Before I begin this review of the Glee’s “The Quarterback,” I would like to say it was not a perfect episode. A few of the structural elements didn’t quite lineup, some things landed a little too squarely on the nose, cheesiness leaked out occasionally, and Will (Matthew Morrison) stealing the letter jacket and then sternly telling Puck (Mark Salling) to give it back, in a private moment no less, didn’t work.
That being said, those issues were minor, and overall “The Quartback” delivered the emotional punch it needed to do, causing tears throughout, and moving anyone with a soul. It’s hard to criticize too harshly the most emotional episode of the series thus far, and so I’m mentioning those little bits up front to keep the rest of the article free from complaints, which don’t really seem appropriate or entirely deserved in this tribute episode.
Cory Monteith, the actor who played Finn Hudson on Glee died this summer, apparently of a drug overdose. “The Quarterback,” the third episode of Glee‘s fifth season, deals with the aftermath of Finn’s death. Set weeks later, this installment doesn’t reveal why Finn is dead, but instead dwells on the pain of those who loved him, a raw look at actual, authentic feelings express by the co-stars who were so fond of the man, resulting in a melding of reality rarely possible on television.
Some will complain that Glee doesn’t say how Finn died, but really, what does it matter? The writers could use this hour to get preachy about drugs, Finn was clean, so it doesn’t seem believable to saddle him with the same problem as his portrayer. And to stage a car wreck or other event would feel false and gimmicky, and so I do think the decision to skip over that, and even have a character say it doesn’t matter how he died, is an interesting, brave, and smart one.
“The Quarterback” opens with a tear-inducing performance of “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent. Evoking themes of death and grief, most of the student characters come together, starting with those less important to Finn, and slowly moving towards his closest friends. Rachel (Lea Michelle) is absent from the number, as is Quinn (Dianna Agron), but everyone else who should be there is there.
One hopes that Agron was invited back and just was not able to make it work, schedule-wise, though some reports have said she was not asked. Quinn was an important character in Finn’s life, vital enough to get mentioned in the hour. Her absence here is regrettable.
Heather Morris, who plays Brittany, sat out, too, but Brittany never had a strong connection with Finn, so it was understandable. Plus, Morris just had a baby. The rest of the cast, though, came back, with Puck, Mercedes (Amber Riley), and even Mike Chang (Harry Shum Jr.) as part of the “Seasons of Love” number.
Rachel appears two-thirds of the way through the episode, returning to McKinley to take part in the memorial. Her “Make You Feel My Love” is powerful. Michele was dating Monteith in real life, and this shows through in the bold performance, clearly channeling her own emotional state, and honoring him in a very real way. There is only pain and grief, no resentment, and it’s such a charged sequence that one can see why it was saved for late in the episode, and why Rachel isn’t used too heavily elsewhere.
Others also get to sing to Finn. Mercedes does “I’ll Stand By You,” a number Finn himself sang in the early days of the show. Artie (Kevin McHale) and Sam (Chord Overstreet) croon “Fire and Rain.” Santana sobs through “If I Die Young.” Puck delivers “No Surrender.” I like that the older characters were used for these pieces, and while music was not the whole focus of the episode, it made sense to continue the themes of Glee in this manner.
Bigger than the songs, though, other than “Make You Feel My Love” and “Seasons of Love,” were the character moments, in which we saw sadness overtake people fans have come to care deeply about. Several sequences played out this way, and gave us not only great, memorable performances, but also a way to remember Finn.
Kurt (Chris Colfer), Burt (Mike O’Malley), and Carole (Romy Rosemont) share a private scene in which they talk about their fallen son and brother, sorting through the things in Finn’s room. Rosemont is startlingly good, even better than she’s ever been before, in making the viewer feel the loss of a child. O’Malley gets some gems in. And while I wondered if Kurt might step forward to offer comfort in that Carole can still have him for a son, I’m glad that didn’t happen, as other relationships did not need to distract from Finn. This family will go on, but not easily.
Will also broke down, with Emma (Jayma Mays) finding him bawling over Finn’s letter-man jacket. Finn and Will went through a rough patch last year, and it’s a relief they had resolved things before Monteith left the series. They were friends as well as anything else, both on screen and off, and Will gives a realistic portrayal of a teacher losing a beloved student, staying strong for those who count on him, but wallowing privately, in a pain he feels he can’t show.
Puck was Finn’s best friend, and with his anger issues, he had to be handled differently. “The Quarterback” finds him stealing Finn’s memorial tree, and wanting to take the jacket. He can’t bring himself to hurt anyone else, though, having learned how to be a good person. It takes Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones) to remind Puck that Finn helped Puck grow, but that Puck can continue to do so on his own.
The most heart-wrenching bit, though, goes to Santana’s confrontation with Sue (Jane Lynch). Longtime viewers know that Sue cares a lot more than she pretends to. Even taking down Finn’s memorial after a week wasn’t done out of spite, though that is what sets Santana off enough to storm in and chew out (and assault) Sue in a way Santana would never have dared to do as a student. Sue isn’t trying to be cruel, and while some of what Santana says rings true, Sue doesn’t deserve to be blasted apart like this.
There is a bit of redemption, though, when after Sue allows the memorial to go back up and Santana returns to apologize, Sue admits Finn didn’t know she liked him. Sue is tough because she pushes kids to succeed. Her ways are often misguided and not the best, but she really is trying, something easy to overlook during her more tyrannical exploits. The fact is, though, in Finn’s death, Sue hurts, too. Losing Finn, which she calls a senseless waste, is tough on her, and Lynch does a brilliant job of conveying that without losing her character.
In all, “The Quarterback” is a masterstroke, an installment that Glee had every right to drop the ball on, but instead soared beyond anyone’s expectations. It’s a little voyeuristic to be watching the real sadness, but it’s also cathartic, coming together in tribute. Finn may not have been the best character in the show, but his absence will be felt, and if there was any doubt of that, this installment wipes that way.
Now, we get a little time off for everything to sink in before the story resumes. After all, as Finn said, now memorialized in a plaque in the choir room, “The show must go on… all over the place… or something,” a funny and appropriate quote.
Glee will return in a few weeks on FOX.