Episode 5.03: “The Quarterback”

(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.

Other thoughts:

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.

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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.