After two weeks in a Beatles-induced haze, “Glee” simultaneously paid tribute to the all-too-real Cory Monteith and the fictional Finn Hudson on Thursday (October 10) night with an episode titled “The Quarterback.”
It’s an episode that fans have been dreading, but also anticipating, since Monteith was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room in July at the age of 31. When somebody so young dies, it’s impossible to “get closure,” but it was important that “Glee” offer fans the opportunity for shared grief with all of the show’s stars.
And… Oy. If it’s hard to comprehend how a young fanbase deals with the death of a young star, it’s even harder to figure out how a cast like the “Glee” cast deals. While there have been periodic rumors of bickering and disfunction involving one actor or another, few workplaces are entirely harmonic at all times and why should “Glee” be any different? But no matter how estranged or how close anybody in that cast is, most of them share a common experience, wherein they went from virtual unknowns to global sensations in just a few months. It’s an experience that only the people within that bubble fully comprehend and, this summer, they lost somebody who was there with them from that first moment. Even if Cory Monteith wasn’t humble, kind and grounded, it would be a shock and a nearly unhealable wound, but by all accounts [and in my limited, but pleasant, experiences with him] he was.
Watching “The Quarterback” was witnessing an uncomfortable piece of communal grieving. For obvious reasons, we put a premium on Lea Michele’s mourning and we wonder how she was able to do what she did in this episode. Michele is a pro and she’s said all of the right things about this episode, as have all of the stars and writers, but the public face that anybody puts on a situation like this doesn’t really tell us anything. I watched and listened to Michele’s “Make You Feel My Love” and it hurt, because she wasn’t acting. Nobody in “The Quarterback” was acting. We’ve seen the “Glee” cast act and many of them are very good, but we’ve seen all of them do heightened emotion before and this looked different. Or maybe I’m just projecting. Maybe we’re all just projecting. Maybe the “Glee” cast grieved in their own way in July and for this episode, they were professionals, keeping their emotions in check and committing only to their finest acting on behalf of their fallen comrade. I don’t know. You don’t know either. None of us know. I watched the episode and in moments I felt it was a cruel thing to do to the cast. And then in moments I felt like it had to be cathartic. But I don’t know. And you don’t know either.
[More after the break…]
I’m not the right person to be handling a write-up on this “Glee” episode anyway. Yes, I watched for more than three seasons, but I quit last fall and felt no real regret. I don’t know where all of the characters even are at this point. Some are in New York. But some are elsewhere, so I don’t know who returned to this episode after a long absence or who has been floating around the fringes for a while. I don’t know how the principal came to be a janitor or how Sue came to be principal and I don’t know where the show left anybody’s relationship with Finn, pretty much from “The Break-Up” on.
But that’s not really why I’m probably not the right person to handle this recap.
I am, by nature, critical and cynical and this is an episode that defies examination in the way that I usually tend to look at TV and movies.
It was earnest.
It was sincere.
It was painful.
And I don’t doubt the honorable intentions of any of the people involved. [And if you’ve read my “American Horror Story: Coven” review, you know that’s not always my default setting with some of the creative forces involved.]
And for the most part, I think the “Glee” team did very well by Monteith and by Finn. This isn’t an easy thing for a show to do, whether you’re looking at how “NewsRadio” handled the death of Phil Hartman/Bill or how “8 Simple Rules” handled the death of John Ritter/Paul. It’s hard for a show to stop the thing it usually does to mourn, even harder when the thing that the show normally does happens to be comedy.
“Glee,” to its credit and convenience, didn’t need to stop what it does.
“The Quarterback” worked as well as it did because, short any references at all to Regions/States/Nationals, what happened in this episode is what happens on most episodes. The structural conceit of “Glee” has always been that every week, Will Schuester walked into the glee club room, put a theme on the board and allowed his charges to sing songs around that theme. When Will walked into the room and wrote “Finn” on the board, it was simultaneously heartbreaking and utterly appropriate. The glee club assignments have often been frivolous and stupid, but they’ve also been serious, though never anywhere near this season. Still, it’s possible that no show that has had to deal with this kind of awful thing has ever been better equipped to deal with this awful thing within the show itself.
And writers and series creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan were determined to keep tone and the characters somewhat in line with what has been established (which was really easy, because the characters and tone on “Glee” have always been variable or inconsistent, depending on your degree of charity.
The episode announced almost immediately that it about certain things and not others. After a group rendition of “Seasons of Love” on a simply lit stage, we picked up with Chris Colfer’s Kurt packing to return to Ohio for a Finn memorial three weeks after the character’s funeral. In the episode’s most powerful non-musical scene, we experienced the rawness of immediate grief through Finn’s mother (the marvelous Romy Rosemont) and step-father (the always excellent Mike O’Malley), but when it comes to any details at all, Kurt basically set the ground rules immediately.
“Everybody wants to talk about how he died, but who cares?”
It’s hard to imagine any circumstance under which “Glee” would ever give any more details than that into Finn Hudson’s death.
The episode card said “Farewell to Finn” and it was about celebrating Finn Hudson, but the suggested Twitter hashtag was #RememberingCory a conflation of role and actor that was unavoidable, especially given the number of quotes from “Glee” personnel who talked about how Cory played the quarterback on the show and was also the quarterback of the cast.
