Spoilers for the season finale of Glee below:
One beef I often have with Glee episodes is that they move too fast, go in too many directions, try to cram in too much at once. You might say that about “Goodbye,” the season 3 finale, but in this case that approach seemed about right. It’s an episode about graduation, and graduation is something that, no matter how much you plan for and anticipate it, still goes too fast. Graduating is something you do, but in the moment it feels like something that happens to you, suddenly and all at once, like going over a waterfall.
Beyond any story (excepting Finn/Rachel, which I’ll get to), “Goodbye” was about that over-the-waterfall feeling, and it turned out to be a solid, at times fantastic, season-closer where some of Glee’s general weaknesses turned out to be strengths.
It hit a lot of stories and reminisced with a lot of callbacks. (I particularly liked Mr. Schu’s confession about planting the pot to set up Finn in the pilot, showing that Glee doesn’t have complete amnesia about itself.) It was frenetic and jumpy and sentimental, like a senior running around the hall trying to collect as many yearbook signatures as possible before the final bell.
Actually, structure-wise, “Goodbye” was much like a video yearbook. Glee often does better by emotion and intangibles than by straight-ahead story. The episode sprinkled enough information about the kids’ situation to show where they’re going—which, admirably for a high-school series, is mostly in separate directions. No conveniently located Central Ohio U or Lima Community College sprung up to keep the gang together through season seven. Instead—for now, this is Glee after all—they’re headed to L.A., New York, Georgia, Chicago and a few sticking around home.
All of which made the packed-in songs especially effective. (I’ll call one exception: “Glory Days,” which sounds upbeat out of context but is really about life running downhill after high school, and it didn’t seem like Puck meant the song ironically.) Yeah, all those mini-bursts of info about post-graduation plans were a little expository, but they also added to the sense that these characters are not only being swept over a waterfall but that the current, as it always does, is pushing them in different directions. So numbers like “In My Life”—acknowledging that, at some point, your friends are going to move from being a daily presence to being a memory—have genuine story emotion to draw from, rather than, as Glee sometimes does, using the songs to lend emotion to the story.
[Disclosure: This all may be subjective. Tuned In Jr. is graduating elementary school this spring, and I'm already in a state of verklemptitude watching him and his various friends make their plans to split up to different NYC middle schools. So I am perhaps a little vulnerable to "Goodbye." If I were a 17-year-old Glee fan getting ready for college, I bet this episode would have wiped me out.]
But in the last stretch the episode tightened its focus to Finn, Rachel and Kurt, the three characters with whom an erratic season 3 has felt most grounded in the realities of senior year and in Glee’s more bittersweet theme: the gulf between dreams and reality. And from the point the envelopes start to open, the show—and Chris Colfer, Lea Michele and Cory Monteith—absolutely nail it.
First, credit to the writers for not neatly setting up an exit for all three characters to go to New York together. (Not that I doubt they’ll end up together eventually.) Kurt’s rejection from NYADA genuinely surprised me, and Colfer’s silent expressions as Rachel announced that she got in perfectly balanced hurt, envy and genuine happiness.
The breakup scene with Monteith and Michele, meanwhile, was raw, uncomfortable and dead-on, one of the best examples of Glee’s addressing straight on the show’s real stakes (which Finn voiced in the pilot when he feared ending up a “Lima loser”). This wasn’t just a scene about a boy and a girl breaking up. It was also a scene about a young man and woman who badly want things in addition to each other and finally have to accept that “Love will work it out” doesn’t answer everything. After Rachel’s spent a season trying to convince herself that Finn can just tag along to New York as her new husband, it’s Finn who forces himself to realize that that would be wrong for both of them.
Monteith especially acts the hell out of the scene, but the way it unfolds, both of them in the car watching their realities change, is one of the best things the show has ever done. I half—maybe three-quarters—expected it to somehow resolve with Rachel staying behind on that train platform or Finn showing up somehow at Grand Central Station. Instead, we just get a very long sequence of Rachel, walking the streets of Manhattan alone—because it’s really the only choice she could make and remain Rachel Berry.
Look, this is Glee, so I’m not going to get my season-four hopes up from one strong finale. We’ve often enough see the show promise a strong premise, then get distracted by shiny objects and new characters. Ryan Murphy may just quickly press the reset button on the returning characters next year, and I’m not too optimistic about anything actually happening at McKinley next season, since season 3 has generated exactly no interest in the new students it’s introduced. (Update: Well, OK—there’s still Brittany. Thank God for Brittany and her 0.0 GPA!)
But I’ll let myself hope just a little bit. Maybe Glee, like Rachel, has realized it has to be true to itself. And that the only way to do that is to go, as it were, in new directions.