "Tommy" and continues to knock out the audience.
In the judges' conference room, Assemblyman Fong rambles on about how much of a show choir junkie he is, while Lindsay Lohan is irritated with Perez Hilton for blogging about her during the performances. Perez challenges Lindsay's love of show choir, but Fong reminds him that she was a 12-time Teen Choice nominee. Lindsay agrees that she knows what it's like to chase a dream, and she wants to support the students.
The judges begin trying to narrow down the contenders, with Perez impressed by the Portland Scale Blazers' "haunting medley homage to 'Starlight Express'" - on roller skates, even. Fong was taken by New Directions' energy, though he remembers them choking in New York the previous year. Lindsay doesn't think New Directions were the best singers and dancers - but she found them likable and favors a team on the brink of a major comeback. However, Perez hated them - he's for Vocal Adrenaline and believes Unique is a star - "like Tina and Ike Turner together." He wants to send a message to the outcast kids watching - though Fong points out that nationals isn't televised, prompting a surprised Lindsay, in "full image rehab mode," to want to fire her manager (a detail Perez instantly posts). With time ticking away, they decide to cast their final votes.
Jessie stops Carmen Tibideaux in the lobby, reminding her that when he auditioned for her a few years ago, she told him he showed promise. She acknowledges that she probably did say that, but adds that she auditions hundreds each year and attempts to blow off what she thinks is going to be a professional appeal. Jessie insists she listen: he wants to tell her that Rachel is the most talented person he knows, she'll definitely be a star one day, and she'd be an excellent addition to NYADA. Tibideaux responds by recalling Jessie's audition with "Giants in the Sky," a flawed but passionate and admirable attempt at what may be Steven Sondheim's most challenging song. She wishes him good luck.
The judges present the individual MVP award, which goes to Wade/Unique. Third place goes to the Portland Scale Blazers, leaving New Directions and Vocal Adrenaline to vie for the top prize. Then the winner is named, and New Directions takes home the trophy!
As the show choir returns to McKinley carrying the nationals trophy, they enter the hallways and find themselves surrounded by indifferent-looking fellow students. The hockey goons march toward them, slushie cups in their hands. The glee kids brace to be slushied, but instead the cups shower them with confetti. Everyone in the school shares in the celebration, and all seems perfect in their world: they made the front page of the Lima News, Sue retains her Cheerios coaching position, Emma shows Will that she's finally ready to get physically intimate, Finn collects his $500 from Rick, Rachel signs her first autograph, and the trophy is placed in the display case for everyone to see.
Principal Figgins calls Finn and Rachel to his office, where for their role as co-captains of the glee club he gifts them with McKinley bumper stickers and mini-pompons, as well as cash to help celebrate their impending wedding. He also tells them that the school will be hosting a very special event, and he wants New Directions to perform. When asked what the event is, Figgins grins and asks "Can you keep a secret?"
As Emma tenderly helps Will dress for the McKinley event, Will thanks her - not just for their first night of passion, but for standing by him throughout the long road to nationals. They're interrupted by a top hat-sporting, formal black track-suited Sue.
As they enter the school, Sue tells them that according to her source - Becky Jackson hiding inside a fake filing cabinet she installed in Figgins' office - Sue is once again the likely shoo-in for Teacher of the Year, for helping New Directions win nationals, fending off Roz Washington, and regaining control of the Cheerios, all while never missing a day of work while being pregnant "for an indeterminate number of months." Will gives Sue the credit he feels she deserves, and she gladly soaks up the praise.
At the ceremony Figgins introduces "the so-called 'Finchel,'" and Rachel and Finn take the stage to announce the winner of the 2012 Teacher of the Year Award: Will!
Before Will takes the stage, Finn wants to make a speech. He recalls how three years ago he thought he had everything, until he met Will and realized all that he was missing. He praises Will for teaching his students how to dream, adding, "As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing more important than that."
Rachel tells Will that she's headed to New York "come hell or high water, and I can honestly say I couldn't have done it without you." New Directions performs Queen's "We Are the Champions" as they pull Will onto the stage and present him with his Teacher of the Year Award.