How far did you make it into Thursday night’s Glee tribute to Cory Monteith before crying?
Was it three seconds in, when you recognized the chilling, opening chords to RENT’s “Seasons of Love” that opened the show? (Can you believe it’s taken this long for this show to cover this song?) Was it a minute in, when all the New Direction graduates emerged in a grief line, joining in the chorus? Was it 90 seconds later, when the entire group collapsed into each other while gazing at a photo of Monteith himself?
Or, really, was it through the entire thing?
Pulling off an episode that directly addresses the death of a cast member is a delicate challenge. There’s a balance that must be struck between honoring the memory of an actor and the role his or her character played on the series without exploiting the loss for tasteless emotional manipulation. Given Glee’s track record of obtusely tackling subject matter like domestic abuse and bullying, the thought of an entire hour dedicated to Cory Monteith was as worrisome as it was touching.
But “The Quarterback,” Glee’s love letter to the star that helped turn television’s biggest question mark—a TV musical about singing teenage geeks—into the unlikeliest of pop-culture phenomena, was, thankfully, classy, cathartic, heartbreaking, and a gorgeous homage to Cory Monteith and his Finn Hudson.
The episode begins three weeks after Finn’s funeral, with everyone returning to McKinley High for a special tribute by Matthew Morrison’s Mr. Schuester. The circumstances of Monteith’s death, a drug overdose, no doubt provided Glee with irresistible fodder to ignite into its most blazing teaching moment yet, an opportunity the show has never rejected.
Endless credit, then, is due to the team that orchestrated “The Quarterback,” because admirable restraint was shown in not milking a cautionary tale out of Monteith’s unhappily ever after, or catering to the morbid curiosity that surfaced following his shocking death as to how the writers would “kill” Finn off the show.
“Honestly, what can you say about a 19 year old who dies?” Kurt (Chris Colfer) says in a monologue early in the show. “Everyone wants to talk about how he dies, too. But who cares? It’s one moment in his whole life. I care more about how he lived.”
What followed was, in effect, a funeral march, with each of the show’s main characters—past and present—eulogizing Finn and what he meant to them through song. “He was the first cool kid to be nice to any of us,” said Mercedes (Amber Riley), before torching into a rendition of The Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand by You” so scorched in the pain of grief that the heavy, burning lump in your throat it caused simmered long into the commercial break that immediately followed.
Puck (Mark Salling) couldn’t bear the thought of saying goodbye to the man who, in addition to being his best friend, had been the “quarterback” of his own life. Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) couldn’t bear the thought that she had ever ridiculed a boy so genuinely good. Santana (Naya Rivera) remembered Finn as the first person to crack through her hardened façade.
As an episode of television, it boasted more than a handful of stellar acting performances. Rivera was devastating, erupting into an emotional fit in the middle of an already stirring performance of The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young.” As Puck’s confidante, Dot-Marie Jones (who plays Coach Bieste) played her own meltdown with an affecting rawness that catches you completely off guard.
And it was a class act to give a lengthy book scene to utility players Romy Rosemont and Mike O’Malley, who play Finn’s mother and stepfather. More than anything, this was an hour about how all of us handle loss differently—Puck drinks, Santana reverts back to fiery tantrums—and it was an unexpected, though moving, detour to show how Finn’s death affects his parents. Rosemont, particularly, impressed with a powerful, gutting monologue delivered weeping from Finn’s bedroom floor: “You don’t get to stop waking up. You have to keep on being a parent even though you don’t have a child anymore.”
All of this, however, is a prelude to Lea Michele’s appearance as Finn’s grieving longtime love interest, Rachel Berry. If you managed to last the episode’s first 42 minutes—that first song, Mercedes’s breakdown, Finn’s mom’s tears, and Santana’s outburst without weeping—this is likely where you lost it.
Michele not only played Monteith’s boyfriend on Glee, the actors were a couple in real life. How she managed to film this episode just weeks after his passing is a testament to her own strength. That she pulled off a performance as nuanced and moving as she did is all the more impressive.
With tears streaming—no, pouring—down her face, Michele sang her own version of Adele’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love.” Each note she sang cracked with the echo of her breaking heart, performing the same destruction on all of ours.
After her performance, Rachel tells Mr. Schuester, “I hear his voice so clearly. Do you think I’ll ever forget it?”
As strange it may sound to those slightly outside of the age group Glee appealed so passionately to, or to those who never got on board with the whole idea of traversing through the struggles of life in perfect harmony with all your singing best friends that the shows thrives on, Finn Hudson was at one point, and maybe still is, an important TV character. He was proof that cool kids could be kind. That leadership and popularity didn’t need to exist on the same plane as bullying and cruelty. That talent is attainable, and lack of talent should even be embraced. (Finn’s dancing #neverforget.)
“The Quarterback” was an opportunity for Glee fans, current and departed, to revisit the show and, just like the kids of New Directions did during the episode, remember what it was we all fell in love with about it. It was an opportunity to remember that rousing exhilaration when the rag-tag group of misfits, led by the school Big Man on Campus, belted the high notes of “Don’t Stop Believing” at the end of Glee’s pilot episode. There was an unbridled joy—a glee—that was associated with watching Glee each week. And what better time to reminisce over that feeling than when tragedy compels you to?
At the beginning of the episode, Sue warns her fellow teachers not to become a “self-serving spectacle of our own sadness.” Admittedly maudlin and cheesy, some could easily accuse Glee’s tribute to Cory Monteith to be a callous manifestation of just that. But Glee was always about spectacle. More than that, it was about weathering life’s highest highs and lowest lows together, for all the endearing messiness that entails.
The last we see of Monteith’s face, on a plaque of Finn hung on the wall, Rachel and Mr. Schu laugh over a memorable quote Finn apparently said in an earlier episode: “The show must go… all over the place… or something.” This is Glee—there’s no doubt that it will do just that.