Last night’s episode of Glee was the first time in a while that the Finn Hudson Problem has reared its head, which is to say that the question of what was really supposed to happen on last night’s episode — what would have happened if Finn hadn’t died — was a legitimate distraction. Were the New Directions always destined for a Nationals loss this season? (Guess: maybe.) Would the set list be as rife with power ballads? (Guess: yes.) And most important, would the glee club really be on its way to permanent disbandment?
I have to assume that the answer to that last question is no, although maybe there would’ve been another “the glee club is almost on its way to permanent disbandment” story line. But even without any insider knowledge (aside from what comes from reading every cast and crew interview and thinking about the show to an extent that one could argue is unhealthy), I’m confident saying that the original plan for the Ohio story never involved abolishing the glee club in season five. The show’s creators have talked extensively about how the McKinley 2.0 story line was created especially for Cory Monteith, who said that he wanted to “work a lot” after he got out of rehab; Ryan Murphy has indicated that the plan for the series finale was for Rachel to return to Lima and find Finn teaching in the choir room.
And aside from that, so much time was spent last season teeing up stories for the New New Directions, at the expense (or abandonment) of many of the show’s original, familiar characters. While Glee makes its fair share of nonsensical choices, creating and abandoning an entire new class would be pushing it. And so when Jake says, bereft in the choir room after a second place at Nationals, that the story shouldn’t have ended this way, that it was never meant to, he’s right, in more ways than one, and it’s heart-breaking.
But we’ll get to that.
Before we do: another strong episode of Glee, a new, female writer (Jessica Meyer, who’s worked on the show as an assistant for the past couple of years). I’m into this trend.
The episode opens with Mr. Schue calling Sam into his office to tell him that Finn had chosen Sam as Finn’s natural successor, and that it’s now up to him to lead the New Directions to a second national championship. Finn, Mr. Schue explains, gave the New Directions something no other show choir had: He was a cool jock. Wait, wait, is Mr. Schue arguing that Glee is run by the power of the hot, straight, popular white man? I’m not even surprised, actually. It’s just a relief to finally hear him admit that’s how he feels.
It’s not the last mention of Finn in the episode; on the contrary, he’s its primary focus. Burt and Carole are back to chaperone the trip to Nationals in Los Angeles, and it’s clear the New Directions want to win not just for Finn, but for the two of them as well. Sam’s determination to memorialize Finn is compelling, and it’s fine work from Chord Overstreet, who didn’t have much of a chance to memorialize Finn in “The Quarterback.”
But once again, it’s Romy Rosemont and Mike O’Malley whose performances take the episode to the next level. I doubt we’ve seen Carole more than a single episode’s worth of screen time over the past five years, but I feel like I know her better than almost any other character, and that’s down to Romy’s acting work. Carole moves through a million different forms of grief in 42 minutes. She tries to seem breezy and unbothered, then snaps, “At least you have a life,” when Tina complains about something small, then flees the city altogether, unable to stand watching the competition, and then finally sits, weeping, as her son’s friends perform. But it’s not mawkish or over-the-top. It’s gentle, impossible to look away from, and nuanced; it’s worthy of Emmy consideration. Mike O’Malley, as ever, is an anchor, a perfect blend of gruff and kind, and a strong candidate for the Actor Who Should Play All TV Dads Forever Award (a prestigious award that I made out of some old tin cans, glitter, and feelings).
Still, it’s Nationals! There are still elements of a “normal” competition episode: hotel high jinks, a panel of three celebrity judges (the ever-elegant Marlee Matlin, Jackée, and the Prancercise lady), a competing show choir built on a bizarre premise (knee-high boots and Belinda Carlisle), and a choir that’s simply too good to beat (Throat Explosion, expertly headed by Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Astin, who seems right at home on Glee). It’s not the best competition set the New Directions have ever cobbled together, but it’s one that feels very organic to this particular group of performers. The choreography is simple (Lord, but Jacob Artist must be disappointed), but it’s energized and strangely intimate — the kids sling arms over shoulders and grasp hands like they’ve been friends forever. What’s clear throughout is that they’re not only thrilled to be performing, they’re thrilled to be performing together. And then the penny drops just as the final song begins. Carole leans over to Burt and whispers, “This is Finn’s favorite song. They’re singing all of his favorite songs.” Two things take the revelation from sad to devastating. The first is Rosemont’s delivery. The second is the use of the present tense.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” gives us the montage we didn’t get in “The Quarterback.” It’s thoughtfully curated in a way that makes it about Finn and the glee club, rather than Finn and Rachel — there are shots of him hugging Artie, trust-falling into the other kids’ arms, striding down a corridor at City Hall with his mother and Burt, throwing confetti into the crowd at the New Directions’ first big competition, and toting the Nationals trophy back into McKinley. The kids thrust their fists into the air as the song ends, and Sam is holding Finn’s red drumsticks. And then they lose.
Back at McKinley, Sue breaks the news to Mr. Schue quickly. It’s over. They’re disbanded. Jane Lynch is best in her “I’m not mean because I don’t like you, I’m mean because I’m mean” mode, and the blend she strikes between sympathy and harsh reality is dead-on. Mr. Schue asks if he should fight, and Sue’s gentle when she says there isn’t a point.
It’s a crushing blow, and even phrasing it that way sounds like an understatement. The glee club is over (again, barring a last-second reversal, which doesn’t seem consistent with plans for the rest of the series). But the loss at Nationals and the loss of the club itself don’t feel as devastating as the fact that Finn is still gone. That’s the complicated thing about Glee’s narrative these days — there’s what’s unfolding onscreen, and there’s the reality every viewer has at the back of his or her mind: Finn’s never coming back. It’s an odd way to watch television. I’ve even found it hard to make fun of Glee the way I have in past seasons — and that’s been tough, because believe me when I say that mocking Glee is one of my favorite things – solely because it now can lapse into feeling like you’re watching an extended eulogy.
But all that notwithstanding, Glee finds itself positioned in a pretty odd spot. The core idea of the show has always been that being a part of something special makes you special. It’s going to take some deft storytelling to pivot away from that central theme, and the show is going to carry that burden on top of the fact that it’s, you know, no longer a series about a high school glee club anymore. Both of those things were once the entire point of the show.
The episode closes on Kurt in New York, breathlessly telling Rachel and Santana that the New Directions are over. Next week is the show’s 100th episode. Sounds like the cavalry is on its way.