The trouble with rewatching Glee in the wake of Cory Monteith’s death is that Finn Hudson becomes a man tied to railway tracks from his very first appearance in the pilot onward. Finn’s death doesn’t negate his Nationals trophy or his loving relationships with family and friends or even his godawful dance moves. But the potential — the hope — of something else, something more, something further is gone.
As Glee moves forward, then, it will continue to be a show about how being a part of something special makes you special, but now it’s also a show about a kid who desperately wants to be with the girl he loves and escape his small town and never, ever will.
“He’s dead. And all we’ve got left is his voice in our head.”
If you want to distill last night’s Glee down into two sentences, those (spoken to Puck by Coach Bieste) might be the best. Finn Hudson is dead. Cory Monteith is, too. And all we have left are the words he (they) spoke and the songs he (they) sung. It’s tragic. There’s no other word for it.
As tragic as it is, Finn’s death was a necessity. Finn and Cory are linked — Glee wanted a blurred line between actor and performer, evidenced by the fact that the cast once did an entire global tour in character. After five seasons, that line was so muddied that had the show kept Finn alive, mentions of him “studying abroad” or “teaching out of state” would’ve felt weirdly disingenuous.
Kurt’s reasoning that the moment of death shouldn’t be treated as more important than an entire life’s worth of moments is sound enough. And designating any sort of cause of death would’ve required the episode be about some sort of Awareness Raising about the perils of drunk driving or whatever, and Glee has proven time and again that they’re not set up for very special episodes.
If there’s one message last night’s Glee wanted to send, it’s that (save for stealing trees right out of the ground) there’s no wrong way to grieve. There’s a lot of anger — with Puck and Santana at the episode’s forefront, that’s basically a given — but there’s a fair smattering of denial, depression, bargaining, and acceptance, too. Set a month or so after Finn’s death, the episode finds everyone gathering at McKinley for a week of memorializing Finn through song that’s just for them.
It’s fitting that every song in the episode — from “Seasons of Love” on through — is about time, at least partially. Grief itself is about time. “She died too soon,” we say, if someone passes away young; at a grandparent’s funeral, the general consensus leans toward, “Well, he had a nice, long life.” We mark the years we’ve been without the people that we love the same way we marked birthdays and anniversaries when they were living. Each of the episode’s songs returns to time in one way or another — “Fire and Rain” is about seeing someone you’d loved one more time, “If I Die Young” talks about having had “enough time” on earth before dying, “I’ll Stand by You” promises nevers and forevers, “Make You Feel My Love” swears it can hold on for a million years.
But “Seasons of Love” is the perfect choice to open the episode, both because it’s the Feelings and Loss Show Choir Anthem of the last millennium, and because it so urgently advocates for a qualitative view of a person’s life rather than a quantitative. Resist the temptation to count the minutes; no matter how high you count, you’ll likely never get enough. It’s the most lovingly mixed track Glee’s produced in quite some time; more and more, the show’s relying on studio singers to produce its backing tracks, but every single voice of every single cast member is clear and crisp. It’s an offering. And a beautiful one at that.
While Santana and Puck’s struggles to express grief without self-destructing are compelling, the episode finds its greatest successes in the scenes featuring those who loved him most: Rachel and his family. Rachel’s offscreen for most of the hour, finally turning up because she couldn’t bear Finn’s memorial being packed up without her having a chance to see it. She tells Mr. Schue and her friends that she wants to sing a song she and Finn used to sing to each other in the car, and begins to sing “Make You Feel My Love.”
To be fair, it reads a tiny bit more like a song that Lea would (and did, according to Ryan Murphy) choose for Cory than a song Rachel would choose for Finn. But really, viewers are going to wonder for the rest of the series to what extent Lea’s thinking of Cory as she performs. This song choice brings that subtext to the surface, and that’s okay, because this is Rachel as we’ve never heard her. It’s heartbreaking. She looks younger and older than we’ve ever seen her, all at once, and the sort of performance you can’t stop watching but never, ever want to see again.
Equally affecting are the faces of her friends as she sings. Every casual, comforting touch tells five years’ worth of stories, and every facial expression presents a kid at a different stage of grieving: some are stonefaced, some are trying to hold it together, some are openly weeping, but they’re all clearly, indisputably bereft.
That same sorrow is etched on their faces as they sing to one another — it’s particularly evident in the blank-eyed but soaring performance of “Fire and Rain” offered up by Artie and Sam and the vehemence of Mercedes’s “I’ll Stand by You.” There’s a voyeurism to it — it’s impossible to watch a performance here without questioning whether the actor’s real-life grief was somehow similar to it — but I think that’s unavoidable.
And then there are the Hummel/Hudsons. None of them sing (save for Kurt’s brief solo in “Seasons of Love” — he doesn’t even join in on backing vocals for any of the other performances). They have a task ahead: sorting through Finn’s bedroom to figure out which mementos to keep. The details here are devastating on their own: a hockey caricature featuring Finn and Rachel, a positive review of Grease proudly affixed to a bulletin board. It’s sad enough to see Finn’s life divided neatly into piles, but it’s even sadder when Burt begins listing all the ways he’d failed as a stepfather to Finn. He didn’t hug him enough. He made more of an issue of season one’s “faggy lamp” than he should have. They’re ordinary regrets, which makes them feel even bleaker.
We’ve seen Mike O’Malley bring Burt to those levels in the past, but we’ve never seen Romy Rosemont as deeply emotionally in-tune with Carole before. She’s calmly resigned on the surface, but she breaks after a few minutes, doubled-over with the grief and unfairness of having to solider on as a parent when you no longer have a child to hold. It’s gutting. Kurt pulls Finn’s letter jacket to his face and breathes in deep, because what else is there to do, really?
It bears mentioning that Quinn and Brittany’s absence is unexplained and glaring.
Finally, Rachel brings a plaque to Mr. Schue and asks if they can hang it in the choir room. It’s a portrait of Finn, mounted over the quote “The show must … go all over the place … or something.” (That’s a throwback to season two’s “A Night of Neglect,” when Finn was trying to rally the troops to stand up to hecklers.)
The episode could’ve closed on Finn’s plaque hanging in the choir room. It could’ve closed on the New Directions kids joined in solemn song. It didn’t. It closed on Mr. Schue, bent over and broken, sobbing into Finn’s letterman jacket. I’ve made fun of Mr. Schue in the past for having a high school student as his best friend and best man (and, let’s be honest, I’ll make fun of him in the future for less than that). But Mr. Schue loved Finn, supported him as his eventual successor, and hoped Finn would have a life that extended further beyond Lima than his own.
Closing the episode on that dream dead (not even deferred) is a desperately sad choice, but it’s honest. Or maybe even brave.
I had trouble relating to Finn in Glee’s later seasons, something I haven’t made a secret of as I’ve written about the show. I could never quite reconcile the Finn who outed Santana and flew to New York to beat up Brody with the younger Finn who was so deeply kind and who wanted to be a leader like “Thomas Jefferson and that kid from the Terminator movies.” That Finn’s been gone for a while now. Even after last night, I still can’t believe he’s never coming back.