(Spoilers lurk below.)
Glee has never felt the need to adhere strictly to the rules of television writing. On several occasions, they’re produced episodes that were little more than long music videos. They’ve done episodes that contained large amounts of experimentation, dropping a parody video into the middle or telling a series of unrelated stories. This week, they’ve eschewed story in order to present a 45-minute memorial to both Cory Monteith and Finn Hudson… and boy, did it work. This was a sweet, meaningful, well-crafted tribute that did almost everything right, in its own Glee kinda way.
“The Quarterback” moves effortlessly throughout its running time from character to character and back again, exploring their reactions to the death of Finn and how they’re moving forward. The manner of Finn’s death is never addressed: Kurt’s voiceover nips this in the bud early by saying that it doesn’t matter how he died, but only how he lived. And that’s what this episode is about: a celebration of Finn’s life and a mourning of the holes he left behind in the hearts of everyone he interacted with. They come close to whitewashing Finn a few times, but in the end they’re not afraid to present him as the flawed person he was, not as a saint. Mercedes even alludes to Finn’s demons when she obliquely mentions the season one baby drama among Finn, Quinn, and Puck. And then there’s the quote on Finn’s newly christened plaque in the choir room, handpicked by Rachel: “The show must go… all over the place… or something.” It’s an inspired choice of words to remember Finn by. He was not very smart or very charismatic, but he had heart and plenty of feeling for everyone around him.
Kurt’s grief is presented as a kind of subdued numbness. He doesn’t have a lot of facial expressions or reactions throughout the episode, but it’s obvious that he’s deeply in pain. At one point in the initial voiceover, he says “This isn’t real. I’m not going home for this. He’s going to be there.” That denial lasts only a second, but it’s a powerful flash of how Finn’s death has affected Kurt. The entire voiceover is delivered in a flat monotone, the words of a man who just doesn’t know how to express what he’s feeling or, as Kurt puts it, who doesn’t even know what he’s feeling. “What can you say about a 19-year-old who dies?”
Later, Kurt helps his father Burt and stepmother (Finn’s mother) Carole sort through Finn’s things. This includes a reference to the “faggy” lamp from season one’s “Theatricality.” Finn threw a fit in that episode and said some things he didn’t mean. I like that they bring it up because, again, it allows us to see the entire Finn, not a saint. He was someone who made mistakes, but who could learn from them. Carole opines that Finn kept the lamp to “prove a point to Burt.” Burt himself has a great monologue about how he thinks he should have hugged Finn more, in a great performance of barely-under-the-surface utter grief by Mike O’Malley. Carole holds it together for a while, but then it all hits her all over again, and she starts sobbing. “You have to keep on being a parent, even though you don’t have a child anymore.”
Puck’s grief is characterized, very appropriately, by anger and rebellion. Puck doesn’t feel that he’s “sad” so much as he’s just so pissed off that his friend has left him alone. He steals the memorial tree planted by Kurt, and he tries to talk Kurt into giving him Finn’s letterman jacket. Puck is so consumed by his own feelings that he just doesn’t know what to do. He finally connects with Shannon, who gets him to tell her that he doesn’t want to cry because he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to stop. He finally does break down, and Shannon is there for him. This is the scene in the episode that comes the closest to being over the top, but it’s fairly easy to forgive. Puck is a larger-than-life character, and his reactions make sense. Shannon and Puck replant the memorial tree together, near the end of the episode. This is a much nicer scene than the first one, a more subtle approach to what they’re going through. “It was a garbage tree, though. It wasn’t big enough.” “They grow, you know.”
Santana’s grief is also angry, in a more explosive way. She gets into a screaming match with Sue over Sue ordering than Finn’s memorial at his locker be taken down. This leads, later, to a nice scene between the two in which they just talk about Finn. There’s no big makeup between the two of them: they maintain physical and emotional distance throughout the scene. But Sue is able to express that she is grieving for Finn as well, and that she regrets the way she treated him, and, in her own way, she’s dealing with that. By being a bitch, of course. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t really feel something. “There’s no lesson here, there’s no happy ending, there’s just nothing.”
Santana’s own memorial to Finn is a performance of “If I Die Young,” introduced by her with a typically Santana series of loving insults towards Finn. Santana can’t manage to finish the song, and runs crying from the room when people try to comfort her. She later tells Kurt that she’s mad at herself because she meant to actually say nice things about Finn, but couldn’t do it, even though she wrote down what she wanted to say. She can’t even read them to Kurt privately, initially, saying “It’s too embarrassing. They’re, like, really nice.” Kurt follows up with “Do you really think one day, on your deathbed, you’re gonna think ‘Good, no one knew I was kind.'” This gets her to open up a bit, and this is a very touching scene, suggesting that Santana not only learned from Finn, but continues to do so. “He was a much better person than I am.”
