Glee Recap: A Farewell to Finn [Updated]

Glee Cory Monteith Tribute EpisodeOne of Glee‘s greatest gifts over the past five seasons has been its ability to convey deep emotions and advance its storylines through its musical numbers.

Who can forget the dissolution of three central romances set to “The Scientist”? Or Kurt’s vigil for his ailing dad, as he sang the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? And then, of course, there was Rachel’s sectionals triumph, a soaring, seminal moment thanks to Lea Michele’s spectacular “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”

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Tonight, though, Ryan Murphy & Co. faced a two-pronged challenge that, both creatively and emotionally, had to feel almost impossible: Saying goodbye to central character Finn Hudson, the sweet, sometimes insecure, but ultimately steadfast boy whose participation in New Directions was crucial in the show choir’s transformation from downtrodden underdog to beloved champions. At the same time, Fox’s high-school musical had to give fans a chance to mourn the tragic loss of series star Cory Monteith, who died this past July at the age of 31.

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Thankfully, though, in the midst of navigating their private grief, the show’s cast and crew somehow managed to bid a respectful, heartbreaking, and yes, even beautiful farewell to both Finn and Cory. Not surprisingly, the centerpiece of the aptly titled “The Quarterback” could be found — in true Glee tradition — in the music.

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Let’s recap “The Quarterback,” then, in the same spirit…with a quick rundown of the plot, followed by a focus on its songs:

Glee Cory Monteith Tribute Episode The action opens with the New Directions kids (new and old) giving a solemn and lovely rendition of “Seasons of Love,” ending with all of them turning to face a screen with Finn’s McKinley football portrait. I don’t know about all of you, but it was at this point I realized I’d be crying for a full hour straight.

We then cut to Kurt, who explains it’s been three weeks since Finn’s passing — and that frankly, he’s tired of folks asking how Finn passed, since it doesn’t matter anyway. (Side note: I’ve got to say, I’m incredibly happy the show didn’t give us a cause of death, or have Finn die in the same sad way as Cory himself. Kurt’s explanation that the cause wasn’t at the heart of the matter rang so so so so resoundingly true, no?)

After that, we get snippets of our central characters going through the difficult period of mourning when life is supposed to be getting back to normal, when — to those for whom the loss stings most — normal itself has been altered in a way that’s still incomprehensible.

* In perhaps the toughest scene of all, Finn’s mom Carol (Romy Rosemont, jaw-droppingly incredible), stepdad Burt and brother Kurt separate the late quarterback’s items into boxes. Kurt quickly grabs Finn’s letterman jacket, Burt laments how he “should’ve hugged him more” and Carol breaks completely, explaining the brutal process of waking every morning and realizing she’s still a mother — just one without her son. Uttering the word “Emmy” seems almost ghoulish in the face of such tremendous grief, and yet it percolates in my brain all the same.

* Coach Beiste confronts a drunken Puck and forces him to realize he needs to be his own quarterback. “See yourself how he saw you,” she cries. “You’ve gotta make it good enough, because that’s all we have left.” Puck ultimately decides to enlist in the Air Force, after replanting the memorial tree he’d torn out with his motorcycle.

* Santana struggles with the mourning process — not wanting to share her fond memories of Finn for fear that her vulnerability will be seen as shameful. She assaults Sue in her office — Sue’s shock didn’t really register, given how many folks she’s assaulted through the years — but there’s resolution to come. Kurt tells Santana that “shame is a wasted emotion,” and leaves her with a generous parting gesture: Draping Finn’s letterman jacket around her shoulders, like a hug. Later, Sue (who’d been determined not to “make a self-serving spectacle of [her] own sadness”) and Santana make peace, but the Cheerios coach laments that, “there’s no lesson here. There’s no happy ending.” And then, “It’s just so pointless. All that potential…”

* Rachel arrives in the final act, not able to stay away from the memorial to her fallen love. “Nobody treat me with kid gloves, ok?” she implores, before breaking into a cover of “Make You Feel My Love” — the first song she and Finn would sing together in the car. Anyone doubting the emotional power of music alone — without any dialogue whatsoever — has never heard Lea Michele at her best, as she was on this number. Absolutely heartbreaking — but also cathartic. Rachel then brings a plaque to the rehearsal room with a photo of Finn and one of his quotes — “The show must go…all over the place…or something.”

* And then there’s the story of Santana going on the warpath — demanding the return of the letterman jacket that was stolen while she was in the nurse’s office taking a “grief siesta.” (Confession: Somehow, in the midst of all my sobbing, Naya Rivera’s “no me gusta” managed to make me howl.) Of course, it turns out to be Schue who can’t let go of the coat in question. The episode closes with the show-choir advisor — who Emma worried hadn’t shed a tear since Finn’s death — going home, clutching the jacket and sobbing. Then Emma walks in and consoles him.

Set List (I’ll be back shortly to update with some thoughts on each number)
“Seasons of Love,” from Rent (New Directions) | The number began with the newbies in black — and my heart dropped, worried about the core players who’d worked with Cory the longest. But my fear was fleeting and unfounded, as Jenna Ushkowitz, Kevin McHale, Darren Criss and Chord Overstreet — then Amber Riley, Chris Colfer, Naya Rivera, Mark Salling and Harry Shum, Jr. quickly joined in — and the waterworks began. Beautiful song. Beautiful performance. And Amber Riley’s ad-libs hit me somewhere about three inches beneath the ribcage.

The Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” (Mercedes) | Mercedes shares with the New Directions grads and present class that Finn was “the first cool kid to be nice to any of us” — which is why she can’t wait another second to share her emotions through song. Amber Riley is a stellar vocalist, but this was perhaps her most genuine, deeply felt performance on the show ever. When she hit “nothing you confess, could make me love you less” — which felt as directed at Cory as it did at Finn — I had my first ugly-cry of the hour.

James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” (New Directions) | But I always thought that I’d see you again… Not to be all hokey and heavy, but that’s a sentiment no one can really afford in this life, is it?

The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” (Santana) | That a capella intro by Naya Rivera was as mesmerizing as her psychotic-esque break before the final chorus was riveting. Here, we got a portrait of a character crumbling with the inability to express her grief. And that followup moment of Kurt getting Santana to read her list of Finn’s kindnesses felt completely authentic.

Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender” (Puck) | I was really struck by the stripped-down quality of this number, and the way Mark Salling kept his eyes off to the corner of the room, almost as if making contact with any of his cohorts would’ve been more than he could bear. Pass the Kleenex, bro.

Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” (Rachel) | This musical moment, perhaps more than any other, made palpable the mourning of the actors on the set, and served as much as a tribute to Cory as it did to Finn. Every one of Lea Michele’s/Rachel’s tears felt achingly real — I honestly can’t even fathom how she made it to the set, let alone shot this scene. But as a fan of Glee and of Cory Monteith, all I can say to her is “thank you.”

What did you think of “The Quarterback”? How many tissues did you go through? (Current count for me: Four Five and rising.) Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments with your thoughts on the episode — and on Cory Monteith in general.