And there were great moments aplenty.
Amber Riley stole the spotlight in the opening from “Rent” and Mercedes’ rendition of “I’ll Stand By You was, vocally, a show-stopper.
While nobody will ever accuse Mark Salling of being in Riley’s league as a pure singer, Puck’s decision to sing The Boss’ “No Surrender” was a much more character-organic choice and, as a result, I found it more powerful, because I found myself listening to the lyrics and thinking about why Puck would pick them for his tribute to Finn.
Naya Rivera also isn’t the cast’s best singer, but she’s proven her acting value time after time. Santana singing “If I Die Young,” with the lyric about “The sharp knife of a short life” hit me pretty hard, especially when she was unable to continue.
More, including my reservations, on Page 2…
The tribute songs weren’t all successful. Artie and Sam singing “Fire & Rain” was a mistake. For this sort of tribute, I really disapprove of emotionally piggy-backing on a song that was already written as an expression of a specific singer-songwriter’s pure grief. It’s a shortcut. [The same is really true of “Seasons of Love,” but I guess it feels different for one musical to lift an emotional beat from another musical.]
As I already mentioned, Lea Michele’s “Make Me Feel Your Love” was unbearable (in the desired way, not in a bad way).
And “Glee” stayed true to itself by making sure that characters still behaved in the way we’ve been accustomed to and still got in little bits of humor.
Emma still passed out joke pamphlets after Tina found a way to make the wearing of black all about her.
Santana still began her song for Finn by calling him “Squishy Teats” and saying that he’s in Heaven with his new friend Fat Elvis.
Puck still lashed out with anger before exposing his emotional vulnerability. The locker room conversation with Coach Beiste and Puck was another good non-singing scene.
And Sue still says inappropriate and Sue-like things under we’re supposed to be shocked by her sincerity and humanity. Unfortunately, we’ve seen Sue do this kind of character reversal in episodes too many times before becoming serious about much less. It would have hit harder if we’d never seen the exposed side of Sue Sylvester before.
Sue also had the line that nearly torpedoed the entire episode for me.
In her second confrontation with Santana, Sue crumbled and became regretful about the idea that Finn had died without ever knowing that she liked him. We’ll leave aside that it’s a wildly egotistical moment in a scene where her shield was supposed to be down and I think it’s safe to guess that whatever mysterious way Finn died, he probably died without giving a hang whether or not Sue Sylvester liked him.
Continuing with Santana, Sue noted, “There’s no lesson here. There’s no happy ending. There’s nothing. He’s just gone.”
It’s here that I’m afraid I had to call shenanigans. Cory Monteith was not Finn Hudson, but for the purposes of this episode, there is no distinction to be drawn. I return you one more time to the conflation of Finn and Cory in the episode title and the hashtag and in the emotions we were feeling tonight. Chances are pretty good that Finn Hudson didn’t die of a drug overdose, but Cory Monteith did. And that means that while there surely is no happy ending, there absolutely is a lesson that can, should and MUST be learned from his passing. I don’t think it’s just one lesson either. This isn’t something as banal as, “Kids, don’t use drugs.” It’s a much more complicated and sad lesson about addiction, personal demons and the reality that success doesn’t lead to happiness. There are many lessons here and as long as people were intermingling sadness about Cory with sadness about Finn, it feels dangerous to pretend otherwise. It’s one thing for “Glee” not to use this episode as a teachable moment — Nobody is saying that Finn’s death had to be used as a cautionary tale about drug use — but to deny a teachable moment exists isn’t good. Delete that one line — “There’s no lesson here” — and my quibble magically vanishes. [Though for a educator, surely there’s a teachable moment in any tragic death. Life doesn’t lack for lessons to be taught.]
And it’s not like the writers (and FOX) didn’t know perfectly well that there’s a lesson. The episode ended, as it NEEDED to, with an addiction hotline number and a message from several stars. I get that the writers didn’t want that lesson to weigh in on the episode and the character of Finn, but that’s what Kurt’s opening voiceover was for. Sue’s line was just a blunder. [It’s a lot harder to do the “lesson” thing right than to skip the lesson entirely. I probably would have preferred an episode in which the “Glee” writers acknowledged that this was an important opportunity to convey an important message to an impressionable audience, but I only would have preferred it if they did it well. I preferred this episode to a badly done version of a “lesson” episode.]
I’m also not sure why the episode ended with Will. To me, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Finn or Cory, we were supposed to end with was Lea Michele. The episode had to end with “He was my person” and with the plaque with the Finn quote, “The show must go all over the place, or something.” I just didn’t think this episode, which was supposed to be about Finn/Cory, needed to end up being about Will being a rock and having to eventually find a way to cry. At least he didn’t rap.
Having returned to “Glee” for “The Quarterback,” I’m probably not going to check back in again any time in the future. As somebody who does what I do, I had to check in to see how they handled this episode and as somebody who watched “Glee” for 70-ish episodes, I had to see how they honored Cory and Finn.
There’s no perfect way to do a thing like this, but I think the “Glee” team got it mostly right and “mostly right” is a pretty high bar for something this hard.
What did y’all think of “The Quarterback”?