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Even for those who had long given up on Glee with its preposterous storylines and diminishing sanity over years, “The Quarterback,” the show’s tribute to Cory Monteith through his character Finn Hudson was going to be worth returning for. At the end of the third season, when most of the principle cast were set to graduate from McKinley High, many fans thought it would be the end of its first generation of Glee clubbers. But, like so many TV high schoolers before them, the cast all dutifully returned for a wandering and widely panned fourth season. Finn, in particular, had lost his way. Unsure what his future held, he drifted between McKinley, New York, the army, and his on-again-off-again relationship with Rachel Berry, played by real-life girlfriend Lea Michele.
Finn didn’t appear in the last two episodes of that fourth season though because, like his character, Monteith had lost his way. He entered rehab, and the show wrote its way around his sudden departure. But the devastating news this summer — that after leaving rehab, Monteith had overdosed on heroin and died — sent fans reeling. There was talk that Glee should be canceled, or at least postponed. Instead, show creator Ryan Murphy brought the remaining cast members back — “the show must go on” — and made the odd choice of not having a single character comment about Finn’s absence, which, given the reality, set an ominous tone.
It wasn’t clear how Murphy would deal with Monteith/Finn’s death until “The Quarterback” aired. But Kurt (Chris Colfer, who played Finn’s step-brother), speaking three weeks after Finn’s funeral to start the episode, let viewers know right away that the how and why weren’t going to be addressed: “Everyone wants to talk about how he died, but who cares.” The rest of the episode was devoted to different kinds of grief, mostly regarding denial, as these selfish and emotionally-stunted characters were forced to really feel something for once (and one could really see the actors letting their own grief pour through). Puck (Mark Salling) steals Finn’s memorial tree to keep a piece of him; Mercedes (Amber Riley), Artie and Sam (Kevin McHale and Chord Overstreet), and Santana (Naya Rivera) all sing songs in tribute; Mr. Shue (Matthew Morrison) takes the entire episode to finally break down into tears.
Some of these moments worked better than others. Jane Lynch, as Sue Sylvester, says early on that the best thing for them to do would be “not making a self-serving spectacle of our own sadness,” though there could be an argument that it came close. But for all of the sad songs (and they were genuinely moving, particularly when Santana broke down in the middle of hers and shrieked before running off, followed by an emotional performance by Rachel), the most heartbreaking scene was without singing. Kurt, his father Burt (Mike Hummel), and Finn’s mother Carole (Romy Rosemont) all talked about the sadness and tragedy of losing a family member, and the moment when the three of them huddled together on the floor to cry and comfort one another was truly the episode’s show-stopper.
It was fitting that most of “The Quarterback” was carried out by members of the the original cast instead of the new generation of high schoolers. Especially for viewers who hadn’t tuned in for several years (which Twitter made clear was largely the case), it made the show feel like it first did. There was humor that was appropriate to take the edge off, but some subplots that felt forced (like Santana assaulting Sue). The episode’s only truly glaring misstep was when Sue said, regarding Finn’s death: “There’s no lesson, there’s no happy ending; he’s just gone.” Though the show chose to not reveal the cause of Finn’s death, viewers all knew the cause of Monteith’s, and to bypass that teachable moment seemed not only like a missed opportunity, but nearly irresponsible.
Ultimately, “The Quarterback” was respectful, and was successful as the cathartic memorial — for both the cast and viewers — that it was intended to be. But beyond anything else that happened in the episode, the real sadness that stays with us about Monteith was said the best, as so many things usually are, by Sue: “It’s just so pointless … all that potential.”
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