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Glee’s Goodbye to Finn Asks the Musical Question: “Why?”

It was the kind of episode Glee never wanted to make, but also the kind of catharsis the musical was made for

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Eddy Chen / FOX

“The Quarterback,” which said goodbye to both the actor Cory Monteith and the character Finn Hudson, was an episode the cast and crew of Glee never wanted to make. Yet it was also the kind of episode that Glee was made to do. Over the years, the high-school musical has not always told the most consistent, straightforward narratives, but it’s a delivery vehicle for pure emotion. And the episode it conceived to mourn Monteith–who died this summer from a drug overdose–was a fitting cry of love and grief, asking a musical question that had no answer.

Another question hanging over the episode: was it a tribute to Monteith or to Finn? It was both, of course–Fox promoted the Twitter hashtag #RememberingCory, while #farewellfinn also trended online–but it also occupied an unsettling, nebulous place between the two. Finn was three weeks gone, but the episode, pointedly, didn’t say why or of what. (Monteith’s own death was directly addressed in a public-service announcement over the end credits.)

Maybe it was unavoidable. To have Finn die of a drug overdose, as did Monteith, would have retroactively changed the character. To have him die of anything else would possibly have seemed to diminish Monteith’s death, or, at least, to create a dissonance that overwhelmed the rest of the hour. There was the faintest hint that, maybe, Finn’s death was caused by something the characters were uncomfortable addressing: “I’m sure that Finn had secrets too, but who cares now?” Kurt said. But maybe not, and Glee’s writers, making the best of a terrible situation, let that void be the answer. The unspoken cause of Finn’s death was Monteith’s death. The cause was that, someday, everyone dies.

Everyone dies. Everybody hurts. Those are the kind of big notes that Glee hits best, and “The Quarterback” did a good job choosing songs that fit each mourner’s character and relationship to Finn. (Rachel’s goodbye to Finn was not surprisingly the episode’s climax, but Puck’s “No Surrender,” sung to an empty chair, was one of the most moving pieces I’ve seen the show do in a while.) It was about raw emotion, but not uncomplicated emotion. The opening group number, Rent’s “Seasons of Love,” is not just just about celebrating love but the impossibility of summing up a life, something “The Quarterback” itself wrestled with. (One Kurt line referenced that same challenge in Love Story: “What can you say about a 19-year-old who dies?”)

But impressively, the most devastating scenes in the episode were non-musical, especially the one among Burt, Kurt, and Finn’s mother Carole, which captured the heartbreak, the regret, and the sheer exhaustion of mourning a child and stepbrother. It was honest, raw, and real, something that always distinguished this corner of Glee’s story. (Mike O’Malley was, unsurprisingly at this point, tremendous.) However wild Glee’s flights have been, however many iTunes-driven music-theme episodes it made, the Hummel-Hudsons grounded it. Finn–not a prodigy at anything but being decent–was a reminder that the show was not just about fantasy but about finding a way to accommodate your dreams to reality.

That will be one more thing to miss with Monteith and Finn’s loss. I’ll admit that I, once a huge fan of Glee, drifted away from it over the last season. I’ve kept up with the show but not every episode; in some ways last night I felt like Santana, coming back to McKinley High for a visit but not to stay. But it didn’t matter; I did love Glee, and I needed a good cry and a few cathartic laughs as much as anybody.

So how does life go on from here? How does Glee go on? It wasn’t crystal-clear where the episode fit in the series timeline, and though Ryan Murphy has said the show will bring up Finn’s death in the future, it seemed–as actual mourning periods sometimes do–to exist in some hazy time-space continuum of its own.

We’ll see how or if Finn’s death fits into Glee’s larger scheme; making long-term narrative sense has not been the show’s strong suit. What it can do, achingly well, is make emotional sense. And its heart-first approach has rarely seemed more appropriate than in mourning a loss that makes no sense at all.