An inspired choice by the episode is to leave Rachel out of the proceedings entirely until the fourth act. Her grief is clearly the most powerful, the most meaningful, and by leaving it until near the end it is able to have a tremendous impact, and it doesn’t get in the way of everyone else. Rachel is lost and confused; she no longer has that anchor in her life that has been there for years. We’ve seen in prior seasons that, when having feelings like this, Rachel and Finn had a tendency to drift towards each other, regardless of the state of their relationship or anything else that may have been going on: they were always instinctively just there for each other. But now, Rachel feels like she has nowhere to turn. It’s clear that there is a lot of Lea Michele in this performance, and a lot of her feelings for Cory Monteith are entangled in Rachel’s feelings for Finn. I can’t even imagine how hard this was for her to perform, and I can’t compliment her enough on it. “I talk to him a lot. I can still see his face and I can hear his voice so clearly.”
The episode ends with Will, who has been holding it together for the sake of the kids, walking into his house, sitting down on his couch, taking out Finn’s letter jacket, and just sobbing into it. Emma, who had promised to be with him when he finally fully expressed his grief, comes in and just sits beside him and holds him.
This was a very heavy episode, but thankfully it did have its moments of comic relief, most of which worked. Kurt explaining the memorial tree: “All I did was drive down to Home Depot and buy a tree for 20 dollars.” The quick visual reference to the “Single Ladies” dance from season one’s “Preggers.” Figgins saying “New Santana Lopez is right, Old Santana Lopez!” in reference to Bree. Santana’s reference to taking a “grief siesta.” Puck stealing the tree with his motorcycle. Tina going to Emma for counseling because she’s tired of wearing black (okay, this one didn’t work as well).
The biggest thing missing from the episode is Quinn. She was a big part of Finn’s life for two years, and Mercedes even made reference to their baby drama when she sang “I’ll Stand by You.” The only explanation was Kurt saying that the people going back to Lima consisted of “everyone who can.” I hope they’re able to do something with her later. In not… I guess we can all imagine what Quinn is going through.
Overall, an absolutely fantastic episode and a fitting memorial for both the actor and the character. Glee by nature goes for powerful emotions and big effects, but they didn’t even have to manufacture anything this time. The emotion was all there, intrinsically, from the beginning. This episode just… lets it out. It allows the characters, the actors, and the audience to grieve, together.
The music was wonderful, every single piece. “Seasons of Love” kicked off the episode, asking us to measure his life in love, something that was not lacking for either actor or character. It was staged simply and beautifully, with the newbies starting out alone, and then Finn’s old friends coming in. Mercedes’s “I’ll Stand by You” was the only reprise of a song that Finn sang, and it was a good choice, in more ways than one. Standing on its own, it’s an expression of support for other grieving people. As a reference to Finn having sung it, it calls to mind how devoted he was to his baby (when he thought it was his), how he himself always stood by his friends no matter what, and shit he went through with the ensuing drama: in season one’s “Ballad,” Finn’s mother caught him looking at the sonogram just as this song ended. Artie and Sam’s “Fire and Rain” was a nice expression of loss: “I always thought that I’d see you again.” Santana’s “If I Die Young” was great, and I love that song. I’ve always thought that the image of the “sharp knife of a short life” is powerful, and it works well in this context. Puck’s “No Surrender” was the perfect choice for him, very fitting and full of emotion, if unusual on the surface. “No retreat, no surrender” suggests how Puck thinks they need to move forward, refusing to give in to defeat from sorrow. Rachel’s “Make You Feel my Love” was a lovely way for her to say goodbye, and one of Rachel’s/Lea’s most heartfelt performances ever.
I can’t pick a single musical highlight. They’re all wonderful tributes. I’d feel like I was judging obituaries. Maybe by the end of the season I’ll be able to put them in some kind of order, but not right now.
Rachel is wearing a necklace with a pendant that reads “Finn.” Lea Michele has been seen wearing a nearly identical pendant that reads “Cory.” That is a really nice bit of detail.
Glee is officially off the air until November 7, but I have something planned during the hiatus that I promise will be fun and lighthearted. After this, I think we all need it. Stay tuned.