I've seen Glee's pilot an absurd number of times (take the number you're thinking of and then add at least three), but "2009," the first episode of last night's two-part series finale, made me appreciate something I'd never noticed before, and that's the bravery of Mercedes Jones. It's one thing to go around recruiting new glee club members the way Rachel was, but it's entirely different to walk down the halls of McKinley, pick up a pen, and be the very first name on the sign-up sheet for New Directions auditions. I've always known Mercedes was bold, but seeing her hold her head high and take that risk, even though she knew she might be bullied or slushied for it, showed me just how deep her courage runs.
That was the magic of "2009" — it took characters and stories we Glee viewers thought we knew by heart and showed us how much more was left to see. The pilot is about Mr. Schue getting the glee club together, but "2009" is about the New Directions themselves. We see the duet of "Popular" that gave way to Kurt and Rachel's "Defying Gravity" and "For Good." We see how Mercedes was able to grit her teeth and put up with Rachel getting solo after solo after solo. We realize that Tina's ability to fake being goth was FAR less impressive than her ability to fake a stutter. And even though the cast can't perfectly recapture their characters' appearance from the pilot — especially Chris Colfer, who has literally gone through puberty since the pilot was filmed — it's fun to watch them give it their best go.
Perhaps most important, we revisit just how difficult it was to be Kurt Hummel in a pre-glee high school. Kurt wasn't just sad or lonely before glee club — he was suicidal, isolated, and in physical danger at school. Emma catches him trying to sneakily look at an "Ending It All: Pros and Cons" pamphlet and calls Burt in for a conference. (On an unrelated note, did anyone see if Emma had a "So Your Television Program Is Ending … " pamphlet? Asking for a friend.)
Glee has spent the last few seasons acutely focused on all the ways it got better for Kurt — the strong relationship he has with Burt, the acceptance of his peers at NYADA, the chance to live in a big city and work with incredible people, and the simple fact that he's legally married to another man. Glee club saved Kurt, and in turn, Kurt became a beacon of hope for LGBT kids all over the world. But it's profoundly important for us to remember that Kurt needed saving to begin with, and there are scores of kids just like him who still do, too. I'm glad Glee was able to sneak in one final reminder of that.
Finn is everywhere in "2009," even though he's not actually visible on screen until the end of the episode, when old footage of the original New Directions' "Don't Stop Believin'" plays. It's very hard to watch, and it's still almost impossible to believe that Cory Monteith is really gone, especially when he's right there in front of our eyes, vital and beaming in his red shirt and denim. Seeing Cory perform makes the song more about the verses — the parts about the things we lose, the things we gain, and the things that bring us sorrow — but the chorus doesn't change, and the imperative is the same. Don't stop believing. And so we can't.
After "2009" shows us the past, "Dreams Come True" takes us on a tour of the future that can only be described as "whirlwind." The episode tries to fit in way too much (even though, paradoxically, so much was left unaddressed) and the balance of the episode felt off — really, another Sue and Mr. Schue duet but only four seconds dedicated to the fact that Tina and Artie are back together? Fortunately, the episode makes up for its wobblier moments by making sure each emotional beat packs a punch and by being extremely liberal in handing out happy endings. McKinley becomes an arts magnet school, with Mr. Schue as its principal and Sam as the coach of New Directions. Sam and Blaine have a brief but delightfully frank conversation in which Blaine asks if Sam feels stuck in Ohio, and Sam tells him what amounts to "Uh, not everyone wants to live in New York, man."
Oh, Sue becomes vice-president of the United States. Obviously.
Mercedes hits the road to tour with Beyoncé after she tears the roof off of McKinley with a "Someday We'll Be Together" good-bye and a polite refusal of farewell show circles. Kurt and Blaine head back to New York and begin work on an LGBTQ version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Apparently, they also make a habit of dropping into elementary schools to lead children in "Daydream Believer." (On a personal note, remember when Rachel refers to "Defying Gravity" as her go-to shower song and ringtone? That's what "Daydream Believer" is to me, and I'm pleased as punch that it's Kurt and Blaine's farewell to us.) They are goofy and full of life and together, and after another five-year time jump, on the verge of becoming fathers.
And it's all thanks to Rachel, their surrogate! We don't get much non-singing time with the grown-up Rachel Berry, but the glimpse we have reveals a Rachel who's calmer, more poised, and happily married to Jesse St. James. My fondest hope for Rachel has always been a life in which she doesn't feel the need to prove how special she is all the time, and from what we see of her future, it seems like she's getting there. Either way, she's a Tony Award winner! (Also, in Rachel's future, Willow Smith is starring in a revival of Cabaret, so let's all hope dreams really DO come true.)
Somewhere in the middle of all of this, dropped in like a music video without explanation or exposition, Rachel sings "This Time," a song written for the finale by Darren Criss. It's not an overstatement to call this the perfect song for Rachel, for this moment, and for Glee. It works on pretty much every level it needs to: as a song from Rachel to her childhood and her friends, for Glee to its fans, and for its fans right back to Glee. Lea Michele nails it, and the line "I never stopped believing in the words we sung" is enough to make even the staunchest Glee fan ugly-cry. Keep an eye on this Darren Criss kid; I think he's going places. There's an equally emotional performance of "Teach Your Children Well" earlier in the episode, sung by Mr. Schue to the original New Directions (and some others) — it was the last scene shot for the series, and it's properly gutting to watch the cast's faces as Mr. Schue sings.
And it all comes back to Finn again, when everyone comes together in the auditorium one last time, to dedicate it in Finn's name. Sue gives an "Okay, fine, glee club isn't lame" speech that's actually really touching — her use of glee in the speech makes it about both New Directions and Glee the television show, which is one nice, final bit of meta storytelling. On cue, pretty much every glee club member in New Directions' history piles onstage for one last upbeat number, and they're joined by the "grown-ups" of the cast, too, from Burt to Carole to Terri Not-Schuester.
It's less a choreographed performance and more a joyful, silly heap, which has always been what New Directions does best. That said, it's a little frustrating to see all of these kids come pouring back into the auditorium without knowing what their lives look like now, and what their futures hold. Did Quinn finish Yale? How long did it take Puck to get kicked out of the Air Force? Which dance company is lucky enough to have Mike Chang on their roster? Where has Matt Rutherford been!? But this is Glee, and so the answers lie not in specifics, but in the song. "With every broken bone, I swear I lived." That'll have to do.
There's a final bow, and then three final reminders, courtesy of the plaques backstage: Stay open to joy, make sure you and the show always keep going, and see the world as it should be, not as it is. And that's a wrap. Glee's later seasons have been uneven, but these final episodes get back to the core ideas the show started out with about humor in unexpected places, joy in music and dance, and the importance of working hard to create things with the people you love. It's a truly lovely send-off.
And on a personal note: This is my 62nd Glee recap — and presumably my last, until the inevitable Netflix reboot in 2019, of course — and I could dedicate hundreds of words (and dozens of musical numbers!) to what the show has meant to me, personally and professionally. But instead, I'll just say that with all of its disasters and missteps, all of its triumphs and showstoppers, Glee was ultimately, and above all else, something special. I am so very glad that I — that we — could be a part of it.