Thoughts on the death of Cory Monteith, part 2: where does Glee go from here?

Many people are still mourning the death of Cory Monteith: his family, his friends, his fans, his former co-workers and employers. It’s these final two for whom things are going to get so much worse before they get better, because they have to figure out how to continue Glee without Monteith, and how to write him out of the show. Ryan Murphy reportedly allowed Lea Michele, Monteith’s girlfriend, to decide the future of Glee, telling her that if she wanted off the show or even if she wanted it to end, he would stand by her decision. Michele gamely decided that they should push forward and get back to work. Glee‘s fifth season premiere is being delayed by a week, but they are going ahead with filming. Their plan is for the first two episodes, which have been long-planned, to be Beatles tributes, slightly re-written to remove Finn. The third episode, leading into the hiatus for baseball programming, will deal with Finn’s death.

Other shows have dealt with the death of an actor, and it’s been handled many different ways. Glee‘s plan echoes what 8 Simple Rules (John Ritter), News Radio (Phil Hartman), Dallas (Larry Hagman), and The West Wing (John Spencer) did, by taking an episode to deal with the death of the character before moving on. Barney Miller took an interesting route when Jack Soo died, airing a retrospective episode that allowed the actors to be out of character and talk about both the actor and the character who had been lost. Not all shows choose to make a big deal of it. After Freddy Prinze’s suicide, Chico and the Man wrote Chico out by saying he was vacationing in Mexico, otherwise continuing as normal. When Nicholas Colasanto died, Cheers had Coach die as well, but the characters mourned mostly offscreen. Only a line or two was dedicated to the subject of Coach’s passing, though it was done in such a way that it was clear that the characters were hurting.

Glee‘s approach, of course, will be to make Finn’s death something larger than life (because Glee), but real-life concerns are going to play a big role here. Murphy has said that he doesn’t want the actors to have to “recreate” what they went through when they got the news that Monteith had died. That might not only be a lot to ask the actors to go through, but would create something very heavy by Glee‘s standards. Glee has tackled death before (“Funeral“) and even attempted suicide (“On My Way“), but never so directly and never with a man cast member. Even the very heavy school-shooting episode (“Shooting Star“) ending up not going with the heaviness, but rather undermining it. They can’t do that with Finn’s death, and I’m positive that they won’t. Murphy wants Finn’s tribute episode to be “upbeat” in some way, but, with the death of one of their own and very real feelings involved, I think that they will manage to avoid farce while still allowing there to be a foundation of happiness. The characters can look back on how much Finn gave them, how much he positively affected each one of their lives, and what a wonderful legacy he left behind. The theme can be how lucky they were that he lived, not how horrible it is that he died.

How will Finn die? Having him OD may be a bit too close to home, and it would be easy to just have him get killed by a drunk driver or something. It also could easily violate Murphy’s wish to avoid having the actors recreate reactions, as Rachel could easily blame herself for not recognizing Finn’s addiction, as Michele no doubt feels some modicum of (undeserved) guilt for not understanding the extent to which Monteith was still addicted. On the other hand, as I’ve said, Monteith never shied away from putting himself into Finn, and if someone like Cory Monteith could succumb to addiction, it makes it all that much easier to believe that Finn could. Finn also found out in season three that his father, far from dying in the Gulf War, was actually dishonorably discharged from the Army and died of drug addiction.

Murphy would like for there to be some kind of teaching point in Finn’s tribute, something to learn, something positive for the audience to take away from this whole tragic affair. Having Finn’s story parallel Monteith’s would allow for a lesson about the power of addiction. It’s all too easy for us, as a society, to dismiss addicts as weak or irresponsible or simply as incurable criminals. I’ve been guilty of that myself, on more occasions than I’d care to think about. Cory Monteith’s death from drugs was a major shock to me because I didn’t think that he was anything like the kind of person to whom that would happen. I knew he had struggled with addiction in his youth, but I thought he was past it. Even when he bowed out of season four early to enter rehab, I just assumed it wasn’t that serious: I figured it was painkillers or something relatively benign, certainly not heroin.

We can fall into the trap of thinking of drugs as the scourge of the poor and the lower classes, not relevant to us. But human suffering is relevant to all of us, and addiction is an awful, terrible thing. Cory Montieth was not poor, or depressed, or unemployed, or friendless, or homeless, or mentally unstable. He was a happy, successful, wealthy, popular, well-liked, apparently well-adjusted person with an unspeakable affliction. He wanted to get better. From all accounts, he tried as hard as he could to get better, for over ten years. And in the end, it still got him. No matter how much he wanted to escape, no matter how much he tried, in the end, it got him. He signed his own death certificate when he started taking drugs at thirteen years of age. Echoing many similar sentiments, Demi Lovato said “He didn’t choose to die. It was the disease.” Is addiction literally a disease? Of course not. But it’s much deadlier and more insidious than many “real” diseases, and in many ways it makes sense to think of it as one.

If Glee can capture something like that, get one iota of that message across, make even one person understand that addiction is not a choice and that it kills people who deserve much better… Part of me wants to see them try, even knowing their track record with such things, because it’s so close to home, it’s so important, and I think that Monteith might want to reach out and try to help people one last time.

At the same time, I understand if it would just be too hard for them to face.

Thoughts on the death of Cory Monteith

What a way to start the morning, finding out that a young man whose work I respected, just a little older than I am, has died, suddenly, unexpectedly, and, so far, without explanation (and I will refrain from pointlessly speculating). Now I will continue, keep right on getting older, while Cory Monteith will be forever frozen at 31 years old, and remembered as playing a confused but earnest kid. Finn had yet to really find peace. I’m not sure if Monteith did or not, though I know he struggled. But he’s at peace now, one way or the other.

From the beginning of Glee, much of it was centered around Finn (see Why do I like Glee anyway?, in which I discuss how “Pilot” is about Finn and Will more than anything else), and Monteith’s performance was a big part of what made both the show and the character of Finn work. Finn’s awkwardness was believable because it was Monteith’s — he was famously an uncoordinated dancer, a struggle that was written into the show. Finn’s reluctance to sing was Monteith’s as well — he did not sing on his original audition tape, and had to be cajoled into it by the producers. He was not a great singer, and if his numbers were a bit abused by autotune in the first two seasons, he made up for it with his fearless performances, and he had some fantastic numbers, including the best number of season three and, of course (with the ensemble), the best number of the series. Monteith’s weak singing was eventually written into the show as well, as Finn in season three struggled with his own lack of star power, realizing that his voice might be able to take them to a national championship in high school, but would never take him to a professional career.

Monteith almost built Finn out of his own weaknesses, his own fears, his own awkwardness, never shying away from putting himself into a character who was not always appealing. Even if he didn’t have always have star power, he had that essential part of the soul of an actor.

Glee will go on without him, but there will be a time to talk about that and what it may entail later. For now… RIP Cory Monteith, an actor as earnest as Finn Hudson.